How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem. By Rod Dreher, Regan Arts, 2015.
Dante’s Divine Comedy is one of the greatest epic poems of all time, the story of a man who travels through hell and purgatory, concluding his journey in Heaven. In Dante’s poem, hell is depicted as a descending pit of rings where the damned face eternal punishment depending on the nature of their personal sins; purgatory is a tiered mountain where the flawed but saved are tested in order to cleanse themselves of their sins before they move on to paradise; Heaven is a series of spheres where the virtuous are centered around God.
The Divine Comedy is a staunchly moral work. Dante selected various figures from history to place in the three worlds of the afterlife, explaining why certain people deserved to wallow forever in filth, or be frozen up to their necks in ice, or any of numerous other graphic punishments. For centuries, readers have discovered Dante and been inspired by him. If the phrase “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” is meant to strike terror into the damned entering hell, Dante’s work has served to provide hope to those who study his cosmology and defenses of the eternal rewards for virtuous actions.
One contemporary writer to be deeply inspired and comforted by Dante is Rod Dreher. Dreher describes his personal tribulations– mental, spiritual, and physical– and explains how Dante helped him through a very difficult situation. Dreher elaborates upon his challenging and frustrating family situation, caused in part by estrangements and complex relationships with certain family members. He was also suffering from ill-health, and some professional frustrations as well. In the midst of a personal dark period, Dreher found Dante (though he initially considered The Divine Comedy to be one of those classic works that people only read when they’re assigned it in school, and which nobody actually enjoys), found his work to be far more inspirational, insightful, and timely than he could possibly have imagined, and used Dante to lift himself out of a mental abyss.
Describing the effects of Dante on his psyche, Dreher writes:
“Little did I know that Dante Alighieri, the failed Tuscan politician beggared by exile, knew me better than I knew myself. La Divina Commedia, as his poem is called in the original Italian, is radical stuff. You will not be the same after reading it. How could you be? All of life is in there.
Dante’s tale is a fantasy about a lost man who finds his way back to life after walking through the pits of hell, climbing up the mountain of purgatory, and ascending to the heights of heaven. But it’s really a story about real life and the incredible journey of our lives, yours and mine.”
This book is more of a personal spiritual memoir than literary criticism. Dreher discusses how he was raised in a Protestant household, eventually converted to Catholicism, lost his faith in the Catholic Church as he researched the sex abuse scandal, and then embraced Orthodoxy. Much of the book discusses why Dreher made the religious decisions he did, and approximately half of the book is autobiographical.
Dreher contends that The Divine Comedy has spiritual curative powers, and that people of all religions can find solace and inspiration from it. He writes:
“The Commedia is a seven-hundred-year-old poem honored as a pinnacle of Western civilization. But it’s also a practical guide to living, one that promises rescue, restoration, and freedom. This book, How Dante Can Save Your Life, tells the story of how the treasures of wisdom buried in the Commedia’s 14,233 lines gave me a rich new life.
Though the Commedia was written by a faithful Catholic, its message is universal. You don’t have to be a Catholic, or any sort of believer, to love it and be changed by it. And though mine is a book that’s ultimately about learning to live with God, it is not a book of religious apologetics; it is a book about finding our own true path. Like the Commedia it celebrates, this book is for believers who struggle to hold on to their faith when religious institutions have lost credibility. It’s a book for people who have lost faith in love, in other people, in the family, in politics, in their careers, and in the possibility of worldly success. Dante has been there too. He gets it.”
At times Dreher’s frank and revealing forays into his own personal life make for difficult, even distressing reading as he reveals his personal anguishes and heartbreaks. Some of these heartbreaks are centered around relationships and professional concerns, but family issues loom largest in the narrative. The heart of the book centers around Dreher’s difficult relationship with his father. Clearly, Dreher has a deep and powerful love for his father, and is staunchly grateful for his father’s influence on his life; but Dreher also harbors some resentment for his father’s occasional moments of coldness or a refusal to exhibit some much-desired understanding. An early hunting excursion proved to have lasting traumatic effects, and Dreher repeatedly implies that his father seemed incapable of providing much-needed flexibility of imagination or encouragement.
“I tell you all this because Ray Dreher brought into this world a lone son, an heir to his kingdom who was ambivalent at best about the role tradition assigned to him. I was a bookish child who preferred to get lost in my storybooks instead of the swamp. My father has said many times that he did not know how to deal with me. Most boys in the rural South could only dream of having a father like mine, one who loved sports, hunting, and fishing, who knew how to build anything, and who was loving. His father had been on the road for much of his childhood and emotionally distant when he was at home. Daddy was determined to give his son the paternal love and attention he had been denied.”
Of course, Dreher’s interpretations and reactions to The Divine Comedy are quite different from those of other major commenters on Dante. Dreher only focuses on selected portions of the epic poem, and touches upon just a handful of the real-life sinners and saints featured in the poem. Other critics naturally focus on other characters, and often draw other lessons. For example, Dorothy L. Sayers discovered Dante during WWII, and drew great inspiration and resilience from it. Sayers even abandoned mystery writing to focus on writing Christian dramas and working on her own English translation of The Divine Comedy into English. Sayers’s commentary and lessons learned from Dante were significantly different, but it is notable that Dante served a similar role in rescuing her from a difficult situation, namely the immense spiritual devastation and mental strain caused by a prolonged war, and the help that Dante provided by bringing a moral compass to the increasingly chaotic and mentally devastating violence.
The personal spin that Dreher puts on Dante is inspired in part by some of the many similarities he sees between their lives:
“This is a book about exile. What does it mean to know you can never go home? This was Dante’s dilemma– and in a different sense, it was mine. Three years ago, when I returned after nearly three decades to live in my Louisiana hometown, I thought I had ended a restless journey that had taken me all over America, searching for a place where I could be settled and content. To my shock and heartbreak, I was wrong. The most difficult journey lay ahead of me: the journey within myself. Dante showed me the way through. He can do the same for you.”
It is important to remember that The Divine Comedy is the story of a journey. Dante’s fictionalized version of himself travels through the depths of iniquity, through a mountain of redemption, and towards the light of God. All too often, certain literary critics argue that great literature must be bleak or depressing, but Dante’s example shows that perhaps the purpose of literature is to help us through the difficult aspects of life and to make us better people. The line between inspirational and didactic may be a difficult one to detect, but Dante seems to have been instrumental in rescuing Dreher from despair, and it is certainly possible that Dante may save even more people in the future.