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How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History's Greatest Poem Paperback – March 7, 2017
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Following the death of his little sister and the publication of his New York Times bestselling memoir The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Dreher found himself living in the small community of Starhill, Louisiana where he grew up. But instead of the fellowship he hoped to find, he discovered that fault lines within his family had deepened. Dreher spiraled into depression and a stress-related autoimmune disease. Doctors told Dreher that if he didn’t find inner peace, he would destroy his health. Soon after, he came across The Divine Comedy in a bookstore and was enchanted by its first lines, which seemed to describe his own condition.
In the months that followed, Dante helped Dreher understand the mistakes and mistaken beliefs that had torn him down and showed him that he had the power to change his life. Dreher knows firsthand the solace and strength that can be found in Dante’s great work, and distills its wisdom for those who are lost in the dark wood of depression, struggling with failure (or success), wrestling with a crisis of faith, alienated from their families or communities, or otherwise enduring the sense of exile that is the human condition.
Inspiring, revelatory, and packed with penetrating spiritual, moral, and psychological insights, How Dante Can Save Your Life is a book for people, both religious and secular, who find themselves searching for meaning and healing. Dante told his patron that he wrote his poem to bring readers from misery to happiness. It worked for Rod Dreher. Dante saved Rod Dreher’s life—and in this book, Dreher shows you how Dante can save yours.
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About the Author
- Publisher : Regan Arts.; Illustrated edition (March 7, 2017)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 320 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1682450732
- ISBN-13 : 978-1682450734
- Item Weight : 11.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #497,295 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #236 in Medieval Literary Criticism (Books)
- #300 in Christian Poetry (Books)
- #16,138 in Memoirs (Books)
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There is good reason for the recommendation. This is a good book. It’s not quite the commentary on Dante that I was looking for, but it tells a good story, it uses Dante’s Divine Comedy as a framework, and engages the mind and heart in the pursuit of truth.
Like most converts to anything, Dreher has strong opinions. The story he tells in How Dante Can Save Your Life has strong ties to Dreher’s opinions about the value of Roman Catholicism he left from his earlier Methodism, and the Orthodoxy that Dreher adopted after he became disgusted with the Catholic hierarchy after sitting under a liberal priest and reporting on the Roman Catholic sex scandals in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. There is a lot of veneration of icons, exorcisms, and ritualistic prayers in the book that will make those familiar with Scripture, especially the second commandment (or the 2nd half of the first commandment in the Catholic and Orthodox tradition) very uncomfortable. At the same time, there is a real discovery of grace and the ability to forgive that provides the climax of the book.
This is a story of homegoing. After the death of his sister––whose legacy Dreher memorialized in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming––Dreher and his family moved back to rural Louisiana. Dreher expected to be welcomed back, but found himself alienated from his family and depressed. The stress of his anger at his perceived mistreatment left him with a significant bout of chronic fatigue.
How Dante Can Save Your Life is a story of Dreher finding his way out of a pit of depression and learning to forgive his family. It involves regular counselling, ascetic spiritual practices, and a deep dive into Dante’s epic journey through Hell, Purgatory, and finally on to Paradise.
As I have said, this is not primarily a commentary on Dante. However, as Dreher follows Dante on his journey, we see how a great work of literature can have a significant impact on the mind, body, and soul. Dreher’s telling of his own story maps well onto Dante’s journey of self-discovery. Although the story is more about Dreher than Dante, it is well-told and it does illuminate the power of the Divine Comedy many centuries after it was first penned.
This book is impressive because it was written to a broad audience. Dreher invites secular readers into a moral vision that points toward Christianity. It isn’t clearly stated, but the Dreher offers and invitation to the reader to be conformed to the moral order of the universe. Through his own story of discovering joy in chastity, even the atheist can see the value in the discipline of sexual restraint and seeking persistent love before conjugal relations.
Dreher provides some resolution to the tension of the story, but it is a powerful twist on the ending one might expect. If this were a sitcom, then Dreher would have been received with open arms by his family, everyone would apologize and the wrongs of previous years forgotten. As it stands, Dreher recounts his coming the point of being able to forgive despite not receiving many concessions from the family who held him at a distance. In this Dreher provides a picture of the most likely reality. We do not always get to live happily ever after, but we get many opportunities to choose to be as happy as we can be in a given circumstance.
This is Dreher’s book telling Dreher’s story. There are points at which one wonders if the narrator can be fully trusted. Although Dreher admits to some of his own failings, it is clear that he believes the fault is mainly on the other side. The reader is left wondering whether Dreher is entirely fair to the rest of his family. The downside of the book is that the reading of it feels a little voyeuristic. One wonders how the rest of the family feels about his publication of this volume.
If you can get over the feeling that there might be too much dirty laundry exposed in this volume, the book is well worth reading. I’m offering it as an auxiliary volume for the Great Conversations curriculum as a way to see the value of Dante. It also offers a thoughtful portrait of redemption and forgiveness. These are all things that deserved to be explored in greater detail by all of us, especially by those trying to figure out why the books consistently chosen for a Great Conversations curriculum belong there.
NOTE: This is an edited version of a review originally posted at Ethics and Culture.
Without realizing it, a random act of browsing in a bookstore leads to you changing your life.
The “you’ in question here was writer Rod Dreher, author of “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming” and “Crunchy Cons” and a writer for The American Conservative. The Barnes & Noble was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And the book was Dante’s The Divine Comedy.
Dreher describes what happened in “How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem.”
And what a story it is.
What a fascinating story it is. If you love poetry, and even if you don’t, this is a remarkable book.
It’s a story about how Dreher worked through serious physical illness brought on by his family, himself, his and his family’s history, and the sense of place. He tells it so well that the reader beings to see in Dante what Dreher found, and more – the reader begins to recognize himself in the journey.
Of all the things I expected from this book, that turned out to be the most surprising, although in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been. That’s what good writing does. And it says something about both Dante and Dreher, and Dreher’s candor, openness and vulnerability in telling a story that is often painful.
With Dreher and reader for the journey is Dante, himself guided by the Roman poet Virgil.
Dreher takes the scenes and lines that connected most with himself and the situation he was trying, and largely failing, to deal with. Along with his Orthodox priest and his therapist, he works his way through his own personal Inferno and Purgatorio. He doesn’t necessarily reach Paradiso (Dante does, however), but he does find healing.
How Dante Can Save Your Life is a much larger story than one man’s journey. Dante is one of those writers not studied much any more – a dead, white, European male. While he often criticizes the church and the popes, he is very much in the Roman Catholic tradition. The Divine Comedy is a profoundly religious book – and that alone might be sufficient eliminate it from the curriculum.
That is criminal. It’s one of the great works of Western literature. It will still be read and treasured long after the more contemporary and trendy stuff is forgotten. What Dreher does in his book is to explain how meaningful and important Dante is for many of the same things that bedeviled us in late medieval and early Renaissance times that still bedevil us today. For that is the genius of Dante and The Divine Comedy – the poet and his great work still speak to the human condition.
The Divine Comedy has been translated by numerous authors and writers over the years, including Dorothy Sayers, Clive James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and many others (and that’s just a few of the English translations; there are many others in other languages). Dreher prefers the translations by Robert and Jean Hollander and Mark Musa; the only translation I’ve read myself is by John Ciardi.
Read How Dante Can Save Your Life, and you will read of how a great work literature helped guide one man on what was at times a harrowing, life-threatening journey.