I’ve noticed in conversation lately a couple of things keeping people away from How Dante Can Save Your Life.

1. “I’ve never read Dante.” Doesn’t matter. This book is for you. I wrote it with you in mind. I also wrote it so it wouldn’t seem like repetition for those who have read Dante. A reader I talked to on my recent travels said, “I don’t know how you did it” — he meant making it a book that’s equally appealing to those experienced with Dante, and newcomers — “but you did it.” I’ll tell you how I did it: an extremely talented woman named Alexis Gargagliano was my editor. Anyway, don’t let never having read Dante put you off of this book. Remember, I had never read him either until I stumbled into the Divine Comedy two summers ago. I wrote this book for someone like I was that summer: curious, but too intimidated by Dante to give him a try.

2. “I’m just not that interested in literary analysis.” Me neither; How Dante isn’t that. I mean, it’s got some of that, but mostly it is a memoir and a spiritual self-help manual (I hate the term “self-help,” so I’ve written a self-help book for people who cringe at the idea of self-help books). This is partly an explanation of the poem, but mostly it is an account of applying the lessons in the poem to real-life problems.

Here’s a passage from the book that illustrates how that works. Where this picks up, I have been talking about the corrupting power of the Image — that is, how the representation of something can deceive and paralyze us, and allow us to become captive to its dark potency. Even the image of something good, if we give it ultimate power over ourselves. I used as an example the Catholic bishops who allowed so much sexual abuse of children to go on, not because they necessarily wanted to see children abused — I don’t believe that they did — but because to them, the image of a scandal-free, all-holy Church was their idol. We are all subject to this. In the book, I accuse myself of doing this about Family and Place, though deep down, I didn’t realize what I was doing. Here’s where the discussion picks up:

The malign power of the image is the next challenge Dante and Virgil face in Inferno. They approach the city of Dis, a citadel protected by walls of iron glowing red from the heat of the Inferno. Till now, the sins Dante and Virgil have faced are connected with the appetite. The iron walls of Dis symbolize that beyond this point, the sins punished are those having to do with a hardened will.

The demons guarding Dis will not grant them entrance. Virgil’s powers fail him for the first time on the journey. The pilgrim turns white with fear, but anxious Virgil bucks him up by telling him God has promised to send help.

Suddenly “three hideous women” appear, warning the two travelers to leave, or else they will summon Medusa, the monster from Greek mythology, whose gaze turns all those who meet it to stone.

“Turn your back and keep your eyes shut,” Virgil orders. He is so afraid for Dante that he puts his own hands over the pilgrim’s eyes to protect him.

The meaning of this dramatic moment has to do with the limitations of both intellect and the power of reason. Here at the gates of Dis, Virgil, sometimes considered the embodiment of reason, is up against a force too great for his considerable powers. Only divine assistance can save them now.

This Medusa moment has roots in Dante’s youth. Earlier in his life, the poet wrote a series of dazzling poems about the donna pietra, or stone lady. She was a heartless woman who would not return his obsessive love, thereby leaving his will powerless before her image. Here in Inferno, the pilgrim Dante faces a legendary woman with the power to freeze him in place with a single stare. And reason cannot help him conquer her.

We often underestimate our own weakness in the face of compelling images. In his Confessions, the fifth-century saint Augustine of Hippo wrote about his young friend Alypius, a Roman law student of strong moral convictions. His friends invited him to go to the gladiatorial games at the Colosseum, and after first refusing, Alypius agreed, saying that he would keep his eyes closed during the gory parts.

At the games, a roar from the crowd was too much to resist. Certain that he could handle what he saw without losing control over his will Alypius uncovered his eyes. It was a terrible mistake. Augustine writes:

He fell more dreadfully than the other man whose fall had evoked the shouting; for by entering his ears and persuading his eyes to open the noise effected a breach through which his mind—a mind rash rather than strong, all the weaker for presuming to trust in itself rather than in [God], as it should have done—was struck and brought down. As he saw the blood he gulped the brutality along with it; he did not turn away but fixed his gaze there and drank in the frenzy, not aware of what he was doing.”
[St. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding]

There’s an old-fashioned Catholic phrase, “custody of the eyes,” that refers to one’s obligation to be careful what one allows oneself to see. It’s a quaint-sounding concept today, but a surprisingly useful one.

One of the best things my wife ever did for me was to challenge me early in our marriage about my habit of watching Jerry Springer and other trash-TV shows. I got a big kick out of laughing at the dolts and mouth breathers confessing their sleazy sins on TV and getting into fistfights. I was watching it ironically, or at least that’s what I told myself.

Julie wasn’t having it. “You don’t want to be that guy,” she said. “You don’t want to be the guy who takes pleasure in watching people degrade themselves and behave like animals.” Actually, I didn’t mind being that guy at all. It was fun. But my wife showed me that I was training my conscience to find amusement in things that ought to horrify me, or at least move me to pity and compassion for people who degrade themselves publicly.

My sister, Ruthie, was no stick-in-the-mud, but she hated those who laughed at the expense of others, especially poor people. So did my father. I found it far too easy to treat those I didn’t know as abstractions.

One night the summer after I graduated from college, I was in St. Francisville with some Baton Rouge friends drinking at a saloon. My pals and I had had far too much to drink, and one of our group, the cleverest, was leading a tipsy old farmer to make a fool of himself in conversation. My buddies and I thought it was hilarious. Daddy took me aside for a word.
“You boys leave that man alone,” Daddy said. “Y’all are being cruel.”

“Oh, come on, Daddy, he’s just an old drunk.”

“He’s got dignity, son,” my father said. “If he wants to get drunk, that’s on him. Y’all got no business helping him act like an idiot. Now stop it.”

I eased back to the bar and quietly called my friends off. We all went back to Mama and Daddy’s place that night and crashed. The next morning at breakfast, I remembered what my father had said to me, and was ashamed. I had reduced a human being to an image for my own amusement.

See what I’m doing there? I’m bringing the things I read in Dante into the story of my own life, and allowing Dante’s story to judge my history, and to bend the future chapters I will write toward goodness, toward truth, toward God.

That’s what the book is like. Really, I hope you will give it a shot. The Amazon.com robot is standing by, awaiting your order. If even Uncle Chuckie loved the bookhorizontaldante, how can you go wrong?

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