A Feature Review of
How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem
Reviewed by Joe Krall
“Dante’s epic saved my life,” Rod Dreher writes at the beginning of this strange, moving book, part memoir and part guide to Dante Alighieri’s Commedia. Knowing Dreher as the senior editor of The American Conservative and the writer of a (sometimes ruthlessly) articulate blog, I was surprised by the book’s vulnerability. Those familiar with Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming, a memoir of his late sister, will be in more familiar territory. Like The Little Way, How Dante Can Save Your Life is about the lessons of real life, and the struggle to live out the truth we know.
In its opening pages, we arrive not at the gates of Hell, but at a quiet rural Louisiana community with the lovely name of Starhill – Dreher’s childhood home. Here, the well-meant but confining expectations of family and small-town life are voiced and exemplified by his father, “the sun around which Mama, my sister . . . and I orbited.” Dreher, with his love for ideas and culture (and French cuisine), goes away to escape those expectations and make a name as a writer, leaving a family behind that, we learn, never quite grasped why he left. He returns with his own family to care for his sister Ruthie as cancer slowly takes her life. We encounter the numbing aftermath of Ruthie’s passing, where Dreher and his parents try to communicate love and just end up hurting each other. There is mistrust and felt betrayal on both sides. (One incredibly uncomfortable moment comes when Dreher’s own brother-in-law accuses him of using The Little Way to tell a story about himself. It’s a reminder that his family story is ongoing even as he tells it.)
The constant stress and anxiety begins to literally destroy Dreher’s health. An Epstein-Barr virus infection causes some timely reflection: “Was I having a midlife crisis? Well, I was forty-six, and I was certainly in a crisis.” Picking up the Inferno in a bookstore, a burned-out Dreher starts reading. For the rest of the book, we watch as the words of Dante Alighieri, along with Dreher’s Orthodox priest and an evangelical therapist, slowly bring Dreher out of himself. Dreher slowly comes to grips with the imperfections of his family and the weight of his misplaced expectations and resentment.
He does so by reading the Commedia, deeply and slowly, for its moral acuity, its knowledge of human nature, and the beauty of its theological vision. Beauty is the key here – Dreher may be our guide to Dante, but Dante is Dreher’s guide, leading him away from what Dreher calls the “idols of family and place” and toward the beauty of God’s love. The personal note sounded in Dreher’s book – how he conveys the sheer wisdom of the Commedia, and how it connects to both his own life and a larger Christian (and human) vision of flourishing – is what holds this book together.
How Dante Can Save Your Life is a balancing act between lecture and confession, and sometimes, the book wobbles one way, then the other. On one hand, we find at the end of each chapter “How To” summaries that could use a lighter touch: “When you follow your bliss, who pays the price of your peregrinations? Think hard about these questions, and be ruthless with yourself in answering them.”
On the other hand, painful admissions like “I had enthroned family and place – and their personification, my father – in my heart in the place of God” are revealing and convicting on first appearance, but the book’s constant introspection can be wearying. At one point, his wife Julie gives her own piquant thoughts: “I’m trying to be excited for your progress, but when you’ve got three kids to home-school, laundry to do, kids to take to 4-H and tennis, the library, the chickens, and I don’t even know what else, it’s really hard to give a damn about hell.”
These weaknesses may seem like liabilities to the skeptical reader (or someone already ideologically pre-disposed to dislike Dreher, for that matter). Nonetheless, Dreher does have a knack for writing accessible commentary, he can tell a good story, and he is a fine sketch of character. One of his many confessions is that he still has enough “smarty-pants” sarcasm to make him “wince at the idea of writing hopeful books.” Yet as didactic and confessional as this one can get, How Dante Can Save Your Life really is a hopeful book.
Towards the end of the book, writing about Dante’s exile from his hometown of Florence, Dreher writes “Each of us lives in exile from the life we would like to have, or that we think we deserve.” What finally allows Dreher freedom from exile is his embrace – not merely with intellect, but with a whole heart – of his Christian faith. Through Dante’s theological vision of “the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars,” Dreher finds the real road home – to a God and Father who both loves him unconditionally and gives him the strength to love. The man changes, and when his father falls deathly ill at the book’s end, Dreher is finally able to love him as he ought.
For a lot of people who have difficult relationships with their family, with their hometown – for the people who, like Dante and Dreher, find themselves in spiritual exile – How Dante Can Save Your Life will not only resonate, but give hope. This book proclaims that the way home “out of the dark woods” can be indeed be found. And that makes it worth reading. If as a moral and spiritual writer Dreher is not yet the equal of, say, C. S. Lewis, parts of this book are as profound and moving as Lewis’s own memoir A Grief Observed. No mean feat, that.
Like Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Dante’s Commedia confronts Dreher with the call: “You must change your life.” At its best, How Dante Can Your Save Your Life brings that challenge to 21st-century readers loud and clear.