Gwenyth Hood on Descent
Part 2: "The Dark Forest"
In Part 2 of the article, Gwenyth looks a the imagery of trees in both Dante and Descent - especially in relation to the character of Inanna, who sees herself as a kind of "priestess" in the play.
In Descent, the conditions of Dante’s Hell and Purgatory are bound together especially with the imagery of forests and a tree and the character of Inanna. The Commedia has significant imagery of forests and trees. In the first canto of the Inferno, Dante is lost in a dark forest, where he encounters three terrifying beasts before Virgil comes to help him.
Under Virgil’s guidance, he reaches another forest in the more peaceful but melancholy Limbo (canto 4). To be sure, no foliage is described there, and the sighs of the innocent souls separated from God at first give the place its mood. In Limbo, the sad forest is counterbalanced by the Noble Castle, which includes a green field, and where wise inhabitants gather for learned discussions and perhaps games. But further down in Hell, in the seventh circle, for the violent against self (Inferno 13), there is another forest, a wood where all the trees are the souls of people who have committed suicide. Such souls are cast down by the judge Minos, and each becomes a seed and takes root, to grow into such trees. The tree-form perhaps represents the rejection, not only of their own experience, but of human life itself, at least that life connected with the central meaning united in the divine. In this gloomy forest, harpies, those strange half-human birds, nest in the branches, their voices perhaps expressing (as I suggest in my forthcoming book), their unsatisfied longing for the life they have rejected (Hood 128-129).
Some hint of harpy-like creatures appears in Descent, in the poet’s words in scene 3, “The Tunnel,” describing dark birds with flapping wings. Birds, in their winged natures, may represent the possibility for spiritual growth and ascension, but here they seem grim and threatening, as if those possibilities had been distorted.
In Inferno 13, Dante learns that the individual trees are actually souls when Virgil induces him to break off a twig from a large thorn tree, and the tree speaks, revealing itself as Piero della Vigna, once an imperial official who was ruined by false accusations. Unable to bear the shame, he killed himself, and so was sent to become a tree in this forest. Dante, who knows about false accusations, undeniably has empathy for Piero, although he continues following Virgil and has clearly rejected suicide.
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In Descent, the character of Inanna evokes Piero, partly because she is associated with tree imagery, and also because, if unbearable experience could drive anyone to self-destruction, she would be the one. In Scene 3, “The Tunnel,” she refers to the image of a falling seed, and then of many falling seeds which enter the earth; this also recalls the judgement of the suicides. No doubt she is aware of others’ sufferings, since in scene 3, there is some suggestion that Attar kills himself, in his bewilderment over his guilt for what has happened. In scene 5, "The Confessional," Inanna says that she wished to die, and prayed to die, but did not. Subsequently, after her forest is cut down, and the men and boys in her village are massacred, and she is subjected to rape and sex-slavery, blasphemously called marriage (to four men), she says that she died, but did not die. Instead, seemingly, she draws within herself, to shield her remaining humanity and by extension, the humanity of the other characters and of the whole human race, from further horrors. But unlike the trees in Dante’s haunted forest of Inferno 13, which are rich with sinister foliage, Inanna’s tree is stripped bare, implicitly waiting for destruction or renewal, perhaps for what will face the whole human race, not merely herself.
This is more like the tree of the Earthly Paradise in Dante’s Purgatorio 32, which represents the race of Adam. There, the bare, dry branches represent humanity damaged, degraded and stripped by Adam’s sin at the instigation of Satan, who is, in Jungian terms, the shadow of humanity and of the divinity. This tree revives and grows new tender green branches and leaves when the pageant associated with Beatrice and the Gryphon (the symbol of Christ’s incarnation) reach it, and the gryphon binds to it the pole of his chariot to it, representing Christ’s sacrificial life and death on the cross (Purgatorio 32.46-51). He states that in this deed “Sì si conserva il seme d'ogne giusto,” or, as Longfellow translates this, “Thus is preserved the seed of all the just" (Purgatorio 32.48). This again recalls Inanna’s seed. In Dante’s Purgatorio, Dante is assigned to watch the tree as it goes through several more transformations relating to the political vicissitudes of his times, and it is left once more in distorted state, with complete redemption postponed, as in the Christian system, until beyond Judgement Day.
In Descent¸ it seems uncertain to me how evil is dealt with, for the characters Rachel and Inanna are more victims of suffering than evildoers; Attar seems guilty of haste and misjudgement under stress but is clearly sorry, and Ishmael, the poet, seems motivated mostly by a wish to make sense of everything.
In the Commedia, Dante, after fleeing the three beasts who represent the evil forces by which he and his civilization are beset, is guided by Virgil through the Inferno or underworld where the evil are punished, and to the center of the earth, where Satan is trapped.
This journey involves self-discovery, and also increasing discernment of evil. On that journey, as I say in Dante’s Dream,
Dante meets many manifestations of his personal Shadow, souls disturbingly like himself in the good they have neglected or the evils they have done. The deeper Virgil and Dante go into Hell, the more repugnant, in general, the damned souls become. Dante’s response shifts from sympathetic identification to indignant rejection. (Dante’s Dream 20)
This pattern in Hell is consistent with what C. S. Lewis says (or has an angelic character state) in his allegorical tale, The Pilgrim’s Regress: that Hell functions as a kind of “tourniquet” (181; chap. 4. Bk. 10) imposing limitations on the extent of a spirit’s degradation. In Limbo these limits will seem almost entirely protective of the relatively innocent souls who seek refuge there (like Inanna, when she withdraws into herself), while at the center of the earth the weight of all creation combines to hold Satan’s boundless malice within limits. The vision of Satan’s defeat paradoxically reveals to Dante and Virgil the goodness and glory of God, and they climb up on the other side of the spherical earth to Mount Purgatory, for positive growth, rebirth and spiritual vision. The Earthly Paradise is at the top of Mount Purgatory, above the place where all the seven deadly sins are purged.
In Descent, which ends in the Earthly Paradise, regeneration comes with dancing pageantry somewhere outside time and space, where the Shadow is revealed as the goddess of all being or as Divine Eros. Before, Inanna had withdrawn into a protected state under the inspiration of the goddess, whose shadow-aspect evokes the unknown, since while all conflicts find harmonious balance in her dance.
I did not grasp how she is related to the evil forces: who burned the city? What happened to the shadow-men who raped and murdered? Much of this would be in the staging, which I have not seen.
I like to think that little children, girls and boys, are in the dance, especially the suffering boy whom Rachel tried in vain to comfort. The boy might represent the as yet unfulfilled logos-understanding of the crisis we have seen, particularly since the kite which Rachael imagines helping him fly, with its aspirations toward the sky, apparently represents some yet unattained spiritual understanding. The children might help dance the evildoers into the outer darkness, not by being vengeful, but by being the joyful children that they are, and somehow showing that evildoers are cut off from the others, having chosen a subordinate dance in which they torment no one but themselves. This would be, in different imagery, another version of C. S. Lewis’s insight that divine power places a “tourniquet” on evil wills in Hell, preventing them from destroying others and themselves any further. It is also the pattern behind Jean-Paul Sartre’s vision of Hell in No Exit, where the hell-bound souls, as one of them puts it, are not tormented by the authorities but are placed together in groups as in “a cafeteria, where customers serve themselves” (1882).
Meanwhile, led by “the Goddess of All Being,” the others dance their way into an unconsciousness which, we hope, might lead to a fuller renewal in the end, though this remains suspended in the unknown future.
Hood, Gwenyth E. Dante’s Dream: A Jungian Psychoanalytical Approach to Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy.’ Forthcoming from De Gruyter/ MIP, July 2021.
Jung, Carl Gustav. Letter to Erminie Huntress Lantero, 18 June 1947. In C. G. Jung: Letters, edited by Gerhard Adler and Aniela Jaffé, Vol. 1. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973. 464–65.
--. Psychology and Alchemy. Translated by R. F. C. Hull. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. (Vol. 12 of Collected Works of C. J. Jung, edited by Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, and Gerhard Adler, 20 vols, Bollingen Series XX, 1954–1979).
Le Goff, Jacques. The Birth of Purgatory. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Lewis, C[live] S[taples]. The Great Divorce, New York: Macmillan 1946. 67-68.
---. The Pilgrim’s Regress, 3rd Edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1958.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, ed. and trans. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1867. Translation available on Dante Lab Reader, http://dantelab.dartmouth.edu.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit. in Literature of the Western World Volume II: Neoclassicism Through the Modern Period. 5th ed. Edited by Brian Wilke and James Hurt, Hoboken, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000. 1879-1994
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