- the nature of selfhood and the theology of the Resurrection: the inseparable personhood of soul that is embodied and of body that is ensouled
- the indestructible unity of body and soul ⇒ the link between the tree-souls of Inferno 13 and Dante’s treatment of the mythological figure of Meleager in Purgatorio 25
- Dante’s non-dualism, his insistence on a the unsunderable unity of body and soul, leads to consideration of the following Dantean dialectic: on the one hand he posits the perverse non-dualism of the materialist Epicureans (for whom the soul dies with the body) and on the other he posits the perverse dualism of the suicides, who pit the self against the self (Inf. 13.72)
- metamorphosis — shape-changing, especially in classical mythology — is for Dante a key modality for thinking about selfhood (see Inferno 24, Inferno 25, and Purgatorio 25)
- intertextual games: diminishment of the text 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, Inferno 13 treats violence against the self. Violence against the self can be manifested either in one’s person, through committing suicide, or in one’s possessions, through the squandering of personal goods.
 Many have noted that this last category, of squanderers, is only with difficulty distinguished from that of the prodigals of the fourth circle. This structural overlap suggests that Dante could have omitted the prodigals in circle 4, knowing that he would arrive at wastrels in circle 7; in this way he could have longer sustained the synchrony between the architecture of his Hell and the Christian scheme of the seven capital vices. The fact that, despite the prospect of the squanderers, Dante nonetheless ruptures the system of the seven capital vices in circle 4, can be construed as an indicator of his commitment to the Aristotelian concept — dramatized in circle 4 and Inferno 7 — of virtue as the mean.
 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 souls of suicides. These souls have thus been transformed into something other than what they were — indeed, into what they were not:
- They were humans; they are now plants;
- They were forms of intellective life; now they are forms of vegetative life.
 But this transformation turns out not to be proof that the original unity of body and soul has been successfully violated. In fact, we will learn that the substance of these beings has never changed, despite all attempts to undo it. Ultimately, as we shall see, Dante’s point in Inferno 13 is as follows: the unity of body and soul is indestructible: selfhood cannot be undone.
 The second ring of the seventh circle houses the souls of humans who are characterized by negative identity. A negative metamorphosis has transformed them from humans — beings in whose development the intellective faculty has superseded both the sensitive and the vegetative faculties, as described in Purgatorio 25.52-75 — into plants: vegetable life alone. However, they are plants that speak, in another monstrous hybrid that makes no sense, since speech and language are a property of the intellective faculty, as the same passage in Purgatorio 25 informs us.
 In sum: having willfully sundered the body-soul nexus, they are now what they should not be. In appearance they are now plants. But, as Dante will show us in dramatic fashion, in substance they are still human. For the reality, a terrible reality for these souls, is that selfhood cannot be undone.
 Mythological monster-birds, foul birds with the faces of women that torment Aeneas and his men in the Aeneid, the Harpies are a monstrous union of human and animal, like the Centaurs, whereas the suicide-trees combine human and vegetable. In Inferno 13, the Harpies feed on the leaves of the suicide-trees and thereby cause pain to the sinners. As Pier della Vigna will reveal later on: “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 vegetative forms? 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 the lengthy 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. Years later, when she is enraged at her son, she retrieves the piece of charred wood, throws it into the flames, and kills him. In Purgatorio 25 Dante is essentially posing the question: What is the connection between Meleager and the piece of wood that in some way “represents” him?
 The piece of wood that represents Meleager, like the trees that represent the suicides, are not really separate from the soul, as they seem to be: they are not mere representations.
 In these passages Dante is using classical mythology to make the key Christian point about the indivisibility of body and soul. It may seem that the body is a outward husk that can be discarded: a tree, a bush, a piece of wood. But in the same way that Meleager is the charred wood — in the same way that he dies when the charred wood is consumed in the flames — so his body is never really separate from his soul.
 Mealeager’s being — his essence, his selfhood — is composed of an indivisible unity of body and soul.
 In the encounter with Pier della Vigna Dante first raises the questions later posed by the story of Meleager. The link between Inferno 13 and Purgatorio 25 is signaled by the word “stizzo” (firebrand) which appears in the Commedia only in Inferno 13.40 and Purgatorio 25.23 — only for these two instances of apparent vegetative life that is really human life.
 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.
 Over the previous canti Dante has given us information about the body-soul nexus, with respect to eternity, the resurrection of the flesh and the reunion of flesh with soul. We might distill the information thus:
- In Inferno 6.106-11, Virgilio explains to Dante that souls will be more perfect after the Last Judgment, when they are reunited with their bodies. Although Virgilio only cites Aristotle (“perfezion” in Inf. 6.110), Dante-narrator here effectively introduces the thematic of the theology of the Resurrection. This passage provides Dante’s baseline belief, against the backdrop of which he depicts the following variant — perverse — configurations.
- In Inferno 9, Virgilio’s story of the sorceress Erichtho, who previously compelled him to make the journey to lower Hell, includes two references to the body. According to Virgilio he was “congiurato da quella Eritón cruda / che richiamava l’ombre a’ corpi sui” (compelled by that savage Erichtho / who called the shades back to their bodes [Inf. 9.23-4]). Erichtho’s power, in Virgilio’s telling, is demiurgic: she can reconnect shades to their bodies, in a perverse resurrection that anticipates Dante’s invention of “zombies” in Inferno 33. Virgilio indicates that Erichtho summoned him soon after he died, 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]). Here 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 fleshly body is absent: the wasted body in a tomb is still a self. We could take this remark as a further reminder that the self will eventually be fully reconstituted, not by sorcery, but by the divine power that at the Last Judgment reunites the soul with its fleshly body.
- 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. This view can be seen as a perverse non-dualism.
- 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 theology of the Resurrection. 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 and elaborate 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. Because they passionately look forward to loving their beloveds more fully, as embodied selves, the saved souls in the circle of the sun demonstrate their “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 / indivisibility: unity of body and soul.
 We can now see that his interest in the Epicureans is related to this same set of concerns. Dante defines Epicureanism as the materialist belief that (the immaterial) soul dies when (the material) body dies: “l’anima col corpo morta fanno” (they make soul die with the body [Inf. 10.15]). For Dante, the Epicureans’ belief therefore constitutes a perverse form of indivisibility: rather than holding that the body will live eternally because the soul is eternal, as in the doctrine of the Resurrection, the Epicureans, as Dante defines them, hold that the soul must die because the body dies.
 In the materialist view of the Epicureans, body and soul both 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 nexus prior to the Last Judgment. 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 that Dante presented in his 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 are now forcibly separated from their bodies for all eternity. Technically, the suicides 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).
 But — and this too is inexorable logic — although that the suicides do not get their bodies back in the way that the other souls do, they will get them back. In other words, the body-soul nexus is governed by an even deeper logic than the logic that holds that it is “not just for any man to have what he himself has cast aside” (Inf. 13.105). Their bodies are rejoined to them, in the horrible form of corpses hanging from a tree-gallows.
 The inexorable logic of the indivisibility of body and soul cannot be thwarted. Since the suicides treated their bodies as an external husk to be discarded, their bodies will remain — like eternal husks — forever hanging from their tree-selves: reunited but not reunited.
 We should note that the insistence throughout Paradiso on Christ’s dual nature, both human and divine, is analogous to the insistence on the indivisibility 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. For the reader with a particular interest in Ovid, let me note that Ovidian intertextuality throughout the Commedia can be explored on Digital Dante 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” — “cosa incredibile” (unbelievable thing) — 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”, Virgilio instructs Dante to 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? Such questions involve the basic poetic strategies of the Commedia. 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.
 In his account of the death of Pier della Vigna, Dante demonstrates his interest in the dynamics of life in a court. 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.
 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, is a case in point. Rather than give us this information directly, Dante tells us that he now believes that Virgilio then believed that he (Dante-pilgrim) then believed that the voices came from people hiding behind the trees (verses 25-7).
 Let us 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 verse “Cred’ ïo ch’ei credette ch’io credesse” (Inf. 13.25) is indeed 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 — fatal intrigue that leads to death. 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 of Inferno, 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 persons 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 scream 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 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 seventh bolgia is anticipated in Piero’s accusatory lament. Piero says that the pilgrim would have been more merciful toward him if, instead of trees, they were “the souls of serpents” (39). The following tercet features the transition from man (“Uomini fummo”) to plant (“e or siam fatti sterpi”), and captures the sinister hybridity of this canto in the phrase “anime di serpi”:
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.
 Piero recounts that envy inflamed the hearts of the courtiers against him: “infiammò contra me li animi tutti” (inflamed the minds of everyone against me [Inf. 13.67]). Dante then modulates the phrase “contra me” of verse 67, depicting the invidious violence of the courtiers toward Pier della Vigna, into the phrase “me contra me” of verse 72, depicting the perverse violence of Piero toward himself.
 At the core of Piero’s story is the phrase “me contra me”: me against myself (Inf. 13.72). In this phrase Dante distills the idea that even 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.
 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 verse “ingiusto fece me contra me giusto” pits “unjust me” against “just me”. Piero’s “disdegnoso gusto” (disdainful temper) causes him to be “unjust” toward his own “just” self.
 The very syntax, knotty and gnarled like the wood of the suicides (“non rami schietti, ma nodosi e ’nvolti” ), reflects the perverse logic — the “disdegnoso gusto” — that so distorts the eternal reality of an indivisible self.
 Verses 70-72 posit the violent and unnatural turning of the self against the self — “me contra me” — in an attempted dualism rejected by the theology of the Resurrection. This is the distillation of the infernal logic that is visualized in a contrapasso that keeps the body and soul both forever sundered and forever together.
 After the Last Judgment the wood of the suicides will become much more gruesome. From each tree-self will hang the body that the self rejected and tried to destroy, a body that can never be severed but that will never again be fully integrated. 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.
 In Inferno 10 we find a canto structure in which the dramatic tension reaches a peak and then subsides, with the result that in verse 79 and beyond the pilgrim’s interaction with Farinata becomes more informational and less barbed. Similarly, in Inferno 13, verse 79 initiates a more didactic and informative section of the canto.
 Now 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 from its body — “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).
 In another connection to Purgatorio 25, Dante here offers a perverse insemination and a perverse embryology: this is the infernal counterpart of the embryology presented in Purgatorio 25. An even more devastating infernal embryology will occur in the canto of the serpents, Inferno 25.
 In the last section of Inferno 13 Dante sees wastrels (those who are violent against their selves in their possessions) being pursued by black hell-hounds. In his Decameron Boccaccio makes humorous, indeed parodic, use of the caccia infernale in the novella of Nastagio degli Onesti (Dec. 5.8).
 As though they were chasing wild boar, the dogs hunt down the sinners and then tear them limb from limb. Their violent rampage also causes damage to the suicides, who have trunks, branches, and leaves that can be torn off. Hence the complaint of the anonymous suicide at the canto’s end, who refers to “lo strazio disonesto / c’ha le mie fronde sì da me disgiunte” (the dishonorable laceration that leaves so many of my branches torn [Inf. 13. 140-1]). In a wistful recapitulation of the canto’s theme, this soul asks that his “fronde” be gathered together — unified — and placed at the foot of his tree: “raccoglietele al piè del tristo cesto” (collect them at the foot of this sad thorn [Inf. 13.142]).
 However much damage is done to the vegetable-but-nonetheless-human life of the suicides’ forest by the rampaging hounds and fleeing wastrels, only the wastrels have human bodies into which the infernal hounds can sink their teeth. Dante thus gives himself the opportunity to dramatize not only disjoined tree fronde but also the lacerated “members” of a human body: “quel dilaceraro a brano a brano; / poi sen portar quelle membra dolenti” (piece by piece, those dogs dismembered him / and carried off his miserable limbs [Inf. 13.128-9]).
 All through Inferno 13 runs the lexicon of body and soul: “anime di serpi” (39), “parole e sangue” (44), “l’anima” (88), “tai membra” (90), “anima feroce” (94), “corpo” (95), “i nostri corpi” (107), “ombra sua” (108), “quelle membra dolenti” (129), “rotture sanguinenti” (132), “sangue” (138). The word “ombra”, used in Inferno 13.108 as a synonym for soul (“anima”), will be used in Purgatorio 25 to designate the virtual body-soul unities that we become after we die and before we become “substantial” unities again at the Last Judgment.
 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]). The gallows erected in his own home by Giacomo di Sant’Andrea takes us mentally back to the ghoulish image of the suicides’ bodies hanging from their tree-“homes” after the Last Judgment (verses 106-8).
 The last verse begins with the first-person pronoun “Io”, which is followed by the first-person pronoun “me” and then is echoed by the first-person adjective “mia” (“Io fei gibetto a me de le mie case” ). The language thus emphasizes the issue of selfhood that is the true subject of Inferno 13. And it reminds us of the verse that sums up the problematic of suicide as an attempted, but impossible-to-achieve, dualism: “ingiusto fece me contra me giusto” (Inf. 13.72).