Ed West’s Western Canon Club
The English writer Ed West, in his Wrong Side of History Substack newsletter, writes today about his frustration with how little he knows about a lot of things he wishes he did -- like, for example, classical music. He says he doesn't know where to start, or how (me too, man, me too). He says that YouTube is full of enthusiastic and knowledgeable amateurs spreading knowledge, which is great, says Ed, but really, learning works better in person. He goes on:
That is why I’m proposing an idea, for a sort of club where people come and listen to talks about a particular feature of the western canon — Virgil, Goethe, Milton, Van Eyck, whatever — and fill in all these enormous holes in our knowledge. It would be a bit like an old-fashioned salon, or a Lyceum club. Although there are local salons still running, this would ideally be national. This canon club — I’m open to suggestions for a different name — would initially start in one city, presumably London, but if there was further interest we could help set up branches across Britain (and then even maybe abroad). Each local club would run semi-independently, but the wider organisation would help with arranging speakers and so on.
It might be useful for authors wanting to sell books, but the club could also hire enthusiastic amateurs to just spread their knowledge for the sheer sake of it. Maybe there won’t be any interest in the events, but maybe there will — and I think there is a tendency to underestimate the public’s enthusiasm for culture.
A lot of people want to learn more, there aren’t really any mainstream institutions directing them where to go, and if you don’t know where to start, it’s that much harder. They also don’t like being hectored and are put off by the intrusion of theory, not to mention a very predictable sort of politicisation that tries to fit old works of art into a modern framing. (Making it ‘relevant’ — shudder).
They also don’t want to be talked down to, one of many reasons for the stand-out podcast success of the 2020s, The Rest is History. Not only does the show exude a huge enthusiasm for learning, but there is also an assumption that the audience aren’t drooling morons, in contrast to the general tone of television.
He goes on:
I don’t know about how the organisation would work, or where you host these gatherings. As someone suggested, churches would be an ideal place. If you’re interested in attending one of these salons, or have suggestions about how to set them up, please respond in the comments (anyone can comment on this post), perhaps mentioning your city or town.
Here again is a link to the post online, if you want to read it all, or care to comment.
I think that's a great idea, and I would be at a salon like that in one hot second. Funny, but last night was a really bad night for me. I can tell you without fear of contradiction that if you think you've been strong and resilient in your unasked-for divorce proceedings, and you are proud of yourself for having gotten through it all without tears, despite the pain, and you think that you are a good guy for having managed, somehow, not to be pulled down by the undertow of sadness ... then for God's sake, don't spend an hour late at night listening to every online version you can find of Stevie Nicks singing "Landslide". Trust me on this.
I woke up this morning thinking about Dante, and what a difference it made discovering him, almost by accident, when I was in crisis back in 2012. The story is a familiar one to readers of this blog, so I won't go into it in depth. The gist of it is that I moved my wife and kids to my hometown to live near my family in the wake of my sister's untimely death, only to find out after we had arrived that they would never accept us, because we were City People. I fell chronically ill for years from the stress (said the rheumatologist). It was during this agonizing period that I discovered Dante's Divine Comedy -- a book that I knew little about, but the little bit I did know made me want to read it. But I thought it was impossible for me to do so, that this big book of medieval Tuscan poetry would be over my head.
Yet for some reason, I felt that I must read it ... and I did so with the help of accessible scholarly books, and a version of the Commedia with good notes. Because of the books that accompanied me on the journey, I can't really say that I read Dante by myself, but I kind of did, in the sense that I didn't have a teacher or a guide. It was absolutely life-changing -- indeed, life-saving, as I say in the title of the book I wrote about that experience, How Dante Can Save Your Life. I'm pretty sure it's the least-selling of all my books, but it's the one that means the most to me, because it's an intensely personal story of how a great work of literature pulled me out of the fire, and gave me a new vision of life. (Incidentally, if you want to read the book, know that I wrote it for people who have never read Dante, meaning that you don't have to have read Dante to understand the book and its lessons -- but if you get to the end of it and don't want to read Dante, then I will have been a failure.)
I read constantly, and always have several books going at once, but I rarely read fiction. Yet I learned from reading Dante that there are some life lessons, some truths, that you can best apprehend through fiction. The reason Dante was on my mind when I woke up this morning after that unanticipated journey through Landslide Valley last night was the conviction that I need to return to him again for help. That crisis sparked in 2012 by the shocking revelation of how my Louisiana family really saw us ended up triggering the longer-term crisis that destroyed my marriage. That is to say, my decision to move back to my hometown in search of family roots ended up costing me everything. Maybe you can go home again; I couldn't, as it turns out -- and the move there was fatal to my marriage, for terribly sad and complex reasons. Here today I sit in a kind of exile overseas, grateful to have found a landing place where I can do good work, but knowing that for the rest of my life, I can't go home in any sense of the word. Having tried to do right by my Louisiana family ended up robbing me of everything. I swear, it's like a novel -- or a long poem.
Because see, Dante has been there. He wrote his 14,000-line poem -- comprised of three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso -- out of the bitter experience of exile from his beloved Florence, from which he was sent away in 1302 by his political enemies, and told that if he tried to return, they would kill him. For a great man of the Middle Ages, exile from one's home city was a living death. And yet, it was the making of Dante as a poet and as a man. The Commedia, which he wrote in his exile years, is the story of literature's most famous long weekend: an Eastern Triduum trek through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, guided most of the way by Virgil, sent by heaven to rescue the stranded poet from the dark wood. It is a journey of painful discovery, during which the poet re-discovers the meaning of sin, his own complicity in the injustices that led to his ruin in Florence, and how to cooperate with the grace of God to be rebuilt and restored within, if not in the earthly life. As I write in the book, reading it, and going on this journey through the dark and unvisited places of my own heart, I learned things about myself that had never done. Small miracles happened. For example, this key passage from my book:
And yet there I was, behaving like Dante, standing at Farinata’s tomb arguing over things that once were but are no more. I too was caught up in the world that used to be: a world in which I tried to appease the household gods of family and place, thinking that if only I worked at it a little harder, they would accept me. Farinata could not move; Dante still had the freedom to walk on. I needed to get on down the road, so to speak.
What I could do, and what I did, was to recognize the extent to which in my heart of hearts I had always accepted this judgment and oriented my own interior life around it. The division existed tangibly in the world, and because of that, it existed in my soul as well. It came between God and me. I had always believed that God loved me but that he couldn’t possibly approve of me, no matter what I did. My spiritual life, I came to see, had been for many years oriented around appeasing a father God who was unappeasable. It had been built around the idea that if only I did the right thing to prove my love and loyalty, he would find me worthy of his love.
Once Dante unmasked this within me, I saw that I too had made false idols of family and place. It’s not that loving family and loving place are bad, but that they are only good relative to the ultimate good, which is unity with God. We were all professed Christians, but it sometimes seemed that the family’s real religion was ancestor worship.
In his beautiful little book The Return of the Prodigal Son, the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen writes of the exiled wastrel in the Gospel parable:
When the younger son was no longer considered a human being by the people around him, he felt the profundity of his isolation, the deepest loneliness one can experience. He was truly lost, and it was this complete lostness that brought him to his senses. He was shocked into the awareness of his utter alienation and suddenly understood that he had embarked on the road to death. . . . In fact, it was the loss of everything that brought him to the bottom line of his identity. He hit the bedrock of his sonship.
This is what happened to me. I had circled back on the road to home and found that I could not cross the threshold of my father’s house. The legacy of my dutiful sibling was a barrier whose gates would never really open. In a line that pierced my heart, Nouwen wrote, “I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.”
Despite parallels between my story and the Gospel parable, I had not thought of myself as a prodigal son, because unlike the wretched man of the parable, I had not squandered my inheritance in wild living in the world. But now I saw that I was, in fact, a prodigal, in the sense that I had looked for unconditional love in the wrong place. My father, for all his strength and virtue, and for all the love that he had for me, could not offer me that love without conditions. Nor could my sister.
It hit me that I had made myself a prodigal son by searching for unconditional love and security in a place where it could not exist. Only God the Father could offer what I wanted and needed. Suddenly it was clear: I had made family and place, and above all Daddy, into my gods.
I was not only a prodigal but also, in a sense, a heretic, an idol worshiper. My decades-long dream of coming back to take my rightful place among my family in our ancestral home had been revealed as an illusion by my homecoming. That fantasy was as much a Medusa to me now as Farinata’s Florence was to him.
Reading Dante had unearthed the torment that had dogged me throughout my religious life. I had never believed that God loved me. Oh, I knew on an abstract level that he loved me, because he is God, and God is supposed to love his creatures. It’s his duty. But I knew that I disappointed him. I was not the son he really wanted. When I was a Protestant, I didn’t believe that God loved me. When I was a Catholic, I didn’t believe it. And now that I was Orthodox, I still didn’t believe it. Not really. To affirm it in your mind, as I did, is not the same thing as taking it into your heart.
At last I knew why this had been impossible for me. As my father was on earth, so was my Father in heaven. He was so good, strong, and wise that his judgment on my worth (as I perceived it) must be true. If only I could make myself perfect, maybe he would accept me.
There it was. The lie, unveiled. I had enthroned family and place—and their personification, my father—in my heart in the place of God. This was the greatest sin that led me to the dark wood in the middle of the journey of my life. It was my sin, not the sins of others. I had to own it and repent of it. This sinful disposition, the refusal to believe that God the Father loved and affirmed me, formed an impassable barrier around my heart, one I had spent a lifetime reinforcing. Tearing down that wall would require nothing less than divine intervention.
But at least now I knew what I was dealing with.
A short time later, reading the story in Inferno of Pier della Vigna, trapped for eternity in Hell's grove of Suicides because he took his own life rather than live without the affection of the Holy Roman Emperor, to whom he had been personal secretary before their falling-out, I ended up in confession. More from the book:
“We are all unreliable narrators of our own lives, none of us authorities on the things we know most intimately,” said the classicist James J. O’Donnell in his biography of St. Augustine. None of the sinners in Inferno can be trusted to tell the truth about themselves—and this is part of their damnable condition. As I moved deeper into Dante’s tale, it occurred to me that the story I told myself about myself and the people in my life might not be true, or at least not true in the way I thought. Dante’s storytelling invited me to try to stand outside myself and see my world and the choices I had made in a new light.
I knew my confession was going to take a while, so I waited in the fellowship hall for everyone else to go first. Finally it was my turn. The interior of the church was so comforting in the last hour of a summer day. The walls and ceiling, painted cerulean to recall the veil of the Virgin, glowed faintly. The saints looked on silently from their icons on the walls, a cloud of witnesses floating in blue-green planes. The room still smelled of frankincense and beeswax from vespers. I crossed the nave, stood next to Father Matthew, kissed the Gospel book and a cross, then opened my heart.
“I had a real breakthrough this week,” I said. “Dante showed me something important. I think it might be the key to this thing.”
“Tell me.” Father Matthew never hurries anybody. He wants you to unburden your soul.
Standing next to him at the icon stand, I told him about Farinata and how his overwhelming devotion to family and place led him to damnation. I told Father Matthew about Cavalcante, Farinata’s tombmate, and how all he wanted to know from the pilgrim was how his son, a prominent Florentine poet, was doing.
“I saw my dad in these guys,” I said. “I’ve always seen him as sort of the king of West Feliciana Parish. He knows everything about this place.”
“Yeah, Mr. Ray seems like the kind of man you would go to if you needed to know how to do anything around here,” Father Matthew said.
“Exactly. And I respect him so much for that,” I said. “The problem is he defined his own character by his devotion to the land, and to his family as well.”
I told Father Matthew about the back-porch confession Daddy made to me shortly after my return. It was the most astonishing moment of humble self-revelation I had ever witnessed in him. My father, the embodiment of loyalty to family and place, told me one Sunday that his great regret in life was that he gave up his liberty to stay in West Feliciana and serve his mother, father, and extended family. No matter what they needed done, they could always call on good ol’ Ray. Now that they were all long dead, he told me, he had realized that they took the gifts of loving service for granted and never really loved him. They were all a pack of users—takers, never givers.
Now that I was home for good, he told me I had done the right thing by leaving long ago. What a reversal of our fateful conversation nearly twenty years earlier! And yet, it changed nothing between us.
“He’s so, so bitter,” I said.
“Because he thought he did everything right, showing them love the only way he knew how, and they didn’t love him back?”
“You’ve got it,” I said. “He knows he made a mistake there, making a god of his family, but he still does it. He doesn’t see how that affects me and our relationship.”
“You are here to confess your own sins, not your father’s.”
“I know, I’m sorry. But I’m getting to my own sins.”
I explained how much I had revered Daddy as a child, and grew up listening to his stories about the family and the land. When I’m gone, he would tell Ruthie and me, this land will all be yours to pass on to your children. This was a sacred trust. This was the right order of things.
“And you didn’t want it, but Ruthie did.”
“Well, I wanted it, but not in the way he wanted me to want it. I wasn’t made for this place. I was weird by his standards. I think he saw every deviation in me from himself as a rejection of everything he stood for, of everything he had to give me.”
“I can see that.”
The root of the problem, I explained, was that my dad couldn’t see me as me. I could not live here without being crushed by his will. I wanted the good things of family, but the price was too high.
“And this is your sin how?”
“You remember me telling you a while back that I have a lot of trouble believing that God loves me? That I felt like I could never make him happy enough to deserve his love? This is where it comes from. I didn’t understand it until Dante made me think about it, but without meaning to, I made gods of family and place. I made them into my idols. I set them up in my heart where God ought to be.”
Father Matthew looked at me, his brow creased.
“There’s more,” I said, then told him the story of Pier della Vigna. “Don’t worry,” I hastened to add, “I’m not a potential suicide. It’s that there’s a part of me that can’t deal with life without my father’s approval. Isn’t that stupid?” I asked.
“It’s not stupid.”
“Well, I feel stupid. I’m forty-six years old, and I am stuck in this damn ditch, where I have been since childhood. I couldn’t take it when I was younger, and ran away. I’m tired of running. I’ve got to face down this dragon and kill it. I don’t know what to do now, but I want to confess that I have worshiped idols, and I am sorry. I put other things before God. I want to lay those idols at the foot of the Cross and be done with them.”
Father Matthew said nothing. He bowed his head again and reached down to lift his stole, which was my signal to kneel. He put his stole over my head, pronounced the words of absolution, made the sign of the cross over my head, then unveiled me. I kissed his right hand, stood up, and walked out of the church feeling light.
A few nights later, I was lying in bed in the dark, with Julie asleep next to me. I was saying my five hundred Jesus Prayers, frustrated because I had put it off till the last moments of the day, and struggling through my fatigue to focus on it. By the time I arrived at the fourth cycle around my prayer rope—that is, after three hundred prayers—I was on autopilot.
And then something strange happened. The words God loves me appeared not in my head but in my heart. It was the strangest thing—like someone was standing at my bedside, placing them into my chest. Not God loves you, but God loves me.
Just like that: God loves me. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. There it sat in my heart, like a pearl, glowing. It scared me at first, this mystical experience, because I feared it might go away. I finished my prayers, smiling in the darkness, because the words remained there, radiating. I fell asleep with the words repeating in my mind:
God loves me. God loves me.
When I awakened the next morning, the first thing I noticed was a feeling in my chest. It was as if someone had laid a cornerstone in my heart, and chiseled into the stone were those three blessed words. All morning, I could physically feel them in my chest, humming along like a happy little pacemaker. I refused my usual impulse to analyze what happened; I chose to accept it as a gift.
To this day, the words remain there, as if they were written on my heart. God loves me, and he had established a beachhead within my soul. It was a small patch of ground, but it was real and firm, and now it was where I stood. And Dante Alighieri had led me to it.
All of that really happened. And even to this day, the cornerstone is there. I can feel it as if were physical. Believe me, I never, ever imagined that this meeting of mine with the Commedia would be so transformative. I've read plenty of books that I've enjoyed, and that were in some sense edifying. But this was something different. This was something radically different. It was a suffering man's heart speaking to another suffering man's heart, across seven centuries and an ocean. The psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist talks about how there are some truths that we can best know through art, poetry, literature, or in some other non-analytical form. He's right. I lived it with Dante, and though it's an infinitely smaller thing, the song "Landslide" last night compelled me to face the brokenness and fear within me over the divorce, a wound that had not broken my stride (thanks to the grace of God), but which is unfathomably deep. It is not my place to talk in detail about what happened, but believe me, if I could be back home around my two younger children (19 and 16 now), I would be. If God offered me the chance to trade all my success as a writer for the restoration of my marriage, I would without even thinking twice about it. But that is not the world as it is. So, my older son is arriving soon in Budapest, and we are going to try to make a go of it here. I am guided right now by the lesson that the director Andrei Tarkovsky embedded in the "After The Raid" scene in his 1966 masterpiece Andrei Rublev: that my task now is not to surrender to the shattering and the violence, but rather to summon all my powers to make Beauty manifest in the ruins, so as to give hope to all those who suffer.
One more quote from How Dante Can Save Your Life:
For me, the final lesson Dante had to teach came from the pilgrim’s meeting with his ancestor Cacciaguida, who had been a knight in one of the Crusades. Cacciaguida, presented by the poet as an exemplar of courage, prophesies the pilgrim’s exile:
“You shall leave behind all you most dearly love,
and that shall be the arrow
first loosed from exile’s bow.
“You shall learn how salt is the taste
of another man’s bread and how hard is the way,
going down and then up another man’s stairs.”
In Florence, even to this day, they bake bread without salt. Every time he tastes his daily bread, Dante will know that he is not at home. Every time he descends from his bedroom at someone else’s house, then returns at night, he will recall that he is not doing so in his own house.
Dante is not going to go home to Florence. This is his fate. Yet he must transcend it. How? He must stand outside of his pain and suffering, find meaning in it, and affirm the goodness of life despite its injustices. We know that he will create art from the experience, and through it show the world the way to overcome the brokenness that led to his own exile and, metaphorically, to the sense we all have of being alienated from God, others, and ourselves.
Each one of us lives in exile from the life we would like to have, or that we think we deserve. Every time we feel disappointment or hurt, it is like tasting the salt of another man’s bread. Every time we suffer, it is like going up another man’s stairs. Exile is not just something that happens to refugees; exile is the human condition. We are lost, we are searching, we are waiting for a sign to tell us the way home.
The poet Dante had to have everything taken from him to discover how lost he truly was—and to find his way back. This is what the pilgrim Dante is learning on his journey through the afterlife, and this is what he, to fulfill his role as the hero, must go back and tell all the other wayfarers how to save their lives.
Dante Alighieri wrote a book explaining how to do this – a user’s manual for the soul, you might call it -- and cast it into the sea of time. There it remained, bobbing on the currents, until I came across it on a shelf I rarely browse in a bookstore I almost never visit. It was a message in a bottle. It was a sign. It was a gift and a source of grace that redeemed my exile and turned a tragedy that very nearly broke me into my own commedia—a story with a happy ending.
It did have a happy ending, at the deathbed of my father, with us reconciled. But that, sadly, was not the end of the story.
Because I read Dante, though, I know that the seeds of redemption have been planted between the furrows of his verse. I know that I can, and should, go back there for consolation and inspiration. And I will. The reason I bring it all up in context of Ed West's proposal for a salon is that I never, ever would have had the courage to pick up the Commedia on my own. I really did think that it was beyond my ability to understand, or even to enjoy. How wrong I was! It was the message in a bottle sent by God with the map to lead me out of my own dark wood.
Thank God I never encountered Dante's work in a classroom! It probably would have been taught to me through the lens of queer theory, or feminist theory, or some other bullshit framework rather than what it really is: a testimony in some of the most awe-inspiring verse ever to come from a human hand. Heart speaking to heart. Dante himself, in a letter to one of his patrons, told him that he had written the Commedia in hope of reaching sad, broken people, as he once was, and leading them back to wholeness. It happened with me once. I think it can happen again. And I am sure it can happen with you too.
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What else is out there for us amateurs to discover? I mentioned above Henri Nouwen's great little book about Rembrandt's painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. What I wouldn't give to go sit in a salon, listening to a well-informed and judicious amateur talk about Rembrandt, a painter of whom I know little, but now, in my mid-fifties, find myself drawn to for reasons I cannot articulate, but recognize. I want to know more about Michelangelo. I want to know more about Bach, and Tolstoy. And I want to know about these things from the lips of men and women who love the work -- not contemporary scholars, who murder to dissect -- and who want to convey, in love, what truth and goodness is embedded within that beauty. I want to learn from men and women who believe, as the shade of Theophanes teaches elliptically in that scene from Andrei Rublev, that art exists to make truth, goodness, and beauty manifest, and therefore to proclaim the victory of the Light over the Darkness, which does not comprehend it.
Don't you want to learn these things too? How can we do this? The comments section here is permanently screwed up, as you know, so if you can't comment, please email me at rod -- at -- amconmag -- dot -- com, and put the word CANON in your subject line. I'll post some of the correspondence. And/or, go to Ed West's Substack entry about the "Western Canon Club," and leave your advice and commentary there.
This is our patrimony as men and women of the West. It is far too important a treasure to be left in the care of its cultured despisers. I think of how Pope Benedict XVI saw over the course of his life that so many of his learned colleagues in German theology hated the Catholic faith, and turned their brilliant minds to burning it down and remaking it in their own image. This is why Benedict believed that the faith would be carried through this long night by ordinary people, gathered in communities of the faithful. Maybe the same thing is true about the Western canon in this time of contempt and decadence in the academy.