Dante’s Purgatory, and Ours: On D. M. Black’s New Translation of the “Purgatorio”

By Leeore SchnairsohnMay 20, 2022

Dante’s Purgatory, and Ours: On D. M. Black’s New Translation of the “Purgatorio”

Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri

… and I came out from that dead atmosphere
that had afflicted both my heart and eyes.

Purgatorio, Canto I 

… for the last time there filed before my eyes the huts where I had suffered and matured […] and the gate to slavery.

— Primo Levi, The Reawakening



Primo Levi did not become a writer until he was liberated from Auschwitz and found his way home to Italy. Roaming the Piedmont, reestablishing contacts, and looking for work, he found himself compulsively talking to strangers on the Turin-Milan express, telling stories of his unimaginable odyssey. The need to speak of what had befallen him took over his solitary hours as well. In the dormitory of the paint factory where he’d landed a job, Levi typed out the manuscript of his 1947 memoir, If This Is a Man (US title: Survival in Auschwitz), apparently at every free moment. The first episode from Auschwitz that Levi recorded — which ended up as the book’s 11th chapter, “The Canto of Ulysses” — was composed in a fury during a half-hour lunch break.

In “The Canto of Ulysses,” Levi recalls a need to speak in the midst of Hell. One afternoon in the camp, walking with a French inmate to fetch soup for their work detail, Levi was overcome by the urge to recite (in improvised French) Ulysses’s speech from the 26th Canto of Dante’s Inferno, which he’d been made to memorize at school, and which now returned to him “like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.” It is appropriate that an Italian of Levi’s education imprisoned in a death camp would fall back on Dante, not just for infernal vocabulary but for a buoy of culture and dignity. “Here, listen,” he appeals to his former companion and to his future reader, “open your ears and your mind, you have to understand, for my sake: ‘Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance / Your mettle was not made; you were made men, / To follow after knowledge and excellence.’” Dante reminds Levi of what he’d been outside the camp: a creature of culture, a seeker of excellence.

The spirits of Inferno are also hungry to speak: storytelling is the animating plasma of Dante’s poem. It’s not that speaking will alter anyone’s fate. Inferno’s spirits are doomed eternally; likewise, Levi and the Frenchman will fetch the soup, and then (according to the logic of the camp) they will die. The damned speak not to change their reality but to be transformed — for an instant, and maybe for the last time — into what they once were.

After liberation, though, the scene changes. When Levi buttonholes strangers on the Turin-Milan express, he is no longer damned to Hell but returned from it. The speaking he did after the war — on the train, later in manuscript, and finally as a moral authority on a global scale — was a reckoning with his past aimed at the future. It was supposed to change hearts and minds, to make humans more human, and possibly integrate into his psyche the infernal part of his memory — what we might call his trauma.

We did not know Levi in Hell: most of us have never been there. We come to know him on the train to Turin, the ascent into the rocky Piedmont: a storyteller hoping to strike a chord. Something lies in the balance: if his story is successful, the world will change.

If trauma is infernal, the post-traumatic belongs to Purgatory.

II. Purgatory Today

The idea of Purgatory gained much of its character from Dante. Though purification after death is an age-old concept, the spiritual plane of Purgatory became accepted in Catholic doctrine only in the century before Dante composed the Purgatorio. In the Church’s initial conception, it was strictly a place of punishment, where the soul repaid its debt to God through suffering. In contrast, Dante offered Purgatory as a stage for psychological drama, where the individual could contemplate the events of his life and exercise his will in response, making choices that might influence his fate.

According to Erich Auerbach, Dante revolutionized both the bleak Classical view of fate and the wan mysticism of early medieval Christian thought. His “spiritualization of the earthly world […] retain[s] its patent sensuous reality,” Auerbach writes; at the same time, “in the great drama of salvation every man is present, acting and suffering.” One is always moved by fate, as in the Classics, but here one’s fate can change, depending on one’s actions. In Classical tragedy, the course of events reveals what was hidden: in Dante’s Purgatory, what is hidden can be revealed before it’s too late. In other words, there is hope, even for us.

It makes sense, then, to tune a new translation of Purgatorio toward psychoanalysis, to experiment with subbing mind for soul and moving fate’s theater from the hereafter to the here and now. Freud’s revision of the Greeks made fate an alterable script: no longer the property of the gods, fate was relocated to the private unconscious. Analysis was designed to lift that subtext into consciousness, where it became text. The patient then became a co-author of his fate.

A psychoanalyst as well as poet, D. M. Black, translator of this new edition for NYRB Classics, sees the crags and terraces of Purgatory’s mountain as stages where “sanity” can be earned through “the slow, laborious process of healing.” Where the realms of Inferno and Paradiso are static and eternal — a spirit may travel in circles, but that’s about it — Purgatorio is a place with process. The spirits are supposed to climb from one tier to the next: they have destinations. Their speech — greeting, recognition, prayer, apology — has consequences. Though not exactly Dante’s therapist, Virgil is very much a teacher, an ethical conductor. There are confusions, failures, and triumphs — even a climax, when Dante’s spiritual need surpasses what Virgil can provide, and he leaves his teacher behind to reunite with Beatrice, his lost love and ultimate moral guide, in the Earthly Paradise. It is a story in stages, one with a hero — the pilgrim Dante — who is transformed, made sane.

It matters, though, that the poet Dante did not know what sanity was — at least not in a psychoanalytic sense. It was nearly six centuries after the poet’s death that William James proposed “certain reminiscences of […] shock [that] fall into the subliminal consciousness [and] act as permanent ‘psychic traumata,’ thorns in the spirit, so to speak.” In Dante’s time, the subliminal was incorporeal. What happened outside consciousness was claimed by the divine and shared by a community of believers, with an (often) agreed-upon manual. Spiritual healing would have meant something like getting in line with the common doctrine. In our time, the subliminal is private property, sanity a kind of merger between neighboring estates, and healing … well, that depends on who you ask.

It is that much more joyful to discover the many places in Purgatorio where the modern reader and Dante see eye to eye. To my mind, the triumph of Black’s translation lies in bringing these moments to light, rendering them in language both plain and inviting, grounding us so that the less familiar parts can matter too. In Purgatorio, we see the earth, with landscapes more sublime than dreadful, more challenging than chilling. The climbing is extreme but can be achieved with enough information and strength of will. The sheer physicality of the landscape often commands the scene, putting off moral instruction. This episode in Canto IV, from Dante and Virgil’s first morning of climbing, has no clear pedagogy save the old story of overcoming a physical trial:

      We were clambering up within the broken rock,
constrained on every side by narrow walls,
and the ground beneath us called for hands and feet;
      and when we reached the high bank’s upper edge
and were seated on the open slope I turned
to my master saying: “Which way do we go now?”
      and he replied: “Not one step downward! Keep
following me, and climb on up the Mountain
until we fall in with some wiser escort.”
      The summit was so high it conquered sight,
and the slope much steeper than the line connecting
the center to the midpoint of a quadrant,
      and I was weary and began to say:
“O gentle father, turn, look back at me:
see how alone I’m left, when you don’t wait.”
      “My son,” he said, “pull yourself up to there” —
and pointed out a terrace somewhat higher
which on that side girdled the entire Mountain.
      His words so spurred me that I forced myself,
and crawled on all fours after him until
I had that terrace underneath my feet.

Like a good poem, this passage contains an idea that is consistent yet can’t be fully elaborated in any one way. It makes poetry from something familiar, articulates the nobility of a common experience.

Other recognitions appear in smaller moments. Dante’s similes can be homey to the point of redundancy: “‘What are you three thinking as you walk alone?’ / a sudden voice demanded, and I startled / like a young animal that’s easily frightened.” They can also be deeply touching — “As children when ashamed stand mute, their eyes / down-turned to the ground, and listen, penitent / to recognize themselves in what they hear, so I stood” — or downright comic: “As I was piercing through that greenery, / using my eyes as best I could, like one / who wastes his life pursuing little birds…” These images are earthbound: we are only asked to imagine what we already know — that is, to remember — and the poet who is centuries dead speaks to us as a living voice.

This grounding empowers Dante’s metaphysical appeals. As the pilgrim climbs, he finds that he can share both fear and hope with the spirits who address him. The penitents entreat him to pray for them and to petition prayers back home, as this will shorten their terms in Purgatory. “[W]hen you will have returned to the world / and have had time to rest from your long journey,” a spirit hails Dante in Canto V, “also remember me: I am la Pia. / Siena made me; Maremma unmade me. / He knows the story, he who married me / and vowed fidelity to me with his ring.” (This episode is remarkable for its economy: it is as little necessary for Dante as for his readers to recognize the names and places, or to know the details of the spirit’s story, in order to hear a human voice both empathic and in pain.) That Dante can pray for la Pia, and that his prayer can make a difference, is what separates this realm from Inferno. Both pilgrim and penitent hold some sway over their fate, which can still change for better or worse. Both need the help of others on the journey. As Robert Pogue Harrison puts it in his preface, the Purgatorio “helps us see how we are all on this mountain together.”

This hope for community — a recognition of our shared fate on earth — is one way to approach the difference between Dante’s worldview and ours. It may be more honest than trying to see the world the way he did. Auerbach warns against nostalgia for the sureness of Dante’s spiritual footing, explaining that “all modern attempts to restore a human community have rested on foundations far shakier than those of Dante’s world order.” If Dante’s authority can no longer derive from doctrine, it may come in his insistence on human connection, even outside of an idealized community. Near the end of Canto II, Dante tries to embrace the spirit of his old friend Casella and finds he can’t: “Three times behind him my hands clasped each other / and three times they returned to my own breast.” Such images of recognition and loss are a gift to the modern reader. They help us translate the poem’s ideal of community to the mortal world, where other people can be elusive no matter how much we need them.

III. Beyond Crime and Punishment

In March 1967, Primo Levi received a letter from Ferdinand Meyer, one of his overseers at Auschwitz’s chemical plant. Meyer wrote to express his happiness that Levi had survived. Levi remembered Meyer as uniquely humane among the Germans; both in conversation and in the occasional favor (the procurement of a pair of shoes, for instance), Meyer seemed to have shown consideration for Levi as a fellow human being. But as Levi discovered during their brief correspondence, Meyer would not admit responsibility, nor even acknowledge the death camp’s purpose (“[d]uring my short stay at Auschwitz,” he wrote in April 1967, “I was not aware of any incident aimed at exterminating the Jews”). Meyer suggested a meeting, to help both men “overcome[e] that terrible past,” but died before a meeting could be arranged. [1]

Levi dealt with this untreated wound the only way he knew how. In 1975, he published the half-fictionalized memoir The Periodic Table, which contains a retelling of the Meyer affair under the title “Vanadium.” Here, Levi dwells on his ambivalence about the proposed meeting, worried that the two men will not agree on a common reality, and thus won’t overcome anything. He dreams of “an encounter with one of them down there, who had disposed of us, who had not looked into our eyes, as though we didn’t have eyes. Not to take my revenge: […] only to reestablish the right proportions, and to say, ‘Well?’”

Much of Dante’s ethics, stemming from Aristotle and Aquinas, is based on proportionality. As Virgil leads Dante along terraces of suffering and expiation, he explains sinful tendencies in terms of immoderation or misdirection of vital forces. One can love too much (gluttony) or too little (sloth), or one can love the wrong thing. With repentance and the proper expiation, one’s love can meet the right measure, face the right direction, the sin removed and the soul made good. As pilgrim, Dante undergoes his own trial in Cantos XXX and XXXI when he encounters Beatrice. The historical Beatrice was a woman Dante had loved who married another man and died young. In the Commedia, a heavenly Beatrice guides Dante on his spiritual path, first via Virgil and then as herself. When he meets her in Purgatorio, she tells her version of their story, admonishing Dante for marrying after she’d died:

      For some time I upheld him with my beauty:
by showing him my youthful eyes I led him
to follow me and keep the right direction.
      But then when I was on the threshold of
my second age, and entered a new life,
he took himself from me and chose another!
      And when I rose from flesh to spirit, and
beauty and virtue both increased in me,
I was to him less dear and less delighted-in.
      He turned his steps then to an untrue path,
following deceitful images of the good
that do not ever keep their promise fully.

Dante sees the truth and weeps, and when he’s able to speak, he admits his guilt: “When your face had been taken from me, / and was no longer to be found, things present / and their false pleasures were what guided me.” Upon this act of contrition, the heavenly wheels start turning toward Dante’s salvation.

D. M. Black’s commentary is illuminating and often startling as he draws out the psychoanalytic models hidden in Purgatorio’s events and ethics. The culmination of this assay, in my eyes, is Black’s analysis of Dante’s contrition, based on a fantasy of encounter that is cousin to Primo Levi’s. Considering the poet’s actual biography, Black proposes that Dante’s primary object of desire was his mother, who died when he was young, and that his childhood fixation on Beatrice (they met when he was eight) was a combination of desire for the maternal love he’d lost and fear that “closer contact” with Beatrice would loose “unbearable memories and feelings.” Having loved Beatrice from a distance, then lost any hope of proximity when she died, Dante imagines a paradisal reunion where he finally “takes the risk of remaining with that closer contact” and thus “experiences […] the long-evaded shame” of his inconstancy in real life:

And as the shame is recognized, and not denied or avoided, what starts to come into view beyond it is grief — a distinctive sort of sorrow for the damage done to his capacity to love and to receive love. […] What Dante’s self-insight leads him to is the recognition of something irretrievable […], the “person he might have been” if things had gone otherwise.

Compare this with Levi describing his final letter to Ferdinand Meyer:

I admitted that we are not all born heroes, and that a world in which everyone would be like [Meyer], that is, honest and unarmed, would be tolerable, but this is an unreal world. In the real world the armed exist, they build Auschwitz, and the honest and unarmed clear the road for them; therefore every German must answer for Auschwitz, indeed every man …

Both Dante and Levi imagine an encounter that could “reestablish the right proportions,” but only Dante believes in it. Levi’s retelling in “Vanadium” is part fiction — but even with license to invent, he chooses not to rehabilitate Meyer (he actually degrades him a little) because the truth of the story won’t allow it. Levi doesn’t actually believe in the right proportions. “Every German must answer for Auschwitz” is a prayer, or a poem, or a joke. It is proportional only in a transcendent sense. There is an echo, currently, in the West’s harsh sanctions against Russia, which punish indiscriminately in an attempt to rebalance power.

In Dante’s world, there are no questions around culpability, no anxiety about proportions. New arrivals in Hell don’t question their guilt: they leap onto Charon’s ferry in full recognition of divine justice. As Dante descends and the damned detail their torments, no one ever makes a claim of unfairness.

Without such sureness of a common moral order, we look to other people to awaken our ethics. This dependence guides Black’s reading of Purgatorio. In Canto XVII, for example, a sudden light blinds Dante and Virgil as they climb up from the Terrace of Wrath. Virgil tells his student:

     This is a holy spirit, who directs us
without our asking, to the upward path,
and always by his light keeps himself hidden.
      He does with us as men do with themselves:
for he who sees a need and waits for asking
is cynically preparing to reject it.

In his commentary on these lines, Black suggests that it is up to us, not the angels, to take moral responsibility for each other:

Virgil is emphasizing that we perceive goodness by a direct recognition. He is making a similar point to that made by the twentieth-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who said we become aware of the transcendent obligation of responsibility when we see “the face of the other.”

Transcendence, which in Dante’s world belongs to divine wisdom, is conjured in ours when two mortals come face to face. To stand by while another suffers is to deny the other’s humanity. Yet for Levinas, ethics is not based on identification. It’s not a question of seeing oneself in another person. The other can’t be known, and thus is not limited by one’s own perception or ego. Responsibility to the other arises out of the impossibility of knowing him. Importantly (perhaps especially for Levinas, whose father and brothers were murdered by the SS), you are called to responsibility for an other who is definitively not you, whose existence describes your limits rather than affirming your identity. To my mind, we can’t recover Dante’s poem for ourselves if we insist on an idea of moral community. Instead, we should admit into our reading a Levinasian uncertainty of the other.

The magnificent pessimist Jean Améry, a survivor of Auschwitz like Levi, also considers how the “right proportions” might be settled. In “Resentments,” from his essay collection At the Mind’s Limits, Améry focuses on “the Flemish SS-man Wajs, who — inspired by his German masters — beat me on the head with a shovel handle whenever I didn’t work fast enough.” [2] A “monster” like Wajs “is not chained by his conscience to his deed,” Améry explains, but “sees it […] only as an objectification of his will, not as a moral event.” This is a stark imbalance between two humans — two radically different views of an event and its moral structure — and this abyss is what strikes Améry the hardest. In a passage that reminds me of both Levi and Dante, he imagines a rebalancing of the scales in a scene of punishment (which in this case actually took place):

The experience of persecution was, at the very bottom, that of an extreme loneliness. At stake for me is the release from the abandonment that has persisted from that time until today. When SS-man Wajs stood before the firing squad, he experienced the moral truth of his crimes. At that moment, he was with me — and I was no longer alone with the shovel handle. I would like to believe that at the instant of his execution he wanted exactly as much as I to turn back time, to undo what had been done. When they led him to the place of execution, the antiman had once again become a fellow man.

This scene of contrition brings into consciousness a shared vision of reality and of the moral meaning of the event. It is recuperative in a Dantean way, not because the punishment fits the crime but because everyone agrees on what happened and why it shouldn’t have. A shared experience of moral truth can bring people together: this is Dante’s dream as well as ours.

A shared experience of moral truth can also drive people to madness and murder. Think of the 40 million followers of Q, or the official Russian line that its armies are “denazifying” Ukraine. Following Levinas, ethics means taking responsibility for those with whom we share no common ground, whom we can’t imagine talking to, whom — following logical lines, moral lines — we call idiots, animals, and monsters. Primo Levi echoes this when he prays that every man must answer for Auschwitz, and adds: “After Auschwitz it is no longer permissible to be unarmed.” Dante would recognize such armor — the will to right action — as Christian. We can call it whatever we want.


Leeore Schnairsohn holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University, with a dissertation on Osip Mandelstam. He teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University.


[1] Glossing the German word for overcoming — Bewältigung — Levi points to the root walt in German words for violence, domination, and rape, and concludes that “translating the expression with ‘distortion of the past’ or ‘violence done to the past’ would not stray very far from its profound meaning.”

[2] The original German title of Améry’s book is Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne, a portmanteau of Nietzsche’s Jenseits von Gut und Böse (Beyond Good and Evil) and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in its traditional German translation Schuld und Sühne (Guilt and Expiation). A literal translation of Améry’s title would read Beyond Guilt and Expiation.

LARB Contributor

Leeore Schnairsohn’s fiction, reviews, and translations have appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, The Write Launch, the Slavic and East European Journal, Canadian-American Slavic Studies, Portals, and elsewhere. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University, with a dissertation on Osip Mandelstam, and teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University.


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