Conservative writer Rod Dreher is cutting his way into the self-pity-therapeutic literature market staked out on the left by Anne Lamott. Dreher, who wore his heart on both sleeves, pants legs and shirt collars in his memoir of his late sister, Ruthie Leming, recently discussed his further bouts of depression and how he's cured himself by reading Dante. His account of his continual self-actualization appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal's Review section on Easter Saturday.
Dante's great poetic work is really a self-help book, Dreher says. Why, one of Dreher's correspondents even quit smoking by reading Dante. Somehow, I missed the canto about the Marlboro Man in one of Dante's circles of hell.
Dreher's "The Little Way of Ruthie Leming," tells the story of Dreher moving back to his hometown of St. Francisville, La., and rediscovering the importance of community from the support given his family through the illness and death of his beloved sister, Ruthie. He moved back home after a disspiriting stint in New York and Washington as a budding conservative pundit. Dreher's book gives a memorable portrait of his sister and delivers an in-depth examination of small-town life, but his emotional extremes ruined the book for me at the end.
Dante's poem, one of the greatest works of the human imagination, takes place from Good Friday to Easter Sunday and tells of Dante's journey through hell and purgatory, guided by the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil, and the poet's triumphant ascension into heaven, Paradise, where he's transported through the stars by Beatrice, his model of supreme virtue and holiness.
I salute Dreher for giving as much attention to the Paradisio and Purgatorio as the first volume, the Inferno. Most modern readers stay with the Inferno, with its rich gallery of characters from history and Dante's Florentine and Italian society. Writers love to translate Inferno, with Purgatorio having its supporters. The Paradiso, with its heavy dose of medieval philosophy and cosmology, is too much for many. Good for Dreher in persevering with this challenging work, which has always thwarted me.
Although Dreher displays a sincere love of Dante's work, I am skeptical abut his characterization of "The Divine Comedy" as a self-help manual. While Dante's poem does offer personal guidance to the perplexed, Dreher give too little attention to its literary value. Dante's richly conceived characters and insignts into the medieval society of Florence and Italy transcend the narrow purposes of self-help manuals.