By Jeff Vamos
Here’s a question: In what sense does your life belong to you? And if so, in what sense are we free to give it? Or take it? Seems to me Big D is tempting us to meditate on that question.
I’m a Dante amateur – but it strikes me that this Canto is as rich, variegated and theologically (and poetically) complex as Canto 33 – which is for my money perhaps the most beautiful bits of literature (and theology) I’ve ever read or experienced.
As in Canto 33, we are witnessing the very subtle and ironic perversion (inversion?) of that impulse or opportunity that can land one in heaven. In Canto 33, it is the perversion of the Eucharist (in the lowest pit of hell, it has become cannibalism). Here it is, I think (perhaps you thought I thought…ahem)… the inversion of the cross. The squandering of the gift of one’s own life, whose highest expression is found through giving it. But here its ultimate perversion and squandering is in taking it. And we see (as in Canto 33) how close those two possibilities can be. As Augustine said, sin is the perversion of the desire to love. And perhaps that is a theological insight that’s key to understanding D’s Comedia.
We begin the canto with images of faux verdancy: a forest of deadness and pain that is now the embodiment of those who forsook their bodies. We have the image of anti-life, of its botanical inversion and negation. Instead of fruit, the foliage bears thorns. Instead of offering life and sweet sustenance, these anti-plants instead offer pain – a “fruit” that both inflicts pain and suffers it at the same time (such is the irony of suicide: the victim and perpetrator of violence is the same).
I would love others to comment here, but that dominant symbol seen here (thorns) carries with it so many biblical resonances, for me at least. The sacrificial victim of the Lamb that Abraham finds caught in a thornbush as a substitution for Isaac in Genesis 22 comes to mind (a foreshadowing of Christ for those who read the OT that way). But the first and most obvious one has to do with the Passion story. In that central moment in the drama of incarnation, the divine man chooses to suffer; to give his life “as a ransom for many”. Here, a man in a similar situation – Pier della Vigna (PdV) – has a parallel opportunity to do so.
As Peter held the keys to the kingdom, Pier (is the name a coincidence?) holds the keys to Frederick’s heart (as the Pope is to God, according to Ciardi’s note on this). Seems Dante is intentionally posing PdV as a kind of inverse image of Peter, the vicar of Christ. Like Christ, he is accused unjustly (out of “Envy”) of a crime he did not commit; like Christ, PdV has a reputation for moral blamelessness, which he’s obviously claiming for himself. He, like the Lamb caught in the thornbush, is a victim.
And here is the brilliant irony, and the glorious delusion Dante puts on display: “To this, my glorious office, I stayed so true / I lost both sleep and life.”
PdV was a loyal advisor to Frederick the II, who through political machinations going on around him fell out of favor, and was imprisoned and tortured. When given the opportunity to endure suffering (symbolized in the Biblical narrative as a crown of thorns), PdV instead escapes it, by hitting the eject button.
Here really IS a tragic statement (and just because Ciardi fits here, I use his): “unjustly blamed, / my soul, in scorn, and thinking to be free / of scorn in death, made me at last, though just, / unjust to myself.” Like Dante, I feel pity for him. Instead of suffering torture and ill repute, he tries to juke his fate. And who can blame him? Dante doesn’t pick some thin, cardboard character to illustrate this particular sin. This is one whose sin we could easily justify. He is a just man, unjustly tortured.
To me this irony (the very subtle inversion of the cross) seems no more clear than in line 100ff, when PdV is describing the contrapasso for all those like him who forsook their bodies. In contrast to the one whose body hung on a tree to secure the redemption of all, this is the destiny of the bodies of those imprisoned here (following RP): “Here shall we drag them and in this mournful wood / Our bodies will be hung: with every one / fixed on the thornbush of its wounding shade.”
I guess it was Jung who said that neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering. Perhaps we see that at its most extreme here: the neurosis for PdV is to misconstrue the purpose of his life. His reputation (and virtue?) had become more important than his life. Irony indeed. And his moral failure was the inability to endure the pain of it, which as we know in the next Canticle (Purgatory) is the very stuff that transforms one into the likeness of God, and enables humans to feel and to know heaven. His is the squandered opportunity to show that love shown to us: willing to suffer and die. Here, life is taken, squandered.
I respect Dante for the way in which this theme is explored with such subtlety and skill. Even the poetry (and I’m only reflecting others’ expertise here) is part of the irony: the very carefully wrought verse is meant to telegraph the appearance of PdV, by using a type of verse that he himself was fond of; the literary skill that was a mark of PdV’s (all so important) reputation. And as I understand it, the gnarliness of the poetry reflects its landscape.
There are so so many other things going on here, seems to me. This just scratches the surface. For example: the theme that Dante seems to be developing around the desire of those shades in hell both to be pitied (and here, he makes a convincing case), and to have one’s reputation “cleared” in the life above. The irony around how Virgil coaxes Dante to get PdV’s shade to speak (it means having to cause pain). And, what’s going on with those Harpies? Perverse birds in the anti-nest?
All I can say about this is…wow. Wish I could get out of my day job today to get further beneath the surface of this….