Life as Motion

Essay on Dante’s Inferno Canto XIII

Now in this forest we found there were many trees, with many branches each, without flower, bud, green or leaf. Dante led me through, stepping carefully, for there was no path at all. The woods were sharp as flint.

I heard many cries. But I couldn’t a single person see. Though the cries were so close. Before I could ask about this, Dante stopped, and bent his ear East. Then we heard a sound, not groan but melody, as of a Japanese flute – piping from so very far away.

Dante turned and carefully made his way in that direction – so I followed.

The sound grew louder and louder, and it was right in front of me, and I saw that it was coming from one of these trees. And Dante told me to look very carefully on it. And, as constellation may itself reveal in the night, so did the tree: It was the shape of a man, sitting cross-legged, and playing the flute – which was a broken branch.

Now the sound could only come through that instrument when the foul winds blew; there were no lungs but that. And so the song was quite cut. Its player most patient. To wait for wind to flow his notes – but was this indeed a man?

As if answering, Dante broke off a branch, which looked like a toe, so near the root it was, and shaped so, and when the sprig was cracked off, a bloody sap and air flowed out – and this was the sound:

– Why mangle me?

The words barely discernible, as though a play of the ear. I was terribly startled, and startled I fell back onto another tree and cracked three branches and from them, like air whistling out of a cylinder, were quite concerned cries:

– Stooooop!

These trees were people, or these people were trees. We asked the flute player how he had here arrived, and through that flute, which I saw was his right arm detached and hollowed out, he answered:

– By the butchering of my body I am ever to body bound. Seppuku – I killed me. I’d failed my Lord. So as answer for my error, error eternal I made.

So he sang, his flute his arm his voice, until the air-blood staunched, and the valve was again closed.

– Through this wood I’ve walked many times. Said Dante. In contemplation of this sin, its consequence, its tempt. Melancholy’s my often way. But never I’d heard a song here. Never anywhere in hell. Would you show us how?

The flute-player, with an exercise of will unimaginable, a sound of bending branches, stretched out his finger onto his broken off arm, puncturing the holes, releasing the air, and played again the song of the flute.

– It must have taken centuries to even get into the position to play. Said I. To break off the arm, to fashion it inside and out, to hold it so with the other, and then with one’s own blood unlet for the winds of Hell to flow a’Heaven.

The flute-player seemed pleased with my praise, for frequently now he wounded himself, and played the song all the way through as we stood and listened. Then he stopped. Perhaps, from great exhaustion.

– Now why do the suicides trees become? Dante asked.

– Self slaughter’s a slow sediment. Said I. Some sins, that to suicide lead, calcify, scale, and burn a crust upon all the soul’s skin. The soul, which is the body’s appearance, depresses to torpidity. And makes slightest motion an agony. For to move’s to live. To live to move. Note the tree that by a bark soft bends in dance slow on the airy cliff, and like the sea it long overlooks, shapes to all the flows of the wind’ing air – there’s the vital sign – a softness of earth, a wood like water.

– Then this bark of self-broken man’s the end of a hardening? Dante asked sagely.

– Yes.

– And these trees not be dead or alive, in Hell or Heaven, but are images of them thereof?

– Indeed.

– Then this song’s but the stretching of him again to life?

– The song’s the stretching itself.

– And stretching is a motion?

– Yes.

– And motion often makes motion?

– Right.

– And life, as you said, is motion?

– Yes, indeed.

– Then this song is life itself?

– Yes. And his life’s a stretching, which reaches out to us, and lends life to us.

– So we were caught by the ear, and led in by the ear, and led out by the ear, from the forest of suicides… We left the forest. The flute-player played his goodbye.

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