More works of literary criticism should be written with the kind of moral imagination exercised in Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life (Regan Arts, 2015). Dreher himself balks at calling his book “literary criticism,” preferring to use medically inspired terminology; words like “bibliotherapy” and “self-help” spring up throughout the book as self-identifying markers. Such therapeutic language translates for the contemporary reader the complicated, you might say medieval, act of reading on display throughout the book. In other words, Dreher practices an interactive reading of which Dante himself would have approved.
The striking title is meant to be taken literally. Heavily biographical, the book follows Dreher’s path from a potentially life threatening, stress-related condition to the way of wellness offered by Dante. In brief, an Epstein-Barr virus aggravated by stress incapacitated Dreher with chronic mononucleosis, a condition that makes the sufferer 33 percent more likely to contract lymphoma. Remarkably, the act of reading Dante’s masterwork, known in English as The Divine Comedy, proves to be his needed remedy.
The recovery comes not simply from an extended act of meditation, for which any long work of poetry or reflective prose might have served. No, Dreher needs Dante specifically, since reading Dante means direct application of Dante’s content to Dreher’s own life circumstances. The fact that The Divine Comedy charts an imagined journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven does not dissuade Dreher from finding parallels with his own life. Indeed, the otherworldly setting might make it easier for him to relate. Dante’s book works like a pebble dropped in a pond, sending ripples through Dreher’s day-to-day experiences. Beyond mere entertainment on the one hand or mere “how-to” on the other, reading Dante becomes a fully immersive, life-changing act for him.
Dreher is known as a proponent of local, intentional living, so medieval Italian poetry is not his usual stomping grounds. In previous writings like Crunchy Cons (2006) and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013), he championed the virtues of family and community, and his writing style reflects this disposition. An amiable and conversational prose characterizes this new book as it limns Southern life and family with a raconteur’s love for the idiosyncratic. How Dante is premised on Dreher’s own attempts to live locally. In the course of his career as a student and as a journalist, Dreher had separated himself from his Louisiana upbringing. Due in large part to the untimely death of his sister, Dreher relocated in 2011 to his birthplace of West Feliciana, Louisiana, in order to be closer to family. Only after the move, and contrary to his intentions, does Dreher discover that living around family has an acute effect upon his health.
As much as this book is about Dreher’s personal story, it is also a book about the value of storytelling, and how stories affect the way we live. Upon returning home, Dreher had placed himself in the role of the prodigal son. Yet, unlike in the parable, tension continues to mount between him and his family, particularly with his father, which frustrates Dreher’s self-narrative. He does not receive a lavish welcome; there is no fatted calf. Instead of a jovial feast, he meets with illness. This is where Dante enters the scene, where Dreher discovers that his case demands a new narrative.
A reader who has never experienced the decentering influence of a book might well wonder at such a turn of events: How can a seven-hundred-year-old poem have such a profound effect on a twenty-first-century reader? Dante’s Divine Comedy is, among other things, a work of speculative fiction. Like today’s speculative genres, it speaks more about the conditions of the present than about the future, since it extrapolates present concerns forward in time. Because Dante’s vision of the future is of the afterlife, its present conditions have the potential to encompass times outside of Dante’s own day and age. Unlike, say, a future set in 1984, a year that came and went, Dante’s future is set perpetually before the living. Dreher finds in Dante a kindred spirit because Dante means to speak universally about “our life.”
As Dreher journeys with Dante, he employs the language of therapy to explain his act of reading, because he wants other pilgrims to join him. The concept of bibliotherapy might offer readers some understanding of what Dante means to Dreher, but the concept nevertheless remains limited. Therapy speaks to the way a text can lead to wellness, but it does not necessarily indicate the moral stakes involved. Dreher’s illness required treatment of the will, not just the mind. In a letter most likely written by Dante himself, we find another means of understanding Dreher’s method of reading:
It should be understood that there is not just a single sense in [The Divine Comedy]: it might rather be called polysemous, that is, having several senses. For the first sense is that which is contained in the letter, while there is another which is contained in what is signified by the letter. The first is called literal, the second called allegorical, or moral or anagogical. (trans., Robert Haller)
By applying Dante’s journey to his own life circumstances, Dreher intuits that a literal reading of Dante must entail another kind of reading, an allegorical reading, which includes a moral reading. Medieval exegetes called the attempt to draw moral direction from the Bible “tropology,” assuming that a proper interpretation of scripture will provoke formative change in the reader, and Dante famously encouraged this hermeneutic for reading his own writings. This is certainly an audacious claim, but for hundreds of years readers have borne witness to its legitimacy.
Moral, or tropological, readings may be lost in the larger category of allegory, as most attention to Dante’s work has dwelled on allegory in either positive or negative ways. What Dreher offers is a specifically tropological reaction. Contemplating hell, purgatory, and heaven, he repeatedly applies Dante’s text to his own moral actions, often prompting acts of confession. When Dante meets two rival Epicureans, Farinata degli Uberti and Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, in the circle of hell assigned to heretics, Dreher reflects on the similar tensions existing between him and his father. The two Epicureans, related by the marriage of their children, dwell forever in mutual derision in the same sepulcher, thinking exclusively of their own family’s worth. Faranata’s first question to Dante reveals the self-importance both Epicureans display: “Who were your ancestors?” The irony, of course, is that Faranata holds on to the belief that only ancestry bequeaths dignity, all the while burning within a tomb. To Dreher’s shock, it was the prioritizing of family over greater goods that became part of the heretics’ torment. Dreher sees the same misplaced priorities within his family: “We loved good things—family and place—too much,” and only after seeing his condition displayed by the damned does he recognize the need to alter his behavior.
Such an emphasis on the proper ordering of goods structures Dante’s entire vision of the afterlife, and Dreher finds various applications to his life in the whole gamut of sins on display in Inferno, even in the deepest pits of hell. Reading through the Divine Comedy, Dreher thus performs the ascetic practice of kenosis, of emptying one’s self. Only after complete humility is his life ready to be rebuilt, a task which he admits is ongoing. In the next stage of Dante’s journey, Purgatorio, Dreher skirts debate about the theology of purgatory, focusing instead on the trials of everyday life. He attempts, along with the penitent sinners being purged, to reshape the disordered goods in his life. In Paradiso, he glimpses the completion of this life’s journey, in which all things are ordered toward God, who, in Dreher’s self-scrutinizing words, is “the only safe harbor and our only true home.”
The resulting narrative is undoubtedly told from the standpoint of Dreher’s faith, yet he seeks to be as ecumenical as possible. He reads a medieval Roman Catholic text, he is Eastern Orthodox, raised Methodist, and his therapeutic language attempts to secularize the moral understanding he receives. Accordingly, Dante’s wide vision of the afterlife offers the hope of a future community where those separated by divisions may be united. Looking forward beyond present divisions, seeing wholeness as a future condition rather than a present one, becomes part of Dreher’s understanding.
An important implication of Dreher’s book is that great literature can offer this road to wellness when other avenues may be less effective. His reading of Dante works in concert with visits to a therapist and to his Orthodox priest, yet his progress is articulated by what he learns from Dante. The psychological and spiritual benefits presented by therapy and religious instruction are made more accessible to Dreher through the images and ideas dramatized by Dante’s narrative. In On Beauty and Being Just (2001), the literary theorist Elaine Scarry makes a similar case, that beauty in literature can reorder our passions by displacing the ego. How Dante enlivens theory with personal experience, while at the same time presenting a specifically Christian trajectory to life’s fulfillment.
If this use of literature risks sounding utilitarian, it becomes useful only inasmuch as one is able to avoid treating literature as a tool. Only in merging with Dante’s journey does Dreher gradually move toward wellness. The understanding of literature that best fits Dreher’s experience is one of the oldest: that literature’s function is to teach and to delight. The truths that Dreher uncovers about himself, his family, and God are taught simultaneously with the complex enjoyments of a poetic story.
Again and again, the book highlights the power of narrative to provoke action, and it is perhaps weakest when it attempts to look like a self-help book (for example, the takeaway boxes provided at the end of each chapter). It is in its storytelling and in its appreciation of Dante’s storytelling that the book shines. Just as Dreher’s personal story gradually unfolds over the course of reading Dante, so his language of genre develops away from the vague domains of self-help. Near the end of his reading of the Inferno, Dreher offers a distinction emphasized in the Orthodox faith. He explains the difference between the idol and the icon: an idol becomes a god in itself, pointing no further, while icons point to a good beyond themselves. More so than the language of therapy, this terminology suits how Dreher understands Dante, how he wants Dante to be understood. In Dreher’s understanding, The Divine Comedy is iconic.
Dreher’s book is a fascinating example of how life-changing a good story can be. But dwelling too long on the theoretical implications of the book risks forgetting that, with works of literary art, the teaching should not be disassociated from the delight. If a reader were to approach Dante only as palliative medicine, Dreher’s point would have been lost. In an age of therapies, one must sometimes learn to enjoy what is good. Dreher’s book offers this guidance.
Gabriel Haley is Assistant Professor of English at Concordia University, Nebraska.