Traveling Through the Underworld with Dante, Virgil, and Rod Dreher

Most books fit pretty easily into one niche or another.   This makes it easy for both individuals and librarians to place and, even more important, find the books when needed.  (Women who shelf books by color are not in view here.  That is a mental disorder.)  But sometimes books come along that don’t easily fit into the categories on our shelves or in our minds.

How Dante Can Save Your Life by Rod Dreher is one such book.  It was the name of Dante, along with the subtitle referencing “history’s greatest poem” that drew me to this book.  I was anxious to receive this book back in the spring and figured it would have a prominent place in my (I am embarrassed to admit) really small collection of Dante studies.  When one thinks of Dante and his epic Divine Commedy, the first question is always translations.  The Dante collector, assuming that he or she is not fluent in Italian, usually goes for some of the best known translations around.  I first read Mark Musa’s translation of Dante, and the time through the work used Dorothy Sayers’ outstanding 3 volumes.  Ms. Sayers’ learned Italian after reading Dante in the bombshelters of England during World War II.  She surmised that this poem would be helpful to the Brits in the post-war years.  Her translation is built around rhyming with less accuracy regarding sticking to the original text. This is why some of the other translations are helpful.

One other outstanding translation, which could easily be my favorite, is John Ciardi’s.  I have, but have not read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation.  Primarily known for his now too often discredited poetry, Longfellow was classically trained and was a brilliant scholar as well as a gifted poet.

Commentaries on Dante abound.  Any teacher would be embarassed, shamed, and hopefully ostracized if he did not have Charles Williams’ The Figure of Beatrice.  Peter Leithart’s Ascent to Love: A Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy.  All that being said, I have just about exhuasted my survey of personally owned and used Dante studies.

Along Came Dreher

Rod Dreher announces in the beginning of the book that his book is not a guide or commentary on Dante.  Rather, the book is, as the title and subtitle note, a self-help book.  And yet, it is also an autobiographical story.  And, it is the story of the trials and tribulations of Christians.  Also, it deals with stresses of life compounded by illness.  Along with all this, it is a southerner’s story.  While things that happen to southerners are not totally unique, they are recurrent among those of us who live in the south.

Dreher stumbled upon a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and on a whim, or what we Calvinists would insist is providence, he picked up the book and started reading.  The beginning of Inferno, which is the first book in the trilogy, starts with a middle age man who is lost in the woods.  While I am convinced of the value of teaching this book to high school students, Dante’s epic, like those of Homer, Virgil, and Milton, grow with the age and maturity of the reader.  Almost anyone middle aged (whatever age that is) has exprienced the “lost in the woods” syndrome of life.

For Dreher, several struggles converged to wreck his life.  He became physically very ill soon after moving back to his boyhood hometown in south Louisiana.  His sister and only sibling, Ruthie Leming, had died of cancer a short time before.  Dreher and his wife felt the need to be close to his parents and his sister’s children.  This ideal move to a small town in the south proved to be anything but ideal.

Dreher crashed.  All of his life, he had a love/hate relationship with his father.  The older Mr. Dreher was a good man in southern, small town, family, and Christian terms.  But he and Rod were very different.  Like many southerners, Mr. Dreher loved hunting and other features of southern life.  Rod loved books, had been a rebel of sorts in his earlier years, and had traveled and stretched his horizons far beyond his roots.

God used Dante’s epic poem, a strong Orthodox priest, and a solid Baptist counselor to help Dreher through all his struggles.  As with most of us, other people are a problem, have caused us problems, and refuse to change.  But the journey Dante opened up to Dreher was not dealing with his family and others.  It centered on the one person who Dreher had to get to know, understand, and change–himself.

Martin Luther taught that the Christian life is one of ongoing, continual repentance.  It is painful.  Like Dante’s journey, it begins in Hell, not Heaven.  But whether one discovers and begins this journey with Dante, John Bunyan, C. S. Lewis,  or some other source, it is a journey worth the pain and struggle.

Rod Dreher has a blog, located HERE.  I am only vaguely aware of other issues, political and theological, that he had discussed and written about.  My only concern here is with this book.  It was very moving and helpful.  I recommend it to students of literature and of the human soul.

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