Updated: Apr 21, 2022
I grew up in a poor rural town beside the Elk River in West Virginia. Elkview had no leash laws, and flea-infested mongrels ran free. We lived beside a garbage truck garage and a busy stretch of US Route 119. Dogs found the hot reek of trash irresistible, and I saw many of their bodies, run over by cars, ripped open, and strewn down the road. Hunting was also big in Elkview. The sight of a boy hiking toward the woods with a gun slung over his shoulder was common—also common, the sight of gutted deer. Memories of these things come to me when I return to descriptions in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
I remember those mongrel dogs when I read Dante’s description of souls writhing in the seventh circle of hell, plagued by fire from above and burning sand from beneath: “They were in fact, like a dog in summertime / busy, now with his paw, now with his snout, / tormented by the fleas and flies that bite him.” In reading this passage, I can imagine Dante as a boy, watching, just as I did, a dog continually scratching and biting at its relentless parasites.
I think of shot and gutted deer when I read his description of one who sowed schism in life, his body split open “from his chin to where we fart…. Between his legs his guts spilled out, with the heart / and other vital parts, and the dirty sack / that turns to shit whatever the mouth gulps down.” I know what a physical body looks like when split open and the innards dumped out. From the description, I believe Dante knew as well.
Dante intended for his writing to work on four levels: literal, allegorical, moral or didactic, and anagogical or spiritual. While he saw his art this way, what makes me trust him is the fact that he has so carefully observed the literal. His descriptions are so concrete and physical that, though his characters are in this fantastical hell, they are real to me.
In On Moral Fiction, John Gardner goes as far as to claim that a writer’s failure to pay close attention to the literal amounts to a moral shortcoming because the writer “is not deeply involved in the characters’ lives.” He maintains that “what truth the writer might have discovered if he’d carefully followed how things really do happen we will never know.”
In my experience, though you cannot tell immediately what a storyteller's worldview is from her fiction, if she has cared enough to pay close attention to concrete reality, you can be sure that whatever she tells you will contain truth and have value. The same goes for any artist—any human being—who wants to communicate with other human beings. Are you concerned with the truth? Look long and hard at what is right in front of you and describe what you see.
This post originally appeared in Relief journal.