Dante and the Road Home
Today my new book How Dante Can Save Your Life is published. I hope you will go to a bookstore today and buy a copy, or order it online from that link. If you are in the Baton Rouge area, I hope you will come to the Barnes & Noble at Citiplace tonight to hear me talk about the book, and have me sign your copy.
This is a book about hope, and finding your way to hope, healing, and home after wandering in the desert — especially if you find yourself in a desert that you wrongly thought was going to be an oasis. The genesis of How Dante is in this passage from my previous book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, in which my niece Hannah, Ruthie’s oldest daughter, and I are having a meal together on our last night in Paris, and I was playing the philosophical windbag:
“Uncle Rod, you’re too intense!” she spat. “Remember, Mama made fun of you and your friend in college, sitting there talking about philosophy? She was happier than you, and she had a good life. Why shouldn’t I live that way?”
That stung. As we made our way through the oysters, I conceded that yes, my weakness was to overintellectualize everything, but that she had no way of knowing that her mother was happier than I. If happiness means the absence of internal conflict, then yes, Ruthie was happier.
“She kept that up by refusing to think about anything that upset her settled opinions,” I said. “That’s not going to work for you. You are too curious! If you decide you have to hide from the big questions to be happy, you are going to spend your whole life running faster and faster to stay ahead of them. You can’t live that way. It’s always better to live in the truth, as hard as it is, than to live a happy lie.”
We paid our bill and stepped stiff‐legged and nervous out into the cool night air. It began to rain softly. We walked back down the boulevard, toward Rue du Bac, looking for a place to have dinner after our oyster appetizer. The evening seemed to be listing beyond my control.
“Uncle Rod, I need to tell you something,” Hannah said, her voice rising. “I really think you and Aunt Julie should stop trying so hard to get close to Claire and Rebekah. It’s not going to work.”
“Because we were raised in a house where our Mama a lot of times had a bad opinion of you,” she said. “She never talked bad about you to us, but we could tell that she didn’t like the way you lived. We could hear the things she said, and Paw too. I had a bad opinion of you myself, until I started coming to visit y’all, and I saw how wrong they were.
“I was fifteen the first time I did that,” she continued. “My sisters are still young. They don’t know any different. All they know is how we were raised. It makes me sad to see you and Aunt Julie trying so hard, me knowing you’re not going to get anywhere. I don’t want y’all to be hurt.”
I was hurt. And furious because Hannah told me that her mother’s criticism carried on beyond that moment on Ruthie’s front porch the week of her diagnosis, when I thought everything was made right between us. Things were fine, Ruthie had said, but in truth they weren’t fine. With this sudden revelation, I felt trapped by my family’s legacy—and unable to do anything about it. How could I compete with the lasting power of Ruthie’s judgment—and, to a lesser extent, Paw’s? I wanted to be a different man, a better man, but in that emotionally charged moment it looked like Ruthie had closed the minds of her children to the possibility that I had anything worthwhile to offer them.
Little Way ended on a note of hope that things might change. But no matter what I did, things did not change.
And because of that, I became depressed and chronically ill with a stress-related autoimmune disorder. It was one of the best things ever to happen to me, because it led me to Dante, and through his amazing, miraculous poem, to a deeper healing than I had ever imagined. I am absolutely convinced Dante can do the same for you, whatever the dark wood in which you find yourself.
Here is a characteristic passage from the book. I’m commenting on a part of the Commedia in which Dante the pilgrim has entered into the Garden of Eden:
There is a river, and on the other side of it is a woman named Matelda, who tells the travelers that they are in humankind’s ancestral home.
“Those who in ancient times called up in verse
the age of gold and sang its happy state
dreamed on Parnassus of perhaps this very place.
“Here the root of humankind was innocent,
Here it is always spring, with every fruit in season.
This is the nectar of which the ancients tell.”
She means that the age-old longing of the poets for Utopia is a recollection of Eden deep in the human race’s collective memory. With Matelda’s words, I saw the journey of my life, including my persistent longing for home, in a new light. I had spent all my adult life searching for a lost paradise, a home where I belonged, where I felt loved and protected and at one with everything and everyone around me.
I knew now, from reading Dante, that I suffered from what the Welsh call hiraeth (pronounced “hear-wreth”), a boundless longing for a home from which you have been exiled, an unsatisfiable yearning for a home that may never have existed.
Pamela Petro, an American writer who fell in love with Wales, essayed about it in the Paris Review. She wrote, “To feel hiraeth is to feel a deep incompleteness and recognize it as familiar.”
So there is a word for this thing I feel, this desire that has defined the coming and going of my life, both on the map and in the landscape of my heart. Hiraeth was Loisie and Mossie’s red leather sofa, and pecan cookies the size of a quarter, and the aroma of the sweet olive tree, and the musky smell of Daddy at the end of a workday as I snuggled in his lap with Ruthie, and the neat’s-foot oil he taught me to rub into my baseball glove, and the bracing damp chill of a Louisiana winter’s day, when the only sensible thing to do is make a chicken and sausage gumbo. These images, these sounds, these tastes and smells, whispered to me, saying, You are safe, you are loved, everything is certain, and here we are together, at home.
I was sick because that land did not exist, and maybe had never existed at all. I once believed, falsely, that I could find this sense of harmony, of completion, in the arms of a woman. Then I believed I could find it in a big city on the East Coast. Underneath it all, I believed that this paradise existed back in Starhill, and that if only I tried hard enough, I could cross the Mississippi and return to the land I had lost.
I had returned, and discovered that my most cherished images were an illusion. There was no Garden of Eden waiting for me, and never had been. Loisie and Mossie’s
cabin had long since fallen into ruin, pulled down into the damp ground by vines, then sold off by their heirs, bulldozed, and built over by strangers. My sister was dead, and the reunited family that all of us—Daddy, Mama, Ruthie, and I—had dreamed of and hoped for was now revealed as a vain hope.
I did not have paradise. I had Starhill. I had my wife and children. I had my church, I had my writing, and I had friends whom I loved and who loved me. They wanted me as I was, not as I existed in their imagination. That world was right here, right now, and until God sent me Dante, Mike, and Father Matthew, I had been all but dead to it because of the hold the idealized past had on me.
I now see that in my lifelong brokenness, and in my eagerness to return to Eden, I came home expecting from my family what they, in their brokenness, could not or would not give. “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness,” Flannery O’Connor wrote. It was true, and I had been so bitter for so long.
But now I saw hope.
You will have to buy the book to read the whole thing. The redemption I had been seeking all my life only came once the painful truth knocked down my illusions. By losing that world, I gained the real world, full of grace. How Dante Can Save Your Life is the story of how that happened to me, and how it can happen for you, too. Angelina Stanford, in her review of the book, writes:
Sometimes a book falls into your hands at exactly the right moment. That’s what happened to me when I opened Dreher’s beautiful new book. So much so that I was tempted to write a review about how reading Dreher reading Dante saved my life. I expected to love the book because I love Dante and I wanted to understand his work better. But I had not expected that in the pages of Dreher’s book (just like Dreher had not expected of Dante’s book) that I would find my own story. The human condition, the journey of the soul—just like the literature that speaks of it—is universal. Even when the details differ, the story of the struggle to move from suffering to healing and the longing for redemption is the story of every life.
Dreher chose Dante as his guide to understanding his own spiritual journey. But in this book, Dreher can in turn be our guide, teaching us not only how to think about Dante, but teaching us how to interpret the story of our own lives. This book, quite unexpectedly, gave me hope about my own suffering and showed me a way forward, at the same time that it affirmed and deepened my love of literature. It can do that for you too. I hope that this book falls into your hands at exactly the right moment.
I do too. The book is out today. Here is a post I wrote earlier that includes the full text of the first chapter. Take a look, and see if what I describe speaks to you. As Angelina Stanford says, Dante’s story is everybody’s story. The Divine Comedy is a book that reads you. There is nothing else like it on earth.
Tonight I’m in Baton Rouge, but on Thursday, if you are in the Philadelphia region, come out to hear me speak at Eastern University at 8pm. The event is free and open to the public, but Eastern asks that you register first, so they’ll know how many to expect. Registration and location details here. Books will be available on site, and I will sign them after the lecture.
The rest of the travel schedule looks like this, for now:
April 20: South Bend, IN; Notre Dame University, DeBartolo Hall, Room 129, 5pm.
April 21: Houston, TX; Houston Baptist University, Belin Chapel, 8pm (with Dr. Louis Markos); information here.
April 23: Boston, MA; Boston College, Fulton Hall, Room 511; 5:30pm
April 29: Dallas, TX; Barnes & Noble, 7700 West Northwest Highway (near North Park mall), 7pm.
April 30: Dallas, TX; private event for TAC members and donors, 6pm. Want to come? More information here.
I’ll leave you with this photo of my daughter’s illustration of Inferno, Canto III. Clearly, Doré has nothing on her:
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