Among the many haunting and piteous images from the Inferno of Dante is this one. The travelers, in Canto XIII, enter a pathless wood. Dante, on Virgil’s coaching, snaps a twig from a thorn tree. The tree yelps in pain, and no wonder. The tree is the transmuted personage of a formerly great Florentine, Pier delle Vigne, who had been counselor to the emperor Frederick II. How, then, did he become a tree? The envy of others brought him down. “Glad honours turned to obloquies” (as the Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation would have it).
So, in a scornful spirit of disgust,
And thinking to escape from scorn by death.
To my just self I made myself unjust.
Killed himself, in other words, by means unspecified here.
Miss Sayers expatiates in a footnote: “Accused of conspiring against his master, he was disgraced, imprisoned, and blinded, and in despair took his own life.” Becoming, in consequence, a thorn tree, with leaves that Harpies loved to gnaw.
Again, Miss Sayers:
The sin of Suicide is, in an especial manner, an insult to the body; so, here, the shades are deprived of even the semblance of the human form. As they refused life, they remain fixed in a dead and withered sterility. They are the image of the self-hatred which dries up the very sap of energy and makes all life infertile.
Would you say there is a problem here? Most moderns likely would. The theological strictures against suicide are easy enough, perhaps, to defend in the abstract. Then the Wood of the Suicides heaves into view, and there is the thorn tree known in the day of sunshine and honor as Pier delle Vigne. Disgraced, abandoned, blinded: Well, naturally he killed himself! Why not? The temptation to say so is immense and, may I add, understandable in everyday, ordinary human terms. That the pitiful Pier, by ending his worldly sufferings, brought himself pains far worse is, shall we say, a hard sell in the Age of Empathy.
The tug of war between suffering and escape persists throughout literature and history. Here is Kipling, just a century ago, counseling “the young British soldier”:
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains. And the women come ’round to cut up what remains. Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains And go to your Gawd like a soldier.
With never a thought for thorn trees, the poet might have added.
The rise of the “assisted” suicide movement, pushing itself up like a weed patch through the manicured grass of the old moral-religious order, lays these matters urgently before us. Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s “patients” claim the right to end their sufferings. Oregon has lately ratified that desire. It cannot end here. Why accord the terminally ill rights superior to those enjoyed by the merely despondent or world-weary? Under the Oregon dispensation, poor Pier delle Vigne could not have obtained permission to take himself off.
Even worse is indicated—the general embrace of euthanasia, as forecast in the 70’s and 80’s by such as Malcolm Muggeridge and Walker Percy. No, no, no! object the proponents of suicide. Never that! Personal autonomy is all they seek: the right, not the duty, to die. We have a saying in the South: that ol’ dog won’t hunt. This dog won’t either.
To see why, we need to revisit medieval Florence for a brief inspection of its foundations. Those foundations, on which Dante walked, and yes, Pier delle Vigne and Frederick II, were religious—specifically, Christian. The earth was the Lord’s and the fullness thereof (as the psalmist said). Into that fullness human bodies and souls were incorporated.
Pier delle Vigne’s body, though he might inhabit it, was not his own; it belonged, rather, to God. The malign and cruel things that others did to Pier were thus the business of God, who was certain, in response, to do two things: bless Pier with the release of death —if not necessarily on Pier’s timetable—and bring retribution on his persecutors. Pier’s suicide, for whatever poignant reasons, disturbed the divine symmetry of mercy and justice. Off he went to the dark wood, to bleed and cry out.
Very well; it was at best a long time ago, and as we all know, the Divine Comedy is a great work of the imagination. Even before the deconstructionist age, we knew Dante didn’t actually enter some “rough and stubborn forest alongside a dead Roman poet. What has all this to do with the price of eggs in Arkansas? Only everything, I would venture.
The Pier delle Vigne story takes us, shakes us, wakes us. In it we see—ourselves. Any of us, in the same position, might have done as did the old Florentine. But this is the merest starting place. The delle Vigne story points up, it seems to me, at least two essential considerations. First, life is a religious proposition. Which, of course, it has to be if God initiated it. Not that moderns are automatically persuaded of this view, which seems not to square, as the irrepressible Episcopal Bishop John Spong recently put it, with post-Darwinian reality. The interesting thing is, there are no full-blown alternative explanations—certainly none that invest human life with objective value. The Darwinian view in fact exalts destruction and displacement. Move over! Get out of the way!
The value of human life, in God’s eyes, is one of Dante’s subtexts. If life lacked objective value, Dante would hardly make so big a deal of divine justice—the meting out of reward or punishment in line with how particular lives are used. The assumption of divine sovereignty, as differently as different times and places spin that assumption, provides a comprehensive understanding.
Second, the religious view is absolutely, totally, 100 percent indispensable in understanding who man is and—in the context of our present discussion—what he must do. I make this claim with no deference whatever to, shall we say, secular viewpoints. These viewpoints are as useless as a map of Bombay if you’re lost in Florence, trying to find the Duomo.
If the religious view enjoys nowhere near the dominance characteristic of Dante’s time, that makes it urgent to recover such a view. Look where we are otherwise: lost in a dark wood; unsure where the road is leading. The suicide question is ideal for framing this discussion.
The question, save perhaps in deconstructionist circles, is not: Did this poor old man. Pier delle Vigne, deserve to become a thorn tree, just because he was tired and in pain? The question is: Where does authority over life properly reside, with the Potter or His vessel?
To come down on the side of Pier is to decouple theology and justice. Justice becomes what we make of it, in our human searchings and musings, our cross-questionings and re-examinations. The opportunities this affords! Against the backdrop of the “assisted suicide” drama, these opportunities appear in plain relief The principal actor on the stage is the sufferer, whose suffering no one in the audience doubts for a minute. Lonely, wracked by pain, he cries out for release. Eyes moisten. Who could refuse him? As for rumors of eternal punishment . . . forget such ahistorical and speculative rubbish!
What Dorothy Sayers calls “the intimate and unbreakable bond between spirit and flesh” is of scant interest to a secularized society like our own. Bond, what bond? Ending pain is what counts. And beyond the body’s escape—its flight from pain? Here the matter truly breaks down. There exists no “beyond” that anyone is obliged to note. We do not run our open, democratic, pluralistic society on religious principle, you know.
Indeed, we do not: not since the 60’s anyway. We run society on another principle entirely—the principle that no one principle is better than another one. We call it pluralism: everybody-for-himselfism. If Joe Dokes, counselor to the President, has been pulled down by envy and jailed by the independent prosecutor and thoroughly ruined and wants in consequence to end it all . . . well, who can object? Surely it is for Joe to decide whether he would live or die.
And “the intimate and unbreakable bond between spirit and flesh”? Dear, dear, certainly can’t judge that one! Some say yes, some say no. Officially the United States of America is . . . in agreement with both sides. Vast are the consequences of this agreement—topped by the deterioration of the old sense that human life is special; so special that the discarding of it, in pain and despair, outrages some immemorial covenant between donor and recipient.
The so-called slippery’ slope argument is oversimplified: that is, by allowing “A,” we find demand rising for “B,” which takes us to “G,” smack dab on the superhighway to “D.”
“A” most certainly can lead to “B”: abortion to assisted suicide, assisted suicide to euthanasia as sensibilities go to sleep and mental resistance crumbles. This skirts, even so, a still larger point—that the erosion of belief in the divine sanction for life makes it all possible, and likely much more. Suicide is far from the whole of the matter. Indifference to life takes varied forms, including that of a teenager, armed with hunting rifle and pistol, calmly picking off his schoolmates.
“Pluralism,” the modern deity, has made it impolite to tout a religious sanction for life. Yet what other sanctions exist? Well, laws, to be sure; but laws can be changed, as were the abortion laws by Supreme Court fiat. Laws depend on the convictions of those who choose the lawmakers. At present, those convictions are considerably shaped by the slap-happy secular model—you do your thing, I’ll do mine; and, oh, yes, I do feel, in my inner self, your pain. By whatever route we fetched up at die bottom of this slope, no safe footing is to be found there. The old premise—life is good-washes much more poorly than it once did. “Consumer choice” increasingly becomes the determinant.
The question is much larger than suicide. Suicide is a corner of the picture: one response to tire perception that the body belongs to its tenant and nobody better tell him how to use it, see?
Kevorkian today, Auschwitz tomorrow? That is one way of looking at it, and not the worst way by any means, (In The Thanatos Syndrome, Walker Percy does look at it so.) Just from the daily news we find that suicide has become in many instances an escape route not from pain but from responsibility.
I write these lines in the week a Florida man suspected of murdering his four-year-old son overpowered two policemen taking him to jail, shot them both to death, murdered a state trooper—and committed suicide. His indifference to human life was total: other’s lives, his own life. As deftly as he might have chosen a Ford Taurus over a Geo, Fritos over Lays potato chips, our alienated consumer elected death over life. Next day, a 15-year-old boy, suspended from school for carrying a gun, barged into the high school cafeteria, firing his rifle as he went. “It didn’t look like he was bothered by anything,” a student said. “Like the shooting was just something he was doing.”
In the 90’s a religious stance is forbidden society? We cannot officially bury our pain and passions in piety toward the Creator of life? If not, we are in vast trouble. We need—promptly, decisively—to change. The religious view of life—its origins, its destinations—urgently needs resuscitation. Suicide as an imputed 20th-century “right”—on a par with trial by jury—would be a laughable concept, save that nothing about it is funny.
Poor Pier delle Vigne! Poor old thorn tree! Was he so terribly disadvantaged at that? Amid undeserved suffering he had one resource no enemy arrow could penetrate, no branding iron could scorch—the love and mercy of God. This he discarded. In the religious view—the Christian view that supposedly informed Pier and his contemporaries—earthly misery is no barrier to joy. If anything, according to that worldview, misery functions as a ladder, boosting the sufferer higher, higher, and so at last over the heavenly fence. Always provided he remains faithful—as Pier did not.
High on the list of diseases afflicting candidates for assisted suicide is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—Lou Gehrig’s disease; a truly awful way to die, marked by progressive paralysis of basic physical functions, including, at the last, breathing. Life with ALS can hardly be described as life at all.
Except that, in a case with which I am familiar—the case of a young traditionalist Episcopal priest with a ministry to Washington, D.C.’s, inner-city children—ALS proved a vehicle for heroism and inspiration. The priest and his family offered his suffering to God for whatever use the Creator of the Universe might make of it. He must have found it useful indeed. Happiness flooded the afflicted family: joy at serving the Lord and at awaiting His pleasure. That pleasure, the Lord had made known in the hearts of the afflicted, embraced ever so much more than the hospital bed on which his suffering servant lay. When the end finally came, it was not—how shall I put this?—the end. It was the beginning.
Such things are easy enough to say, I suppose, from the outside looking in. One should not draw unduly large deductions from someone else’s sufferings. But, then, suffering is part of life. Unable to abolish it, we may indeed settle contentedly for escape. But there is another alternative: dealing with suffering, directly and forcefully; turning evil—it comes down to this — into good.
Can a secular world be made to see such things? Well, the world, before it was secular, saw such things with relative clarity. Whether it understood them perfectly or not, it drank them in with humility. Hearts might ooze blood in behalf of Pier delle Vignc; but as for the fitness of his punishment—that was just how things were. And had to be.
Neither “pluralism” nor the semi-paganism so fashionable today is an excuse for the refusal to assert the theological value of life. A defense of life on secular premises can be mounted—yes, of course. But these premises, as we see, are slender and weak. They collapse when stepped on hard, as with abortion and maybe also, quite soon, with euthanasia. Human will, human selfishness, human pride do the stepping. We’re modern! What we want, we get! Or else.
And his thorny branches in the dark, dark wood, what must poor old Mr. delle Vigne be thinking?
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