Dante, Morrison, and the prevalence of “violence”

**I’ll just start with saying that this is definitely going to be one out of a few blog posts I write in the next few days. I’m seeing a lot of connections between the two texts and have just some other thoughts on this whole process/project and I think that my ideas are best understood if they’re separated into different posts, rather than one giant one. So, bear with me if my name pops up here a ton.**

As I work my way through Purgatorio, I’m struck by the connections I’m finding with Morrison’s Jazz. I think conceptually they explore many of the same ideas– i.e love, place, and (in the early cantos) violence. Again, I’ll reiterate that the two texts are “in conversation” and not simply mapped onto each other. They both have their own unique elements, and I highly doubt Morrison meant to reproduce Purgatorio in a modern setting; she has her own goals for her novel, but there is definitely a tie to Dante.

I’m particularly interested in Canto V right now. Dante the Pilgrim is still in the realms of Antepurgatory and comes into contact with the Late Repentant. My last post dealt specifically with love, and I do intend to pursue that further, but that requires a close reading of Dante’s time in Purgatory Proper, and I haven’t gotten there yet. So in Canto V, Dante the Pilgrim meets “the third class of the Late Repentant: those who died a violent death but managed to repent in their final moments” (49). Dante meets many souls in this category, and they wish for him to bring news of their condition back to the living so that they could be prayed for, since this will allow for their purgation to be sped up. This canto is short, but I see a genuine connection (in my opinion) between the second speaker, Buonconte, and Dorcas. Buonconte explains that he was saved because “as I died, I murmured Mary’s name, and there I fell and left my empty flesh” (also Morrison’s A Mercy makes me think of flesh as a loaded word– but that’s a conversation for another time) (52).

This final whisper of Mary’s name, and the eventual salvation that one act will bring, makes me really contemplate the significance of how Dorcas spends her final moments, in the company of Felice. The first time the actions after the shooting takes place is given through Dorcas’ narration where she says, “Felice puts her ear on my lips and I scream it to her. I think I am screaming it. I think I am.” This parallel between Dorcas saying Joe’s name and Buonconte saying Mary’s name interests me. He is trying to save himself; she is trying to condemn her killer/lover.

I also find this part of Jazz fascinating because it is not the only description we get about that specific event. When Felice goes to visit Joe and Violet, she tells the story, at first claiming that when asked, “Who did it?” Dorcas deferred the answer until the next day, which of course didn’t come. She continues her recounting and says, “Then she opened them wide and said real loud: ‘There’s only one apple.’ Sounded like ‘apple.’ ‘Just one. Tell Joe.'” and Felice says, “See? You were the last thing on her mind” (213). This offers a stark contrast between Dorcas and Buonconte that I think is really significant in showing differing priorities. I’m not going to go as far as compare Joe to Mary and say they serve the same purpose here, but I think this parallelism is definitely worth thinking about in terms of Morrison in conversation with Dante.

The other reason this canto fascinates me is because I would be remiss if I didn’t see the obvious connection between the prevalence of “violence” in the canto and Violet’s nickname, Violent. When these souls announce that they died at the hands of a violent death, I thought of this as one way Morrison seemingly twists Dante rather than merely paralleling his story. Violet is seen as “Violent” because of her actions at Dorcas’ funeral, yet it is Joe (a trusted man in the community) who actually kills her. Why does Morrison give her this reputation but not give that same community judgment to Joe, the man who actually committed murder?

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