I know religion often makes no sense to people who aren't religious. Especially old school religion. And we all know that the Catholic church has been associated with its fair share of The Crazy (although I won't say it's cornered the market; Scientology is a stiff competitor). And of course the Inferno was written a bazillion years ago, so I was expecting a lot of bizarre and offensive stuff, like the special place in hell for The Gays. I was braced, let's say. But one story, in particular, keeps coming back to haunt me.
We're in Circle Seven, Round Two: The Violent Against Themselves. This includes the Suicides and the Squanderers and Destroyers of Goods (yeah, Dante has some strange classifications). So we're pretty deep into Hell -- these are big-league sinners.
Ciardi gives these handy little blurbs at the beginning of each canto, outlining what is going to happen (lots of spoilers, but it helps keep me from missing anything). Here's what he has to say about the Suicides:
The souls of the Suicides are encased in thorny trees whose leaves are being eaten by the odious Harpies, the overseers of these damned. When the Harpies feed upon them, damaging their leaves and limbs, the wound bleeds. Only as long as the blood flows are the souls of the trees able to speak. Thus, they who destroyed their own bodies are denied a human form; and just as the supreme expression of their lives was self-destruction, so they are permitted to speak only through that which tears and destroys them. Only through their own blood do they find voice. And to add one more dimension to the symbolism, it is the Harpies -- defilers of all they touch -- who give them their eternally recurring wounds. (Intro to Canto XIII, p. 67)Pretty brutal punishment, right? Let's meet one of these suicides, Pier delle Vigne. Here's what Ciardi tells us about him (the Wikipedia has a bit, too): "A famous and once-powerful minister of Emporer Frederick II. He enjoyed Frederick's whole confidence until 1247 when he was accused of treachery and was imprisoned and blinded. He committed suicide to escape further torture" (note to XIII.58, p. 69).
Now. Here's what Pier delle Vigne has to say for himself:
"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 plage 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." (XIII. 58-78)
THIS POOR MAN IS IN THE SEVENTH CIRCLE OF HELL. Do you know where Dido is? Yeah, Dido, the SUICIDE. Oh, she's in the second circle, with the Carnal, buffeted eternally by winds. That's it. Because Dante has a soft spot for romantics, and, you know, she died for love.
Look. I like Dido. She made some very, very poor decisions, but Aeneas treated her like shit, and she totally didn't deserve that. I cried when I got to the part in the Aeneid where she kills herself. I cried actual physical tears. It's incredibly sad.
But why the hell is she in the second circle when poor Pier What's-His-Face is down here in the seventh? He was loyal! He died because he was being tortured! All he wants is to clear his name!
That is some bullshit, right there.
Speaking of Dante and religion and all of this being bitterly unjust, here's a little conversation I imagine between Virgil and God:
Virgil: Hey, God, what am I doing here in Hell? I was a pretty good person, right? Not too carnal, not too gluttonous, never betrayed anyone... and I'm only in the first circle after all, which isn't so bad. But seriously, I was virtuous, so why am I here at all?
God: Oh, yeah. You were born too early. No Jesus, no Heaven. Sorry.