Canto 13: My Life in Thorns

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….

About jeffvamos

Presbyterian Pastor. Dante Fan. See also my other blog, The Electronic Meetinghouse, at: View all posts by jeffvamos

3 responses to “Canto 13: My Life in Thorns

  • Bob Sinner

    Very difficult and important questions, Jeff. Much to think about.
    Here are a few thoughts.

    1. Suicide as an Act of Will:
    Suicide is a touchy subject in many cultures. The Killing one’s self is considered honorable in some places. In many others, it is considered repulsive, and even, evil. We have in this canto, once again, a major example of the importance of individual choice. In one case, literally choosing between life and death (suicide). In another case (the willful spendthrifts – the naked men harried by hounds), we have men who destroy themselves by destroying their means of livelihood.

    Dante’s Hell is, of course, a Christian one. Whereas in the classical, pre-Christian [esp. Stoic] world, suicide could be an honorable, acceptable choice, especially when one loses one freedom, integrity or meaning in life, in a Christian context all forms of suicide are immoral. With Christianity, placing so much significance upon the immortal soul, suicide becomes a Cardinal Sin – a sin against God’s own creation. Even in the case of such a moral man as P d V, one single moment of weakness, one single immoral act irrevocably undercuts all of the man’s achievements. His act condemns him to separation from God and, therefore, eternal pain.

    2. Suicide, Dante and Hamlet
    What immediately came to my mind in this deep, dark forest of tormented “tree-men” was the case of Hamlet (both the play and the protagonist).

    Prince of Denmark considered suicide many times in the course of the play. In his soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2, he expressed just how much he wanted to die, as well as what held him back: “O that this too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ‘against self-slaughter” (1.2. 128-132). Hamlet wished to die, but he could not kill himself because Biblical law restrains him; it is quite simply unacceptable to do so. Later in the play, in another particularly well-known scene, Hamlet struggles with the matter in his “To be or not to be” soliloquy:
    “To be, or not to be: that is the question:
    Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
    And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
    No more; and by a sleep to say we end
    The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
    That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
    To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
    For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
    When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
    Must give us pause: there’s the respect
    That makes calamity of so long life;…” (3.1.58-71).

    In this soliloquy, Hamlet rationalized his hesitancy to kill himself.
    “To die, to sleep, To sleep perchance the dream ay, there’s the rub.
    For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
    when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
    must give us pause” (3.1. 65-68).
    In effect, he realizes he must think twice before killing himself, because death is not only against God’s law, but is a “gateway to the unknown. “

    Finally, throughout the play, Hamlet exemplifies the need of being true to himself (“To thine ownself be true” -1,3,78). Hamlet continues to contemplate suicide to his last breath, but, in the end, he never commits the crime. While he repeatedly considers killing himself, he knows that, if he does, he will perish in Hell. He knows suicide is a cardinal sin, a sin against both himself and God. That keeps him from actually committing the crime. On the other hand, many other characters in the play DO commit suicide.

    Of all the main characters, Hamlet is the only one who does “remain true” to himself. His antithesis in this can be seen in Ophelia. The reason that Ophelia commits the sin of suicide, while Hamlet does not, is because he weighs the potential results, the probable outcomes, while Ophelia does not.

    3. The Harpies:
    In classical Greek mythology and in Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Harpies, were flying monsters that tormented people and snatched food and other objects. The original Greek term (Harpuiai) translates as “the snatchers or “the swift robbers.” They generally were released when the gods needed to torment or punish someone.

    In their earliest appearances, especially in Homer, the Harpies were storm winds. For example Aello was a squall or hurricane and Celaeno was a dark storm cloud.

    Harpies were depicted with women’s faces and the bodies of vultures. Their wings, talons, and beaks were strong; their talons were depicted as of bronze, their beaks were able to break rocks and their wings were made of steel.

    In later stories the Harpy faces were ugly and disgusting, but earlier myths gave them beautiful faces. Now, here is a thought, Jeff. Using your “inverted world” analogy. Could the Harpies [who in many lesser known classical myths are merely “fetchers/carriers of the dead”] possibly “inverted angels? What do you think?


  • jeffvamos


    I love the historical/literary background that you are providing here. It really enriches our exploration.

    And re: the Harpies. I do indeed think you are right on with that: in hell, things are backwards, inverse, the negative image of what should be. In the next few cantos following, for example, we shall meet a monster named Geryon: “the monster of fraud has a kind man’s face.” What should be beautiful is ugly; what is ugly is beautiful. Down is up.

  • Bob Sinner

    I just reread this and realized that I did not answer your question.

    As I said above – a (very) difficult question. But one that must be answered.

    Bottom line, as much as I often [generally?] think and act as if my life belongs to me, it doesn’t really. Never has.

    I did not ‘will myself into existence’. I did not create the experiences that shaped my life. Ultimately these are all God’s doing, at one level or another. I belong to God, not to my family, my friends or, especially, not to me.

    Hell is generally defined as the absence of God. I have no right to kill my self – to do so would be to turn my back on God and His Grace. Bob

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