Purgatorio 32 forces us to turn our attention from Dante to the universal and macrocosmic. In the same way the pilgrim is forced to look away from Beatrice, at whom he is staring too fixedly (“Troppo fiso!” [Purg. 32.9]), and turn his attention back to the events unfolding in front of him.
From Purgatorio 30’s focus on three irreducible incarnate historical essences, and its signature inscription of individual historicity through names—“Dante, perché Virgilio se ne vada” and “Ben son, ben son Beatrice” (Purg. 30.55 and 73)—we move in Purgatorio 32 to the history of the universal Church.
Of course, Dante has managed to blur productively the distinction between the historicity of irreducible and embodied beings (Virgilio, Dante, Beatrice) and the history of the universal Church by making the Word of God (the books of the Bible) take the form of embodied persons. This is in effect what occurs in the procession that comes into our view in Purgatorio 29. So doing, he merges figural allegory (in which the literal/historical is true) with personification allegory (in which it is not). On the intersection of the two modes of allegory in the canti of the earthly paradise, see The Undivine Comedy, p. 158.
There are two diagrams at the end of this Introduction. One is the linear outline of the events of the earthly paradise divided into “Acts”; we now find ourselves at Act IV. The second attachment details the events of Purgatorio 32.
In this canto Dante scripts a performance of God’s role in human history. The first performance, in Purgatorio 32.37-60, depicts Adam’s sin and fall and Christ’s redemption of mankind.
Beatrice is now in the chariot at the center of the procession, the chariot that was empty when the procession first came into view. As you recall, the chariot is surrounded by the four animals representing the Gospels who are further surrounded by the personified books of the Bible; see the schematic drawing of the procession at the end of Purgatorio 29.
At this point, the entire procession wheels around and turns east; Matelda, Dante, and Stazio follow the chariot with Beatrice in it (Purg. 32.28-30). After they travel the distance of three flights of an arrow, Beatrice descends from the chariot (Purg. 32.34-36). Dante now hears a general murmuring of the name “Adamo” as everyone circles around a tree that has been stripped of its leaves and flowers (Purg. 32.37-39). This is an inverted tree like the ones on the terrace of gluttony; this is the tree from which those trees were grafted.
And in fact the griffin (who is pulling the chariot) is congratulated by everyone precisely for not having eaten from this tree:
Beato se’, grifon, che non discendi col becco d’esto legno dolce al gusto, poscia che mal si torce il ventre quindi. (Purg. 32.43-45)
Blessed are you, whose beak does not, o griffin, pluck the sweet-tasting fruit that is forbidden and then afflicts the belly that has eaten!
This is the tree from which Adam and Eve ate. The sin of gluttony thus reaches its full metaphorical potential, given that the eating that is castigated here is not literal but supremely metaphorical: Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You can see how Dante ties together all the threads, connecting his personal emblem of transgression, Ulysses, to the biblical story of transgression:
Here we find the Purgatorio’s ultimate synthesis of the Ulyssean model (a man—in this case Dante—tempted by sirens) with Augustine’s critique of false pleasure. Given that the sirens of verse 45 may be interpreted in the light of Cicero’s De Finibus as knowledge, resistance to the sirens constitutes not only resistance to the false pleasures of the flesh but also resistance to the false lure of philosophical knowledge, a lure embodied in Dante’s earlier itinerary by the donna gentile/Lady Philosophy of the Convivio, the text that begins with the Ulyssean copula of desire and knowledge: “tutti li uomini naturalmente desiderano di sapere.”
As the pilgrim has learned restraint before the sweet siren in all her guises, so, in the earthly paradise, the griffin is praised for having resisted the sweet taste of the tree of knowledge: “Beato se’, grifon, che non discindi / col becco d’esto legno dolce al gusto, / poscia che mal si torce il ventre quindi” (Blessed are you, griffin, who do not tear with your beak from this tree sweet to the taste, for by it the belly is evilly twisted [Purg. 32.43-45]). By resisting the temptation of knowledge, the griffin refuses to challenge God’s interdict (the interdetto of Purgatorio 33.71, where the tree is glossed precisely in terms of the limits it represents, the obedience it exacts, and the consequent justice of the punishment meted to those who transgress). The temptation to which Adam/Ulysses succumb is the temptation that the griffin resists.
(The Undivine Comedy, p. 108)
The griffin drags the chariot to the dead tree, and ties the one to the other. The tree comes back to life, a rebirth described with the same metaphoric language that will be used for the reborn Dante at the end of Purgatorio:
Come le nostre piante, quando casca giù la gran luce mischiata con quella che raggia dietro a la celeste lasca, turgide fansi, e poi si rinovella di suo color ciascuna, pria che ’l sole giunga li suoi corsier sotto altra stella; men che di rose e più che di viole colore aprendo, s’innovò la pianta, che prima avea le ramora sì sole. (Purg. 32.52-60)
Just like our plants that, when the great light falls on earth, mixed with the light that shines behind the stars of the celestial Fishes, swell with buds—each plant renews its coloring before the sun has yoked its steeds beneath another constellation: so the tree, whose boughs—before—had been so solitary, was now renewed, showing a tint that was less than the rose, more than the violet.
Dante falls asleep, in a sleep that is described in a manner that has interesting repercussions for the concept of a visionary “waking sleep”, as in the personified Book of the Apocalypse at the end of Purgatorio 29, who walks “dormendo, con la faccia arguta” (Purg. 29.144). (All of this is discussed in great detail in Chapter 7 of The Undivine Comedy.) When he awakens the whole company is ascending to heaven following the griffin that symbolizes Christ, leaving as custodians of the renewed tree only Beatrice with the seven maidens who symbolize the virtues (the ladies who were dancing around the chariot: the three theological and four cardinal virtues).
Beatrice addresses Dante, telling him of his destiny and his obligation to write what he is shown (Purg. 32.100-105). There follow the series of allegorical “performances” that dramatize the history of the Church (the chariot), which is performed for Dante to witness:
1) the persecutions of the Church by the early emperors (the eagle);
2) the early heresies, overcome by the Church (the fox driven away by Beatrice);
3) the Church’s acquisition of temporal possessions through the Donation of Constantine (the eagle’s feathers fall on the chariot; see Introduction to Inferno 19);
4) the great schism by which the Church was rent (the dragon representing Islam; see Inferno 28);
5) the further accession of wealth and power that utterly distorts and deforms the original character of the Church;
6) the Church disfigured by the seven deadly vices that afflict it in its corruption; it becomes the monster of the Apocalpyse (this whole section is Dante’s own personal version of the Apocalpyse);
7) the Avignon Captivity: the transferral of the Church from Rome to Avignon in 1309 (Beatrice is replaced in the chariot by a whore guarded by a giant, who drags the chariot away).
Canto 32, Dante’s personal “Apocalypse Now”, is the longest canto in the poem.