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Filtering by Tag: John Gardner

Truth: The Deeply Rooted Idea

Vic Sizemore

tree sawed This morning an arborist is cutting down a white oak beside our house. The bark of the tree had started rotting off in chunks the size of dinner plates, and it was full of ants underneath as far up as I could see. Surprisingly, the inside of the trunk looked like healthy blond wood. This was also the case with our neighbor’s tree, the one that came crashing down two years ago in what the TV news called a “severe wind event” until some meteorologist introduced them to the cool new term derecho—wind like a tornado, but straight at you instead of swirling. The roots of his tree, it turned out, were weak and had given way.

As the arborist dismembers our tree, his chainsaw growling and roaring outside, I sit at my desk with interweb chatter buzzing in my head—gun violence, same-sex marriage, healthcare reform, wealth inequality, government, religion, science. I have gotten in the habit of following a number of news feeds, and now I get a daily diet of this stuff. Not that the issues aren’t important. They are. However, more and more I fear is that, if I don’t stem the flow, it will, if not ruin, cheapen my creative work.

In his book, On Moral Fiction John Gardner instructs writers—and all artists—to go after truth instead of focusing on “important but passing concerns,” which change as cultures change. Gardner admits that many artists “who disparage the pursuit of truth” do it because they “have merely grown wary of the word’s potential for pretentiousness and moralistic tyranny…” but he maintains nevertheless that only art concerned with truth can be called moral art. How does an artist do that? Gardner writes, “… before we can get to the great idea True, an emotionally charged symbolic construct for which innumerable men and women have died, we must first stare thoughtfully and long at a tree, Old English treow, which gave us the word true (treow), the “deeply rooted” idea.” An artist who neglects the deeply rooted idea “goes not for the profound but for the clever.”

Artists have the job of unearthing the human truth that cannot be found in any other way. For example, Gardner writes, “A brilliantly imagined novel about a rapist or murderer can be more enlightening than a thousand psycho-sociological studies…” This truth is in the deep-rooted place, which requires long and thoughtful staring. How can we go deep if we are spending our days surfing the web, digging yes, but here for a bit and then there for a bit, as if flitting around the yard with a gardener’s trowel?

Contemporary issues are important, but they are not lasting—what’s more, they are not resolved at the surface, where all the heat of argument occurs. Are you obsessing over issues, or are you staring thoughtfully and long at the tree, the deeply rooted idea?

Trusting Dante

Vic Sizemore

Lakeland Terrier x Border Collie Bess scratching herself I grew up in a poor town along 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 them ripped open by cars and strewn down the road. Hunting was also big in Elkview. It was also a town of hunters. The sight of a boy hiking toward the woods with a gun slung over his shoulder was common—also the sight of gutted deer. Memories of these things come to me every time I return to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

I think if 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, ripped bodily in half, “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; I believe our poet knows as well.

Dante intended for his writing to work on four levels: literal, allegorical, moral or didactic, and anagogical. 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 have real flesh.

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 fiction writer’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 truth? Look at what is in front of you and describe what you see.