The Dark World of the Suicidal

Blake, Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve been telling you about my Dante discussion group and can report progress on a passage that has long puzzled me. The Wood of the Suicides has one figure who seems so noble and wronged that he doesn’t appear to belong. I now understand why Dante puts him there.

Pier della Vigna was a good and faithful servant to Emperor Frederick II until envious rivals got him arrested for treason and had him tortured. Ultimately he committed suicide, an innocent man driven to desperate measures. Now, as one of the trees in the Wood of Suicides, he pours forth his sorrows once Dante tears off one of his leaves. That’s what it takes for a suicide, lost in the tangled root system of his mind, to open up to someone else:

I am he who held both keys to Frederick's heart,
locking, unlocking with so deft a touch
that scarce another soul had any part

in his most secret thoughts. Through every strife
I was so faithful to my glorious office
that for it I gave up both sleep and life.

That harlot, Envy, who on Caesar's face
keeps fixed forever her adulterous stare,
the common plague and vice of court and palace,

inflamed all minds against me. These inflamed
so inflamed him that all my happy honors
were changed to mourning. Then, unjustly blamed,

my soul, in scorn, and thinking to be free
of scorn in death, made me at last, though just,
unjust to myself. By the new roots of this tree

I swear to you that never in word or spirit
did I break faith to my lord and emperor
who was so worthy of honor in his merit.

If either of you return to the world, speak for me,
to vindicate in the memory of men
one who lies prostrate from the blows of Envy."

Dante is so overcome with pity that he cannot continue conversing, noting, “such compassion chokes my heart.” I find myself choked up as well and questioning divine justice.

Group member John Reishman, however, reminded us that, in Dante’s system of symbolic retribution, the punishments are self-inflicted. If della Vigna finds himself in the suicides’ dark wood, it’s because he has elevated Frederick II and worldly accomplishments above all other things. In other words, he has forgotten about God.

It’s not that God is punishing him for this. Rather, because della Vigna is focusing on mundane matters instead of on God, he denies himself heavenly solace. When conversing with Dante, he mentions his worldly reputation, not the state of his soul.

John pointed out that Dante is affected in a similar way by lost-in-love Francesca. (I wrote about this last week.) While there is beauty in both Francesca’s and della Vigna’s passions, total immersion leads to loss of spiritual grounding. Della Vigna will feed on his wrongs for the rest of eternity, a self-absorption symbolically captured by Inferno’s harpies, who feast on the suicides’ leaves.

To articulate the heavenly resource that della Vigna ignores, here’s a Denise Levertov poem. Although “days pass when I forget the mystery,” she says, once one remembers, life no longer seems a void.

Primary Wonder

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes, cap and bells.

                And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng's clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still
hour by hour sustain it.

In our group discussion, I wondered whether Dante identifies with della Vigna because he too feels politically betrayed. He is lost in a dark wood in part because Florence has banished him under pain of death. Writing the Divine Comedy is a way to reconnect with the divine mystery.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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