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.