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Finding Yourself in Dante

A couple of readers have sent this rave Guardian review [1]of a short new introduction to the work of Dante. Excerpt:

Hainsworth and Robey begin with Ulysses’s speech in “Canto 26” of the Inferno: “Fatti non foste a viver come bruti … ” Or in their translation: “You were not made to live like brute beasts, / but to pursue virtue and knowledge.” As the book reminds us, these lines helped carry Primo Levi [2] (in If This Is a Man [3]) through his darkest times in Auschwitz. They represent the core principles that motivated Dante himself, and yet, Ulysses is speaking as one of the eternally damned: his body is hidden, enveloped in a double-tongued flame, and Dante cannot address him directly. Ulysses’s injunction is freighted with ironies and complications. The business of sending sinners to judgment is not a simple one.

The authors do a great job of alerting us to the many layers of meaning, and of possible interpretation, to Dante’s work without making it sound intimidating; they emphasise its richness and help us grasp why this poem has fascinated readers for seven centuries.

What a terrific thing for the author of the review, Nicholas Lezard, to point out. Before starting with Dante, I always assumed that the Inferno was a simple medieval morality tale. No, no, no. In this canto, Ulysses speaks truth about the greatness of man, but the fact that he is damned, in the circle of the False Counselors, is meant to teach us a lesson about how manipulative people can speak noble truths for selfish, and indeed damnable, ends. Ulysses’s marvelous lines are part of an address he gave to his exhausted crew, trying to convince them to transgress a forbidden boundary — an act that ultimately led to their deaths. That Dante identifies how we can talk ourselves — or others — into doing things that can destroy us, all the while deceiving ourselves into thinking we are doing the right thing, shows how complex Dante’s moral vision is.

More from the review:

There is something almost uncanny about how this book makes the work of a long-dead poet from another culture come alive: it even helps the non-Italian speaker get to grips with the way Dante uses language (he was, like Shakespeare, a great linguistic innovator). “All men desire to know,” as Dante quotes Aristotle in his Convivio; and this book imparts knowledge as well as encouraging us to find it ourselves.

What I hope my book, How Dante Can Save Your Life [4], does for readers is not only encourage them to find knowledge in the Commedia, but more importantly, to show them how to find themselves in its pages. This morning I’m finishing a magazine piece about Charles Featherstone’s extraordinary memoir, The Love That Matters [5], and I’m struck by certain parallels between his book and mine. Both of them are about exiles searching for home, and both have injustice, and the inability to deal with it, as a chief obstacle to finding a sense of inner peace.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that this really is the human condition. Very few of us really feel at home, even when we are at home. And very few of us handle injustice well. We either ignore it by force of will, participate in it, fight it hard (though it’s a battle that cannot ever be won), brood over it, and so forth. How do you reconcile your own suffering with a God who loves? Here’s a passage from How Dante, in which I’m going to confession with my priest, who addresses me by my patron saint’s name:

After vespers one warm October night, I took my spiteful passions to Father Matthew in confession.

“I know my anger is wrong, and that’s why I’m in confession,” I said. “I realized, reading Dante this week, that I resented all of them for being happy without us. I know it’s not right, but I can’t get out from under this anger.”

I explained that I felt like I was living the prodigal son parable, but in this telling, the father is not running out to welcome the long-lost son but rather taking the side of the bitter older brother and not letting the younger one come through the gate.

“That’s tough,” Father Matthew said. “So what do you want?”

“I want justice. It’s not fair, the way they do me.”
“You want justice?” he said, chuckling. “What is justice? You have no right to expect justice. It’s nice if you get it, but if you don’t, that doesn’t release you from the commandment to love. The elder brother in the prodigal son story stood on justice, but his father stood on love.”

“Okay, but I think that if I do that, they’re going to win.”

“Win? This is a contest, Benedict?” he said. “I don’t know about you, but from where I sit, it doesn’t look to me like you’re winning much of anything by hanging on to all of this.”

The Commedia is a 14,000-word long meditation on exile, on love, and on justice (and other things, but certainly those three are fundamental). Like no other book I ever read, I found myself in its pages — my broken, needy, striving, hurting, lost self. And I found a way to help that guy. Ron Herzman calls How Dante “certainly the book for those who previously have only come across Dante as a name,” and I hope that is true. I think of the book as applied humanities, or, how a Great Book and the story it tells change your life in a way you could not have imagined.

I’m reading right now a fantastic book, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought [6], by the University of Virginia historian Robert Louis Wilken. I’m preparing to undertake a book about the Benedict Option, and as part of the work, I’m trying to learn everything I can about the early church. This Wilken passage made me nod with recognition:

For early Christian thinkers the Bible, finally, was a book about how to live. Gods Word is not something to be looked at, but acted on. Saint Bernard, the medieval mystic, said ti well: the interpreter must see himself in that which is said. In the early church Gregory the Great stated this spiritual truth more eloquently than anyone else. In Gregory’s life of Saint Benedict he was asked by Peter his interlocutor what it means for Benedict to “live with himself.” Gregory took the phrase to be an interpretation of the words of the prodigal son, who had journeyed to a far country only to squander his inheritance. When the country was ravaged by a great famine he became so hungry that he would gladly have eaten the slop fed to swine. At that point in the parable he realizes how grievously he has sinned against his father and the evangelist says, “He came to himself” (Luke 15:17).

How is it, asks Gregory, that a person who is always with himself can be said to have “come to himself”? The phrase, says Gregory, means “search one’s soul continuously” and see oneself always in the presence of God and attend to one’s life and actions. Job came to himself when he heard the words of God, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4). In the same way, explains Gregory, “it is right for us to be brought back to our own hearts by the things that were said to holy Job. For we understand the words of God more truly when we ‘search out [ourselves] in them.'”

I certainly would not compare Dante’s Commedia to the Bible, though in the end, it is impossible to understand without reference to the Bible, in which its entire vision is based. But Gregory’s point about being able to understand a text better when we “search out [ourselves]” in it is profoundly and thrillingly true about the Commedia. It is hard for me to imagine a single attentive reader, Christian or not, who cannot find himself in Dante’s poem, because the Commedia is such a vivid, vital work about man and his struggles — including our struggles to feel at home in the world, our struggles with injustice, and our struggles with anger over our sense of being outcast.

How Dante [7] is about my own deep, almost lifelong sense of exile, and how I never felt it more acutely than when I came back to the place of my birth to settle. I realized in the writing of it that the people in my family who, in a sense, declined to let me come home fully, were, and are, themselves in a kind of exile. The right order of the world, as they see it, has been upset, and nothing can make it right. First, I, the beloved son, was not like them. Then I moved away from home, which, to them, was a rejection of their love. Then, worst of all, the beloved daughter, in the prime of her life, was struck down by cancer.

It was, it is, unjust. Even when I don’t believe their feeling of injustice really is injustice (for example, I don’t think it is unjust that I was and am not like them all), that doesn’t change the fact that they experience it as unjust, as a disruption in harmony, as a violation of the order of things. In their own way, they were just as lost and exiled and angry as I was. It’s the human condition.

How do we live with that? It is not something we can escape, try though we do. Is it something we must simply endure? Or is there a better way? Is there a way for that suffering to transform us, through love, into a new person? As a Christian, I accepted in theory that transformation is possible, and in fact it is only through suffering that we, like the Son of Man, are “glorified”. But I did not really know what that meant until I walked with Dante through the pits of Hell, climbed with him the mountain of Purgatory, and soared with him through the heights of Paradise, to see the face of God. I came back from the journey changed, and wrote How Dante [7] to tell others what I saw on the pilgrimage, and to urge them to go on the Dante walk themselves, to discover who they are, and to come back changed for the better.

A friend of mine is suffering right now. He has lost nearly everything he held dear. He is flat on his back. Nothing makes sense to him right now. I’m going to go visit him today, and if he is open to listening to me, I’m going to tell him what Dante did for me — or, to be precise, what God did for me through reading Dante. Dante’s story is my story and Charles Featherstone’s story and my woebegone friend’s story. And it is a story that begins as tragedy, but ends as comedy — that is, happily — through the power of Love. I am a witness to the power of this poem to heal and renew. And I apologize to readers who are bored by it all, can’t stop talking about it.

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21 Comments To "Finding Yourself in Dante"

#1 Comment By Stephen On March 18, 2015 @ 9:35 am

You need to read “St. Benedict for the Laity” for your new book….

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#2 Comment By Alison On March 18, 2015 @ 10:21 am

I am not bored by these posts at all, and I really enjoy when you write about religious matters, the Commedia, Dante, and books. What I appreciate about your Christian world view is that it is not shallow and that you recognize that suffering is a part of what we will deal with as human beings. I would rather learn about ways to deal with the suffering instead of taking measures to avoid the suffering because in the end those measures will fail us. There is so much emphasis in today’s culture on being happy, and doing whatever it takes to make us happy even if those things are destructive. I see this kind of behavior all around me–and I am guilty of it, too, but I try to recognize the damaging effects of such behavior in myself.

As an Orthodox Christian, I enjoy these kinds of posts–and this is why I keep coming back to read you even when I find myself disagreeing with you on other matters. You are an example of an intellectual Christian who thinks deeply about important matters–and that is hard to find in today’s world.

[NFR: Thanks for this. To be clear, the Divine Comedy is about how to deal with suffering, as opposed to finding ways to avoid it. I think you get this, but I just want to be sure there’s no confusion. — RD]

#3 Comment By Bo Bonner On March 18, 2015 @ 10:24 am

Rod, if you are writing a book on the Benedict option, you MUST read John Senior’s books “The Death of Christian Culture” and “The Restoration of Christian Culture.” If you read these, you will see that Senior’s vision of the Pearson program at KU (the one Bishop Conley among others went through) was a beginning of a “Benedict Option.” Thus him lifting up the Monastery as necessary for Christian rebirth, and thus how we got Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma in God’s Providence.

#4 Comment By Brendan Haug On March 18, 2015 @ 10:44 am

If you’re interested in digesting as much as you can about the early Church, I highly recommend a book by Berkeley’s Susanna Elm entitled Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Vision of Rome (full disclosure, Prof. Elm was a PhD adviser of mine so I have a soft spot for her and her work). The book has a great deal to say about the philosophical milieu in which the early Church arose. At nearly 600 pp. it’s a door-stop to be sure but you can get a good sense of the narrative and argument in this review: [9]

#5 Comment By Devinicus On March 18, 2015 @ 10:48 am

All right, Rod, all right. I surrender! You’ve worn me down with all this talk of love and suffering and pilgrimage and salvation. Because of you, I’ve just purchased the Musa translation of “The Inferno”. Hopefully I can make it up the “The Commedia” by the time your book is released. 😉

[NFR: Good man! — RD]

#6 Comment By itsmike On March 18, 2015 @ 11:08 am

I’ve been lurking through these posts, and I think sometimes the reason I have a hard time getting through your Dante posts is because I relate to them a bit too closely. This one in particular hit very close to home due to recent events that have me reflecting on the injustice of life, just as you were talking about here. I’ve had some very recent events that have really brought me down, and was even thinking about reconciling God’s love with how unfair things have been over the last year or two when I read what you had to say this morning. Believe me, lots of us are struggling with similar things, and I feel ready for a course in “applied humanities.” Apparently Dante will be part of my syllabus.

#7 Comment By JoeC On March 18, 2015 @ 11:16 am

Rod,
Wilken is awesome.

Carol Straw wrote one of the definitive books on Gregory the Great. I read it last year, and, although it’s not easy reading, I think you would profit. The big question of the book is how to live as a Christian in the world when you can no longer be in the monastery. (He was a monk before he became pope.) The other scholars who you would like are Robert Markus and Peter Brown. Both are learned yet readable. Markus has some very important ideas about secularity that might interest you.

Happy reading!

#8 Comment By Charles Cosimano On March 18, 2015 @ 12:02 pm

I’m actually looking forward to reading the book. I’ve just finished a work of fiction, which is something I have not done in 25 years, and the principal character is named for one of the demons Dante encounters. He is a demon in human form, and the protagonist of course.

It is of course necessary to remember that each deals with the thorny wood in their own way. Some may need a guide out of it. Some may just say, “Hand me that chainsaw!” and hew their way out of it.

#9 Comment By Leapold On March 18, 2015 @ 12:13 pm

This is what I tell myself about the dark wood of mid-life: “It’s better than the Wasteland.”

Can’t wait to read your book.

#10 Comment By Lisa On March 18, 2015 @ 1:19 pm

Alison:”As an Orthodox Christian, I enjoy these kinds of posts–and this is why I keep coming back to read you even when I find myself disagreeing with you on other matters. You are an example of an intellectual Christian who thinks deeply about important matters–and that is hard to find in today’s world.”

I agree with Alison 100% on this issue.

#11 Comment By KD On March 18, 2015 @ 1:26 pm

Great post Rod, but I have no spiritual insight so I can’t comment (I can just talk politics). I do have a request, which would be for any traditional exegesis on the Older Brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the one who wants justice. [I believe it bears some relation to Cain/Able.]

#12 Comment By Sam On March 18, 2015 @ 4:03 pm

Rod I’ve always wanted to ask you what you think about Dante placing Brutus and Cassius on the same level of suffering as Judas. What do you think about Dante believing that Julius Caesar was chosen by God to rule Italy? It just seems strange that God would condemn two politicians for betraying a would be despot (all be it a very accomplished one) to the same level of suffering as the one who betrayed Christ.
I’d love to hear what you think about this.

[NFR: I found it odd too when I first encountered it. My understanding is that Dante believed that the answer to the political chaos tearing Italy apart was a strong monarch. He was a monarchist, and wrote a treatise on government calling for monarchy. I don’t share Dante’s political views, but they were certainly not unusual for his time and place. — RD]

#13 Comment By bones On March 18, 2015 @ 4:55 pm

It was posts like this that got me off my @$$ and reading the Commedia – and I had skipped over all the posts you did while you were reading it.

#14 Comment By D.P. Smith On March 18, 2015 @ 6:06 pm

Off topic: did i miss the Chesterton conference review? And is he being seriously considered for sainthood? Thanks

#15 Comment By jaybird On March 18, 2015 @ 6:14 pm

So after a year-and-a-half-or so of basically ignoring all the Dante stuff on this blog, I went and picked up a copy of the Comedia at B&N last week. I dunno, I was an English major, and I definitely enjoyed and found much to relate to in many of the esteemed works of the Western Canon that I read – The Canterbury Tales, Grendel, A Pilgrim’s Progress, Paradise Lost, a raft of Shakespeare, etc., but so far, I find Dante to be pretty slow-going. To be sure, trying to follow the footnotes on all of the ins-and-outs of 14th century Florentine politics makes for tedious reading, but I even have a hard time finding the supposed “lessons” of each Canto, and to be totally honest, I find the supposed “punishments” for the sinners in Hell don’t really translate all that well to the modern sensibility. I think that Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God, or even the movie Se7en does allegorical/didactic moral horror much better. From what other background I’ve read, it seems most people find Inferno to be by far the most compelling and vivid section of the whole work, so it’s with some trepidation that I consider having to slog through the rest of the poem… so far, I guess my verdict is “Medieval Christian Fan-Fiction”.

Just my 2¢, your mileage may vary, etc.

[NFR: Which translation are you using? — RD]

#16 Comment By jaybird On March 18, 2015 @ 6:19 pm

On the plus side, I will say that I find some of the descriptive imagery very evocative and clever – i.e.: the scatter of demons and devils before the approach of an Archangel like that of frogs fleeing the approach of a man wading through a bog, etc.

#17 Comment By jaybird On March 18, 2015 @ 10:43 pm

Carlyle-Okey-Wicksteed

[NFR: I’ve never heard of it. When was it done? I think if I had first encountered Dante in one of the fusty old translations, or in Dorothy Sayers’ translation, I might never have gotten far. — RD]

#18 Comment By jaybird On March 19, 2015 @ 7:01 am

Late 19th Century I think. The language is slightly archaic, but not impenetrable.

[NFR: Before you give up on the Commedia, try Mark Musa’s translation, or the Hollanders’, or Anthony Esolen’s. — RD]

#19 Comment By sigaliris On March 19, 2015 @ 9:10 am

I’m still not bored, Rod. I’ve pre-ordered your book and will probably buy several more copies for people who might be interested. I first read Dante (in translation, of course) when I was about 12. I came to it by a circuitous route. I read children’s versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, then discovered complete verse translations on my parents’ shelves. I discovered that I liked long epics written in poetry, and looked for more. I found the Aeneid, and then the Divine Comedy. It was the old Penguin edition of the Dorothy Sayers translation that hooked me. But that was a long time ago, and I was an odd child. I agree that anyone coming to the Comedy now should try to read it in a version that captures the vigor, clarity, and immediacy of Dante’s language. Dante is like Homer in that, when I read him, I feel as if he is still alive, speaking directly to me across the gulf of centuries and cultures.

[NFR: Yes! That was what struck me about the Fagles translation of The Odyssey — it was so *alive*. — RD]

#20 Comment By Winston On March 19, 2015 @ 3:49 pm

Have you visited here:
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CHRISTIAN CAVE CHURCHES AND MONASTERIES IN CAPPADOCIA TURKEY

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The Birth Of Christianity In Cappadocia

#21 Comment By Dan Zeiss On March 20, 2015 @ 6:13 am

Rod, I pre-ordered your book and a copy of the Divine Comedy. I have never read Dante’s work. Do you recommend that I read your book in its entirety first and then start Dante or read them together?

[NFR: Thanks for ordering my book. My book can be read pretty fast, and it is not an exhaustive account of every step of the way in the Commedia. It’s probably better to read mine first so you can have a sense of how I read it, and be in a better position to apply the things you learn in the Commedia to your own life. In other words, I will have given you a model for how reading the Commedia can help you think through some of your own struggles in light of Dante’s poem. You don’t want to rush through the Commedia, but rather savor it. — RD]