How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem
© 2015 Rod Dreher
How Dante Can Save Your Life is one man’s account of how that Renaissance poet’s epic tale of a man who had lost his way helped him survive the darkest time in his life. By way of offering thanks, and reflecting on his journey, Dreher guides readers through Dante’s Divine Comedy, recounting both his and the Commedia’s narrator’s journeys. It’s a profoundly intimate encounter with poetry that moved me like few other books.
For Dreher, this is an incredibly personal book; he encountered the Commedia during an intensely troubled time in his life, and his six-month slow read of the trilogy (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) happened in tandem with counseling from his priest and a clinical psychologist. The story begins with Dreher’s family background — his status as the odd, bookish duck in a family of rural traditionalists (“bayou Confucians”) who could not understand young Rod’s attraction to the big city, his aversion to hunting, and so on. Torn between love for his folks — especially his father — and their constant rejection of him, Dreher tried to escape the conflict by moving away. But when his sibling-rival Ruthie was stricken with lung cancer at age 40, Dreher was moved by how deeply invested his sister had been in the life of her local community — and inspired by it. There was meaning to be found in the little way of Ruthie Leming. But if he’d expected to be welcomed home like the prodigal son, one who had at last embraced Starhill, he found only pain: despite actively trying to be involved in the lives of his sister’s kids, and to reconnect with his parents, the meaningful connections he longed for remained absent — and he remained the family outsider. The stress and pain of this triggered his dormant Epstein-Barr syndrome, and for two years he was nearly an invalid. Enter Dante.
Slowly studying Dante — in conjunction with frequent conversations with a priest and his counselor — granted Dante the vision to understand what had gone wrong in his life. Traveling through the downward spiral of the Inferno, sin by sin, Dreher examined his own conscience and found it wanting. He saw himself reflected in the lives of those in the pit, and ultimately realized that he had made his family into the god of his life, expecting more out of those relationships than they could bear. He realized that sin can be found in loving the right things too much, or in — just as it can be found in loving the wrong things at all. Ultimately, although Dreher doesn’t realize his heart’s desire — to suddenly experience the fullness of southern small-town community like Ruthie — his extensive immersion in Dante and the related spiritual studies finally allowed him to find peace — and make peace with his father.
For me, Dreher is an incredibly sympathetic figure — he and I were both the otherworldy freaks in our southern clans, and both tried to come back home only to realize there were some distances that can’t be closed. Like him, I encountered this book at a time when I needed it, though for different reasons. I was frequently and deeply moved by Dreher’s writing here, because his relationship with his family is so complicated — a mutual mix of love and conflict– and because of the depth of his soul-searching to find some answers. It’s less a guide to Dante, though, and more of one man sharing his experience with the literature; the parts that spoke most strongly to him were Inferno and Purgatorio. It’s inspired me to add both of the latter book to my “Classics Club Strikes Back” list, for whenever I do a new CC challenge.
One to remember!