I confess that I approached this book warily. “How Dante Can Save Your Life” is the sort of title that reminds one of the abundance of volumes about the power of “Great Books”: How Proust Can Change Your Life; How to Live — or, a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer; Why Homer Matters; My Life in Middlemarch. Happily, many of these books have been quite good. But a lover of literature can be forgiven for being wary. After all, few things threaten a Great Book more than a lesser one that seeks to make it — gulp — “relevant.”
Dante is dangerously vulnerable to this treatment. Just consider his reputation. “Among the many celebrated geniuses of whom the Catholic faith can boast who have left undying fruits in literature and art especially, besides other fields of learning, and to whom civilization and religion are ever in debt, highest stands the name of Dante Alighieri.” So wrote Pope Benedict XV in his 1921 encyclical In Praeclara Summorum. A few years later, T. S. Eliot declared that “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them; there is no third.”
And for scope of ambition, care of construction, and depth of meaning, Dante’s greatest work has few equals. The Commedia (only later did it become Divina) is a single, 14,233-line poem divided into three cantiche — Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso — each composed of 33 cantos (Inferno has a 34th, to make the full poem a round 100), all written in the interlocking terza rima verse scheme that Dante himself created. The whole poem, translated, can be printed in a portable volume, but without significant luggage in footnotes the modern reader will be lost: Most of the narrator’s run-ins are with his 13th- and 14th-century Tuscan contemporaries, and they tend to chat at length about medieval Florentine politics.
And understanding that historical background is only one prerequisite. The journey of the pilgrim Dante through hell and purgatory and paradise (N.B.: Dante Alighieri is both the poem’s author and its protagonist — he beat the postmodernists to that conceit by a good six centuries) is a dramatization of the path of the soul (in the present life) toward God, and in relating one to the other Dante draws upon such subjects as medieval cosmology, numerology, and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa.
Dante is, in a word, daunting. He tempts a would-be glossator to a No Fear Shakespeare–style treatment, which places across from the Bard’s lines a “modern English” — and often wrong — “translation.” Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, has done his reading, and, to illuminate his text, he invokes the scholarly literature where appropriate. But the achievement of his book is that it is not, in the end, about Dante. It is about you. Which is fitting, since so was Dante.
Those moved by the homecoming chronicled in Dreher’s book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013) will find here a continuation of that story — because, as Dreher recounts in the opening pages of the new book, the “explosion of grace” that followed his sister’s passing and that drew him back to rural Louisiana after years living on the East Coast proved the start of a new sort of exile. Back at home, Dreher discovered that years of distance had only mitigated, not resolved, the problem that had driven him away twice before: the conflict, reborn in each generation, between fathers and sons — in this case, between Ray Oliver Dreher, “a high-school-football star, a raiser of 4-H Club champion steers, an accomplished deer hunter, and a self-taught mechanic” for whom there was “nothing he could not conquer with sufficient force of will,” and Rod, bookish, imaginative, sensitive . . . soft.
So taxing did Dreher’s relations with his parents and his late sister’s family become that he sank into depression and was diagnosed with stress-induced Epstein-Barr virus. But in the late spring of 2013, Dreher picked up a copy of the Inferno and read Dante’s opening lines: “Midway in the journey of our life / I came to myself in a dark wood, / for the straight way was lost.” Tolle, lege.
So begins a journey of discovery, on which we are invited. The next year in Dreher’s life, much of which was spent reading the Commedia, is refracted through Dante’s poem. As Dante spirals downward, we meet both Dante’s damned sinners and Dreher’s sins. The lovers Paolo and Francesca remind Dreher of the lust that obscured his path to love as a young man; the patrician Farinata degli Uberti, bloated with pride over his ancestry even in the reaches of hell, reveals to Dreher his idolatrous worship of family and place; Brunetto Latini, the poet damned for his pathetic ambition, shows Dreher the folly of pinning his hopes to professional aspirations.
Likewise, as Dante meets the joyful penitents in Purgatory, Dreher feels the spur to move beyond mere intellectual accounting to action, to move beyond the head to the heart. This journey is aided by Dreher’s other Virgils — Mike Holmes, a Southern Baptist minister-turned-psychotherapist, and Father Matthew Harrington, the ex-cop who presides over St. John the Theologian Russian Orthodox Mission — and his wife, Julie, his Beatrice.
The bulk of Dreher’s narrative is given to the Inferno section, which he aptly subtitles “Or, Why You Are Broken,” because some bit of understanding must precede action. It is only when Dreher sees himself in the condemned, and begins to comprehend the magnitude of his sinfulness, that he can pursue the virtues exemplified in Purgatorio. On the seven-story mountain, the ascending pilgrims are eager to accept their “punishment,” because they recognize it for what it is: the holy discipline that will liberate them from sin. Their self-understanding, to be worth anything, must be accompanied by a movement of the will. This is — in the words of the subtitle of the Purgatorio section — “How to Be Healed.” The union of head and heart in the pursuit of the divine, accompanied by that inexplicable gift, grace, sets one firmly on the path toward Paradiso, “Or, How Things Ought to Be.”
While each episode — each exploration of a bedeviling sin or a liberating virtue — offers insights, and Dreher and his guides offer advice aplenty (a summary of each chapter’s lesson is provided at its end), the power of Dreher’s book, like Dante’s, is not in its explication. “There is no lesson in the Commedia that I had not read or heard before,” says Dreher at one point, and one might say the same of Dreher’s book. But Dante’s power for him was in “incarnat[ing] that wisdom in verses that pierced the rocky soil of my heart and planted seeds of truth there, seeds that neither my anxiety, nor my insecurity, nor my anger, nor my weakness, could dislodge,” and Dreher’s work has the same virtue. It is not a theoretical speculation; it is the story of how Dante’s poem actually saved a life: Rod Dreher’s.
He is only imitating the master. Dante’s great poem, were it written for a present-day publishing house, might well be titled “How God, He Who Is Lover and Loved One and Love, Can Save Your Life” — because God did save a life: Dante Alighieri’s. And so, as Dreher understands, getting right to the heart of Dante’s work, “the Commedia is about avoiding hell and gaining heaven.” It is, Dreher says, an icon, an image that points beyond itself, and serves as an entry point to a transcendent reality. Dante’s aim was not to create a work of art that the generations would admire; it was to provide a means by which one might close the infinite abyss that separates man from his maker.
Dreher makes of his own book an icon, too. For those for whom the intensity and luminosity and complexity of Dante may be intimidating, Dreher offers an image — the story of his own descent and ascent — to lead one to Dante, and, of course, ultimately to liberation from the various idols before which we all kneel.
Dante and Dreher are performing the same task, just on different planes. Because we cannot know God as we know the Pythagorean theorem, because we know God only in the act of loving Him — “He that loveth not knoweth not God” — the best an author can do is to bring us, as much as language might permit, into his own experience of divine love. Thus Dreher, by writing a book not about Dante, but as Dante, as the pilgrim, invites the reader in, to experience the pursuit of God from the inside in the hope that it will spur the reader to take up the pilgrimage for himself.
Sub specie aeternitatis, these are the greatest of Great Books.