Postmodern Conservative

Rod Dreher and His Friendly Critics

The Limitations of "Place" and of Benedict Option Thinking

At Nomocracy in Politics, the always-wise Bruce Frohnen reviews Rod Dreher’s latest book, How Dante Can Save Your Life, but does so alongside his two other books, Crunchy Cons, and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, presenting them as a kind of trilogy wherein Dreher becomes enchanted with the idea of localism, of reconnecting with the “Old Home Place,” but then finds that his own attempt to live this out did not really work, given the complex dynamics of his own family.  

He discovered that the living symbol of what was good about the localist ”way,” his own sister Ruthie Leming, whose giving life and ennobling struggle against her early death due to cancer his second book had celebrated, had despite her at-peace parting with him, raised her daughters to think he was basically a bad man for leaving their little Louisiana town in the first place. So for Dreher, her overall goodness, especially to the community, had to now be qualified with an admission of her sin against himself, a sin echoed in various ways by his mother and father.  What is more, Dreher had to admit that this sin directly blocked the main purpose of his having moved himself, with his wife and kids, back home. The recent Dante book recounts how this threw him into deep emotional turmoil and a related collapse of his health, and that the key thing getting him back to a more healthy state was reading the Divine Comedy, a poem written by a medieval man similarly in a kind of mid-life crisis, but who had lost far more than he had.  I apologize to Rod and to his family members if this quick summary of his personal story gets any of the details wrong, as obviously it’s sensitive stuff.

Rod replies to Frohnen here.  The whole thing is a useful and cordial exchange, and sheds some light on what Peter once said here (does someone recall the title of that post?  I’m not having luck with Google today) about the Porcher, Wendell Berry, new-orthodoxy, and Dreher emphasis upon place, that it’s bleepin’ pagan! It’s also notable that Dreher, like Front Porch Republic blogger and political theorist Patrick Deneen, doesn’t want to adopt the tag “agrarian.”  

I’m through most of the new Dante book, and it really is 60% Dreher’s story, and only 40% Dante’s poem.  But that’s fine.  Dreher’s story is an important one. How do we deal with the “return” when it doesn’t work out as expected?  I think of a young man I met in a Wendell Berry book-group I was part of in Lynchburg, Virginia, who like me, grew up in the suburbs of San Diego.  Reading Berry had convinced him to return home.  He was even going to live with his parents, I think. I hope and pray things are well for that young man, but it didn’t strike me as the best plan, and I indicated that while, I too, longed to return, what the barriers to his happiness back home might be. I’m not sure why I mention him here, other than to say I have deep respect for that instinct to return, but that I suspect it often comes short of what people expect. And for not a few, the biggest difficulties with a “way” that emphasizes “return” and “place,” are going to center around family issues, as they did for Dreher. 

I also have to say that Rod’s story in How Dante Can Save Your Life is not simply important, but it is very engaging–my wife, who is allergic to many things academic, was really moved by it.  His method of interweaving of his personal story with a skip through the highlights of Dante has certain strengths and weaknesses, but what I should highlight is that there are undeniably places where the book’s beauty and evangelical sincerity are quite powerful, and likely to be of benefit to one’s own spiritual life.  In another post, I promise I’ll say more about Dreher as a champion of Dante, since as it happens, I’ve been on a less intense and less diligent tromp through The Divine Comedy myself for the last few years.  

But I’ll leave further discussion of “place” to Dreher and Frohnen, and perhaps to Lawler.  What I want to think about is the future.  About certain pessimistic approaches to thinking about it.

Dreher has indicated that his next book will be on the Benedict Option (google it and Dreher), and he and Frohnen have some back-and-forth also on that topic.  I don’t have time today, but I soon intend to write a post comparing Rod’s initial sketches of the Benedict Option with my ”Late Republic Studies.”  Rod today graciously highlighted a comment of mine (to a post of his which asked “Should We Fight the Culture War?) that mentioned some of the key differences, but he has not yet said to what extent he agrees or disagrees. I do think the clash of and complement between these worryin’ ways of preparing for the times ahead can result in a good discussion for one and all.  Feel free to get it started below.  Or let us know what you make of Dante.

UPDATE:  Wow, some of Rod’s commenters are really hammering me for being some kind of “Mr. Anger.” Well, I won’t deny I have some sharp edges when speaking off the cuff, and some Eor/anger issues generally, but if any of you who know what I’m really about want to defend me over there, I’d appreciate it. 


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