Out of a Dark Wood

From the June/July 2015 Print Edition

How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem
by rod dreher 

regan, 320 pages, $29.95
In 2011, Rod Dreher returns to his hometown in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, after years living elsewhere in pursuit of a (highly successful) journalistic career. Now middle-aged, he hopes to find a more authentic community than he has in big cities and to draw close to the family from which he has been estranged. Instead, he falls into a kind of depression—the combined effect of resurgent stresses within the family, the death of his sister Ruthie from cancer, and the Epstein-Barr ­virus—which causes fatigue, the need for large amounts of sleep, and no little turmoil over how to work his way out of the dark place in which he finds himself. He turns for help to the pastor at his local Orthodox church for spiritual counseling, as well as to a Christian psychologist. But as he recounts in this deep and moving memoir, an utterly unanticipated source of ­guidance came to him unbidden. As he is browsing in the poetry section of a bookstore one day, he stumbles onto a translation of Dante ­Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, which tells of a pilgrimage from a threatening and dark wood through Hell, Purgatory, and the Heavens to the Beatific ­Vision. For some reason, that medieval ­Florentine poet threw a spiritual lifeline to this modern American writer. The title of the book that ­resulted, How Dante Can Save Your Life, may seem exaggerated, in the way of recent books like Alain de ­Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. It is. Dante can’t save you. Only God can. In our postmodern culture, there’s recently been a raft of works that look to tony literary sources for meaning and substance in a world that seems to have obliterated both. But don’t be deceived by superficial resemblances. Dreher’s book is much more deeply rooted in theology—and reality—than are those other efforts. Continue Reading »

Camus Between God and Nothing

From the January 2014 Print Edition

I happened to be in Paris several years ago on the evening they were giving out the Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars. Early the next morning, I turned on the television to see who had won. The first news story was not about film stars, but the posthumous publication of Albert Camus’s novel about the French settling of Algeria, The First Man. The French love to be in love with their intellectuals, but that news story, that early, on that morning, about a man already dead more than thirty years, says something ?about Camus.On its deeper side, it has something to do with his sense of the sacred, which persisted despite a lifelong inability to believe in the usual sense of the word, and infused his work with larger dimensions than most of the literature of his time. The Nobel Committee that gave him the 1957 Prize for Literature already felt him to be a significant moral and spiritual presence at forty-three (only Kipling won at a younger age): “Even in his first writings Camus reveals a spiritual attitude that was born of the sharp contradictions within him between the awareness of earthly life and the gripping consciousness of the reality of death.”He rejected Christian, Platonic, and several Enlightenment views of the afterlife, for example, in part because he thought they couldn’t make up for earthly suffering and death and took away from concern for justice in this life. He claimed to have a “pagan nature” that he had discovered via a different Greek strain of thought. He appreciated the beauty of the world, but also its implacable and uncaring tragedy.And yet he regarded all that—and the human complications within it—with no little irony and humor: “I sometimes dream of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the newspapers. After that strong definition, the subject will be, if I dare say so, exhausted.” Thus Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the narrator of the witty, snaky, and self-damning monologue that makes up Albert Camus’ss The Fall, the last of his novels to be published during his lifetime. The title of that book and the speaker’s name (John-Baptist) point to its muted, but carefully calibrated, religious themes, as does the original title of The First Man, which was supposed to be Adam. Camus’s brilliant working at the frontier between belief and unbelief—indeed, between ancient Greek and Christian ways—and his effort to live honestly and decently despite the ideological horrors of the twentieth century were central to what made him great in his time and of remarkably fresh insight, even in our own more confused age. Continue Reading »

Chastened Humanism

From the November 2012 Print Edition

You cannot help but like a serious thinker who demolishes the pretensions of various fashionable currents of thought, starting with the 1968 French student rebellion, by pointing out the anti-human strains at their very heart. Or who, at the height of the academic infatuation with deconstruction, . . . . Continue Reading »

Problems with (Some) Catholic Social Thought

From Web Exclusives

Reinhard Marx, the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich and Freising, is a genial man with a sense of humor, as I’ve learned in conversations with him. Given his last name, it was a clever stroke to title his 2008 book on Catholic social thought Das Kapital: A Plea for Man. As head of the German bishops’ committee on social questions, he has been a strong advocate for curbs on what Europeans often refer to as “savage capitalism.” … Continue Reading »

The China Syndrome

From Web Exclusives

The Internet brings us relentless cataracts of overwhelming, undesired, and often unwelcome information. But once in a great while the immense swirl of digital 0s and 1s assembles itself into something surprising”and leads to unexpected truths… . Continue Reading »

A Spanish Lesson

From Web Exclusives

For most people, the Spanish Civil War is ancient history and the rare soul who bothers to look into it finds a kind of pre-Cold War throwback, (allegedly) pitting faith and fascism on the one hand, against unbelief and communism on the other. Furthermore, partisanship led to some truly awful artistic and historical accounts of the struggle, even leaving aside the Communist propaganda… . Continue Reading »

Sarkozy and Secularism

From Web Exclusives

A few years ago, I was in the middle of giving a lecture in Paris about religious persecution and martyrdom during the twentieth century when a woman stood up and shouted, “The French state has been repressing and killing Christians ever since the Revolution¯and it has to stop!” Her . . . . Continue Reading »

Expiating Our Eco-Sins?

From Web Exclusives

The pope has stepped up his rhetoric in favor of it. The retired cardinal archbishop of Washington recently expressed sweeping public support. The National Association of Evangelicals regularly issues policy statements outlining the urgency of action. But perhaps religious fervor for curbing global . . . . Continue Reading »

Remembrance of Deaths Past ¯ and Present

From Web Exclusives

We often hear these days about the problems and misdeeds of “organized” religion. We much more rarely hear about the arrogance and downright atrocities of organized irreligion. Yet during the twentieth century, self-proclaimed scientific atheism in the form of communism killed 100 million . . . . Continue Reading »