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The Geography of the Vernacular in Dante
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The Geography of the Vernacular in Dante

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button offers a modern-day analogue for Dante's climb up the mountain of Purgatory. We witness Brad Pitt aging backwards: born an old man he dies a babe in arms. The movie, based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald,1 offers the best modern example I have seen of a rewinding that is also a development, a process that moves forward and backward at the same time, disclosing an acquired richness and wisdom at its source and origin. Such is the case with Purgatory as well, as Dante climbs the mountain, encountering one penitent after another, on his way to finally meeting with Beatrice in canto 30. The process he goes through is one of "unsinning" (as the Hollanders have so aptly translated dismala2): making his way slowly up the mountain he not only loses the "P"s inscribed on his forehead as he confronts and conquers each vice, he also labors to repair the rifts of sin and attain a state of being—of reclaimed purity and innocence—that sutures over the fall. Even as Brad Pitt moves back in age as he moves forward in time and experience, so Dante recaptures a purity in a context of wisdom as he moves forward in space up the mountain toward Beatrice and the earthly Paradise.

The process of unsinning functions on many levels in the canticle. Not only does Dante, like Benjamin Button, become younger, purer, and more virtuous, but the setting likewise shifts from the dispersal and confusion of the opening cantos to a more focused, lyrical locus amoenus at the top.3 Effort is involved in getting there, and the struggle against gravity Dante undergoes as he climbs, which mirrors the soul's struggle against sin,4 shows that this is not a passive process of re- or unwinding: it is hard work to shed those years and habits in search of the source and unity that governs the soul.

One of the levels on which unsinning functions is that of language. The many languages Dante encounters on his journey up Purgatory, from the Latin of the psalms to the Occitan of Arnaut Daniel and the Italian that runs all the way through, are at first [End Page 33] confusing, since they seem randomly distributed over the climb. It is my argument here that the languages, like the vices, are arranged in a relative order, and that the process of unsinning can be tracked not only in terms of the languages used, but also in terms of the geography of the journey. In particular, the climb up the mountain points us to a classical source—actually, a pair of them—that informs the ordering of languages in the canticle.

Early on in Purgatory proper, Dante alludes to a passage from Lucan which discusses the rivers pouring down the Apennines, mountains which, according to the passage in both Dante and Lucan, are cut off by the straits of Messina at Pelorus.

ché dal principio suo, ov'è sì pregno    l'alpestro monte ond'è tronco Peloro,    che 'n pochi luoghi passa oltra quel segno...

[for from its source, where the wild mountain range,from which Pelorus was broken off, rises to such heightthat higher places are but few...]

All editions of Purgatorio here point us to Lucan, Bellum Civile:

qua collibus Apenninuserigit Italiam nulloque a uertice tellusaltius intumuit propiusque accessit Olympo.mons inter geminas medius se porrigit undasinferni superique maris, collesque coercenthinc Tyrrhena uado frangentes aequora Pisae,illinc Dalmaticis obnoxia fluctibus Ancon...

longior educto qua surgit in aera dorso,Gallica rura uidet deuexasque excipit Alpes.tunc Vmbris Marsisque ferax domitusque Sabellouomere, piniferis amplexus rupibus omnisindigenas Latii populos, non deserit ante [End Page 34]

Hesperiam, quam cum Scyllaeis clauditur undis,extenditque suas in templa Lacinia rupes,longior Italia, donec confinia pontussolueret incumbens terrasque repelleret aequor,at, postquam gemino tellus elisa profundo est,extremi colles Siculo cessere Peloro.

(II.396-402; 428-438)5

[where Apennine lifts central Italywith shady hills; with no other peak does the earthswell higher or approach...