As she strives to deepen her understanding of hoarding, Georgie Evans turns to books. But depictions of hoards and hoarders are few and often sparse, except in one surprising place: Dante’s fourth circle of Hell. But is hoarding a sin? Georgie reflects on representations of hoarders in literature, and on how Grandma’s hoarding behaviour has made her granddaughter crave emptiness.
It is difficult to draw on other people’s experiences of hoarding when I hardly see it represented in art, literature or the media. I know about TV programmes focused on clearing out untidy houses, seemingly intent on shaming the people who lived in them. But, for all the reading I do, I’m not familiar with any literature about hoarding.
I’m going to look more closely. I search my collection – my hoard? – of books, trying to find Grandma’s scratchy bungalow somewhere in all those pages. So many people hoard, yet it seems few are trying to write about it.
I found brilliant memoirs that skirt around its edges – Martin Rowson’s ‘Stuff’, Samantha Clark’s ‘The Clearing’ – but, as the latter title suggests, when a memoir involves a hoard, it tends to be about clearing out a home that was full of belongings. Usually this is after a parent of the writer has died. Of course, this is still relevant, and sometimes it is still a hoard, but it’s not quite what I’m looking for.
The fourth circle of Hell
During my research into hoarding, one text is referenced on several occasions, and it is not one I’d associate with this topic. It’s ‘The Divine Comedy’ by Dante Alighieri – specifically ‘Inferno’. At first I’m confused: I read the ‘Comedy’ while I was at uni, but I couldn’t recall any references to hoarding. Surely I would have remembered that?
I dig out my copy and search through it, looking for these people who hoard. It doesn’t take long; it’s towards the beginning. The protagonist, who is also called Dante, is being led down the various levels of Hell, of the Inferno, and he describes all the souls, or ‘shades’, being punished there for their earthly sins.
In the fourth circle of the Inferno, Dante sees masses of shades in a circle. Like the opposite of a tug-of-war, they are divided into two groups and have to push great weights towards the other group. When they meet in the middle, they scream at each other; then they push the weights back the other way, and the whole thing repeats itself. But it’s what they shout that I found interesting.
“So many people hoard, yet it seems few are trying to write about it.”
They struck against each other, and then they
All turned around and rolled the weights back shouting:
“Why do you hoard?” and “Why d’you throw away?”
They’re meant to be opposites: misers and prodigals. Stingy with money or buying too much. Two sides of the same coin. The fact that they shout those questions at each other suggests they are unable to see a medium; they’re so stuck in their habits and the fury of the Inferno that the idea of moderation doesn’t exist for them any more.
This is a rather unkind representation of people who hoard. I’m sure very few people really believe hoarding could be classed as a sin. Even literary criticism about ‘The Divine Comedy’ is often surprised that the prodigals are there to suffer along with the misers.
The hoard that spawned the empty desk
Many metaphors could be found to describe the house of a person who hoards: it is a hiding place, a safety net, both a jungle and a desert. It can be a source of isolation or the greatest comfort in the world. It can be both, all, at once.
We interpret things – all these things, all this stuff – in the way that makes the most sense to us. Writers use metaphor to find a side door into understanding, although equally, it establishes a difference from the real thing.
I suppose metaphor was – is – useful for my understanding, too. Even though my grandma’s hoarding behaviour pre-dated her dementia, it became something I used to track it. I started to see the physical condition of the bungalow as a metaphor for how she was coping with her dementia, and even her deafness.
“We interpret things – all these things, all this stuff – in the way that makes the most sense to us.”
Many metaphors could be found to describe the house of a person who hoards: it is a hiding place, a safety net, both a jungle and a desert.
One of the things Grandma began to collect was alarm clocks. They turned up everywhere around the house, the variety and arrangement of them somehow distinct from the other things that she was collecting. When I asked her about them, she picked up the one on her coffee table and turned it over in her hands. “Doesn’t work, this one,” she said.
They stood around the house as a sort of trust. Grandma trusted that she would be able to hear them sound; she trusted that they would remind her when she needed to be doing something. I wish they worked, but they didn’t. They were simply manifestations of Grandma’s sense of self-organisation.
Here, I’m her opposite. Where she needed fullness, I crave emptiness, cleanliness, scope. I want to feel I’ve learned from all those things that made my grandma unhappy. Even the writing I like is clean and sparse. When I am working, I like to be at an empty desk with a single spotlight looking over my notebook, my hand’s shadow causing drama across the pages.
The Inferno of perpetual suffering
Back in the Inferno, Dante’s guide explains to him why the misers and the prodigals are condemned to suffer there.
Ill-giving and ill-keeping took away
The bright world from them, leaving them these clashes
I will not scrat around to beautify.
And now, my son, you see the brief illusion
Of this world’s wealth, which is in Fortune’s hands,
And brings the human race to such confusion.
In the poem, Dante moves on, surprised and hopeless. When the prodigal is your grandma, though, that isn’t an option.
About the contributors
Georgie Evans is a writer and bookseller from Halifax. She has an MA from Goldsmiths University and has published words in Brixton Review of Books, the Rialto, the Pomegranate, and the Telegraph. She is currently working on a hybrid non-fiction book about deafness and dementia.