Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Inferno XIII: The forest of the things that aren't

Of all the cantos, this may be the saddest. Nowhere else does the worldview of the poet – which reflected the most enlightened thinking of his time, at least among Christians – seem more warped and distant. Hanging over it are all the innumerable personal stories lost to history of people whose mental illness was viewed by society as a sin.

George Grosz, Trees at Wellfleet, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (1946)

Having crossed the river of boiling blood that delimits the first level of the fifth circle, Dante and Virgil have come to the edge of a wood che da neun sentiero era segnato – that paths, it had none. This is the beginning of a description through negatives. You know the forests that surround Cecina and Tarquinia – asks the poet – where only the wild boars roam? Well, this one was nothing like that. And then:

Non fronda verde, ma di color fosco;
non rami schietti, ma nodosi e ’nvolti;
non pomi v’eran, ma stecchi con tòsco.

Per Longfellow: not foliage green, but of a dusky colour; not branches smooth, but gnarled and intertangled; not apple-trees were there, but thorns with poison.

This is the forest of the things that aren’t. And so even its sole apparent living inhabitants – the harpies that nest among the trees – are not described and perhaps not even seen by Dante, but recalled from the relevant passage in Virgil’s Aeneid, safe for remarking that fanno lamenti in su li alberi strani: literally ‘they make laments up in the trees strange’, where strange could refer either to the trees or the laments.

However, what Dante hears as the pair ventures into the pathless wood are definitely human voices.

Io sentia d’ogne parte trarre guai
e non vedea persona che ’l facesse;

‘I heard on all sides lamentations uttered and person none beheld I who might make them.’ The absence now is the absence of human forms, from which the reader would quickly deduce that we’re in the presence of a very ancient trope, that of people turned into trees. But Dante – the great scholar of classical literature who thinks or pretends to think that his journey is not occurring in a book – appears blind to this most obvious of foreshadowings. Or does he? The next line is delicious.

Cred’ïo ch’ei credette ch’io credesse…
I thought he thought I thought…

So, to try to explain: Dante was standing in the forest, listening to voices of uncertain provenance, and (at the time of writing) he recalls thinking that Virgil might have been thinking that he (Dante) might have been thinking that people might be hiding among the trees. The implication of the line is that he didn’t in fact think that, but had figured that the voices were coming directly from the trees. So, when Virgil instructs him to break a twig off one of the trees, believing that he would not be believed if he just told him the truth, Dante plays along, but knowing that he would likely be causing pain to what is left of a person.

Therefore, he puts his hand forward, and gently plucks the thinnest of branches. To which a voice replies: Perché mi schiante (why do you break me?) and quickly again Perché mi scerpi (why do you tear me?). Maybe these tree-people are highly sensitive to pain. Or maybe this tree-person – one Piero della Vigna – is reacting so violently because he knows that the injury, however slight, was quite needless; that it was all a narrative pretext to get the action going.

For the trees cannot speak unless they are being attacked in that way. It is the Harpies which, by feeding on the leaves, fanno dolore, e al dolor fenestra – ‘create pain, and a window to pain’.

It is a recurring question in the Inferno, whether for the spirits to talk to Dante is a form of torment or temporary reprieve. What he has to offer to them, in most cases – as he does to Piero – is the promise to speak of them to the living. And in fact, little would be known of this disgraced counsellor to emperor Frederick II, were it not for the Commedia. But remember the words of Francesca in the fifth canto: Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice ne la miseria. There is no greater pain that to think back on one’s happiness in a time of misery. And time, for the damned, stretches like a Mobius Strip: circular, eternal, always folding upon itself, always taking them back to the time of their personal Fall. To speak therefore is to feel pain and in this forest it is only through pain that the spirits can speak.

The second level of the fifth circle is reserved to suicides (and gamblers, which I won’t get into except to say their fate is to be hunted by dogs through the thick woods). It is lower than the first level, because for medieval theological ethics to cause harm upon oneself was worse than to cause harm to others. To take someone’s life is a crime against that person, and to the laws of God. But to take one’s own is a crime against nature, therefore directly against its creator. And God, who is omnipotent and cannot be harmed, nevertheless takes all offences against His divine person very seriously. Therefore, the mere murderers are upstairs, whereas those that squandered their own life or their own fortune are down here, and subject to an even more exquisite torment than being turned forever into ragout.

Remember: to suffer from what we would call depression, the Romantics called melancholy and medieval Christians called sloth, was also a deadly sin, and for similar reasons: to negate the beauty of life and creation was regarded as an affront to God. We already found the souls of the slothful who stopped short of suicide along with the souls of the violent who stopped short of murder, submerged in the murky waters of the Styx. Murderers and suicides similarly go together.

We can, I hope, reject outright these archaic notions. But as well as reaffirming this ethical system as it applies to the dead, the canto hints at its likely social consequences for the living. For while Piero’s speech is dignified and moves Dante to pity, the poet’s imagery – for which there is no known theological source – is merciless. In the end of ends, Piero explains, when all the spirits of Hell are reunited to their bodies after the Judgment, the suicides will be condemned instead to hang theirs from these branches: as a lifeless simulacrum and eternal reminder of the life that they rejected.

It’s hard to read these lines today without thinking of Billie Holiday and Strange Fruit, but those are historical contexts that resist comparison. What reading a medieval poem can also be good for, however, is to remind us that the stigma of mental illness has roots that reach very deep into our culture.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII.