In this Canto we have one of the most frightening and mysterious scenes so far in the Inferno. Up to this point, the path forward has been obvious, if at times blocked. Up to here the punishments and pain were immediately discernible. Now, however, the moral landscape is muted, the path disappears, and while the air is filled with cries there seems to be no one present save for more half human / half monsters in the harpies. Dante the Pilgrim stops, confused, uncertain, and Virgil seems to know all, but holds his knowledge in reserve. Like Socrates, he wants Dante the Pilgrim to make discoveries on his own, which he does, and is speechless with shock. The discovery is classic horror story stuff in its pacing and timing. This is almost like a storyboard for a Stephen King movie directed by John Carpenter. The broken branch, the hissing, bleeding result, the shocked disbelief, the harpies all around them, the graphic, brilliant descriptions by Dante the Poet.
40 As from a green log, burning at one end,
41 that blisters and hisses at the other
42 with the rush of sap and air,
43 so from the broken splinter oozed
44 blood and words together, and I let drop
45 that twig and stood like one afraid.
And yet, I remind myself once again, that unlike today where graphic violence is gratuitous, an end in itself in such movies as “Saw”, Dante creates a moral landscape in all he does. While he is one of the greatest poets and storytellers ever to live, he does so with intention, using images from the past [especially Ovid and Virgil], but giving them new meaning and life within his Medieval Christian worldview. The writing itself creates this moral landscape, for we begin with a series of negative statements which one can see in both Italian and the Hollander English translation:
1 Nessus had not yet reached the other side
1 Non era ancor di là Nesso arrivato,
2 when we made our way into a forest
2 quando noi ci mettemmo per un bosco
3 not marked by any path.
3 che da neun sentiero era segnato.
4 No green leaves, but those of dusky hue --
4 Non fronda verde, ma di color fosco;
5 not a straight branch, but knotted and contorted --
5 non rami schietti, ma nodosi e 'nvolti;
6 no fruit of any kind, but poisonous thorns.
6 non pomi v'eran, ma stecchi con tòsco.
7 No rougher, denser thickets make a refuge
7 Non han sì aspri sterpi né sì folti
Indeed we have the “non / no” alliteration all through this Canto in both English and Italian, creating a thrumming background and soundscape that hems us in, almost in a claustrophobic way. Professor Hollander writes in his notes: “And once we have that n-sound in our heads, we find that it is repeated in every one of the opening verses of the canto, with temporary relief only in [Inf XIII 24-25]. There are, in fact, a total of 73 'n's in the first 23 verses.” This is the circle of suicides, who have hemmed themselves in by their rejection of the gift of life, their resounding NO to God’s gift of life has resulted in this punishment of NO movement, NO freedom, NO ability to speak unless wounded, NO personal body to inhabit even at the end times. The physical body they rejected by doing terminal violence to themselves will merely be hung, useless, upon the shrubs and trees they have become.
The individual to whom Dante the Pilgrim speaks is Pier della Vigna who was a trusted advisor to Frederick II, as you will find in the notes to your particular edition and translation. His language remains courtly, if stunted and sputtering as he wheezes through the broken branch, as if he had a severe case of emphysema. Yet we find in fact, that he did nothing wrong in his job. Unlike those in the last Canto who did violence to neighbors by killing them and ended up in a river of boiling blood, della Vigna had integrity in his job. However he was falsely accused of treason, punished unjustly, and in despair, he did violence to himself by committing suicide.
Hence we have Dante the Pilgrim filled with pity for this wounded soul, and yet, and yet, this level is further down, more condemned, than those who murdered others. Why? Soren Kierkegaard called despair the “Sickness Unto Death” and suggests that the only true cure for despair is a relationship with the divine Other, with God. Indeed, despair truly acknowledged is, for Kierkegaard, one of the discerning events that can bring us into the presence of the Holy Other. It need not move us into solipsistic suicide. This is built on St. Augustine’s statement at the beginning of The Confessions: “Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.” Hence, building on St. Augustine and prefiguring Kierkegaard, Dante declares that despair that leads one to murder oneself is a sin which is even worse than murdering another. Yet we will find further on, particularly in Cato, the gatekeeper in the Purgatorio, that Dante has a far more nuance view of suicide than just this Canto leads us to believe. That is why one must not read JUST the Inferno and assume that one has read all of Dante. This is just the beginning…