December 31, 2011

Nested unreality is not always fiction-within-fiction

Fiction, deception, and illusion are different forms of unreality; carefully distinguishing between them helps in not being led astray in interpreting fiction that includes nested forms of unreality. In Shakespeare's philosophy[1], Colin McGinn writes about The Tempest that here "the impression of allegory is strong: the characters 'stand' for something." (143) He then goes on to interpret Prospero as standing "for the idea of the artist", intended to be "Shakespeare's representative" (ibd.).

Prospero, according to McGinn, arranges for the tempest, the romance between Miranda and Ferdinand, and generally everything that happens to all the other characters as a piece of dramatic art, as a fiction. (To use the terminology of this blog, these episodes are instance of unreality; among the various forms of unreality, they would be classified as fictional.) The storm that wrecks the ship in the beginning of the play, then, "was just a performance, giving only the impression of catastrophe, from which all the actors emerged unscathed. [...] The actors didn't know the storm was essentially fictitious, and so performed their roles with authenticity, but all along it was just a piece of make-believe." (Ibd.)

I think this interpretation confuses the way the different forms of unreality work. It's true that fiction is a game of make-believe, but it's a game that is played with asymmetric roles: there are the author, director, and actors in one kind of role (pretending to do something, performing), and the audience in another one (pretending to believe — suspending disbelief). If you and I, for example, perform a scene with a car crash on stage which we both survive, and an audience watches that performance, it's our job (yours and mine) to pretend being shaken and thrown around and the job of the audience to pretend to witness a car crash.

But note a couple of things: first, it makes sense to ask whether the characters survive the car crash in the fictional world of that scene, but it doesn't make sense to ask whether the audience gets hurt. The audience is not in that fictional world. They're only pretending to watch it. The audience, to put it somewhat differently, is apart from that fictional world. Second, in order to suspend disbelief, the audience must be aware that it's a performance that is going on, that they are presented with fiction. Fiction as a game of make-belief works only if you know that it is a game and yet play along. If you're not aware that this is what happens, it's no longer fiction, but deception (or perhaps, in some cases, illusion).

Now ask yourself who Prospero's audience is when he stages his fake storm. Is it Shakespeare's audience (the people who sit in the theatre and watch the play), or is it the group of travelers on the ship? I think it should be clear that the other characters in the play, though subject to deception and manipulation, are not the audience of a fiction. They are confronted with what is, in their world, an instance of unreality, but they're not suspending disbelief with respect to it, they actually believe in it. The travelers on the ship believe that they are caught in a storm, they're not pretending to witness a storm as if they were an audience watching it on television. In other words, the travelers on the ship are in the same situation as the characters are that you and I play in our car crash scene. In their world, what happens is a storm (or a car crash), and they have good reason to think of themselves as being in that situation. Their world is more complicated than the world of the car crash scene, of course: the storm isn't real, but a deception. (Thus it's a case of nested unreality: a deception within a fiction.) But that doesn't put them in the position of a fiction's audience. It puts them in the position of a deception's target.

It seems, then, that the audience in Prospero's drama cannot be the other characters, but it must be the audience of Shakespeare's play. But then it isn't correct that, as McGinn writes, "Shakespeare is introducing theatricality into the lives of his characters" (144). Prospero's words may be reflections of the playwright put into the mouth of one of his characters (and McGinn quotes some lines which make this plausible), but it doesn't follow that Prospero's machinations make the world of the other characters into a stage. Miranda and Ferdinand don't experience their own romance as if it was a fiction (compare with Theseus and Hippolyta watching the romance of Pyramus and Thisbe); the travelers on the ship don't experience the storm as if it was a show (compare the staged murder Claudius and his court watch). They're subject to deception, not audience to a performance.

(As a side-note: if the audience of the spectacle of the tempest is not the cast of characters, but the theatre audience, then it's also a little imprecise to speak of the tempest as "just a performance, giving only the impression of catastrophe, from which all the actors emerged unscathed." If you're sitting in a theatre audience, it's of course just a performance, and you don't expect the actors to be hurt. On the other hand, you can still ask whether the characters in the world of the play were hurt or not: did Alonzo and friends survive the storm, did your character and mine survive the car crash? And that it is just a play doesn't determine the answer to this question. It simply depends on the plot. The plot might be so that they survive; the plot might be so that they get killed. Both outcomes are consistent with the whole thing being a drama.)

[1] Colin McGinn, Shakespeare's Philosophy. Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays. New York: Harper 2006.

December 26, 2011

The illusionist effect

Yesterday I went to a magic show, and I found there were some interesting aspects of unreality to observe from that art form. An illusionist would perform numbers such as walking through a mirror or letting a person levitate on stage. What makes these performances so thrilling?

Let's begin by noting that many of the tasks are seemingly impossible and yet they are done right before our eyes. People don't hover some feet above ground (or a table) elsewhere, they don't do so naturally, and even if you try, you won't manage to do it in the real world. What we see is an illusion. Now I'm not interested in exactly how the illusion is produced, but I take it that some combination of clever distraction and technical devices is at work here. But that's not how we perceive it. We perceive a person levitating.

1) That seemingly impossible things happen cannot be in itself the characteristic thing about illusions that we're looking for — we can find that elsewhere as well, namely in fiction.

The world of the illusionist show is not obviously a fictional world, in the way in which novels or movies create fictional worlds that are apart in time and space. Even though the magicians might sport fancy costumes and exotic names, they're not (at least not always) telling a story about someone else, somewhere else, who does magical things. They often pretend to do it in our world, in the real world. (They don't claim to really perform magic, they're open about the fact that they just pretend to do it for their show; but where they pretend to do it is the actual world.)

Compare this with similar situations in movies. If the fictional world of a movie includes the possibility of people levitating (think Harry Potter), we will probably witness some scenes in which they do. Again, the people who produced that movie have used some technical tricks to create that effect. But in the case of a movie, the thrill of such a scene is weaker (of course it depends on how the levitation is introduced and dramatized). We're used to all sorts of strange things that might go on in sufficiently phantastic film worlds. In an illusionist show, it's not quite the same. After all, everything that goes on does go on before our eyes. There are real people on that stage, and real, physical scenes and props. Moreover, time flows exactly as we know it: when people suddenly change their appearance (their costume, say) in a movie, we take it that they have been photographed at some time, then changed, and at a later time photographed in their different outlook. We don't know much about the timing of production, only about the time of the resulting film. On the other hand, when a shapeshifting magician changes into a completely different look in a mere second or two on stage, there is no such intervening time. Whatever it is exactly that happens, it really happens in those one or two seconds.

2) So it seems it's not just that we are presented with a display of something that's impossible or highly improbable — it isn't just pretended that it happens, but also that it happens under circumstances that pretend to certify that it's real (as compared to trickery). An illusionist will go some lengths about reassuring the audience that they're watching the real thing. For example, I saw a number where a woman was shot out of a cannon into a water bowl, and the magician took care to have someone from the audience write her name on the assistant's arm, so that it was very clear that the woman who was presented in the water bowl was the same one, with those unique marks on her arm, as the one who had crawled into the cannon. We might call this 'non-fiction markers', in contrast to those fiction markers (such as the introductory formula 'Once upon a time...') which signal we're entering a fictional world. A non-fiction marker is intended to signal the exact opposite: it admonishes us to situate what we're about to see in the actual world; instead of being asked to suspend disbelief, we're asked to fire up disbelief and actually equip it with all our attention and perceptive capacities. We're encouraged to believe nothing unless we've satisfied us with our own eyes that it's all real. (Even though we know it's not.)

3) If someone asks you to imagine something, you have some leeway to not do it. For example, suppose you're asked to imagine there was no blogging, that the internet hadn't even been invited. You can now wonder what the world would look like if that was the case, but then again, you don't have to. You can simply refuse to imagine such a thing. Likewise, when you're watching a movie or reading a novel, especially if it's a bad one, you may refuse to get immersed in it. You can tell yourself that this is all 'just made up', you can focus your attention on the attempted (though not quite achieved) effect which it is supposed to make but actually doesn't.

With magic, that's more difficult, because illusionist magic projects the imaginary things that go on into the actual world. Magical illusions thus stimulate imagination more thoroughly; they almost force it out. Unless you really see through an illusion (which is something a clever magician will work hard to prevent), you'll have severe difficulties to refuse imagining that things such as levitation are going on here. At the very least, you'll constantly be asking yourself how it is done. But in addition, you'll constantly be encouraged to quickly consider what you're seeing as an option. You will, that is, for a moment ask yourself whether there is really a woman hovering around on stage, or whether you're deceived; but even if you are quick to reject the first option, it has presented itself to your perception for a moment, and so it has at least as a possibility briefly existed in your mind. The space of options that exist in the world widens, even if only for a moment, to include it. And if I'm right, that contributes considerably to the illusionist effect: it widens the space of options, stimulates imagination; and it does so in a manner that's very difficult to escape while you're sitting in the audience.

November 28, 2011

Fantasy, imagination, and unreality

In a passage I find illuminating,[1] Roger Scruton distinguishes imagination from fantasy (or aesthetic interest from mere effect):
True art appeals to the imagination whereas effects elicit fantasy. Imaginary things are pondered, fantasies are acted out. [...] A fantasy desire seeks neither a literary description, nor a delicate painting of its object, but a simulacrum — an image from which all veils of hesitation have been torn away. It eschews style and convention, since these impede the building of the surrogate, and subject it to judgment. (104–105)
The defining characteristic, then, is that imagination (the operation from an aesthetic interest) creates a distance, where fantasy destroys every distance (104). And it's not just an arbitrary sort of distance, but one that comes from inserting elements that have to do with the specific capacities I described in my post about our appreciation of the craft (in products of the imagination). Since fantasy destroys the distance that is essential in imagination, no beauty and real emotion can survive in it.

Scruton illustrates that point with respect to different subject matters: one is sexual fantasy, facilitated by pornographic images: "pornography lies outside the realm of art, [...] is incapable of beauty in itself and desecrates the beauty of people displayed in it. The pornographic image is like a magic wand that turns subjects into objects, people into things — and thereby disenchants them, destroying the source of their beauty." (163)

Another one is theatre. There, "the action is not real but represented, and however realistic, avoids (as a rule) those scenes which are the food of fantasy. In Greek tragedy the murders take place off stage [...]. The purpose is not to deprive death of its emotional power, but to contain it within the domain of the imagination" (106).

Imagination, as I would put it in the terms used on this blog, engages us in the creation of unreality, whereas fantasy does no such thing for us. It leaves us in the world of reality, and quite probably in a worse way than most alternatives. Since Scruton doesn't use 'unreality' in the technical sense I do, he assigns 'unrealities' both to imagination and fantasy, but that's a difference in terminology only; Scruton's 'unrealities' of fantasy are within our world, not within any world of the imagination: "while the unrealities of fantasy penetrate and pollute our world, those of the imagination exist in a world of their own, in which we wander freely and in a condition of sympathetic detachment." (105) It's that distance which is amiss in fantasy, which is why it wouldn't qualify as unreality (produced by the activity of imagination) in my sense. Fantasy is precisely an example for what it looks like when you take imagination out of the picture: not unreality, but a de-humanized reality.
[1] In his Beauty. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009. Quoted with page numbers in the text.

October 23, 2011

Magically illustrated forms of unreality

Here's a very beautiful illustration of some of the forms of unreality by techno magician Marco Tempest. (He uses the term 'deception' as general cover term, where I've used 'unreality' on this blog.) Enjoy.

September 25, 2011

Unreality, sedimentation, and comedy titles

Those who study the forms of unreality closely develop a keen sense of reality (as I have written in an earlier posting here).
There's probably no better example for this than Shakespeare. He put deceptions, illusions, confusions and the like at the center of many of his plays, and then explored how things would develop. (He once alludes to this technique by inserting a play-within-a-play into Hamlet, where his protagonist has much the same intention with it as his author.) And he was bold enough to openly declare this even in his titles from time to time. There's an entire vacation company having some good parties, making a few practical jokes, getting into a quarrel after a devious mind does some real mischief by creating a deceptive instance of unreality — and it's all Much ado about nothing.

September 10, 2011

Disconnect, unreality, and unhappiness

In "Leaning from the steep slope", one of the beautifully composed novel fragments in Italo Calvino's Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore, the protagonist acts continuously under misinterpretations of the events around him, as we can easily recognize while the story unfolds. He is spending some time in a sea town, recovering from an illness, and the people he meets, a pedantic meteorologist and a young woman with some artistic preoccupation, both pursue shady underground activities. The meteorologist seems to have a political agenda; he submerges for a few days, asking the protagonist to look after his weather instruments meanwhile, then there are some dark-looking men searching for him, and finally he meets the protagonist again in a conspirative setting. The young woman who makes drawings of sea animals is seen to visit an inmate of the local prison, and she asks the protagonist under a weak pretext to get tools (an anchor and a rope) that look suspiciously useful for an escape attempt. But none of this even enters the mind of the protagonist. (Only at the end of the fragment, when he is confronted by an actually escaped prisoner, there is 'a sudden crack' in his universe, but it's not clear which of his illusions has been shattered; or, for that matter, whether that phrase really shows that he's finally recognized what's going on. For all we know, he might shortly come up with another misinterpretation of what he sees.)

While the atmosphere of his surroundings is somewhat grey and clammy, his view of things is exceedingly pathetic. The very beginning reads "I'm coming to believe that the world wants to tell me something, through messages, signs, warnings." [1] Yet the meaning of most observations he makes would be plain with just a little common sense, and still they escape him. A little further down the text: "On some days everything I look at seems laden with meaning: full of messages which I'd have difficulty to define, to put into words, to communicate to others, but which for that very reason seem significant to me." And so an inability to perceive accurately and realistically corresponds with a refusal to come to terms with his own views, an indulgence in lofty self-talk, with the grander scheme of things serving as an excuse not to look at the details of his own life. (At some point, he states: "I'm only reporting my first impressions; for only those count.") Perhaps that sort of attitude is required for such a continuous self-deception.

It quickly becomes clear, however, that his naiveté is used and abused by both his acquaintances. Ingenious though his interpretations of the strange goings-on may be, they are far off a much more simpler reality. He is the tool both of a political underground group and a (very probably) romantically motivated escape attempt from prison. Whatever justification these may have in the broader constellation of the world of the novel, the protagonist himself isn't really acting in that world, not from his own motives, at least. He isn't, in a word, in the driving seat, he's himself just moved around by others.

(A side-note for those familiar with Calvino's book and receptive to the delights of the postmodern novel: this tale of a person driven by other people's interests is in the novel's surrounding plot read to the main protagonist, the 'reader'; and the sentence immediately following the fragment is the ironical: "Listening to someone else reading is entirely different from reading yourself. When you're reading yourself, you can take your time or quickly skim the sentences — it's you who controls the pace." It's as if Calvino wanted to drive the point home from the outside, from the guiding metaphor of the framework plot.)

It's almost a platitude to state that living under illusions isn't good; it is something like a basic premise of a good life that it must be connected to reality. Losing that connection, whether we realize it or not, is a form of unhappiness. We may not necessarily feel unhappy — it isn't unhappiness in a psychological sense; it's not a question only of a state of mind; when we talk about unhappiness here, it's about a condition of our life as such.

Among the reasons for this is that it makes us vulnerable to attempts by others to manipulate us. And being used that way is in turn bad because it means that our actions aren't for the sake of our own goals, including the top-level goal of leading a good life, but for the sake of others' goals. So in the terms I've used throughout this blog, there is a severe weakness of reflection involved here: an inability on the part of the protagonist to make sure the way his life unfolds remains in sync with reality, and in connection with his own goals. At the same time, there's failure of imagination, too. Throughout the story, the hero fails to see other's points of view. However mystical and poetical his interpretations of the world around him may sound, they're unimaginative to the extreme: failing to get a grasp on any concrete idea what might go on, producing no 'candidate realities' whatsoever, and crassly inadequate for seeing things from any of the other characters' point of view. It's others' imagination that controls him, and his own reflection that fails him.

This is a slightly revised version of an earlier posting over at my online journal.

[1] All quotes are my translations from what is already a translation into German; so I might be a little removed from the actual (or, if you will: the 'real') text.

August 2, 2011

The hot and cold waves of unreality

I don't know about you, but I can think of at least two distinctive ways in which the realization of unreality may strike me when I'm immersed in an instance of fiction. (Let's call them the hot and the cold shock of unreality for the purposes of this blog posting: their effects are somewhat comparable to the ones you get from a hot or cold shower, respectively.) I'll use Groundhog day as example, because in that movie there are some good examples for both of them.

The lead character, Phil (played by Bill Murray), is caught in a time loop for most of the plot, in which he re-lives a single day many times: Groundhog day, a winter day in a small town, on which a yearly event happens (the eponymous groundhog predicts the weather), and about which Phil reports for a TV station. The beginning of the movie introduces Phil and a couple of other characters and sets the stage by running us through the events of Groundhog Day, beginning with the greeting by a pair of radio show hosts over the ether and ending with the crew of main characters stranded in the town for the night because it's cut off from the rest of the country by a blizzard.

Now, up to the moment when the day begins for the second time (indicated by an alarm clock that switches to 6:00 am and kicks off that same radio show announcing Groundhog Day), this could be a typical comedy without anything out of the normal. That we get into fantasy stuff such as time loops, reality repeating itself, is something we realize only then, that is, about twenty minutes into the action, when it dawns on both Phil and us that there is a systematic Déjà vu going on here.

What we, as the audience, suddenly have to do is accept that the world of the story into which we've got ourselves involved includes such strange elements as time loops — if not as a rule, then at least as a possibility. We have to perform what theorists call 'suspension of disbelief' on that element.

But the effect that I have in mind is not simply that we notice some fictionality indicator and must suspend disbelief: that we have to do always, with any work of fiction. (If we didn't, we wouldn't be able even to recognize it as fiction.) It's rather that we have to suspend disbelief more deeply, or in other respects, than we expected when we began to immerse ourselves, when we entered into the fictional contract for the first time, so to speak. Also, it doesn't depend on how strongly the fictional world differs from ours. It doesn't even have to be far-fetched fantasy stuff such as time loops. (One of the strongest instances I remember in a movie is that scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall when his character draws Marshall McLuhan from behind a poster.) The important thing is that the way in which unreality comes in is unexpected, or unexpectedly intense — just as a hot shower sometimes can be hotter we anticipate. We recognize we have to adjust to some higher extravagance in this plot now than what we've been prepared for, just as we realize we have to adjust to a higher temperature than originally expected.[1]

So much for the hot shower; let's proceed to the cold one.

Once Phil understands the new rules of his world, he quickly becomes expert at using them to his advantage. He gathers detail knowledge about everything within the restricted circle in which he can move and act, and he realizes that there aren't any consequences to any of his actions that reach further than the next morning (not even his own death, which gets reversed at six o'clock each time just as everything else). Being a rather self-centered person, he sets out to put every selfish goal he can think of into practice. (Such as stealing money without getting caught, or tricking women into one-night stands using fake common history, shared interests, and marriage promises.)[2]

As we watch Phil gain manipulative control over the world in which he's moving, we feel that same world becoming less 'realistic', in a way which is difficult to describe: it begins to look predictable, easy to control, no longer interesting, not a challenge any more.[3] No challenge, of course, only as long as we see it from Phil's point of view — for all the other characters, the world becomes less predictable and controllable, up to the point where, seen with their eyes, unexplainable things happen.

But of course that is the reason why it looks less like reality as we know it. In our world, we share a reality with other people, and there is no asymmetry between some who can bend the rules and those who can't, no asymmetry between people in manipulative control such as Phil and others, the clueless victims of their actions. To be sure, reality places us in situations that vastly differ from person to person, but these still are differences within reality, not within two fundamentally different sorts of reality (one which repeats itself to the point of being predictable and controllable, and one which is even less predictable and controllable than usual). The world is not a puppet play (or video game) for a single person. To the extent that the world of the movie becomes one, it becomes less like the real world, and thus less complex and less interesting with it.

To put it differently, it's at least an interesting thought experiment to imagine yourself in the main character's situation, but it's not interesting at all, let alone attractive, to imagine yourself in the position of any of the other characters. This fictional world is a very one-sidedly interesting one. It only looks fascinating through the eyes of one of its inhabitants, making all the others even more into bystanders than usual (even for a movie). The same holds for character development — there is none in anyone, except again the protagonist. You may say that this, in itself, is perhaps not that unusual: works of fictions (including movies) are sometimes very strictly focused on a single character and restrict any personal development to him, or her. But in these cases, it's a question of narrative focus; what we have in Groundhog Day, in contrast, is that the whole reality of the story is set up in a way in which there is no personal history except that of the central person. The whole of reality, so to speak, is constructed around him, and consequently there isn't anything substantial in it for anyone else, which makes it a much less rich kind of world than that in many other fictions.

It's this effect, that the world in a fiction begins to lose reality and looks like a setup, that I mean by the cold shower effect. It may be rather more unpleasant than the hot shower variant, but it's deeper in a sense, because it forces us more decidedly to reflect about the nature of that fictional world with which we are confronted; thus it drives us not only to aesthetic ascent (where we start comparing instances of fiction with each other, and possibly gain some appreciation for the performance of their creators), but also more decidedly to a more philosophical kind of reflection, where we begin comparing the structure and rules of that fictional world with what's similar to (or different from) those structures and rules in the real world.

[1] In the shower, we might also simply turn down the heat a bit; nothing like that is possible with the movie's story: we can only accept and leave, which latter option would be analogous to stepping out of the shower altogether. (Clearly, as with every analogy, there are limits to this one, too.)

[2] A somewhat similar situation emerges in the thriller Next, in which Nicholas Cage plays a stage magician who can actually see a few seconds into the future; at one point he uses this ability to play out, in his foreknowing mind, a lot of variations over how to insert himself in a row between Jessica Biel's character and her nasty ex-boyfriend in such a way that she would be interested in him (as it turns out, several macho approaches don't work, but when he lets himself be knocked out by the raging guy, we wins enough of her sympathy to get her engaged in a conversation).

[3] It regains its power the moment we realize Phil cannot have his way in any matter: he won't be seducing Andie McDowell's character, and he won't be able to save the dying old man, although towards both ends he tries everything he can come up with within his almost unlimited resources. There are things outside the powers of manipulation he has gained from his almost perfect knowledge (perfect within his small circle of influence). Not surprisingly, he realizes that he must change as a person to make a difference in those matters which really matter. At the moment of this realization, and the reinstatement of power to the external world (still the world of the movie), the film also gains decidedly in depth.

July 23, 2011

Four senses of fiction

Dorrit Cohn distinguishes, at the beginning of her book on fiction,[1] four different senses of its central term: four different ways in which that word is used in current discussions.

(This book is a very interesting read and a helpful resource; I'll certainly write some more about it, later on. The only thing that's a little distracting is that you have to cut through thick jargon at times. "With the scope and slipperiness of its referential field favoring imperceptible glides, the homonymic plurality of the word fiction has notably eased the erasure of boundaries between different types of discourse." (2) Huh? So, the word 'fiction' is a little unclear and has caused some confusion between people who discuss different topics. Why not just say so? Oh well...)

First, there is a derogatory sense of 'fiction'. If you expect a truthful and careful report from someone but want to criticize what you get as widely off that standard, you might call it a 'fiction'. Sometimes, journalists or politicians are accused of producing 'fictions' that way: the projections of tax revenues from a government might be called a 'fiction' by the opposition or the press, for instance. This use of the term emphasizes the untruthful nature of fiction, the aspect of being made up, although it focuses exclusively on ways of making up things from doubtful motives. (Cohn is right, I think, to criticize this use for its underlying negativity which rubs off on many more legitimate instances of fiction. Instead of calling something fictional in this sense, we can use 'fictitious' and thus avoid conflation.)

The second sense is 'fiction' as philosophical abstraction. Philosophers have sometimes called ideas which don't reflect (in their view) an underlying reality 'fictions', when they wanted to ascribe a certain usefulness nonetheless to them.[2] (Common sense has a corresponding notion of a 'useful illusion'.) Fictions in this sense are conceptual helping constructs with a role in explanatory discourse: they have a function in a theory which explains something. In contrast to literary fictions, they don't refer to a candidate reality, something that might be the case; they don't refer to anything at all, because they are not intended to refer to something, but to help explain something.[3] So, 'fiction' in this sense means a totally different kind of animal than when we're talking about fiction as literary genre.

Then there is, third, 'fiction' as all literary expression at all, or even wider, as "more or less a synonym for l'imaginaire and as an antonym of le réel, referring to cultural phenomena that range from the dramas of Corneille to the palace of Versailles." (7) This broad and in itself very diverse usage characteristically regards the genres it is applied to as "expressive, ideological, or visionary genres, and [deemphasizes] their narrative structure or language." (8) It's a use that sees fiction as not necessarily, or not primarily, as narrative.[4]

Fourth and finally, in contrast to this, 'fiction' can mean all narrative. With this goes an ideological motive: "the contemporary critique of the entire intellectual foundation of traditional historical practice—of the entire practice that is based on belief in the factuality of past events." (8) In other words: even reports intended to relate facts have to be considered as fiction, because they're narrative, and all narrative is just fiction.

Cohn herself sides with Paul Ricoeur in criticizing this fourth sense as too wide: "there are certain essential differences between narrative in history and in literature" (9), and thus the definition of 'fiction' should include only the latter. This is done by restricting 'fiction', instead of having it cover all of narrative, to only 'non-referential' narrative. (Simply put, 'non-referential' means that a narrative doesn't refer to something in the real world, but to an imaginary world; it isn't about some facts, but about imaginary events, which is exactly what distinguishes it from history.)

[1] Dorrit Cohn, The Distinction of Fiction, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1999. Quoted with page numbers in the text.

[2] Cohn quotes Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (at 4fn9) with a remark which I think must be at A771/B799, a reference to the Vernunftbegriffe as heuristische Fiktionen; although that is in fact the only occurence of the German Fiktion in that work, and seems indeed an example for the sense Cohn has in mind here, I think the derogatory sense still outweighs it in Kant if we count in the use of Erdichtung, which appears a little more frequently.

[3] Which is in fact exactly the role that Kant assigns them, in that passage from his methodology chapter: "Die Vernunftbegriffe sind [...] bloße Ideen, und haben freilich keinen Gegenstand in irgend einer Erfahrung, aber bezeichnen darum doch nicht gedichtete [i.e. fictional in Cohns first sense] und zugleich dabei für möglich angenommene Gegenstände [candidate realities]. Sie sind bloß problematisch gedacht, um, in Beziehung auf sie (als heuristische Fiktionen), regulative Prinzipien des systematischen Verstandesgebrauchs im Felde der Erfahrung zu gründen." (A771/B799)

[4] My own use of the term throughout this blog has been close to this third sense of fiction, e.g in my survey of the forms of unreality.

July 18, 2011

Can unreality be more real than reality?

Some people claim that the worlds of fiction (in novels, or movies) are more real than the world around us, the everyday world. It's a paradoxical idea, but it seems a common one. Oscar Wilde, who had a taste for paradox, didn't let this opportunity pass and had his bad boy hero Lord Henry Wotton say of theatre performances: "I love acting. It's so more real than life."[1]

A little less playfully, Robert Nozick has remarked that
Some literary characters are more real than others. Think of Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes, Lear, Antigone, Don Quixote, Raskolnikov. Even though none of them exist, they seem more real even than some people we know who do exist. It is not that these literary characters are real because they are 'true to life', people we could meet believably. The reality of these characters consists in their vividness, their sharpness of detail, the integrated way in which they function toward or are tortured over a goal. [...] These characters are 'realer than life', more sharply etched, with few extraneous details that do not fit. [...] They are intensely concentrated portions of reality.[2][3]
(When I recently wrote my article about Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, I noticed the same impression of the main character, Aschenbach; I remarked there that
Mann’s whole carefully crafted framework of symbols and allusions, parallels and consequences, seems to have the singular purpose of producing a strongly coherent, compulsively unwinding plot which at closer examination leaves not the minutest detail to chance — everything’s in the scheme, so to speak. (And that’s what primarily constitutes the high literary quality and artistic value of the novella, after all.)

Philosophy often looks to literature (and, we might add, also to other highly sophisticated art forms such as drama or film), in order to find material to analyze or examples to use in demonstrations.
In seeking a reflective understanding of ethical life, for instance, [philosophy] quite often takes examples from literature. Why not take examples from life? It is a perfectly good question, and it has a short answer: what philosophers will lay before themselves and their readers as an alternative to literature will not be life, but bad literature.[4]
In other words, there is a reason why philosophers rely on literature for their examples instead of making up their own ones. Literature, as it were, is in the business of making good examples, whereas making up your own examples would risk making them too simple, or unrealistic — 'cartoonlike', as Bas van Frassen calls it:
An example could be a real happening or a story. But a cartoonlike sketch of a story is neither. Both in real life and in real literature, the observer finds himself in a context so rich that — despite the clear limitations on what he can observe — he has a basis for conclusions about thought and emotions. Cartoonlike sketches, however, do not generally give him such a base [...].[5]
So, carefully crafted literature (or, more generally: carefully crafted fiction) can bring us insights that are at least as good as those we can gain from life, that is, from our own experience. Combine this with the fact that we often have no way to experience certain situations ourselves (how could you know what it is to be a renowned writer such as Aschenbach unless you've had a similar career yourself?); thus in some way, fiction provides us with a repository of insights about the world which are just as authentic, but richer than what we could experience ourselves.

To connect back to the main theme of this blog: this function of fiction is a special case of the more general practice that I've called imagination — the process of generating unreality. Among other things, the function of imagination in our lives is to provide rich materials to fill us with a sense of purpose, and a sense of possibilities. (Which always must be counterbalanced by a closeness to reality, which results from the process I call 'reflection'.) Life just by itself couldn't give us all that. And that's why we have fiction (and unreality, more generally speaking).
[1] Oscar Wilde, The picture of Dorian Gray. In: Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, London: Collins 2003, 67.
[2] Robert Nozick, The examined life. Philosophical meditations. New York: Simon & Schuster 1989, 129–130.
[3] Note that Nozick, when he uses terms like 'real' and 'reality', employs them in a slightly different sense than the one I've used throughout this blog when I refer to forms of unreality. The literary characters Nozick talks about belong to instances of unreality (in my sense of the word), which Nozick expresses by saying that they "don't exist". Yet they have a profound effect on our world, in part by the process I've called sedimentation, and more generally by the fundamental role of our use of imagination in our lives. These aspects are what Nozick is about when he speaks of their (in his sense) being more real.
[4] Bernard Williams, Shame and necessity. Berkely: UC California Press 1993, 13.
[5] Bas C. van Fraassen, "The peculiar effects of love and desire", in: Perspectives on self-deception, ed. Brian P. McLaughlin and Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, Berkeley: UC California Press, 1988, 123–156 128.

July 17, 2011

Healthiness and beauty

Gustav von Aschenbach would not have agreed with Cicero that "bodily loveliness and beauty cannot be separated from healthiness".[1] The hero of Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice, himself a distinguished artist, doesn't fail to immediately notice a delicate and fragile quality, just with a hint of morbidity, in that young boy who is the object of his infatuation: "War er leidend? Denn die Haut seines Gesichtes stach weiß wie Elfenbein gegen das goldige Dunkel der umrahmenden Locken ab".(531)[2]

Aschenbach notes this the very first time he lays eyes on the boy, right after he is struck by his beauty thus: "Mit Erstaunen bemerkte Aschenbach, daß der Knabe vollkommen schön war." And yet already at this point, the immediate next perception is the paleness of his face: "Sein Antlitz, bleich und anmutig verschlossen [...]" (529–530).

This quality, however, emphasizes the boy's beauty; it doesn't diminish it. The attraction that is exerted on Aschenbach seems to owe to it just as much as it owes to the perfection otherwise displayed. Consider this passage:
[Aschenbach] hatte jedoch bemerkt, daß Tadzios Zähne nicht recht erfreulich waren: etwas zackig und blaß, ohne den Schmelz der Gesundheit und von eigentümlich spröder Durchsichtigkeit, wie zuweilen bei Bleichsüchtigen. Er ist sehr zart, er ist kränklich, dachte Aschenbach. Er wird wahrscheinlich nicht alt werden. Und er verzichtete darauf, sich Rechenschaft von einem Gefühl der Genugtuung oder Beruhigung zu geben, das diesen Gedanken begleitete. (541)
Greek and Roman antiquity seemed to think it obvious that beauty (of the body) and health are coordinated. Beauty is lost when youth and fitness have gone. Health is a first condition; how could you be beautiful in physical appearance if that condition isn't even met?

But beauty and health are not necessarily coordinated, and neither are beauty and goodness;[3] there are, as Roger Scruton puts it, "dangerous beauties, corrupting beauties, and immoral beauties".[4] We do welcome both beauty and value into our lives, and we're often actually seeking them out, too. But we come from different places when we're going for health, or goodness, than when we strive for beauty. It has its own particular role to play in our activities, for both good and bad. (And for both the promotion and the destruction of our health, as Aschenbach was to experience on his own person.)

[1] De officiis, I.95.
[2] Thomas Mann, "Der Tod in Venedig", in: Frühe Erzählungen 1893–1912. Große kommentierte Frankfurter Ausgabe, Band 2.1. Ed. Terence J. Reed. Frankfurt a.M: Fischer 2004, 501–592. Quoted with page numbers in the text.
[3] I've already remarked in a previous footnote (scroll down to [2]) that this is where I'd part ways with Plato's account of beauty.
[4] Roger Scruton, Beauty. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009, 4.

July 16, 2011

Metaphysical apartness and aesthetic ascent

This continues directly my previous post on metaphysical apartness and the stage. I quoted Bernard Williams' observation that there are two different levels of what we see when we're in a theatre audience. We see both Othello strangling Desdemona and we see the actors in those two roles, acting out the events of the drama. Likewise, we're looking both at the palace in Venice and at a scenery which represents that palace. For many purposes, we can just take that scenery to be the palace. But in some respects, we can't. As Williams says, "when in a play someone sets fire to the palace, they do not, hopefully, set fire to the scenery."[1] They're not identical; they're, strictly speaking, different things.

Note that, however immersed we may be in the action when we're watching the dramatic events unfold, we are always aware of that difference. You wouldn't calmly remain in your seat if you thought that the facade of that building in front of you, just a few steps away, were catching fire for real. Likewise, if someone started strangling another person just before your eyes, you wouldn't just sit there and watch, would you?

(There is an extensive discussion in recent philosophy about how exactly unreal events like these can still trigger something resembling authentic emotions, how you could be, as in the title of one influential paper, "fearing fictions".[2] The central question here is why an emotion such as empathy for Desdemona or anger at Othello is felt in the audience but doesn't, as it would in real life, trigger any action at all. Why do emotions in the real world motivate us to do something whereas they simply leave us transfixed and immersed when we're at the theatre or in the cinema?)

In that earlier post I looked at spatial relations and the notion of a point of view. There is, however, also a connection to what I've called aesthetic ascent.

That we can see things thus in two different ways (the world of the play: Othello, the palace, the strangling vs. the real world: actors, a scenery, and acting) is a condition for making the step from immersion in the world of the play to the levels of comparison and appreciation. We can only begin to compare Shakespeare's play to other plays with similar plots, or the particular stage design to that of other productions, or these particular actors to others doing the same part, if there is some discernible difference between, say, watching Othello strangle Desdemona and watching Sir Laurence Olivier and Dame Maggie Smith acting — performing that strangling scene in act V. (It seems that Williams was able to do so; nowadays, our only chance would be on video.)

Even though the world of a fiction can have our full and undivided attention at the level of immersion in the aesthetic ascent; even if we might, for a period, use our capacities of perception and imagination exclusively following the plot of a novel, play, or movie (and, in a more general sense, even a dream, a scenario, a memory or a future plan); even if nothing about the real world occurs to us for quite some time (such as our sitting in a theatre seat or reading chair, the fact that there are other performances of that same play, different tellings of that same story, varying interpretations of what's going on or how it might sediment itself in reality) — even so we are never part of that fictional world; we're in the real world, and thus can never be in the world of an instance of unreality.

At the same time, this apartness is the basis for aesthetic ascent: leaving the level of immersion and comparing that which is going on with other, similar instances. Making this step means to switch between the two ways of looking at things Williams distinguishes: switching between seeing the palace (when immersed) and the scenery (when comparing).

[1] Bernard Williams, "Imagination and the self", in: Problems of the self. Philosophical Papers 1956–1972, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1973, 26–45, 35.
[2] Kendall Walton, "Fearing fictions", in: Journal of Philosophy 75 (1978), 6–27.

July 11, 2011

Metaphysical apartness, perspective, and the stage

At one point Bernard Williams raises the example of stage plays, and he points out that
"we as spectators are not in the world of the play itself; we — in a sense — see what is happening in that world, but not in the same sense as that in which we see the actors" (36)[1].
1) So Williams distinguishes two senses of seeing what's happening, two senses, that is, of observing the events on stage. We (the audience) who are outside the fictional world witness those events in a different way than the characters, who are inside.

For instance, Othello does strangle Desdemona in Shakespeare's play, and there is a sense in which we (the audience) witness that murderous act: we watch Othello strangle Desdemona when act V has arrived. And yet we don't watch the actor who plays Othello strangle the actress playing Desdemona, for he doesn't: he's just acting. We can say that we watch that actor pretending to perform a jealous murder, and we can say that we watch Othello murdering; and for many purposes, there's not really a difference. But still we're talking about different things.

Williams makes this point in terms of formal identity:
"[the audience] would not be seeing Othello unless they were seeing Sir Laurence [Olivier] or another real man moving around [...]. But we must not say that the reason why, in seeing Sir Laurence, they see Othello, is that Sir Laurence is Othello, at least if that 'is' is the 'is' of identity. For if Sir Laurence is Othello, then Miss Maggie Smith, or whoever, is Desdemona, and since Othello strangles Desdemona, it would follow that Sir Laurence strangles Miss Smith, which is false. [...] I see Othello strangle Desdemona; but that will not entail that I, as part of my biography, have ever seen anyone strangle anyone." (34, 35)
In other words, although what these actors do constitute the events in the world of the play, there are still two different things to be observed: the playing, and what's played. And what goes for the events also goes for the physical items, such as props and scenery: "when in a play someone sets fire to the palace, they do not, hopefully, set fire to the scenery." (35)

2) One consequence is that there are, strictly speaking, no spatial relations between the audience and the characters, although there are spatial relations between the audience and the actors (or the scenery). Again, "the audience at such a play are spectators of a world they are not in. They see what they may well describe as, say, Othello in front of a certain palace in Venice; [...] But they are not themselves at any specifiable distance from that palace; unlike Othello, who may be (thus he may be just about to enter it)." (35)

However (and this is where it gets interesting), there is still something like a 'point of view', a perspective from which the whole thing is observed. ('The whole thing' meaning here the world of the play, including the scenery, props, and actors moving around and doing whatever they need to do to constitute the actions of their characters.) When the audience sees the palace, "they are presented with [...] a certain view of that palace, e.g. a view of its front." (35)

Note first, then, that this perspective is not simply constituted by spatial relations. A point of view is not simply equivalent to 'looking from a given spatial direction'. For who's looking here? It's not the characters. There could easily be a scene in which none of the characters looks at the palace, and it would still be there, as seen from a certain point of view. So it must be the point of view of the audience. But once more, "we are, as spectators, at a certain distance from the scenery and the actors, but not from the palace or from Othello" (36). It's not the spatial relationship from which the perspective results.

This becomes even clearer when we switch from stage examples to film, where the perspective can be from any point in space, and typically will even move around: the point of view is now that of the camera, and thus no longer fixed by the spatial location of the audience in their theatre seats. While in a stage play there is only so much possibility of having the fictional world presented from various locations in space, there is an infinity of such possibilities in a movie. (Even though there is still the same basic setup of an audience sitting on seats in rows facing a fixed screen of certain dimensions. That very setup has now lost even the small power it had over point of view with theatre audiences. Of course, with this additional freedom comes also loss: namely, there is no longer the direct physical presence of the actors, which marks one of the primary differences between film and theatre.)

Thus for the worlds of movies holds what holds for the worlds of plays: we're not in those worlds. We're not looking at them in the way an inhabitant of that world would look at them. The point of view from which we watch isn't one from within that world.
"We cannot say [...] that it is our point of view: for we are not, in the usual case, invited to have the feeling that we are near to this castle, floating towards its top, or stealing around those lovers, peering minutely at them. [...] One thing, in the general run, is certain: we are not there. Nor, again, can we say in any simple way that this point of view is the director's [...], since we are no more invited to think of Griffith or Antonioni floating up towers or creeping around lovers. [...] In the standard case, it is not anybody's point of view. Yet we see the characters and action from that point of view". (36–37)
3) I have extracted this line of thought from Williams' article partly because it is such a nice illustration for what I mean by the metaphysical apartness of fictional worlds. But there's at least one more interesting aspect to it. Williams' guiding question is whether we can visualize unseen things; the line of example is intended to show that in a stage play or movie, things can happen 'unseen', in the non-trivial sense "in which the playwright can provide the direction 'Enter First Murderer unobserved', and yet still consistently hope that his piece will have an audience, an audience who will indeed see this unobserved murderer" (36). The fact that we visualize things from some point of view, as if we did perceive them from that point of view, doesn't mean that there must be someone within the visualized world perceiving things from that point of view (37).

Perspective doesn't imply an act of perceiving within the world unto which it is a perspective. (That's the idea that Williams uses for his attack on Berkeley.) Another way to put this is that there can be perspectives on instances of unreality and metaphysical apartness can still hold.

[1] Bernard Williams, "Imagination and the self", in: Problems of the self. Philosophical Papers 1956–1972, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1973, 26–45, quoted by page in the text.

June 26, 2011

Sedimentation of unreality

Dreams sometimes come true. So do prophecies (sometimes). Jealous fantasies can become so destructive that they actually create what they were about (albeit wrongly) in the first place. Visionary leaders know that they first have to draw a picture before people can start acting towards making it a reality.

A while ago I wrote about some even more complex examples in Hitchcock's movies (Vertigo and North by Northwest), where an elaborate deception creates a dynamic in the world (the world of the movie, that is) which in effect makes it seem as if the deception has become reality.

Even in the real world there are some rare cases of an instance of unreality causing far-reaching developments. The first airing of Orson Welles' radio show War of the worlds (based on H.G. Wells' novel) was so convincing that it caused confusion and panic with some in the show's audience who mistook it for a real report.

Such effects are normally short-lived in the real world — reflection kicks in, people communicate and cross-check, and closeness to reality is restored all the faster the higher the number of people who are affected directly. On the other hand, as long as the feasibility of reality checks is kept low and the subject remains fascinating enough to hold a grip on the imagination, even foggy rumors can be sustained for quite some time. In his 1993 Norton Lectures, Umberto Eco cites the case of the Superb, a British submarine which was rumored to be deployed during the build-up of the Falklands crisis. It wasn't, but a combination of public imagination, media speculation and official secrecy quickly made it into a quasi-fact. "[T]he whole story grew out of vague gossip, through the collaboration of all parties. Everybody cooperated in the creation of the Yellow Submarine because it was a fascinating fictional character and its story was narratively exciting."[1]

What all these examples have in common is that some instance of unreality brings about changes in the real world, gets people to act in a different way than they'd have acted without that instance of unreality. Unreality (sometimes) settles into reality: though unreality is unreality, and reality is reality, part of reality consists of sedimented unreality.

Let's look closer at this. When we say that a dream comes true, it's not that literally the dream events come to have happened. It's still only a dream. What does happen is that I start acting in a way that makes some future situation resemble the situation from the dream. (This future situation can be a desirable state, if the dream expresses some wishes or goals I have; it could be an undesirable state, if it is a nightmare and expresses some of my fears. In either case, the way I act towards the situation I experienced in the dream can be conscious, or unconscious, or both.) If that happens and my actions are successful in bringing that situation about, we have now two different situations: an unreal dream situation and a real situation, which I made happen partly because of my dream experience.

When unreality sediments into reality, that instance of unreality remains what it is (it's not, so to speak, transformed into something real). In the example, there's still that dream, and that is an instance of unreality. It becomes, however, the cause (at least, a partial cause) and reason (possibly one reason among others) why some further, real situation, happens the way it does.

To conclude, here are some random reflections about sedimentation. First, in the case of dreams or visions what the unreal situation (the one that's dreamt or envisioned) and the real situation have in common is some experience you have in it, or a description that applies to it. It's an experience or description that was originally a 'what-if' experience or description. In other cases, such as the panic following a fictional invasion from Mars, there's no experience in common, but rather the real situation contains an 'as-if' perception or even action. (People start evacuating as if there really was an invasion.) In the most intricate cases, a constellation might involve both a 'what-if' experience and an 'as-if' action, leading to a very potent confusion of reality and unreality: this is what Vertigo uses to great and disturbing effect.(Again: read more about it in my previous post about sedimentation of unreality in those Hitchcock movies.)

Second, people who act on the basis of some instance of unreality are sometimes aware of this (when they try to fulfill a dream or achieve a vision, or when they have deliberately assumed a scenario, e.g. as a working hypothesis); sometimes they're not (when they act under a deception or illusion). But since people invest by acting and forming views about the world that contains this sedimented unreality, it's unlikely to be reversed once it's found unreal. (There's only a limited possibility to revert your actions in the world anyway, in particular if they have caused more development already.) I've called this the irreversibility of sedimentation in the previous posts I've already linked.

And finally, not everything in reality is sedimented unreality. (Although many facts about the real world have some sedimented unreality somewhere in the chain of causes that lead up to them.) Neither does all unreality sediment into reality of some form. (Some instances of unreality will remain largely without effect in the real world.)[2]

[1] Umberto Eco, Six walks in the fictional woods. The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 1993, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1994, 97–99, the quote is from 99.

[2] Technical side note: I'm using a sketchy notion of cause and effect here that leaves many unclarities and is not (yet) connected to the contemporary philosophical discussion of causation. But note that the idea of sedimented unreality as a cause is no more problematic than any notion of mental causation of events in the world. Sedimentation can unproblematically be analyzed in terms of people's views and actions. It singles out views and actions that are based on an exercise of the imagination, but that's a phenomenon that every account of human action has to deal with anyway.

June 20, 2011

Aesthetic ascent

This continues my earlier post about literature (and art more generally), approaching the notion of beauty.

2. Ascent. There is something like a natural progression, a sort of development, in the way we attend to fictional works, such as novels, movies, or theatre plays. First, you simply follow the flow, and yield to impressions: this is the stage of immersion. Then follows an activity of comparison: noting characteristics, finding differences and commonalities with other works, understanding patterns and developments. Finally, with the recognition that there is a shaping mind (or several minds) behind all this, someone who has intentionally created it so, there is a stage of appreciation. It's the artist's imaginative performance that comes into focus at this last stage.

Let's take an example: you're reading a novel. The first stage is immersion. You get 'into' the story; you start orienting yourself in this fictional world, you get to know the characters, sometimes from within their own head, sometimes only from without; as the story develops, you're curious why they act as they do; you want to know what happens next. (It's just the same when watching a movie: you're attending closely to what is happening on the screen, you're with the plot, apprehending the events that unfold, listen to the characters' words, watch their actions, empathize with the feelings they express in their body language and tone of voice.)

At this stage, you are not aware of your own position as an observer; you're absorbed — you don't reflect. You're 'dreaming the fictional dream', as writing coach John Gardner has put it.[1]

There may come a point, however, when you step out of this immediate engagement and enter stage two: comparison. This might happen while you're still reading, or perhaps afterwards; it may happen only after you've read many books; and perhaps even then only after prompting from a teacher or a review in a newspaper. Whatever triggers it, you attention is drawn away from what is happening to the characters to what you can observe about this piece of fiction as such. You begin to notice differences and commonalities with other stories; you start categorizing, possibly assign them to genres; you may identify stylistic elements, perceive patterns, developments, and so on.

Once you put a fiction into a comparison class, it speaks to you in a different way. You can't be exclusively absorbed in that single piece any more, because you are now aware of its relationship with many others. It does no longer only exist in the events and emotions it presents to you; it is now also bound into a larger context of ways of presenting such events and emotions. The space of what you're perceiving has widened considerably: from merely something that's going on (for you to raptly enjoy) to goings-on that merely present one lone path through a vast network of connections.

Noting this, of course, you may well ask yourself the question why you are on this particular path now, and not another one. There may be reasons behind it or not, but you'll find that now you realize a shaping will behind the fact that you are going in that particular direction right now. Someone (the author, or artist) has taken choices, has deliberately arranged things in this specific way. And once you're aware that many of those decisions come from a unique, creative mind, the mind of someone who knows about those options, and who has a sense of direction that somehow got transferred upon these fictions — once you notice that, you're on the level of appreciation.

3. I have started above with the claim that there is this development, or aesthetic ascent, in our responses to fictional works. We must get clearer about the status of that ascent.

First, of course we don't go through these stages with every single experience we have of a fictional work. In other words, you might have got to the level of appreciation when watching a movie yesterday, but that doesn't mean that you can't watch another movie today and remain on the level of immersion. (It's not quite so clear that you can watch the same movie today and remain on the level of immersion. I suspect that once you've reached some level of reflection with respect to a particular instance of fiction, it's difficult, perhaps impossible, to again retreat from that level. Compare this to knowing a foreign language: if you can't understand French, say, and you're sitting in a café in Paris, you may perceive all the talking around you, which you can't interpret, as a kind of music, an acoustic background, sounds without any direct meaning to you. Once you've learned the language, however, it is nearly impossible to perceive those same sounds that way. You'll hear the meaning of what is said, whether you want it or not. I think it's similar with perceiving an instance of fiction on the level of comparison or appreciation: once you're there, you can't go back.)

Second, this ascent is not tied to stages of our personal development. It's not that we're merely immersed in all novels, movies etc. for the first twenty years or so of our lives, and then learn something, get up to the next level, and from that point always remain there. Sure enough, with education and personal maturity comes also a greater ability and affinity for reflection and appreciation in these matters. But there is no reason why young people couldn't go through all stages very early in their development. (Even young children start sorting stories they know by how much they like them, and later on they may find they have a favorite author or two whose works they like most.)

Third, at all three levels external elements have an influence on what we experience, in addition to the aesthetic ascent. You may be immersed in a story at first, but your thoughts may drift away after a while. (So you're not reflecting on what goes on in the story, but you're suddenly in the mood to think about your plans for tomorrow, perhaps triggered by a sentence you've read.) Likewise, your concentration may fade because of physical or mental fatigue; or your ability to follow an emotionally disturbing story or film may be exhausted after a while. (You simply can't take any more of those depressing pictures or situations.)

On the level of comparison, personal preferences may guide your perception. For example, if you've just taken up dancing classes or some sport, you might be sensitive to aspects of physical activity or competitiveness and experience a movie which reflects on them much more intensely; this might lead to a preference for that category which is merely rooted in your own current situation. (Note that in this case, there is still much going on on the comparison level between movies within that same category. The preference is for focusing on movies which deal with that particular aspect, but you're still going to compare them with each other for how they do that; and that comparison activity is of course the more interesting one.) Similarly, there are many other influences here from our own personal constellation: we may find certain actors more attractive than others because of their physical appearance, their unique voice, or their intriguing screen persona; we may be fascinated by the novelty and relative strangeness of something we've only just started discovering; or we may even relish a slight quality of indistinctness in styles we're not yet used to. (Try reading Shakespeare in original Old English, or generally something written in a language you can understand reasonably well, but you're not yet quite familiar with. The fact that there are nuances you won't get, and the fact that you know it, will add a special, unique charm to those works; but it will inevitably wear off after some more practice.)

Finally, on the level of appreciation, where we focus on artistic performance, there is another set of external elements that may influence us, such as a personal like or dislike for the artist, or an own personal experience practicing the art in question: you can recognize an achievement much better if you know from first-hand experience what it takes to get there, what labors, patience, and perseverance are required for it. Thus, on all three levels there are external factors interacting with the development we're looking at here, aesthetic ascent.

(I don't think there is a need to 'purify' our reception of fictional works, in a way that minimizes or even eliminates those external influences. It's just important to be aware that aesthetic ascent, in the sense described here, is not the only thing going on in those experiences.)

There's a fourth aspect to aesthetic ascent. Our experience of an instance of art is deepened, its richness and intensity increased on each of those levels (contrary to widespread opinion that a perception that is unspoiled by theory is the most intense). This connects back to my earlier post about appreciation of the craft. I said there that conceptual skills are required, and must be developed, in order to get to a more refined appreciation of art. Aesthetic ascent is a crucial factor in building these conceptual skills. Understanding is enhanced by informed ways of looking at things; and the ability to appreciate fictional works is no exception to that rule.

[1] John Gardner, The Art of Fiction. Notes on craft for young writers. New York: Random House 1984.

June 11, 2011

Naturalizing myths (contd.)

(This continues my earlier posting about Plato's handling of the myth of Boreas and Oreithya in the Phaedrus.)

In the Republic, where the topic is the proper forming of character, Socrates reflects on the influence which bad myths might have, and proposes to reject them.

(This is not necessarily the call for censorship some people have read into it. Note that the Republic isn't a proposal for direct implementation of political measures; many textbooks misleadingly suggest that, by glossing its content as "Plato sketching his vision of an ideal state". But that's a grave oversimplification. The Republic is about the formation of the human psyche; it aims to explain the main excellences of character and their base in the complexities of human psychology; and it does so by demonstrating the internal processes within the psyche using a model: the model of a city-state, which makes the details more tangible in an externalized form and so helps us to discuss and explore them. This model, the sketch of an ideal state, makes up only part of the work; and though it probably lets us see some of Plato's ideas and fantasies about the political and social realm, this doesn't make it into a work of political science yet.)[1]

One criticism he makes is that portraying the gods as vicious, unjustly violent, or deceptive is wrong: both because it doesn't adequately reflect the nature of the divine (gods who'd behave that way could not count as divine, or something higher than humans; on the contrary, they'd be even worse than humans, at least when the latter are at their best), and also because, adequate or not, it plants the wrong examples in the minds of the audience.[2]

This criticism obviously fits the myth of Boreas we've seen Phaedrus and Socrates talk about on their way along the river in the Phaedrus. There is no way the actions of the personalized wind-god might be described as properly divine. One thing to be said, then, by the standards of the Republic, is that this story would be inappropriate for use in education. Still, Socrates in the Phaedrus avoids ethical reflection.

(Martha Nussbaum sees in this more tolerant stance a change of attitude which reflects a deeper change in Plato's thinking. She sees in the Phaedrus a shift towards higher tolerance and appreciation of emotional elements in ethics.[3] Even if this is true, however, it would explain the acceptance of the mythical story as such, i.e. as a story which displays personalized gods and the like; it still doesn't account for the fact that the sort of behavior shown here is unacceptable. The form of the myth would be OK, but not its content.)

[1] More on the reception history of the Republic can be found in Julia Annas', Ancient Philosophy. A very short introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000, 24–36, and the references given there. A more detailed discussion of the inadequacy of a reading reduced to the political can be found in her Platonic Ethics: Old and New, Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1999, 72–95.
[2] Rep. 377d–378e
[3] In her The Fragility of Goodness. Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, rev. ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2001, 225.

June 2, 2011

Appreciation of the craft

In order to get clearer about my concept of beauty, I'm looking first at artistic creation: beauty in literature, music and the arts.[1] I'm focusing on examples from literature for now, but the ideas I'm sketching here should apply more or less the same to all forms of artistic creation. I begin by introducing the notions of appreciation, aesthetic ascent, and performance.

1) Appreciation.[2] Let's start with an obvious and rather truistic point: when we try to understand a work of literature, there is at least one special dimension compared to trying to understand any narrative in everyday life. A work of literature doesn't just tell a story; it does that, but it does it in a special way. For our understanding of something as literature, the way how the story is told is at least as important as its content.

When we read an article in a newspaper (telling us about a political summit, for instance), or a report at work, what we are mostly interested in is what the narrative tells us, not how it is told. Not that the latter aspect doesn't matter: there is a typical style to newspaper articles or work reports, and if a text of that sort fails to comply to our expectations, we're irritated. Imagine a work report using obscure or flowery language, or a newspaper article written in verse. We would be surprised, and because of the unusual format, we would have difficulty reading it as a work report or newspaper article. So the way such a text is written is not immaterial—it must be written in a particular way. But if it is, then we are precisely not interested in the question in what way it is written. The craft aspect, so to speak, is transparent to us. Ideally, we want to be informed, and the best style for a text with that objective is a style that isn't perceived as style, that keeps in the background.

Consider yet another sort of narrative that also is part of daily life. When your friend tells you the amusing (or depressing, depending on where you stand) story how many forms she had to fill in to get her laptop connected to the company network, you're not mostly interested in what exactly happened. If she told you the story to amuse you, then a lot depends on how well she succeeds in making it fun to listen to it. In this case again, the way the story is told is far from unimportant; but again, it should be transparent—it's not necessary for you to notice exactly what makes the story funny, which stylistic elements (choice of words, body language, exploitation of shared opinions) are used, and how well they are employed. On the contrary: the story will probably fail to be amusing if you are made aware of these elements too often and too directly.

In all these examples it is of course possible to reflect on narrative style, and appreciate it. You can come to like a certain newspaper precisely because of its sober and informative style, you can appreciate a colleague's work reports for their matter-of-factness, and of course we can value a friend's talent for amusing storytelling. Such additional reflection and appreciation is not strictly necessary for the functioning of something as a newspaper article, a work report, or an amusing conversation. But it refines your perceptive and social interaction skills if you are capable of doing so (and if you actually do it a lot). It is also a step into the direction of appreciation of art, and literature in particular.

With literature, reflection on and appreciation of the way how things are said in a text are built right into the practice, both on the side of the producers and on the side of the recipients. In other words, authors are aware that it's not just the stories they tell, but also how they are telling them (their particular style, use of language and idioms, the way they construct the story and plot etc.) which is subject to interest and appreciation; and readers know that they must look at these aspects in order to fully 'get' what's going on in the text.

Auguste Toulmouche,
The reading lesson
 Understanding literature, then, must include perceiving and appreciating the 'how' it is made, in addition to the 'what' that it says. This is a skill that requires some development, and naturally it benefits from learning to apply the terms and concepts of technical language. If you are able to distinguish between plot and story, or between the narrator's and the character's perspectives, and if you can use these terms to refer to such differences in discourse with yourself and others, then you have reached a higher level of skill in understanding literature. Note that having a conceptual skill does not necessarily mean that you also have to use some given terminology; many readers have an understanding of the difference between the narrator's perspective and a character's perspective, although they may never have learned the technical use of 'narrator', 'character' and 'perspective' employed here. It's not the particular use of words that matters — what matters is the conceptual capacity.

[1] Further steps must surely include human beauty (including eros and desire) and beauty of nature (in both its main forms: the organism and the wilderness).

[2] This is a slightly reworked version of an earlier post about Reflection and interpretation over at my online journal.

May 17, 2011

Der Glanz der Unwirklichkeit

I gave this speech at the Spring 2011 Toastmasters Area F1 (District 59) contest. (I wasn't competing, it was a target speech for the evaluation contest in German.) I've used several themes from this blog in the speech.

The speech is in German; switch on the captions for the (German) transcript.

May 15, 2011

The iridescent shimmer of nothingness (contd.)

(I continue from an earlier post to explore some similarities and differences in Sartre's talk of being and nothingness, on the one hand, and my notions of reality and unreality in this blog, on the other.)

A second parallel is that reality is primary, in metaphysical terms, before unreality: unreality can only be created from reality, but not the other way round. Every form of unreality relies on a background of reality which is much larger than itself. (For instance, take a fictional story, or a lie: we take in some description of the world in those, but most of that world is not explicitly described; so whenever there remains a gap in the description, we either fill it from what is implicit in it, or else we fill it in from what we assume to be the case in the real world.)

Sartre claims something similar when he says that "[t]he use which we make of nothingness in its familiar form always supposes a prelimiary specification of being." And he continues with some examples:
We say, pointing to a particular collection of objects, "Touch nothing," which means, very precisely, nothing of that collection. Similarly, if we question someone on well-determined events in his private or public life, he may reply, "I know nothing." And this nothing includes the totality of the facts on which we questioned him. Even Socrates with his famous statement, "I know that I know nothing," designates by this nothing the totality of being considered as Truth.[1]
Even the nothingness of what was there before a world existed would be based on the world which is now, and from within we can ask such a question. Such a nothingness (the 'nothing' we mean when we answer the question: "What was there before our world?" with "Nothing.") emerged only on top of our reality. If we did analyze it and strip it from "its characteristic of being empty of this world and of every whole taking the form of a world" as well as from its "characteristic of before, which presupposes an after", then we would end up with "a total indetermination which it would be impossible to conceive, even and especially as a nothingness."[2]

"This means", Sartre concludes, "that being is prior to nothingness and establishes the ground for it. [...] nothingness can only have a borrowed existence [...], and the total disappearance of being would not be the advent of the reign of non-being, but on the contrary the concomitant disappearance of nothingness."[3] There can't be any nothingness without being (or before, or after it), just as there couldn't be any unreality without reality.

(As a side-note: the process I have labeled sedimentation of unreality into reality also relies on this grounding of unreality in reality. Sedimentation happens when on the basis of some instance of unreality action is taken, in reality. Real events happen in response to unreality just as well as they are caused by something within reality. But all this presupposes an underlying reality as basis on which that unreality was formed. There is a hint to a parallel to this also in Sartre when he remarks that "it is from being that nothingness concretely derives its efficacy."[4])

[1] Being and Nothingness, 48–49.
[2] Ibd., 48–49.
[3] Ibd.
[4] Ibd.

May 14, 2011

Naturalizing myths

On the last day she was seen alive, Oreithya, the daughter of the ancient Athenian king Erechtheus, was playing with her friends by the river Illissos; not suspecting any danger here, she was taken by surprise and carried away in a violent gust of wind from the north. Stories and legends have grown ever since about what might have happened to her.

Ages on, two philosophers stroll along those same banks of the Illissos, minding that it's more refreshing to walk along country roads than city streets,[1] but nonetheless, of course, intending to put their leisure to good use— and what better use could there be than a deep and pleasant conversation on the art of love, the craft of rhetorics, and the philosophic life?

On their way, they pass a spot that looks just as it might have been the very site where Boreas, the north wind, once did snatch the innocently playing girl; it seems so fitting, as Phaedrus observes: "The stream is lovely, pure and clear: just right for girls to be playing nearby."[2] Of the two philosophers, he's the one who really has an eye for that sort of thing; he's got imagination enough to see how nicely the scenery would invite people to dream up a mythical story, unfolding here in ancient times: of the wild and passionate wind god, Boreas, who'd fallen in love with the king's daughter and, having been rejected by her before, decides to take her by force, seizes the opportunity, grabs and carries her away to a cliff where he covers her in a cloud and rapes her.[3]

Giovanni Battista Cipriani, The Rape of Oreithya
But even though Phaedrus might welcome stories such as this one as occasions for testing his talent of spotting locations that look like just the right setting for them, he also is aware that it is only a myth, something an educated person wouldn't believe in. Socrates, his companion, seems to have a more nuanced stance on this, however:
Actually, it would not be out of place for me to reject it, as our intellectuals do. I could then tell a clever story: I could claim that a gust of the North Wind blew her over the rocks where she was playing [...]; and once she was killed that way people said she had been carried off by Boreas [...]

Now, Phaedrus, such stories are amusing enough, but they are a job for a man I cannot envy at all. [...] Anyone who does not believe in them, who wants to explain them away and make them plausible by means of some sort of rough ingenuity, will need a great deal of time.

But I have no time for such things; and the reason, my friend, is this. I am still unable, as the Delphic inscription orders, to know myself; and it really seems to me ridiculous to look into other things before I have understood that.[4]
I think is important to note that Socrates says two things here: first, he recognizes the possibility to give a naturalized account of the events.[5] It is possible to explain it without recourse to gods or supernatural powers; what happened can be accounted for by giving a perfectly ordinary explanation. But, secondly, he also says that there are more important things to do, that it is not of the highest importance to do so; at least that is so for him, but by quoting the Delphic prescription, "know thyself", it seems clear that he thinks it would be a good idea for others as well to strive for self-knowledge rather than think up sophisticated naturalized versions of complicated ancient myths.[6] Thus, although Socrates might not really believe that gods and the like are necessary for explaining what's going on, he still seems to acknowledge that stories such as this can tell us something about ourselves—something we might also formulate differently (in a naturalized way, perhaps), but which would then also take more time and effort to formulate, time and effort that could be spent more wisely otherwise.

Not only does Socrates express tolerance for mythological accounts here, but later on he uses myths himself to make some of his ideas intelligible. And what applies to Socrates, the character in the Phaedrus, holds also more generally for Plato; he's built mythical stories into many of his dialogues. (Think, for instance, of the myth of the ancestry and birth of Eros in the Symposium, 203b–c.) Myths, as a form of unreality, are a vehicle of the imagination just as novels or movies are in our time, and as such they can convey insights, enhance our self-knowledge, make the world more intelligible for us, and propel us forward in our actions and projects.

(Next, I'll look into the corresponding need to restrict myth, by what I call reflection, in Plato.)

[1] Phdr. 227a–b. All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the Phaedrus.

[2] 229b; The general theme of fittingness of the sites they encounter, the 'impressario' role of Phaedrus in choosing them, and the dramatic and philosophical significance of all this for what follows (after all, the Phaedrus is the only dialogue where Plato makes substantial use of a landscape setting, and one outside the city for that) is carefully analyzed by G.R.F. Ferrari, in his Listening to the Cicadas. A study of Plato's Phaedrus, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1987, ch. 1. Thus, that Socrates responds with a correction of fact at this point shows that "appropriateness is not a sufficient condition for truth" (ibd. 10). And then he launches into what is also the topic of this post, namely that "in a certain sense of truth, truth is not what matters". (Or, in the terminology of this blog: there is a role for unreality, just as for reality, in all our thinking and acting.)

[3] See the Wikipedia entry about Oreithya for more details on the myth, and references.

[4] 229c–230a

[5] Note that the term 'naturalized' is a modern word that I simply use for convenience; of course, the ancient Greek concept of nature was very different from the one that we have in mind when we talk of 'naturalizing' ideas.

An alternative might have been the term 'rationalizing' (which is what Ferrari uses in his analysis of the passage in Listening to the Cicadas). Insofar as rationalizing would mean to find reasons or reasonable explanations (ratio roughly means reason, after all), this doesn't seem to be a helpful term to me, though. Both the myth and the naturalized explanation aim at coming to terms (and thus to emotionally cope) with what is a disturbing event: the vanishing and probable violent death of a young girl. Both the mythical story and the naturalized story provide an account of what happened, and in both cases the account is given in a coherent, intelligible way. Their difference lies in that the former includes forces (such as gods and the extraordinary powers ascribed to them) which the latter wouldn't allow, restricting itself to natural forces. These stories differ only in the ingredients of the world view from which they come, but not in the rationalizing function (which both fulfill).

[6] By quoting the Delphic oracle, Socrates indirectly brings the authority of Apollo into play; which looks a little tendentious if you're on the side of the naturalizers. If you strive for naturalized explanations of the events in old myths, surely you wouldn't stop at oracles and this god either. Of course, the natural reply here would be that Apollo stands for rational discourse, truth and insight, and finally self-knowledge; there's nothing really mythical about that, and Socrates claim about priorities is made precisely as a rational argument (there are more important things than old stories, and time is limited).