In between two canti devoted to the making of love poetry, Purgatorio 24 and 26, Purgatorio 25 is devoted to the making of bodies — human bodies. Cradled between two canti devoted to poetic creation is a canto devoted to biological creation: the process that leads to the generation of a human embryo.
The souls on the terrace of gluttony are emaciated. They suffer a punishment that involves immense craving for the fruit of the trees that they can never eat. This linkage between desire felt by the soul and emaciation experienced by the body was already flagged as a thorny issue upon first encountering the emaciated souls of the terrace of gluttony, in Purgatorio 23:
Chi crederebbe che l’odor d’un pomo sì governasse, generando brama, e quel d’un’acqua, non sappiendo como? (Purg. 23.34-36)
Who — if he knew not how — would have believed that longing born from odor of a tree, odor of water, could reduce souls so?
In Purgatorio 23 Dante-poet had posed the question: “Who would believe that the odor of a fruit and the odor of the water could, by generating desire, so reduce [the souls]?” In Purgatorio 25, as they climb up to the seventh terrace, Dante-pilgrim asks a similar question, again posing the relationship between a virtual body and its desire to eat and drink:
Allor sicuramente apri’ la bocca e cominciai: «Come si può far magro là dove l’uopo di nodrir non tocca?». (Purg. 25.19-21)
Then I had confidence enough to open my mouth and ask him: “How can one grow lean where there is never need for nourishment?”
How one who does not need nourishment — in other words, the virtual body of a non-living soul — can be made thin by not eating? In other words: how can a virtual body — a not-real body, a body that does not need to eat — become thin? What is the link between the physical torment these souls experience and their non-physical bodies? The question prompts a discussion of the divine creation of virtual bodies as well as discussion of the divinely-governed biological creation of physical bodies.
The discourse on embryology of Purgatorio 25 can be viewed as a key installment in an ongoing Dantean insistence on the indissolubility of body and soul. This is a theme that goes back to the passage at the end of Inferno 6, where we learn that, after the resumption of our bodies at the Last Judgment, souls will experience more fully both the bliss of Paradise and the torment of Hell. In other words, the embodied soul is more fully itself.
This is a theme that is reprised in the treatment of Epicureanism in Inferno 10 and that receives a major treatment in Inferno 13. As discussed in the Commento on Inferno 13, suicide is viewed by Dante as the attempt — the tragically unsuccessful attempt — to dissolve the unity of body and soul. Dante also devotes sustained attention to this issue in the metamorphoses of Inferno 24 and 25.
In Purgatorio 25, Dante makes the point that body and soul are indissoluble in four ways:
- mythically — and hauntingly — by the evocation of the Ovidian myth of Meleager;
- experientially, through the example of seeing ourselves — if it is “our self” — in a mirror;
- scientifically (philosophically) and theologically, in Statius’ explanation of the creation first of the human body and then, in a subsequent development, of the divine insertion of soul into body;
- eschatologically, through the renewed indissolubility of the afterlife, in the form of the virtual body that is generated by the soul and available until the Last Judgment.
The fourth example of indissolubility noted above — eschatological indissolubility — gives us an opportunity to see Dante wed the philosophical and theological to the metapoetic. For the story of how the soul in the afterlife generates a virtual body, which it can use until the resurrection of our physical bodies at the Judgment Day, is fundamental to the writing of this poem, providing the poet the means to “introduce” the pilgrim to virtual bodies in the afterlife.
In effect, Dante invents a theory whereby human souls possess virtual bodies as they await the resurrection of the flesh at the Last Judgment. In this way Dante adds to eschatology: to the theology of last things. It is interesting to note that Dante’s afterlife theory of the body reverses the order of creation in biological life. Biologically, in life, body precedes soul, as Dante’s account testifies. Eschatologically, in death, soul precedes — and creates — body. In his theory of the virtual body, Dante therefore reverses the order of biological creation, just as indeed happens in the theology of the resurrection of the flesh when the soul reassumes its body at the Last Judgment. Eschatology reverses biology.
Let us return to the question that Dante asks his guide, Virgilio: “Come si può far magro / là dove l’uopo di nodrir non tocca?” (How can one grow lean where there is never need for nourishment? [Purg. 25.19-21]). Virgilio answers intuitively and by analogy, with recourse to 1) the Ovidian myth of Meleager and 2) to the link between a body and its image in a mirror (one thinks of Lacan’s “mirror stage”):
«Se t'ammentassi come Meleagro si consumò al consumar d’un stizzo, non fora», disse, «a te questo sì agro; e se pensassi come, al vostro guizzo, guizza dentro a lo specchio vostra image, ciò che par duro ti parrebbe vizzo. (Purg. 25.22-27)
“If you recall how Meleager was consumed,” he said, “just when the firebrand was spent, this won't be hard to understand; and if you think how, though your body’s swift, your image in the mirror captures it, then what perplexed will seem to you transparent.
The story of Meleager is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: when her son was a week old, Althaia learned of a prophecy that he would die when a particular piece of wood was consumed by fire. The worried mother carefully saved the wood in a chest, but when she learned that her son had killed her brothers, she took it out and burned it, thereby killing her son.
Virgilio’s comments frame the problem beautifully, letting us see it as one of selfhood (the Introduction to Inferno 13 broaches a similar set of issues). Why does Meleager’s self come to an end when the firebrand that “represents” him — or should we say the firebrand that is him? — is thrown into the fire? And why, turning to our own experiences, does our image in a mirror move when we move, making it difficult to disambiguate the mirrored self from the “true” self?
Stazio now steps up to answer (thus replacing Virgilio as the guide with the answers) with a technical and “scientific” explanation of how human embryos are formed. He begins in the natural/scientific domain, starting with the work of male sperm and continuing to describe the male and female contributions to the formation of the embryo (Purg. 25.37-51): the male is the active generator and the female contributes the “natural vasello” (natural receptacle [Purg. 25.45]). Stazio describes the process whereby the embryo develops, following Aristotle, as first a vegetative and then a sensitive soul:
Anima fatta la virtute attiva qual d’una pianta, in tanto differente, che questa è in via e quella è già a riva, tanto ovra poi, che già si move e sente, come spungo marino; e indi imprende ad organar le posse ond’è semente. (Purg. 25.52-57)
Having become a soul (much like a plant, though with this difference—a plant’s complete, whereas a fetus still is journeying), the active virtue labors, so the fetus may move and feel, like a sea-sponge; and then it starts to organize the powers it’s seeded.
Stazio ultimately moves to the metaphysical moment when the intellective soul is created directly by God. The First Mover “breathes new spirit” into the soul, a new spirit that pulls the different parts of the sou — vegetative, sensitive, and intellective — into one substance. It is now one soul that lives and feels and self-consciously reflects itself upon itself (as though in a mirror!):
Apri a la verità che viene il petto; e sappi che, sì tosto come al feto l’articular del cerebro è perfetto, lo motor primo a lui si volge lieto sovra tant’arte di natura, e spira spirito novo, di vertù repleto, che ciò che trova attivo quivi, tira in sua sustanzia, e fassi un’alma sola, che vive e sente e sé in sé rigira. (Purg. 25.67-75)
Open your heart to truth we now have reached and know that, once the brain’s articulation within the fetus has attained perfection, then the First Mover turns toward it with joy on seeing so much art in nature and breathes into it new spirit — vigorous — which draws all that is active in the fetus into its substance and becomes one soul that lives and feels and has self-consciousness.
When we read the beautiful words “e spira / spirito novo” (and breathes into it new spirit [Purg. 25.71-72]), we do well to remember the use of the verb spirare (to breathe) in “Amor mi spira” (Love breathes into me [Purg. 24.53]) in the previous canto: as Love breathed into the poet, inspiring the sweet new style (Purg. 24.57), so the divine principle breathes into the embryo, inspiring life.
Dante’s previous description of how Love breathes into him (“in-spires” him), leading to the creation of a new form of poetry, is echoed now by the in-spiration of the divine breath into the fetus and the resulting creation of the human soul.
The concluding section of Stazio’s discourse on the body treats the virtual bodies of the afterworld. This is of course a key issue for one who constructed a “virtual reality” in his poem (the subtitle of The Undivine Comedy in Italian is “Dante e la costruzione di una realtà virtuale”).
Dante has in some fashion anticipated our expression “virtual reality” in his description of the “virtual” bodies of the souls in the afterlife:
così l’aere vicin quivi si mette in quella forma ch’è in lui suggella virtualmente l’alma che ristette . . . (Purg. 25.94-96)
so there, where the soul stopped, the nearby air takes on the form that soul impressed on it, a shape that is, potentially, real body . . .
Purgatorio 25 concludes with the arrival of the wayfarers at the seventh and last terrace, the terrace of lust. The narrator explains that the mountain shoots forth flames on the seventh terrace, and that the terrace creates a wind that keeps the flames contained (Purg. 25.112-14). There is a narrow perimeter, where the travelers walk single-file; the pilgrim fears the flames on one side and the precipice on the other. He sees spirits walking within the flames and hears their voices calling out examples of chastity.