What Rod Dreher Ought to Know About Dante and Same-Sex Love

Guy P. Raffa

Getting Dante straight means getting him gay, as well.

How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History's Greatest Poem

Publisher: Regan Arts
Author: Rod Dreher
Publication date: 2015-04
Editors note: This article first appeared in the Electronic Bulletin of the Dante Society of America, 2 November, 2015. Reprinted with permission by the author, it has been slightly modified.

"Dante saved my life," testifies Rod Dreher, senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative, in his recent book, How Dante Can Save Your Life (Simon & Schuster, 2015) 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 Marriage Equality. 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." ("Orthodox Christians Must Now Learn To Live as Exiles in Our Own Country", Time 26 June 2015) 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).

I 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 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 Dreher and other serious readers of Dante ought to know.

Guy P. Raffa created the Danteworlds website (featured in the New Yorker) at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is associate professor of Italian Studies. He has published three books, including The Complete Danteworlds: A Reader’s Guide to the Divine Comedy, and has written for The Chronicle of Higher Education and PopMatters.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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