The Life Dante Saves May Be Your Own
Five days until publication! Use the “Look Inside” feature on the Amazon.com page for How Dante Can Save Your Life to see if this book might be for you. You might be surprised. Because the entire short introductory chapter is viewable there, I’m going to post it here:
I don’t much like poetry. never have. which makes what happened to me when I stumbled into Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy all the more miraculous.
Dante’s epic saved my life.
This medieval masterpiece, perhaps the greatest poem ever written, reached me when I thought I was unreachable, and lit the way out of a dark wood of depression, confusion, and a stress-related autoimmune disease that, had it persisted, would have dangerously degraded my health.
Dante helped me understand the mistakes and mistaken beliefs that brought me to this dead end. He showed me that I had the power to change, and revealed to me how to do so. Most important of all, the poet gave me a renewed vision of life.
Maybe you think about the Divine Comedy—if you think of it at all— as one of those great books you ought to have read but never got around to. Or maybe you did read it in high school or college and didn’t really understand what the big deal was. This was me in the summer of 2013: a middle-aged man, lost and struggling, who never imagined a fourteenth-century poem would have anything to do with his twenty-first-century life.
Little did I know that Dante Alighieri, the failed Tuscan politician beggared by exile, knew me better than I knew myself. The Commedia, as his poem is called in the original Italian, is radical stuff. You will not be the same after reading it. How could you be? All of life is in there.
Dante’s tale is a fantasy about a lost man who finds his way back to life after walking through the pits of hell, climbing up the mountain of purgatory, and ascending to the heights of heaven. But it’s really a story about real life and the incredible journey of our lives, yours and mine.
The Commedia is a seven-hundred-year-old poem honored as a pinnacle of western civilization. But it’s also a practical guide to life, one that promises rescue, restoration, and freedom. This book, How Dante Can Save Your Life, tells the story of how the treasures of wisdom buried in the Commedia’s 14,233 lines gave me a rich new life.
Though the Commedia was written by a faithful Catholic, its message is universal. You don’t have to be a Catholic, or any sort of believer, to love it and to be changed by it. And though mine is a book that’s ultimately about learning to live with God, it is not a book of religious apologetics; it is a book about finding our own true path. Like the Commedia it celebrates, this book is for believers who struggle to hold on to their faith when religious institutions have lost credibility. It’s a book for people who have lost faith in love, in other people, in the family, in politics, in their careers, and in the possibility of worldly success. Dante has been there too. He gets it.
This is a book about sin, but not sin in the clichéd, pop-culture sense of rule breaking and naughtiness. In Dante, sin is the kind of thing that keeps us from flourishing and living up to our fullest potential, and it’s also the kind of thing that savages marriages, turns neighbor against neighbor, destroys families, and ruins lives. And sin is not, at heart, a violation of a legalistic code, but rather a distortion of love. in Dante, sinners—and we are all sinners—are those who love the wrong things, or who love the right things in the wrong way. I had never thought about sin like that. This concept unlocked the door to a prison in which I had been living all my life. The cell opened from the inside, but I had not been able to see it.
This is also, in many ways, a book about exile. What does it mean to know you can never go home? This was Dante’s dilemma—and in a different sense, it was mine. Three years ago, when I returned after nearly three decades to live in my Louisiana hometown, I thought I had ended a restless journey that had taken me all over America, searching for a place where I could be settled and content. T my shock and heartbreak, I was wrong. The most difficult journey lay ahead of me: the journey within myself. Dante showed me the way through. He can do the same for you.
Until a few years back, I had never read the Odyssey and never thought to do so, except in the eat-your-broccoli sense that all cultured westerners must eventually read Homer. When my young son Matthew’s class took up the ancient Greek epic, I read along with him so I could discuss it with my boy. It turned out to be one of the most thrilling intellectual adventures of my life, one that was even more pleasurable because it was a voyage I made with my son.
Matt and I talked constantly about how the challenges the hero, Odysseus, faced are like those we contend with in our own lives. When Matt and I were deep in conversation, the world of the Odyssey seemed more real than our own. Great art speaks with wisdom and authority to what is eternal in the human condition. If we can learn to see these artworks with fresh eyes, they can help us to understand our own lives and worlds in new ways.
The Commedia is a work of awesome complexity, a labyrinth of spiritual, moral, philosophical, and psychological insight. It has inspired poets, clergy, and scholars for seven centuries. But it is also meant for ordinary readers. Dante wrote his masterpiece not in Latin but in the language of the common people because he wanted ordinary folks to follow him on the pilgrimage out of the dark wood and into the light of the starry heavens. The Commedia is a work of the highest art, but it is also immensely practical.
For the poem to work its magic on the reader, it has to be taken up into the moral imagination in a personal way. You have to engage in dialogue with our Florentine guide along the pilgrim’s path. When I gave myself over to him, I found that Dante is not a remote figure from an alien world but a warm companion with whom I had far more in common than I could have imagined. He is simply a fellow wayfarer who has seen great things, both terrifying and glorious, along life’s way, and wants to tell you all about it.
A caution: if you are looking for a scholarly book introducing Dante and the Commedia as a work of literature, How Dante Can Save Your Life is not for you. This is not a literary analysis but a personal view. It’s a self- help book for people who may not read self-help books, but who are curious and delight in journeys of self-discovery along roads not often taken. Nothing would make me happier than for you to finish this book and take up the Commedia—but it’s not strictly necessary.
I must warn you about something else before we continue. Many people lost in their own dark wood may convince themselves that the dark wood is all there is, that the journey of life is without direction, and that it can best be endured by taking one’s pleasures where one can. The world is full of those willing to dissuade you from this arduous pilgrimage to liberty, love, and happiness. and it is true: there is no easy way out.
Some people, though, know in their hearts that staying put is to surrender to slavery. They have eyes to see the sunlight through the forbidding canopy, and ears to hear the voice of a trustworthy guide calling them to take the hard road to true freedom. The Commedia invites you to stand up, get moving, and become the hero of your own life. Go into the deep, find out who you are, discover who you can be, and return to your everyday life changed—maybe even saved.
It happened to me. It can happen to you too. if you want to be a hero, I say to you, as Virgil said to the pilgrim Dante, “Let us go. The long road urges us.”
Sounds like something you might like? Pre-order it here, or go to your local bookstore on Tuesday. If you live in the Baton Rouge area, I’ll be signing books at Barnes & Noble Citiplace on Tuesday night at 7pm.