Truths and fictions

And Chesterton, in his book about Browning, writes about other great poets; he says that Homer might have thought, for example, “I will tell them the truth about the world, and I will tell them the truth based on the fall of a great city, on the defense of that city,” and he made the Iliad. And then another poet, whose name has been forgotten, says: “I will tell them the truth about the world, and I will tell it based on what a just man suffered, his friends’ reproaches, the voice of God who descends in a swirl,” and he wrote the Book of Job. And another poet could say, “I will tell them the truth about the world, and I will tell it by describing an imaginary or visionary journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise,” and that poet is Dante. And Shakespeare could have thought, “I will tell them the truth about the world by telling stories about a son who learned, from a ghost’s revelations, that his mother had been an adulteress and a murderer,” and he wrote Hamlet. But what Browning did was stranger. He said, “I have found this story of a criminal trial, a sordid story of adultery, the story of a murder, the story of lies and deceptions. And based on that story, which all of Italy talked about, and which all of Italy has forgotten, I will reveal to them the truth about the world,” and he wrote The Ring and the Book.

[Arias & Hadis (eds) (2013) Professor Borges: A course on English Literature. New Directions: New York]

Fictional stories have the power to tell great truths about the real world; nonfictional stories tend to be more focused in the scope of truths they tell, but this passage, from a lovely book that has certainly done a lot to educate me about the history of my own language’s literature, reminds me that nonfiction can also harness this power to be bold, to speak to the universal as well as to the specifics of the science (or whatever facts are at play).