I’ve been re-reading my Dante in prep for a class I’m teaching tomorrow and have been struck once again by the power of literature. I realize that is not saying a whole lot, but when you are able to slow down enough and let a work like the Commedia read you, rather than you just plowing through it, it’s a truly remarkable experience. Rod Dreher in his new book, How Dante Can Save Your Life says that “Dante knows you better than you know yourself.” Before you roll your eyes consider the opening lines again, from Dorothy Sayers translation.
Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood
where the right road was wholly lost and gone.
Does language get more beautiful? Those three lines alone evoke desolation and a holy longing, unfilled desire and disconsolation in a way that an entire current NYT bestseller may never do in 400 pages.
And so Dante is everyman, on the perilous journey of life, lost in the darkness of sin looking for light, which arrives through Virgil, the embodiment of all the goodness and truth and beauty that God’s divine creation has to offer apart from divine grace. But Virgil’s limitations, his being outside of union with divine grace in the person of Jesus Christ, means that he cannot take Dante where he needs to go. For that, he needs to revelation of divine grace itself: his darling Beatrice. And thus the story begins. As Dreher says, “You will not be the same after reading it. How could you be? All of life is in there.”
Reading La Divina Commedia is not easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is.