Virgil’s Exclusion

In Dante’s poetic epic The Divine Comedy, the pagan-Virgil serves as the Christian-Dante’s guide and teacher throughout the rings of the Inferno and ranges of Mount Purgatory. Virgil’s own epic poem The Aeneid had a profound effect on the “real-life” Dante, yet Dante recognized that Virgil and his Aeneid were articulations of a particular time, specifically, a pre-Christian time.

The Divine Comedy outlines two broad enclosures within the history of poetry: a) the inherited and cherished pagan-Roman tradition of epic poetry and Reason; b) the Faith and salvation of Christendom. Within the “story” of The Divine Comedy, we find that Virgil himself comes to confront the limits of these enclosures. This occurs in a number of ways, particularly in respect to his ability to continue to guide and teach Dante. Once the two leave behind the Inferno, passing into Purgatorio, Virgil’s capacity begins to diminish, for this new Divine realm as not his own and it resists his presence. He now resides in a space in which the enclosure of tradition, of the teacher, is becoming translated, negotiated, into the space of the student, into Dante’s contemporary, Divine cosmos.

A bifurcation occurs here. In fact, this transformation crescendos at the precipice of Paradiso, where Virgil is not allowed to enter. At this point, the enclosure reveals itself through exclusion, after having been partially articulated throughout Purgatorio. It demands Virgil’s attention. In this new space, Dante must continue on alone, for Virgil cannot be translated into its terms, there is no place for him there. The new enclosure manifests itself in a style, a conceptuality, a manoeuvrability. There is a possibility of Salvation built upon a radically new foundation of “Faith,” against which Virgil cannot align himself. It does not exist for him and he must remain behind.

It is important to see that this exclusion does not render the pagan-poet moot. Rather, Dante seems to write Virgil’s incongruity in such a way to demonstrate that his Greatness is perfectly situated within this another realm, on that “other side” of the discontinuity of the narrative and the history of poetry and thought. This implies that Virgil’s pedagogy, his Rationality and tradition, will attempt to rise to the occasion of the today, to be rethought the once again in light of the new. But while Virgil is noble, he cannot be saved.

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