At Home in the Cosmos

Dante Versus the Modern Imagination

Nelson Head, a boy in a story by Flannery O’Connor, is reared in the rural South, with little sign of education and in obvious isolation.  Yet the boy is arrogant to the point of impudence, because he was born in the city.  To cure him of this, his grandfather takes him into the city, only to find Nelson bristling with pride in his origins.  To curb his arrogance, Mr. Head has the boy stick his head into the sewer entrance.

Then Mr. Head explained the sewer system, how the entire city was underlined with it, how it contained all the drainage and was full of rats and how a man could slide into it and be sucked along down endless pitch-black tunnels.  At any minute any man in the city might be sucked into the sewer and never heard from again.  He described it so well that Nelson was for some seconds shaken.  He connected the sewer passages with the entrance to hell and understood for the first time how the world was put together in its lower parts.  He drew away from the curb.

Nelson is disposed to hearing Dante’s Divine Comedy.  He is ready to find hell somewhere—and somewhere nearby.  More importantly, he expects that the world “was put together.”  He thinks that there is an order among its parts and that this order can be seen with his eyes and grasped by his mind, at least in part.  Further,...

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