- the nature of selfhood: the doctrine of the resurrection of the body and the therefore indestructible unity of body and soul
- metamorphosis—shape-changing, especially in classical mythology—as a modality for thinking about selfhood (see Inferno 24, Inferno 25, and Purgatorio 25)
- intertextual games: diminishment of the Aeneid, analogous to the incremental undermining of the fictional character Virgilio
Following violence against others in their persons and in their possessions (treated in canto 12, where we saw the sinners boiled in the river of blood, guarded by the Centaurs), Inferno 13 treats violence against the self. Violence against the self can be manifested either in one’s person, by the suicides, or in one’s possessions, by the squanderers or wastrels. Many have noted that this last category is only with some difficulty distinguished from the prodigals of the fourth circle.
The travelers enter a murky wood (“bosco” in verse 2), a place that is characterized by negativity, by what it is not (note the repeated “non” at the beginning of each verse):
Non fronda verde, ma di color fosco; non rami schietti, ma nodosi e ’nvolti; non pomi v’eran, ma stecchi con tòsco. (Inf. 13.4-6) No green leaves in that forest, only black; no branches straight and smooth, but knotted, gnarled; no fruits were there, but briers bearing poison.
It turns out that the trees and bushes in this wood are the transformed—metamorphosed—souls of suicides. In other words, here are the souls of humans who are characterized by negativity, by what they are not: having willfully sundered the body-soul nexus, they are not what they should be.
Mythological monster-birds featured in Vergil’s Aeneid, the Harpies, feed on the leaves of the trees, and thereby cause pain to the sinners. As Pier della Vigna will reveal later in the canto: “l’Arpie, pascendo poi de le sue foglie, / fanno dolore, e al dolor fenestra” (then the Harpies, feeding on its leaves, / cause pain and for that pain provide a vent [Inf. 13.101-2]).
What does it mean to say that the Harpies, by eating the leaves of these “trees”, can cause pain to the souls of the persons whose immaterial forms are now constituted by these trees? What is the nature of this causation?
Dante here uses mythological or magical transubstantiation to try to get at the meaning of the body-soul nexus. This is a method that he will adopt on other occasions as well.
For instance, in Purgatorio 25 the catalyst for a discussion of human embryology and embodiment is the mythological figure Meleager, destined to die when a particular piece of charred wood is thrown onto the flames and consumed (Purg. 25.22-23). Meleager’s mother, learning of her son’s destiny, carefully preserves the firebrand until, years later, enraged at her son, she throws it into the flames and kills him. In Purgatorio 25 Dante poses the question: What is the connection between Mealeager and the piece of wood that in some way “represents” him?
In Inferno 13 Dante systematically raises the questions later posed in Purgatorio 25 by the story of Meleager. The relation between the two canti is signaled by the word “stizzo” (firebrand) which appears in the Commedia only in Inferno 13 and Purgatorio 25 (stizzo appears in Inf. 13.40 and Purg. 25.23).
Telling us that the Harpies cause pain to the self that is embodied in the tree is Dante’s way of signifying that the unity of body and soul is indestructible. These souls thought to avoid pain in life by destroying their bodies, but their “bodies” still feel pain, even though they are no longer in human form. We might sum up the information that we have received about the body-soul nexus over the previous canti in this way:
- In Inferno 6, verses 106-11, Virgilio explains to Dante that souls will be more perfect after the Last Judgment, when they are reunited with their bodies. Although Virgilio explicitly refers to an Aristotle on completion (“perfezion” in Inf. 6.110), he effectively introduces the thematic of the theology of the Resurrection.
- In Inferno 9, when Virgilio indicates that Erichtho’s conjuring of him occurred soon after he died, he states that the sorceress summoned him when he had only recently been denuded of his flesh: “Di poco era di me la carne nuda” (My flesh had not been long stripped off from me [Inf. 9.25]). Virgilio uses the personal pronoun of identity (“me”) to refer to his self as a self even when denuded of his flesh, thus implying that self and identity can be present even when the body is absent. He seems to be alluding to Dante’s thesis of the virtual bodies that the souls inhabit after death, until the Last Judgment reunites them with their fleshly bodies.
- The Epicurean heresy, as synthesized by Dante in Inferno 10.15, “che l’anima col corpo morta fanno”, posits the opposite view: the belief that soul dies with body signifies that without the body there is no self.
- In Inferno 13, Dante will confirm the absolute indivisibility of body and soul, showing us that even when the body has been transformed into a tree-body it is still tied to its soul: the original body-soul nexus may have been altered in appearance, but the bond is not severed. The unity of body and soul cannot be severed, neither in malo nor in bono. An in malo reprise of this theme will recur in Inferno 25, where the souls are given the bodies of serpents, and yet remain themselves.
Suicide as Dante treats it must be considered within the context of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The theology of the resurrection claims the inseparable personhood of soul that is embodied and of body that is ensouled. Neither can be divided from the other: together, for all eternity, they compose self. Dante will celebrate this idea throughout Paradiso.
An in bono reprise of this theme will occur in Paradiso 14, where the presentation of the doctrine of the Resurrection causes the souls to clamor for the day when they will see their beloveds once again embodied. After the Last Judgment, their loved ones will be present in Paradise as fully embodied selves, no longer only as pure flame. So that they can love their beloveds more fully, the saved souls in the circle of the sun demonstrate their profound “disio d’i corpi morti” (Par. 14.63)—their desire for their dead bodies:
Tanto mi parver sùbiti e accorti e l’uno e l’altro coro a dicer «Amme!», che ben mostrar disio d’i corpi morti: forse non pur per lor, ma per le mamme, per li padri e per li altri che fuor cari anzi che fosser sempiterne fiamme. (Par. 14.61-66)
One and the other choir seemed to me so quick and keen to say “Amen” that they showed clearly how they longed for their dead bodies— not only for themselves, perhaps, but for their mothers, fathers, and for others dear to them before they were eternal flames.
I write about the above passage in The Undivine Comedy: “The rhyme of mamme with fiamme, the flesh with the spirit, is one of Dante’s most poignant envisionings of a paradise where earthly ties are not renounced but enhanced” (The Undivine Comedy, p. 138).
Dante’s treatment of embodiment-ensoulment revolves around the question of unsunderability. We can now see that his interest in the Epicureans is related to this same set of concerns. He defines Epicureanism as the belief that soul dies when body dies: “l’anima col corpo morta fanno” (they make soul die with the body [Inf. 10.15]). For Dante Epicurean beliefs are a perversion of the insunderability of body and soul celebrated by the blessed souls of Paradiso 14.
In the materialist view body and soul die when the material body dies. Christianity, on the other hand, holds that body and soul, unified, will live forever. Indeed, as we learned from Inferno 6.100-111, the reunited body-soul nexus is more perfect after the Last Judgment than the still divided body-soul prior to the Last Judgment, with the result that when reunited and perfected we will suffer greater pain if in Hell and enjoy greater bliss if in Paradise.
The suicides thus offer a variant on the body-soul problematic as presented via the treatment of Epicureans in Inferno 10. As the Epicureans consider the soul or anima expendable, so the suicides consider the body or corpo expendable. Both positions are wrong.
By separating body from soul, the suicides do violence to the unsunderable unity of self. Their “punishment” is, as usual in Dante’s Inferno, a visualization of the sinners’ own essential choices: as they chose to separate body from soul, they now are separated from their bodies forcibly. They will not get their bodies back at the Last Judgment, because, with inexorable logic, “it is not just for any man to have what he himself has cast aside”: “non è giusto aver ciò ch’om si toglie” (Inf. 13.105). Their “desire for their dead bodies”—their “disio d’i corpi morti” in the language of Paradiso 14.63—is destined to remain eternally unassuaged.
We should note that the insistence throughout Paradiso on Christ’s dual nature, both human and divine, is analogous to the insistence on the unsunderability of body and soul in humans. From this point of view, the passing reference in the circle of heresy to Pope Anastasius, the heretic mentioned at the beginning of Inferno 11 (verses 7-9), is important. Pope Anastasius II (Pope from 496-498 CE) ascribed to Monophysitism, the heretical belief that Christ had only one nature. Dante’s singling out of Pope Anastiasius and the heresy of Monophysitism prepares us for his treatment of suicide, his emphatic insistence on the indivisibility of man’s two natures.
* * *
Inferno 13 is dominated by the encounter with the suicide Pier della Vigna, chancellor and secretary (“logothete” in the imperial jargon) to Emperor Frederic II in Palermo. The powerful jurist has been turned into a tree in Hell. Here Dante borrows Vergil’s metamorphosis of Polydorus from Book 3 of the Aeneid, where the son of Priam has become a bleeding and speaking tree.
Metamorphosis—the shape-changing that is a staple of classical mythology—is used as a lens for focusing on issues of selfhood, identity, and embodiment throughout the Commedia, right through the Paradiso.
The great Latin poet of metamorphosis, Ovid, is a major intertextual presence in Paradiso, the canticle where the poet confronts transubstantiation most directly. Ovidian intertextuality throughout the Commedia can be explored through Intertextual Dante. On metamorphosis in Inferno, see the Introductions to Inferno 24 and Inferno 25.
The first section of Inferno 13 is important for the intertextual dynamic between the Aeneid and the Commedia. The fact that a man has become a tree is termed “unbelievable”—a “cosa incredibile” in Inferno 13.50. It is therefore something that cannot be accepted on the basis of a prior account, no matter how authoritative, but which, if it is to be believed, must be verified through one’s own actions and experience. Hence, because the account in Vergil’s Aeneid is deemed literally “in-credible”, Dante must break the branch in order to verify that the tree is truly a man.
But, the question arises: if Dante cannot believe Vergil’s text, why should we believe Dante’s text? Why is Pier della Vigna less in-credible than his prototype, Polydorus? As analyzed in Dante’s Poets, cited in Coordinated Readings, we can learn from this passage how Dante systematically diminishes the authority of his great precursor’s text in order to garner increased authority for his own text.
Dante-poet works to enhance the reality-quotient of the Commedia by diminishing the reality-quotient of the Aeneid.
Piero’s tragic story is the story of a courtier, and of the envies and intrigues of life at court. In Dante’s version, Piero was envied for his closeness to the Emperor. Although we do not know the precise cause of Piero’s dramatic fall from grace, his imprisonment is a matter of historical record: he was tortured, apparently blinded, and died in prison in 1249.
The unfolding narrative of the encounter with Piero in Inferno 13 conveys both the lack of trust that permeates court life (hence the emphasis on what is believable and what is not), and simultaneously keeps the focus on embodiment, violated by the act of suicide.
Let us take the issue of the provenance of the voices that Dante hears in the wood, which are eventually revealed to be the voices of the trees. Rather than give us this information directly, Dante tells us that he now believes that Virgilio then believed that he (Dante) then believed that the voices came from people hiding behind the trees (verses 25-7).
We can parse verse 25, “Cred’ ïo ch’ei credette ch’io credesse” (I think that he was thinking that I thought), more closely. Dante-poet believes (in the narrator’s present tense: “Cred’ ïo”) that Virgilio believed (in the past tense of the events that took place in the wood of the suicides: “ch’ei credette”) that Dante-pilgrim believed (again in the past tense of the events that took place in the wood of the suicides: “ch’io credesse”) that the voices he was hearing in the wood came from people who were hiding behind the trees: “che tante voci uscisser, tra quei bronchi, / da gente che per noi si nascondesse” (so many voices moaned among those trunks / from people who were hiding from us [Inf. 13.26-27]).
The famous verse “Cred’ ïo ch’ei credette ch’io credesse” (Inf. 13.25) is emblematic of the various strands of this canto. It renders the opacity of subjectivity (discussed at length in the Introduction to Inferno 9), whereby none of us can ever be entirely sure of what another is thinking. In this way verse 25 also beautifully conjures the invidious and perilous environment of the court. Courts, whether Papal or secular, whether the imperial court of Frederic II or the Tudor court of Henry VIII, are notoriously environments that foster intrigue. Dante renders the feeling of the whispering voices of courtiers, as they invidiously relate the rumors of what so-and-so believes of such-and-such.
In terms of the plot, the poet is informing us that Virgilio thought that the pilgrim failed to understand that the voices came from the trees themselves. Of course, the pilgrim does not expect voices to emanate from trees, because he does not consider the trees as selves. Indeed, when the pilgrim first heard the sound of wailing, he naturally looked around for people as the source: “Io sentia d’ogne parte trarre guai / e non vedea persona che ’l facesse” (From every side I heard the sound of cries, / but I could not see the person from made the sounds [Inf. 13.22-3]).
Because the pilgrim fails to understand that the trees are speaking selves (and was unable to take the notion on faith as a result of having read Book 3 of the Aeneid), Virgilio decides to have him harm Piero, breaking the sinner’s branch and causing “the trunk” to yell in pain: “e ’l tronco suo gridò: «Perché mi schiante?»” (at which its trunk cried out: “Why do you tear me?” [Inf. 13.33]).
The wailing tree trunk is a typically graphic and Dantean way to make the point: the tree is a self.
Piero tried to destroy his self, through suicide, but he failed. In a perverse conservation of being, his self persists—deformed, but nonetheless not non-existent.
We see here how masterfully Dante has woven Inferno 13’s fundamental questions of selfhood and embodiment into the story-line. These are questions that will run through the Commedia, resurfacing in Inferno 24 and Inferno 25, where souls change into serpents. The metamorphoses of men into serpents and back again in the bolgia of the thieves is anticipated in Piero’s comment that the pilgrim would have been kinder if the trees had been “the souls of serpents”:
Uomini fummo, e or siam fatti sterpi: ben dovrebb’ esser la tua man più pia, se state fossimo anime di serpi. (Inf. 13.37-39) We once were men and now are arid stumps: your hand might well have shown us greater mercy had we been nothing more than souls of serpents.
At the core of his story is the verse where Dante shows that, worse than what the envious courtiers did to him, is what Pier della Vigna did to himself:
L’animo mio, per disdegnoso gusto, credendo col morir fuggir disdegno, ingiusto fece me contra me giusto. (Inf. 13.70-72)
My mind, because of its disdainful temper, believing it could flee disdain through death, made me unjust against my own just self.
Verses 70-72 posit the violent and unnatural turning of the self against the self—“me contra me”—in a dualism that is everything that the theology of the Resurrection rejects. The soul, “l’animo mio” of verse 70, in its desire to flee an ignominious death, “made me unjust toward my own just self”: “ingiusto fece me contra me giusto” (Inf. 13.72).
The phrase “ingiusto fece me contra me giusto” pits “me” against “me”: “me contra me”. Here we have the distillation of the infernal logic that is visualized in a contrapasso that keeps the body and soul forever sundered but forever together. We learn that, after the Last Judgement, from each tree will hang the body that the self rejected and tried to destroy, a body that can never be severed but that—in just punishment—will never again be fully integrated into one self. Hence their corpses will hang from their trees:
Qui le strascineremo, e per la mesta selva saranno i nostri corpi appesi, ciascuno al prun de l’ombra sua molesta. (Inf. 13.106-08) We’ll drag our bodies here; they’ll hang in this sad wood, each on the stump of its vindictive shade.
As we saw that in Inferno 10 the dramatic tension reaches a peak and then subsides, with the result that in verse 79 the pilgrim’s interaction with Farinata becomes more informational and less barbed, so, in Inferno 13, verse 79 initiates a more didactic and informative section of the canto. Here Piero explains the process whereby the suicide-trees grow from a soul-seed: the “anima feroce” (savage soul [Inf. 13.94]) that has torn itself “dal corpo” (from the body [Inf. 13.95]) falls into the “selva” (97) of the seventh circle, where “it sprouts like a grain of spelt” (“quivi germoglia come gran di spelta” [Inf. 13.99]). Dante here offers a perverse insemination and a perverse embryology—the infernal counterpart of the embryology of Purgatorio 25.
In the last section of the canto Dante sees wastrels being pursued by black hounds. As though they were chasing wild boar, the dogs hunt down the sinners and then tear them limb from limb. Unlike the suicides—who have trunks, branches, and leaves—the wastrels have bodies into which the infernal hounds can sink their teeth. Those of you who have read Boccaccio’s Decameron will remember that Boccaccio makes humorous, indeed parodic, use of the caccia infernal in the novella of Nastagio degli Onesti (Dec. 5.8).
The Florentine suicide who reprimands the wastrel Giacomo di Sant’Andrea for having trampled and lacerated him (in his bush form) concludes Inferno 13 with a characterization of Florence that implicates the city in the negativity of Inferno 13 (see verses 143-50). He seals the canto with the information that he killed himself by making a gallows in his Florentine home: “Io fei gibetto a me de le mie case” (I made—of my own house—my gallows place [Inf. 13.151]). This last verse takes us mentally back to the ghoulish image of the suicides’ bodies hanging from their trees after the Last Judgment (verses 106-8).