bonny_kate: (bookness)
Containing MAJOR SPOILERS for Buffy the Vampire Slayer seasons six and seven, as well as philosophy, quotes, ghosts, and discussion of the Beautific Vision.

Dante and Spike: The Redemptive Journey of the Soul

I do not imagine that most people who watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer are thinking about its relation to Dante's Divine Comedy. Nor do I think that any of the writers were, in all probability, consciously or unconsciously, trying to incorporate or allude to Dante's work. So, with those disclaimers, I want to propose the following idea. Spike's redemption in the sixth and seventh seasons of Buffy mirrors Dante's redemption in the Divine Comedy in two important ways. First, the general path of redemption, from an awakening, through a purgation, to a final knowledge and vision of Love, is the same in the essentials. Second, that the motivating force for both is a desire for the Beloved.

The Path of Redemption

Dante begins Inferno very simply. He writes, "Midway this life we're bound upon, / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / Where the right road was wholly lost and gone." This establishes two facts, that Dante is lost, and that he finally knows that he is lost. The fact that he is lost does not mean anything until he realizes it. And, while the entire Comedy may perhaps be described as an awakening, this is the moment that is defined by it. The redemption of Dante has begun.

Similarly, Spike had that sudden realization, described by Dante as being like waking up. He realizes what he almost did to Buffy, and realizes how completely lost in the dark he is. Of course, the audience has known this for quite some time, as Spike slips further and further into evil, but his redemption cannot begin until he realizes how lost he is.

Both Dante and Spike have to wake up and realize how lost they are, before they can begin to go anywhere. But, interestingly enough, both of them turn for help to what I would call "The Not Good Guys."

Dante turns for help, not to Beatrice, but to the ghost of Virgil. While Virgil may be the best pagan Dante will ever meet, there are two major problems with turning to Virgil for help. First, Virgil is a pagan, and is condemned to hell, even if it is the top level which doesn't seem quite so bad, relatively. Any ghost, not just that of Virgil, would be a problem, for similar reasons. Second, Dante should have turned to Beatrice. Dante is reduced to being guided by a pagan philosopher through hell, because he is so lost that Beatrice cannot go to him.

While Spike does not go looking for guidance from a ghost, he does go straight to a demon. In Buffy, demons are varying levels of evil. The only possible exception to this is a vampire with a soul, such as Angel, but that instance does not count, because at that point it is no longer a demon. Most demons are trying to destroy the world, or Buffy, or both. They are not to be trusted (I will not discuss here the possibility of good demons or half demons, as that is only shown on Angel, and I do not think it strictly applies). Instead of going off to get help from a demon, Spike should have gotten help from Buffy, and it is a measure of how lost he is, that he cannot.

As Dr. Reynolds said, "good Torrey students do not play with ghosts." In other words, Dante should know better than to seek help from a ghost, just as Spike should not be seeking advice from a demon. It is a measure of their respective conditions that they do.

Now there comes a point, for both Dante and Spike, when they are saved. It is no longer in question that they will be saved, but the process of redemption is not yet done.

Dante is saved at the foot of Mt. Purgatory. All the souls on Purgatory, in their various states, are all saved. The souls in Purgatory will not slip back down to hell (Virgil is a special case, and doesn't really count, because he isn't really there, not in the way that Dante is), and Dante is numbered among them. Dante has woken up, escaped hell, and now the real work begins. It is important to see that there is a point when Dante is saved.

There is a similar moment for Spike, which is much more dramatic; Spike receives his soul. At the point in time when he regains his soul, Spike is irrevocably changed. He walks and talks differently, even his facial expressions are somehow altered, even in the midst of insanity, because from that moment on in the story, Spike is saved.

It is not enough that Dante is saved from hell, or that Spike is saved from the nothingness that was his lack of soul. Some stories might end here. But even greater than this is the redemption and transformation that can now begin to occur.

Now we enter the seventh season of Buffy, and begin the climb of Mt. Purgatory.

Purgatory has many meanings, on many different levels, for Dante. But I am only concerned right now with the process of purgation. It can hardly be emphasized enough that Purgatory is not a place of punishment for crimes, but rather a place of cleansing of the soul. It is the habituation of the soul to good; learning virtue rather than vice. Although those in purgatory may be in pain, they no longer suffer. They have a joy, and an expectation of the Beautific Vision, that those in hell cannot even glimpse. It is in Purgatory that Dante is really able to begin the dialectic, and to begin to grow in understanding.

I will freely admit that it is at this point that the parallels between Dante and Spike are hardest to see. Spike regains his soul, but is driven insane, and does not have the clear serenity of the stars that Dante sees. Yet in Spike's insanity, there is clarity. He does not yet fully understand (neither does Dante), but he sees clearly. He is one of the only two to see both Willow and Buffy. He realizes the enormity of all the past evil that he has done. He embraces the cross (which surely has interesting symbolic significance). Spike finally begins to try to be good; to live well. It is perhaps a more violent cleansing, yet it is still a cleansing. Spike struggles with all the villains of the seasons, and must reject them, including what appears to be Buffy.

As a short side note, it is interesting that both Dante and Spike must reject that which has the appearance of beauty. Spike must reject that evil which takes the shape of Buffy (which he surely does while captive in the caves). Dante must reject the Siren. Both appear beautiful, but are deceptive, and would lead to destruction.

The cleansing of the soul, the ridding it of past evil and training it towards good, describe the purgation of both Spike and Dante, leading to the reconciliation with the Beloved.

It is at the top of Mt. Purgatory that Dante is finally reunited with Beatrice. Now he begins that final stage of the journey, towards the Beautiful Vision.

There is not nearly as defined a moment for Spike. I would submit that the night he spends with Buffy, simply holding here, is the moment of reconciliation (although I would not hold strongly to it). Spike calls it the happiest moment of his life. The serenity and reconciliation that Spike finds, the happiness in merely watching the beloved, is reminiscent of Dante's reunion with Beatrice having drunk of the two rivers of the garden at the top of Purgatory. It is not necessary, however, to point to one moment, in any case, but to simply say that reconciliation has occurred. Through the rest of Season 7, Spike grows in love.

There is little I can say of the growth of love in Paradise, and what I have to say may all be summed up in that greatest of all happy endings, the Beautific Vision.

The Beautific Vision for Dante is true sight of the Beloved, that is, sight with understanding that moves the soul. Dante writes that "my will and my desire were moved by love / the love that moves the sun and the other stars." Dante's entire being is consumed by love, and there are really no words strong enough to describe this. The entire journey has been about this, and now Dante is finally able to feel love, to breathe it, to think it, to have it completely move him. It is a soaring, breathtaking moment.

Spike is also consumed by love. It is love of Buffy, although she does not love him the way he first desired, that motivates him. It is through her love for him (she believed in him) and his love for her, that he has become a champion. When Spike puts on the amulet, he is consumed by the fire of love, both literally and figuratively. His love has been purified, he has been redeemed, and at this moment, his will and his desire are moved by love of Buffy. It is an impossibly happy moment when Spike is consumed by the fire, because at that moment, he finds true happiness. He gets it, he sees it, even when Buffy doesn't.

Some things are so beautiful that they hurt. When Dante describes the Beautific Vision, it is so beautiful it aches. When Spike gives everything to die happy, consumed by the fire and his love of Buffy, it is so beautiful it aches. And I think it is the same thing, in a way, because it is a glimpse of a vision that takes us beyond words. Perhaps the final happiness is simply to love, fully and completely, the Beloved.

The story itself is extraordinarily powerful, whether it is in the form of poetry or film. This brings me to two related points. First, it shows very clearly and concisely one reason to read a medieval Catholic who wrote epic poetry. If Dante can illuminate something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just think what it could do for C.S. Lewis (surely a book in its own right). The story Dante told was the story of redemption, which we are still telling. If the redemption of Spike is powerful, if it is important, then the redemption of Dante through the Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise is even more important, because it shows more clearly.

Second, the image of the fire consuming Spike made me realize something I'd never articulated before. As I have said, it is the terrible beauty that is much like Dante's Beautific Vision. The great stories are not limited to one form. This is obvious. I know this, but now I think that I get it. The form of a story may change, without changing its essence. I will try to explain what I mean. I am not talking about making movie adaptations of a book (an entirely separate question that I am ill equipped to discuss). If someone were to make a movie, and they wanted it to be Narnia-ish, I would expect it to have a certain echo, or taste, of the things of Narnia, without necessarily having any fauns, or dryads, or children from our world entering another world. But it wouldn't be overt, more like about half way through the film I would suddenly sit up and say, "oh, I get it, it's really the story of Narnia." And if it were really good, it would evoke the feel of Narnia while still being itself.

Now I shall move on to my second topic, that I hope to address more quickly, that of

The Desire for the Beloved

The motivating force for both Dante and Spike is a desire for the Beloved. Dante is ever moved by love of Beatrice, and Spike is moved by love of Buffy.

Dante would not have been saved but for his love of Beatrice, and her love of him. It is Beatrice's love of Dante that sends her to the depths of hell to summon Virgil to guide him, it is her love that sends the Lady Lucia, and it is she herself that guides him through heaven. It is Dante's love that ever drives him, when spoken by Virgil it gives him strength in hell, and it is her name that drives him through the final fire at the top of Mt. Purgatory. It is in her eyes that he is drawn ever upwards into heaven, and she ever grows more beautiful.

In a similar way, it is Spike's love of Buffy that drives him, and it is Buffy's love of Spike that saves him. When Buffy begins to love Spike, she stops using him, and is no longer content with what he is. It is her words that she believes in him that give him strength, and she believes in him as her champion. It is Spike's love of Buffy that drives him from the beginning, misguided though he is, he wants to become that which he was to give her what he believes she deserves. But he believes that she deserves to be loved with a soul. It is his love of her that brings him back to his sanity, that allows him to repulse evil. And, at the very end, it is his love of her that leads him to die for her, even with the knowledge that she does not love him in the way that he loves her.

But while it is the love of and desire for the beloved that drives both Dante and Spike, there is an important distinction that must be made about the final vision. For Dante, it is not enough to have seen the true beauty of Beatrice. Beatrice is truly beautiful, and worthy of his purified love, but she is an image of the Divine. The Beautific Vision is the culmination of love, but it is not love of Beatrice, which though a great love is not the greatest. It is love of Truth, and Beauty, and Goodness, that is to say, God.

Spike's ultimate love is the love of Buffy. It is a great love, but not so great as Dante's love, for Dante's love of Beatrice led him to a greater love. I find a deep disappointment in Spike's love, for it is a love greater than Buffy, and so should have led him to love that which is greater, without losing the love of that which is lesser. At the end of Paradise, it is not a final vision of Beatrice, and she would not have had it that she was the greatest vision. The entire journey of Dante has been to teach him to love that which is greatest, by first loving deeply and truly that which he already thinks that he loves, Beatrice. Beatrice is ever an incarnation, or an image, of love. I do not think Buffy ever becomes that for Spike.

I do not know that I have any particular conclusions to draw from this, and I doubt my wisdom, but I shall try in any case.

I keep coming back to a simple idea, which comes up again and again in Buffy, and is a central theme in The Divine Comedy. The redemptive, transformative power of love. Dante never fully understands it with his mind, and yet he fully comprehends it. At the final vision, his will and his desire are moved by love. It really is all in Dante. To begin to understand Dante is to begin to understand what he was saying about love, and the story of redemption he was telling. And to begin to understand this image of redemption is to begin to understand and truly see so many other images of redemption. It is a story that continues to be powerful, even if we do not understand why.

May our souls be redeemed, transformed, and moved by love, the love that moves the sun and other stars.


bonny_kate: (Default)
Kate Saunders Britton

April 2017

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