14 January 2016


Theme Thursday 20

On this day in January 2016, we finally enter May 2011. Imagine how life would be if we all moved through time at different speeds! Perhaps we really do and just don't notice it because we agree to keep the peace by following the same calendar and clock. (Well, mostly. Right, Orthodox friends?)

Way back on 5 May 2011, the focus was on characters . . .

This Week's Theme:
Female Person

"Fair lady--sunning in the rays of Love,
of I should trust those semblances that lend
the truest testimony of the heart--

May you incline your will to walk along
close to the river here," I said to her.
"Come near enough that I may hear your song!

For you recall to my imagining
lovely Proserpina in the season when
her mother lost her, and she lost the spring."

Dante Alighieri's Purgatorio might not pass that silly Bechdel Test, but his "portrayal of women" takes nothing away from their dignity. Indeed, he reveals them as possessing a dignity that an ideology which underlines their autonomy and rights at the expense of everything else would never understand. His ascent through Purgatory and toward Heaven is smoothed by the presence and help of several virtuous women. Virgil may be Dante's official guide, but the women light his way like stars.

The above snippet is a description of Matelda, whom he meets at the very top of the mountain of Purgatory. Here he compares her to an innocent Persephone; in the next canto, he will subtly contrast her with the guilty Eve. As translator Anthony Esolen explains further, Matelda is "the personification of Earthly Paradise"--a representation of "the highest joys that the human intellect can attain in this life." And so she is beautiful and he is strongly drawn to her. Yet the end of Christian spirituality is not a mere return to Eden. After Matelda answers Dante's questions about the paradise in which he finds her, she directs his attention to higher truths. As lovely as she is, she is not his true love.

Women play a huge part in Dante's salvation and he is not ashamed to admit it. By the time I got to Matelda's part in Purgatorio, I was wondering how typical Dante is of all men. Can piety, gentleness, compassion, and yes, even beauty in a woman be guiding lights to Heaven? If so, then how dark does it get for a man when these are lost or tamped down?

The fun thing about Theme Thursday, when it was in full swing, was the "Show and Tell" aspect: no two readers ever brought the same snippet, so we all looked forward to the "snippet soup" we cold make together. Since Kavyen's blog isn't active any longer, I hope it's okay to ask fellow readers to share their snippets on mine. Have you come across an interesting passage with or about a Female Person lately?

Image Source: Purgatory by Dante Alighieri, translated by Anthony Esolen


Sheila said...

I have mixed feelings about woman-as-inspiration. Obviously I like being a positive influence on those I know, but I hardly think a woman's agency should be totally erased either!

But in answer to your last question, I'm reading a very interesting book about a woman right now -- Lavinia, by Ursula Le Guin. It's about the Lavinia in the Aeneid, who marries Aeneas near the end of the poem. And it examines a question that I've been turning over in my mind for years: is the decision *what to submit oneself to* itself a sort of agency? It seems in Lavinia's case she exercises a passive sort of agency which makes as big a difference as anything Aeneas does.

Enbrethiliel said...


Fortunately, it's not an either-or situation! All the women who are guiding lights to Dante are acting as free agents. It is the fact that they are going out of their way to help him that makes them so influential with him. (Contrast them to one or two virtuous women whom he meets along the ascent and whom he has kind thoughts towards, but isn't very inspired by.)

Another way to put it is with something that kept coming to me as I was writing this post: a friend's remark that "For men, mercy has a woman's face." Mercy is certainly not passive or static, but active, nurturing, and fruitful.

I actually agree with LeGuin that there is great agency in choosing the right authority to submit to. The idea reminds me of a line from G.K. Chesterton's poem The Last Hero: his description of his lady bride as "imperial in duress." (I'm not crazy about the second word, but it rhymes with "dress.") This would be how it looks from the other side: her submission is his obligation.