"Dante saved my life," testifies Rod Dreher, senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative, in his recent book about how the poet's Divine Comedy can save yours as well. His soul-baring account of how Dante Alighieri and two other spiritual guides—a Christian Orthodox priest and an evangelical therapist—helped him escape a dark wood of stress-induced depression and physical illness is smart, moving, and thoroughly engaging. Dreher's Dante, like Virgil in the poem, does the lion's share of the guiding, and so earns top billing and occupies most of the narrative's prime real estate. In showing how the poem brought deeper understanding of himself and his relationships with his father, sister, and God, and in sharing the substance of those life lessons with readers (mostly in appendices to the chapters), the author does not disappoint.
For those of us who have studied, taught, and written on Dante's works and their legacy over many years, Dreher's understanding and use of the Commedia will undoubtedly raise legitimate doubts and objections. However, I found myself more often than not nodding in recognition at his deft discussion of characters, scenes, and themes of the poem. Most of his sharpest points pierce the surface of famous inhabitants of Hell—amorous Francesca, proud Farinata, worldly Brunetto, and megalomaniacal Ulysses are among the highlights; oddly for a book on rescuing lives and souls, he devotes fewer words to the saved individuals in Purgatory and Paradise.
The biggest debt Dreher owes Dante lies in what he says his memoir is "about": the painful lesson of exile, what it means "to know you can never go home." Dante's banishment from Florence motivated the poet to look deep within his heart and turn his personal journey into a spiritual roadmap for humankind. Dreher comes to understand his own exile—the unwelcome experience of returning home only to feel like "a stranger"—as the "fortunate fall" needed to recognize his shortcomings and find God.
Unfortunately, Dreher strays far from Dante's teaching when, in an essay soon after publication of his book, he dons the mantle of exile in response to the Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage. Reassuring readers that "the sky is not falling—not yet, anyway," he writes that orthodox Christians "are going to have to learn how to live as exiles in our own country." But were he to seek guidance from Dante on this issue, as he does so well on many others, he would find the judicial ruling cause for celebration rather than lamentation. In his otherwise fine explication and application of the Divine Comedy, Dreher badly misunderstood—or just plain missed—Dante's view of same-sex love.
And what an extraordinary view it is, especially (but not only) for Dante's time and place. On the Terrace of the Lustful—the level of Mount Purgatory closest to the Terrestrial Paradise and, beyond, the celestial spheres and God—we see two groups of penitents exchange greetings in one of the poem's most arresting scenes. As spirits cleansing themselves of same-sex lust approach spirits guilty of opposite-sex lust, the two groups turn to one another and, like ants affectionately touching muzzle to muzzle, all the souls briefly kiss before going on their way (Purg. 26.25-36). Dante treats homosexual and heterosexual lovers equally as they complete their purification. Like all the spirits in Purgatory, they have been saved and are destined for eternal life in Heaven.
But that's not all. According to how he defines the sins expiated on the final three terraces, Dante believes that both same-sex and opposite-sex love cross into lust and become sinful only when excessive ("troppo . . . di vigore"), just as avarice and gluttony derive from "too much" care or love for material wealth and food (Purg. 17.94-102). Homosexual relations, like heterosexual ones, are not sinful in and of themselves for Dante. Only compulsive or promiscuous loving—of any sort—is verboten, with such excessive behavior (when unrepented) punished in circle 2 (heterosexual lust) and circle 7 (homosexual lust).
And I do believe Dante means excessive behavior or acts of an amorous nature—not excessive desire or attraction—when he distinguishes between sinful and acceptable homosexuality. As Teodolinda Barolini argues, individuals have no need to repent of "limited and moderated homosexual behavior" to avoid eternal suffering under the rain of fire in Dante's Hell. I agree with this interpretation because I find it more consistent than other readings with the textual evidence and logic of the passages in question and Dante's overall conception of Purgatory. To argue otherwise requires carving out an exception for same-sex lovers to Dante's general rule that penitents on the top three terraces are purging their excessive indulgence (repented, of course) in material goods and wealth (Terrace 5), food and drink (Terrace 6), and physical love (Terrace 7). That Dante applies this rule to immoderate behavior, not just immoderate desire, is strongly suggested in his descriptions of the sins of penitents appearing on these terraces: Pope Adrian V for having been a "completely avaricious" soul nearly his entire life (Purg. 19.113), Pope Martin IV for his legendary snarfing of wine-cooked eels (Purg. 24.20-24), Guido Guinizzelli and his cohort for the bestial fulfillment of their heterosexual cravings (Purg. 26.82-84). If, by contrast, more restrained pleasure in earthly goods, nourishment, and heterosexual love requires no repentance, the same must hold true for same-sex intimacy.
To the objection that Dante could never promote a view of homosexuality so at odds with church doctrine, one need only recall that he has the souls of those who betray guests go straight to the lowest circle of Hell while their bodies are controlled by demons for the rest of their natural lives (Inf. 33.124-32). Allowing same-sex relations, by comparison, departs far less from traditional Christian theology and teaching.
To be fair to Rod Dreher, the scholarly community hasn't exactly shouted this truth from the mountaintop. But nor is it a secret. Robert Hollander, like Barolini, draws on the work of Joseph Pequigney and John E. Boswell in recognizing the poet's historically progressive view of sexual love. One of Dreher's authorities as well as his translator of choice, Hollander wrote in this venue in 1996 that Dante's "shockingly 'liberal' view of homosexual love as being the counterpart of the heterosexual kind should cause more notice than it generally does"—words that still ring true today. Barolini and other dantisti have sought to remedy this critical neglect, in her case by including Dante's acceptance of homosexuality within his overall "sympathy for the other."
The point can't be made often or forcefully enough: getting Dante straight means getting him gay as well. When it comes to the sex or gender of the people we love best, Dante doesn't give a fig. This is something that Rod Dreher and other serious readers of Dante ought to know.