“Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.” -- John Milton, Areopagitica (1644)

In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love

In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love - Joseph Luzzi I spotted this book on a library bookshelf and was at once drawn by the book's title.

In La Divina Commedia, Dante's pilgrimage into himself and his past which rockets him out of the black hole of Self is also my personal story.


I will never forget that thunderstormy Sunday morning, when I caught a rare break from the rain and sat down on my front porch, and opened Dante's La Divina Commedia for the first time... And I was instantly transported into a phantasmagorical realm where I embarked on an adventure through Hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory, and the spheres of Heaven with Dante.


Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita

- Inferno, Canto 1

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

As I proceeded, a thrill came over me, like how a child feels when, impelled by curiosity qualified by fear, it is about to venture into some unknown space. I descended slowly into the Egyptian darkness of inferno.

Although Dante described people, surroundings and objects with precision, they all seemed rather otherworldly.

In Longfellow's Victorian version of Dante's medieval allegory, I encountered a phantasmagoria of shadowy creatures through the fog.

Longfellow began translating Dante's La Divina Commedia at a somber point in his life -- after his second wife died in a fire. After Beatrice's death, Dante withdrew into intense study and composed a collection of poems dedicated to her memory, which became La Vita Nuova.


Instead of attempting hendecasyllables, Longfellow used blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). He followed Dante's syntax when he could, and wrote compactly in unrhymed tercets (the occasional rhymes appear to be accidental). The effect is nothing like Dante's sinuous tide of terza rima, but Longfellow's verse still flows melodiously, the cadence of the line pleasantly varied with both feminine and masculine endings. Overall, the style is plain rather than florid, economical rather than wholly natural-sounding.

In those verses, however, I had found myself -- the real "me" who had been lost in a noisy and distracting mass culture -- even though I couldn't be any further different from Dante or Longfellow.

I felt every word resonante inside me as if to comfort someone in me. I felt as if a long-lost friend had suddenly shown up right next to me, making the connection from the depths of his vocal box, to the cusp of his tongue, and out of his lips; the sound was traveling through the atmosphere, into waves, down the tubes of my ear and rattling the drums within.

What we once shared is now aged, like 100-year-old whiskey. But it's still there. Like an echo within a long tunnel, it bounces back and forth, prolonging the sound, sometimes even strengthening a particular tone. At some point, the resonance inside me felt so intense that my soul was close to rupturing and spilling out into the world.

That evening, when I finished the last page of La Divina Commedia, the rain had already tiptoed away. I looked up and saw a low-hanging sun which had just come out from behind clouds. The last orange rays of the setting sun illuminated the western sky and fired the edges of the single cloud, like bold brush strokes on a dark canvas. Poignant, yet harmonious. The dust had been laid by the heavy shower; the air was bracing and mild with a refreshing scent of rain-drenched earth; the last song of the birds was sonorous; the patches of trees across the road were resplendent in the rays of the dying sun, which shot golden shafts through the leafy masses. Every phase of that peaceful evening was lovely and appealed to my senses. Surrounded by calm solitude, I settled into the rhythm of a quiet pace as a reflective mood descended...


I lost count of how many times I had silently looked into the mirror and felt mesmerized by the deep darkness of my pupils. Yet that night, when I closed my eyes, there was a much lesser degree of darkness, for the sensations of the glowing western sky still lingered.

"Comedy" is so called from comos, a village, and oda, a song; whence comedy is as it were a "rustic song"... It differs, then, from tragedy in its subject-matter, in that tragedy at the beginning is admirable and placid, but at the end or issue is foul and horrible. And "tragedy" is so called from tragos, a goat, and oda; as it were a "goat-song," that is to say foul like a goat, as appears from the tragedies of Seneca. Whereas comedy begins with sundry adverse conditions, but ends happily, as appears from the comedies of Terrence.

- Dante Alighieri, L'Epistola XIII a Cangrande della Scala

Dante’s poem speaks profoundly to the human condition on several levels. It is an adventure story, a portrait of the cosmos, a moral discourse, an allegory, and a means to stimulate reflection on higher realities, all at the same time. It is also the chronicle of a profound psychological crisis, and how that crisis was resolved. It all begins with a realization that one is in a “dark wood” -- an awareness of one’s own lostness and confusion. Dante the pilgrim (the protagonist of the poem, not its author) starts his journey to enlightenment by walking through the chaos of his own soul.

The Inferno brings a cinematic vividness to this journey. It is not an exhaustive taxonomy of sins, but rather an allegory of the condition of deep sinfulness. For Dante, the worst sins are not lust, gluttony, or greed, but sins against the things that make us most human. The foulest sin of all -- Treason -- is punished at the bottom of the pit mine of Hell, where Lucifer dwells.

Through this tour of the infernal regions, the pilgrim Dante is awakened to the reality of sin and and of his own responsibility for the disorder in the world and in his own soul.


This examination of conscience caught me by surprise. One of the most memorable encounters of the entire Commedia is when Dante finds the Lustful punished for eternity by being blown around endlessly, like leaves in a gale. The Lustful spent their mortal lives carried uncontrollably on the gusts of passion, so now they must spend eternity in perpetual turmoil.

Consider how your souls were sown:
you were not made to live like brutes or beasts,
but to pursue virtue and knowledge.

- Inferno, Canto 26

This is a stirring noble truth.

The Purgatorio stresses moral reform. The procession up the seven-story mountain is the pilgrim’s purification through ascesis. This is his journey toward purging his memory of darkness and cleansing the heart.

Yes, the heavens give motion to your inclinations.
I don’t say all of them, but, even if I did,
You still possess a light to winnow good from evil,

and you have free will. Should it bear the strain

in its first struggles with the heavens,
then, rightly nurtured, it will conquer all.

To a greater power and a better nature you, free,
are subject, and these create the mind in you
that the heavens have not in their charge.

Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,
in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.

- Purgatorio, Canto 16

Here, Dante echoes Cassius:

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

- Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene III, L. 140-141

We humans all have inclinations toward sin, but we can still see good and evil and have the willpower to resist our evil inclinations. If we want a world of peace, order, and virtue, then we have to first conquer our own rebel mind and renegade heart.


The Paradiso exudes a rather contemplative nature. It tells of the pilgrim’s arrival at his true and only home. The journey from the dark wood, through Hell, Purgatory, and now through the overpowering immensities of Paradise, is about regaining the power of vision. First we see sin for what it is; then we see ourselves for who we are; and finally, we see reality for what it is.

The kinds of truth that art gives us many, many times are small truths. They don't have the resonance of an encyclical from the Pope stating an eternal truth, but they partake of the quality of eternity. There is a sort of timeless delight in them.
- Seamus Heaney


Dante’s pilgrimage, and the one I have taken with him, teaches me to see the world and myself as they really are and to cleanse my inner vision through repentance and self–discipline.

It's not surprising that Dante’s anagogical strategy has been an effective psychotherapy.

And I was delighted to stumble upon a book written by someone else who also feels a profound connection to Dante and his pilgrimage. In this deeply personal memoir, Luzzi chronicles the tragic death of his wife and the subsequent four-year journey to healing with the help of Dante's La Divina Commedia.


Our memories are stimulated by similarities. We recognize familiar faces. We remember old melodies. Our brains make connections -- synapses -- and similar connections create patterns. Our brains are always busy comparing a situation or sensation with others, looking for similarities so that it can organize our experiences into coherent life.

Dante and Luzzi both have Italian roots, both lost their loved ones, and both went into "exile." Luzzi intertwines his personal story following his wife's death with Dante's La Divina Commedia to show how he learned how to resurrect his life.

Dante's Inferno mirrors Luzzi's grief, the Purgatorio his healing and raising his daughter alone, and the Paradiso his rediscovery of love. Grief permeates the entire book.

Luzzi says,

“The Divine Comedy” didn’t rescue me after Katherine’s death. That fell to the love of my family and friends, my passion for teaching and writing, the support of colleagues and students, and above all the gift of my daughter. But I would not have been able to make my way without Dante. In a time of soul-crunching loneliness -- I was surrounded everywhere by love, but such is grief -- his words helped me refuse to surrender.

I was initially very intrigued by Luzzi's idea of parallels, but I was left with a bland aftertaste.

The first few pages seemed intensely emotional and gave me the impression that the author had found a significant emotional connection to Dante.

However, as I read on, this connection started to fade somewhat; at the end his narrative felt rather forced and incohesive, and the level of personal details overwhelming -- at least it seemed to me. In his reflections and meditations in the dark wood, Luzzi borrows heavily from Dante to remark on life, love and loss, and some of his quotations don't seem naturally or spontaneously placed into the narrative.

The author often deviates from the immediate storyline -- the devastating loss of his wife and his struggle to cope -- to include anecdotes from his college years and from his parents' lives. It appears the author deliberately devotes a lot of ink to the stories of his family members to illustrate his cultural heritage and how it has influenced every aspect of his personality, especially his relationships with different women.

Events are not organized in chronological order. He jumps around from scene to scene, from one point in time to another. I finished the book in one sitting and didn't feel I had a cohesive experience.

I think the best part of the book is the beginning. The first few bites tasted superb, the next few bites less so, and after a large amount, I had very little taste experience left at all. Flavor and satisfaction faded the more I chewed, and towards the end I badly needed some hot chili sauce.

I also felt as if I were riding a rollercoaster -- I was passing over the apex when I opened the book and read the first few pages, and then as I read more I accelerated down the hill toward the last page. I understand that the journey out of the dark wood can be painfully frustrating and excruciatingly slow, but the narrative of it doesn't have to be.

The most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.
- Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin

In terms of new or critical insight into Dante's La Divina Commedia, I don't think I have gained any from this book. And my interpretations of and perspectives on Dante's La Divina Commedia may be very different from his.

Nonetheless, kudos to him for having the courage to document possibly the toughest and darkest period of his life. I surmise that the process of writing this book forced him to relive the tragedy from which he had not yet fully healed (and hopefully it was effective bibliotherapy), as the process of writing this review has led me to re-experience the moments of bewilderment when I rediscovered my long-lost self through Dante's poem.

Overall, 3.5 stars.

For Dante and for all of us, one proper goal of life is to be united in love (meanings vary), to perceive all things as they really are, and to harmonize our relationships with others.


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