Wednesday, March 15, 2006


"And in my heart such envy used to burn,
If I’d caught some one looking pleased with life,
Thou wouldst have seen how livid I could turn."--Canto XIV, vv. 82-84, Dante’s PURGATORY, tr. by Dorothy Sayers, Penguin

The envious dwell in Purgatory. Oddly envy isn’t discussed anymore. (Sexual jealousy, yes. Sexual jealousy is a popular theme in films and novels. But other forms of envy seem to be considered acceptable in contemporary society.) Dante’s hard-edged description of this sin makes it evident why the envious spend time in Purgatory. Guido del Duca, a 13th-century political and legal administrator in Ravenna, speaks the words above to Dante. Although Guido repents, he admits the ugliness of his past emotions. One envisions envy surging up like bile inside him.

One can imagine envy leading to crime: political character assassination; the falsification of information that led to the war in Iraq. Of course, the sowers of scandal end up in Dante's hell. But doesn’t it begin with envy?

Perhaps I don't think about envy because I'm not a careerist. I opted out of the traditional workplace years ago. Envy flourishes when people jockey for position and power. People in competitive professions talk about “having to watch their backs.”

The poor envy the prosperous. That's expected. Yet I’d never thought about the unhappy envying the happy, which shows a failure of imagination on my part. Dante reveals the hideous nature of sin.

Reading PURGATORY is an astonishing experience. Dante is not only a brilliant poet but understands the gamut of human emotions.

The Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale writes in his introduction to the Everyman edition of THE DIVINE COMEDY: “It seems to me that if Dante is a universal patrimony (beyond a certain level of necessary study)--and such he has become, even if he remarked more than once that he was speaking to few who were worthy of hearing him--then his voice can be heard today by everyone as it never was in other ages and as may never again be possible in the future, so that his message can reach the layman no less than the initiate, and in a way that is probably entirely new.”

No comments: