6 Not apple-trees were there, but thorns with poison. 7 Such tangled thickets have not, nor so dense, 8 Those savage wild beasts, that in hatred hold 9 'Twixt Cecina and Corneto the tilled places. (Longfellow, canto xiii)
In Dante’s Inferno, the poet gives his greatest attention to suicides who are violent due to self-hatred. These souls transmogrify into a thicket that snares them. Gnarled trees absorb the despaired who become their own captors in Hell as they also were when alive. This is the Seventh Circle of Hell.
The voices of howling damned are not distinguishable as language until Virgil invites Dante to punish them as they punish themselves. Perhaps they only communicate through the vehicle of their suffering. Dante snaps a twig, and as Esolen translates “both blood and speech” ( l. 44) pour forth in a torrent of self-absorption:
26 So many voices issued through those trunks 27 From people who concealed themselves from us 28 Therefore the Master said: "If thou break off 29 Some little spray from any of these trees, (Longfellow, canto xiii)
Virgil empathized with the self-destructive of this ring, and Pilgrim Dante joins him in that empathy. Circle Seven is not the only placement in Hell for suicides. Some took their lives for love, like Dido, and suffer less severe punishments. Dante creates classifications that bear different degrees of perpetual punishment. Those who died to punish others fare worse than those who died for love or who are unable to suffer any longer. Dante, his characters, and analysts who comment on literature or the human psyche all tend to ameliorate the judgment against the suicidal. Harsher opinions over the past three centuries are vanishing.
Joyce was no dog lover; he may have thought it appropriate that Dante had mastiffs harry the despaired into the Suicides’ Grove. He gave us Cyclops MacDowell’s nasty hound Garryowen and the corpse rooting mongrel on Sandymount Strand. The dispairing find no comfort in human contact but may require canine affection. This was the case with Rudolf Virag. His final remark to Leopold is that he tend to his dog: “Poor old Athos! Be good to Athos, Leopold, is my last wish….He took it to heart, pined away. Quiet brute. Old men’s dogs usually are” (Joyce, Ulysses).
Humanist Leopold Bloom is sympathetic to all suffering creatures. His father, Rudolf, left his body at the Queen’s Hotel in Ennis. Poldy will make a pilgrimage to the West (traditional direction toward death in Irish legends) for the anniversary of Rudolf’s death, traveling west rather than following Molly north on her cuckolding tour with Boylan. Rudolf may have been brought to despair by the end of his wife, Fanny Higgins Virag. Unwilling to endure, he took poison, joining those in Inferno who also took poison, “made of (themselves) gibbet(s),” or opened arms to embrace violent death, like today’s “suicide by police.” Joyce’s hero Mr. Bloom finds a reason to travel on.
Dante began the distancing of Christians from the condemnation of suicide. He begins by differentiating self-destruction by causes: love, pain, or revenge. Virgil is inconsistent in judging sin (he admonishes Dante’s empathy for Francesca and Paolo, for example ), and Dante, the fictional pilgrim, follows the lead of his fictional Guide. Mark Vernon points out that Virgil’s ethos does not reflect Christian values (35). Writing about Canto xiii, Vernon suggested that Dante may have also contemplated suicide (85-88). Virgil’s justification may have allowed Dante the rationale to discard Catholic dogma mitigating his personal temptation.
Ulysses reveals a thread of others–suicide at sea, Ophelia’s watery end, the lovesick son of Reuben J. Dodd, King Saul, Romeo and Juliett, Edgar in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Poldy, unencumbered by any religious dogma, is saddened by his father’s self-destruction but is characteristically forgiving. Jewish tradition further compounds Bloom’s suffering. The Jewish family is an organism that transcends the function and identity of other religious and cultural groups. Under the conservative interpretation of the Talmud, Jewish families of suicides were also punished; they were forbidden to sit shiva in mourning. This imposes yet another measure of grief onto the extended family and the Jewish community at large.
Ulysses was not the first of Joyce’s works that dealt with suicide in Jewish culture. In Giacomo Joyce, he records an episode in which he visited a Jewish cemetery in the company of a friend.
Pimply Meisel brought me here.[/] He is beyond at the grave of his suicide wife,[/] wondering how the woman who slept in his bed[/] has come to this end....[/] (p 6 ll 2-6).
Over the past three centuries, there has been a liberalization of thinking about suicide by some Talmudic scholars. You will find more detail on these developments in an exploration of Meisel’s grief at https://jamesjoycereadingcircle.com/2020/11/16/gj-canto-xvii-p-6-ll-20-27/
The decline of Catholic religious observance in the West and the liberalization of some Talmudic scholars is largely due to the juncture of Humanism, Nihilism, and Modernism at the expense of religious tradition. An expanded understanding of mental illness plays a role in these changes. These changes are evident in the arguments of Vernon, a psycho-therapist, writing about Dante’s treatment of suicides. The tendency is to exonerate the suffering for any relief from mental anguish even if it requires self-destruction. Modernity judges all suicide as mental illness. Virgil, however, operated under Roman sensibilities. For Romans, suicide could be an act of nobility or a simple refusal to bend to illegitimate authority.
47 My Sage made answer, "O thou wounded soul, 48 What only in my verses he has seen, 49 Not upon thee had he stretched forth his hand; 50 Whereas the thing incredible has caused me 51 To put him to an act which grieveth me. (Longfellow translation Canto xiii)
Japanese society has long struggled with cultural and literary sanctioning of suicide. [ For more detail, see “Is Suicide Beautiful?: Suicide Acceptance and Related Factors in Japan” by Daisuke Kawashima, Shizuka Kawamoto, Keisuke Shiraga, and Kenji Kawano]
In the 1990s, an advertising campaign directed at Japanese youth emphasized the hideousness of the decaying body as a deterrent to teen suicide. This was done to counteract the adornment of cultural appeal. Under a global, pandemic-driven, media-feeding culture, there is no language or geographic barrier to the spread of self-destruction, and hypersensitivity to social and economic discomforts accelerate suicide rates.
The stigma of suicide and religious prohibitions removed, the mentally ill are comforted, but support from sympathetic observers can also shape behavior and unconsciously condone suicide, particularly among egoistical youth. The Humanist, the Modernist, the Nihilist weep for Meisel’s wife, but who prevents the tears of Meisel and Meisel’s children?
Alighieri, Dante. La Divina Commedia – The Divine Comedy, English translation Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Kindle Edition.
Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno, translation John Ciardi, Mentor Books, 1982.
Alighieri, Dante. Inferno, translation and editing Anthony Esolen, Mentor Books, 2002, p. 131.
Joyce, James. Giacomo Joyce, editor Richard Ellmann. Faber and Faber, 1968, p.6.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
Kawashima D, Kawamoto S, Shiraga K, Kawano K. “Is Suicide Beautiful?: Suicide Acceptance and Related Factors in Japan,” Crisis, MAR 2020, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31310163/ 22 MAR 2022.
Vernon, Mark. Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey. Angelico Press. Kindle Edition, pp. 35, 85-88.