Images of the Journey: Dante’s Divine Comedy

Images of the Journey in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Charles H. Taylor & Patricia Finley, 1997

I selected the following quotes from this remarkable offering by the two analysts referenced above. Some of the material is directly quoted from the Divine Comedy. Much comes from a collection of essays supporting understanding the psychological meaning of the work from a Jungian perspective. The last few paragraphs offer a remarkable description of what it might look like to be truly transformed. What is missing here are any of the inspired images collected by the authors for the purposes of illustrating and amplifying the depth psychological processes present in the work. Enjoy.

“The Dark Wood at the Beginning… Dante opens his poem with an image of himself as a person stuck in the middle of his life – he was 35 in the year 1300 – in the midst of a dark and terrifying wood… this wood may be seen as the personal depression that accompanies a midlife crisis, a fearful sense of meaninglessness that forces one to reassess everything. Of this condition Dante observes, ‘Death is hardly more severe’, and it is indeed the psychological condition from which either suicide (or perhaps a substitute, such as death-in-life of alcoholism or drug addiction) or rebirth earned through conscious suffering may ensue.”

He hopes to climb the sunny hill within sight, but is turned back by a leopard, lion, and she-wolf. Virgil lets Dante know what he knows: “it is not in the nature of the situation for him to be able to make the direct ascent; first he must descend through Hell. Virgil understands that the dark examination of personal pathology and the shadow side of human nature is a required part of the healing journey. ‘It is another path that you must take…if you would leave this savage wilderness.’

…At the Gate of Dis, at circle six, images of fire begin. Below the heretics, who burn in their tombs, the Violent Against Others, Self, and Nature suffer eternally in boiling blood, in bleeding trees, in fiery rain, or on burning sands. Between the bloody river and the fiery rain there is the second, more terrible dark wood of the suicides. … there are pits of boiling pitch or excrement, heads are set backwards on bodies, disease erupts in constant sores – when there are enforcers of the torments, they are demons.”

The Gate of Dis Facing Despair   …Whereas the poem opened in the Dark Wood of depression, the descent has now brought the pilgrim face to face with the danger of being immobilized by despair. … It is that time in a soul’s journey when the encounter with the deeper reaches of the shadow realm may be too much to bear; a personality as yet insufficiently strong must turn away from too direct a confrontation with the knowledge of the darker powers that lie beneath the selfish appetites. … we resist the depressing journey into our personal and collective shadow, for a life may be lost unless there is help from the concerned Other. The danger of psychic paralysis and suicidal despair must be met with a force that is equal and opposite to the more than human destructive powers by which we can be seized.”

Violent Against Others: Plate 41 Guttuso; Plate 42 Florentine illumination of ca 1400

Violent Against Themselves or Their Possessions and the ‘Wood of the Suicides’

Vecchietta Plate 44; Blake Plate 46

“As they disordered nature in life, so they sprout confusion as weed trees in Hell; as they denied their human mobility and fixated on despair, so they take a vegetative form, planted in place … In their retreat into wooden and irretrievable self-pity, the Suicides reveal the consequences of being unable to bear the tension between the opposites of hope and despair. The image even conveys its potential antidote, the capacity in life to express one’s distress and weigh it in the valance with the urge to live. In therapy, the detailed imagined exploration of one’s suicidal impulses is often precisely what discloses their one-sidedness and restores a commitment to life with all its suffering.”

“Della Vigna tells the pilgrim: ‘My mind, because of its disdainful temper/ believing it could flee disdain through death/ made me unjust against my own just self’.

Guttuso, Plate 90 (p. 91)

The Sowers of Discord – religious, social, and political – are repeatedly wounded by a demon warder’s sword. They heal only to be split again on each round. Their torment conveys the consequences of a fanatical insistence on distinctions of partisan ideology or theology or creed that fail to recognize the larger need for wholeness. (p. 89)

Vecchietta, Plate 108; Pisan Illuminator, Plate 109 (p. 106-109)

The Traitors Against Their Benefactors: …The betrayal of one’s master or benefactor is the deepest evil of all, like that of Dis (as Dante calls Satan) himself, because the pledge of love and loyalty is the most deliberate, or conscious, of human and sacred commitments. … ‘Dis … wept out of six eyes; and down three chins,/ tears gushed together with a bloody froth./ within each mouth – he used it like a grinder -/ with gnashing teeth he tore to bits a sinner, so that he brought much pain to three at once’. (p. 104)

Depths of Despair: … In the ice of Dis, at the very bottom of Hell, we again find immobilization, this time of those who are frozen at various depths in accord with the denial of warmth, loyalty, and love that their betrayals, have represented… Here is the most grievous consequence of despair: violation of the bonds of attachment to those persons and values to which we owe especial loyalty. To breach these attachments is to declare life hopeless at the core, to deny the sacredness of love, which in Dante’s view is the motive energy of both the human and the more than human worlds. … ‘Dis’ comes from Latin meaning ‘away from,’ the root for two, apart, split-off, or separated, as in ‘divided’ or ‘disease.’ The figure at the center of the realm of darkness symbolizes what is most split of from consciousness, separated into opposites the ego does not conjoin, giving rise to the psychological splitting and the paranoia that are at the core of destructive pathology. (p. 111)

On Torment and Atonement – Two kinds of suffering: (pp. 158-160)

“There is profound psychological meaning in the sometimes excruciating pain of purgatorial suffering: the crushing stones borne by the proud, the choking smoke enveloping the wrathful, the fire hotter than molten glass searing the lustful. Those who are saved are not sinless – far from it. Rather, they are those who have come in time to know and take responsibility for the shadow qualities that split their personalities and cause them to act destructively toward themselves and others.

The secret of salvation in Dante’s world … is insight into the nature of who one is, how one injures, what it feels like to be oneself the victim and to make others the targets of one’s desirousness, rage, pride, and deceits. Those who make it to Purgatory are not less shadow-driven, narcissistic, obsessed, or pathological than others, but they have not refused to make conscious what they are, to bear the burden of themselves, and to come in time to take full responsibility for their own natures. By coming to know what operates in us behind appearances, whether driven by unconscious instinct and aggression or by more deliberate betrayals we can choose to take a stand against whatever in our personal character moves us to wound others and our larger selves. (My bold)

Atonement, the poet says in many ways takes time; the passage of time is central to the work of purgation. … It is psychologically true that a new level of self-awareness can be achieved only with sustained effort over an extended time, but how much time depends in part… on the attitude of those who are central in our lives. Taken objectively, this expresses the reality that the caring concern of those who love us can accelerate our growth and act as a catalyst for inner healing. Taken subjectively – in terms of what we can do for ourselves – prayerful engagement by the ego with the inner figures of parent, beloved, or child, as a means of reaching out to the larger powers that seek our development, often moves the process more swiftly.”

The Wood of the Earthly Paradise (pp. 183-187)

…Dante…has suffered the Woods of Depression and Despair and now earned access to the pleasing wood that forms the summit of the Mountain of Purgatory…

…The emotional atmosphere is one of joy, to which a singing woman gathering flowers gives chastely erotic voice. … Matilda…volunteers to help him understand: ‘I have come ready/ for all your questions till you’re satisfied’. …Matilda represents the lure of a soul mate who calls us inwardly to the Quest, the promise of loving connection to soul and spirit that encourages the depth of humiliating confession and self-acceptance required before the deepest transformation can take place. … She evokes in him (and the reader) a passionate aspiration that he will sorely need when at last he does stand before Beatrice.

…Beatrice … Beginning to recognize her veiled presence, the poet feels ‘the mighty power of old love’…and turns to share his tremulous joy with Virgil, only to discover that Virgil, his task completed, has quietly departed. Grief dispels his joy and brings tears to his eyes. To this Beatrice responds – as her initial greeting – with unexpected fierceness:

‘Dante, though Virgil’s leaving you, do not yet weep, do not weep yet; you’ll need your tears for what another sword must yet inflict….’

‘Regal and disdainful’, she chides him mercilessly for having failed live up to the potential inherent in his devotion to her… She accuses him of betraying her and of following ‘counterfeits of goodness’ in the secular world instead. She tells the angels, who would be more compassionate of her exasperation and says that …I’m more concerned that my reply be understood by him who weeps beyond, so that his sorrow’s measure match his sin…’

The ‘sin’ to which she refers is not so much the specific moral failures…but rather…from Beatrice’s transpersonal perspective, ‘the refusal of the responsibility of joy and freedom on the threshold of a new awareness,’ … Approaching such joy is difficult for the ego to ‘deign’ to do…and it is only fully valuing all that Beatrice stands for that makes it possible.

When the pilgrim bursts into tears and Beatrice wrings from him confession that ‘Mere appearances/ turned me aside with their false loveliness/ as soon as I had lost your countenance’ it softens her fierceness momentarily, for

…when the charge of sinfulness has burst from one’s own cheek, then in our court the whetstone turns and blunts our blade’s own cutting edge….

But soon she returns to the attack….

Overwhelmed with remorse, Dante can only look down in silence, while Beatrice tells him to ‘lift up/your beard, and sight will bring you greater tears’…

In response, remorse and ‘self-indictment’ so overwhelm the pilgrim that he faints. Beatrice has achieved her intention that he discharge the debt of penitence in full. …

“The Self, as Jung remarked, cares not for our comfort but only for our wholeness; it often requires us to undergo a suffering, which its feminine element here forces upon Dante, that is most unwelcome to the ego.” (p. 185)

In his swoon of distress with himself we feel how deeply affected the pilgrim is by regret for his past behavior. But in accepting full responsibility, he shows that he is no longer the man he was then and so is prepared for the release from a fixation on his guiltiness. Maltilda, as the agent of divine forgiveness, plunges him into Lethe to free him from morbid preoccupation with his sins and his despairing shame. He is ready now to forget the sins he would no longer commit, and so he can die to his former self in this second baptism.

Dante uses the Eden-like image of Earthly Paradise to convey the possibility of renewal through return to a kind of innocence: not the innocence of ignorance before the Fall, but the innocence earned by conscious awareness of and atonement for the greedy, hurtful, and treacherous elements in each of us. With the growth of ego strength that enables us to examine and bear the bad news about ourselves comes the equally necessary capacity to let go of the resentments, bitterness, and guilts of the past, so that we may move forward into a new and more conscious association with the transpersonal powers. … Man has received from heaven a nature innately good, to guide him in all his movements. By devotion to this divine spirit within himself, he attains an unsullied innocence that leads him to do right with instinctive sureness and without any ulterior thought of reward and personal advantage…

This is the meaning of immersion in the second river, Eunoe, the river of ‘good mind’ … From here, the pilgrim may be born into a gradually deepening ability to perceive and relate to the divine power directly. …This is the river of transformation where one is forgiven and forgives oneself. After immersion in Eunoe, one remembers – literally, re-members the personality dismembered by life’s sufferings, or in reductive analysis – rather than forgetting. One remembers but doesn’t dwell upon the failures of nurture, the woundings and the betrayals, given or received in an earlier time. One remembers who one is.

When the personal past has been sufficiently worked through, one can go on to another level with a ‘good mind.’”

I have a couple of projects in mind:

1: Create a community ritual process play enactment to support couple’s entering into the exchange between Beatrice and Dante as she calls him into consciousness;

2. Explore the bridge between this archetypal world of sin and dismemberment and the realities of death and dismemberment in war. While waiting for my copy of Images of the Journey to arrive, I received an unsolicited invitation to order War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq: A Series of Cases, 2003-2007. With great trepidation, I ordered it. The overlapping of imagery is startling to say the least.

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