In a previous post, I contrasted the spiritual memoirs of Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame and of Rod Dreher, a fellow Louisianan. Dreher, in his book the The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life extolled the virtues of the small town he grew up in when the people there rallied around his sister’s family after she was diagnosed with cancer. He and his wife were so moved by the generous spirit of their friends and neighbors and the virtues engendered by such community that Dreher quit his job in Philadelphia and moved his family back home to St. Francisville.
But his book had also chronicled the divisions still present between him and his parents and sister. Dreher did not share his family’s enthusiasm for the hunting and fishing activities that dominate life in rural Louisiana. He preferred books, intellectual conversation, and travel, activities his family more or less disdained. Dreher had held on to the hurts caused by their disdain, while his parents, and his sister especially, had held on to resentment toward Dreher for what they saw as a betrayal of everything they held dear.
Dreher thought that moving back would allow his own kids to get know their Louisiana grandparents and allow his now-deceased sister’s kids a chance to get to know his family. He envisioned an enriched life of community and family and love. Instead, the unresolved family issues nearly killed Dreher. He suffered chronic fatigue, depression, and illness. He had little energy for his wife and kids and little for work and none for enjoying the community he had made such sacrifices to obtain.
He was at a loss as to how to get better or what his next step should be, till he stumbled on a seven-hundred-year old poem that literally saved his life. The poem is Dante’s The Divine Comedy (The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso). Dreher was browsing in a bookstore after seeing a rheumatologist (he thought he might have an autoimmune disease) and picked up a copy of Inferno. He was struck by the situation described by the poet in the first line:
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
For the straight way was lost.
Dreher knew he was lost in a dark wood himself and eventually purchased a copy of Dante’s work and began reading. He also began seeing a therapist and began counseling with his Orthodox priest. Slowly he began to unravel the issues and sin that were pulling him down into his own Inferno.
He wrote the book How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem about making his way through the Comedy and through his own life changing journey. I suppose I am not giving anything away to tell you that Dreher eventually does find a way to forgive and to heal and to find peace.
I decided to try to tackle Dante’s epic as well while reading Dreher’s book. The original work is in Italian, which made it far more accessible to his fellow countrymen than the high-flown works written at the time in Latin. But even Italian is no more accessible to me than Latin, so I had to find an English translation. Dante called his work Commedia. If you remember your studies about Shakespeare, a comedy has a happy ending and a tragedy has a tragic ending. A “comedy” in this sense may not necessarily be funny. Dante’s comedy is not funny, in case you are wondering. But it is eminently readable—at least Inferno and Purgatorio are. I have to admit, I got bogged down in Paradiso and I am still working on that canticle.
The Divine Comedy is divided into three canticles: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. Each canticle is divided into 33 cantos. Inferno actually has 34 so as to bring the total number of cantos to a nice round 100). Each canto has about 145 lines grouped in sets of three and each line has eleven syllables. Dante used a rhyming scheme called terza rima which follows the pattern aba, bcb, cdc, etc.
I had at one time picked up a copy of Inferno that was printed with dense, tiny text. It was intimidating from the get go, and I didn’t get far. Not only that the translator had tried to preserve a rhyming scheme. When an English translator has to change Italian rhymes (where nearly every word ends with a vowel and the whole language sounds like one long poem) to English rhymes (where words end mostly in consonants and rhymes are not nearly as plentiful as in Italian), you are going to have some awkward constructions and some inept translations.
This time I picked up Inferno: A New Verse Translation [INFERNO] [Paperback] and found it immediately more agreeable to read. There was plenty of white space on the page and each canto started on a new page, so I didn’t feel the despair of seeing unending lines of poetry. Also, Zappulla’s translation was very easy to understand and his notes at the end of each canto were helpful and didn’t intrude on the flow of the poem. Unfortunately, apparently he only published the first canticle, Inferno. I had to get another translation to read Purgatory and Paradise. I picked up the The Portable Dante (Penguin Classics) and later found out that the extensive notes usually accompanying this translation are left out in this version. There were notes, but apparently not the good ones.
But I will certainly get a chance to rectify the missing notes situation as I will have to read the whole thing again once I get through with it the first time. And you will too. If you have never read the poem, there is no way to grasp a good portion of what Dante is saying on the first go round. Just reading Inferno the first time I was stuck by the comforting fact that most people in hell are Italian and I’m not.
I found Dreher’s book an immense help in identifying some of the themes Dante is pursuing and in seeing how some of the ridiculous punishments he inflicts on the denizens of hell are in keeping with Dante’s goal of addressing what sin really is and how it keeps us from a life worth living.
Most of all, Dreher helped me to see that Dante the author is also on a journey. Yes, there is a character Dante in the poem who goes on this pilgrimage from hell to heaven. But Dante the author is also struggling with the issues Dante the character is encountering. And those same issues are ones that Dreher the author is encountering. And they are ones I also encounter. The main point is that we are not happy until we conform our will with God’s. And we are tempted all through life to pursue goals that may in and of themselves not be sinful but which end up becoming idols that we worship.
Dante was a respected man in Florence and had many talents that he was able to use in service to his city. But political events caused him to be exiled and he lost his possessions, his home, his reputation, and in some ways his identity. He was indeed in a dark wood. But the Commedia tells the story of how he was able to see the vanity of those things in our lives that distract us from the most valuable treasure, our relationship with God. Dante is a man of pride. Dreher finds he too has let pride keep him from reconciliation and peace. In fact, pride is at the heart of all sin—where we say our will be done because we think ourselves above God. And we spend our lives seeking out the admiration and recognition of men—an objective that once achieved is quickly lost again and grants us no lasting happiness.
In the last canticle Paradiso (so I am told, since I haven’t quite made it up to the highest heaven yet) Dante finally reaches the goal all of us are made for: to behold our God. And in the last chapter of Dreher’s book, he seems to have resolved the problems that were about to be his death. If you like me can’t quite finish the Commedia, at least read Dreher’s book for insight into this famous and consequential poem and for an inspiring modern story of a man who finds his way out of the dark wood.