Saturday, 24 August 2013

Reality And Fiction

The novel was once a radical art form. It represented a slow turning away from sacred and transcendent literature and placed the human subjectivity of the author at the steering wheel. Though religion didn't immediately lose its influence within literature, no longer did authors have to re-present traditional themes, forms and symbology. They were free to choose what they wrote about and didn't have to refer to previous conventions and traditions if they opted not to.

Cervantes and Sterne celebrated this with their gorgeous insinuations as to the unreliability of their narrators. Could fiction be lying to us, making things up and stuff? What could mendacious literature be for then? Did it seek to reflect the real world? Was it intended to provide an interpretation of the world? How does any of that play with the fact that it is a work of fiction, an imagining of an author's mind, no matter how much 'based on truth'? How did the subjectivity of its single author's imagination square with imparting anything universal to a readership?

In painting similar development occurred. Western art was in thrall to theology, with prescriptions, proscriptions and a ready made symbolic palette to refer to. Within these limitations however, artists advanced their art by discovering perspective and how to play with light and colour, so that religious icons were supplanted by the sumptuous canvases of Giotto and Titian. It may have been revolutionary to move the Madonna and Child away from the very centre of the painting, but it was still utterly rooted in religious iconography and imagery.

It was the various modernist movements in art, Impressionism, Cubism and the like, which took the religious shackles off the image in painting as artists went in pursuit of 'truth'; that is the essential real nature of objects, be it landscapes, still lifes or figurative art. These were inquiries into the truth of objects through exploring the way we 'see' things. But the revolutions didn't stop there as art freed itself from the figurative, passing through abstraction and into conceptual forms that eschewed canvas and paint entirely. Art became self-aware, not just of light, colour and perspective, but of its very fictions too.
It reached its apotheosis perhaps with Magritte's painting -

It expressed a key realisation: a picture of a pipe was not the same as a pipe itself. A picture of a pipe was actually a symbol, an image of what we know and recognise as a pipe. It cannot represent or reflect the ceramic/wood ensemble that constitutes the object that is the pipe, for this is a two-dimensional representation only of its image. Art had so freed itself from depicting and portraying, that it had shrunk its own horizons into fairly arid considerations of the image (Pop Art, much conceptual art for example). The image itself had been supplanted by the sign. What something stood for. Art became aware of its limitations and its fictional nature, almost completely cut off from trying to portray the real.

The novel has not had nearly as many revolutions and paradigm shifts as visual art. Yet it should have arrived at the same place in terms of becoming conscious of itself as fiction. In fact, fiction ought to have a competitive advantage in all things fictional, seeing as it's even in its very name! Magritte's painting wouldn't work without the tension set up by the words "This is not a pipe".

There are some hard and fast realities about the novel, or any artwork, that make them have some actual substance in the world. A print book is an object, while even an e-reader data file exists on some level. Books take up space on libraries and shelves and if they remain in print after the author is long dead, then they could definitely be said to have contributed to the lasting store of human knowledge and ideas. So as a material entity, any book forms part of reality. But of course we are really talking about the contents within. The body of the written word.

Novels are stories rather than truths about the real world, though there can be points where they catalyse truth in the form of the emotional reaction of the reader. And through all its seismic changes, painting being a visual artform has always placed at its centre an inquiry into ways of seeing and the nature of perception. What's the literary equivalent of visual art's primary inquiry? Well it has to be language, since that is literature's only real tool. The author may have a palette with plot, character, imagery, setting and the like on it, but all are solely rendered through words.

So any novel ought to be aware of its relation to language. How words work to build up images, voices, narratives. But also how all of these are at one remove from reality, since the fictional building, tree or person is only constructed through words rather than brick, wood or flesh. A tale involving a pipe is not an actual pipe, only a representation of one through story.

And it becomes more complex, for the word PIPE has a myriad of meanings all differing from one another; a smoking pipe. Some plumbing pipe or duct. A blowpipe. A sewer. A gas pipe(line). A hose pipe. An organ pipe, or other musical pipes. The anatomical windpipe. Various tubular formations that channel things through them, such as in volcanos or in geology. And that's without any of the meanings of the word when employed as a verb.

Magritte's painting would not have worked so well if the image was of a bit of copper tubing. It relies on the primacy our brains give to the word 'pipe' to associate it with the act of tobacco smoking. Words have inbuilt hierarchies of meaning, they have etymological roots rooted in historical realities. Anglo-Saxon words, Norman french words, Latin, Greek, Arabic and all the imports from colonies ruled by English speaking imperial powers. There are reasons why certain classes of anglo-Saxon words survived into the language, while others didn't, supplanted by Norman-French ones. There is the Latin from the original Roman invasion, Latin from Christian liturgy, Latin and Greek from the slowly developing scientific orthodoxy and classification. It is organic, constantly shifting and evolving. It is loaded with value judgements and assumptions, even if these are not apparent. The choice of Latin and Greek was often to convey the sense of the word being scholarly and not really accessible to the common man. The legal system is replete with such abstruse words. It's a very distorting medium that both muddies interpretations of the real world even as it purports to classify and sequence it by grouping things into classes. So not only does language construct an author's representation of any human world he cares to compose, language is also already at one remove from everyday reality as its descriptive medium. The author may write of a smoker's pipe, but in real life the concept of a pipe is already a shorthand and a convention couched in language.

In the early 21st Century, we are actually at an advantage where fiction is concerned. We have become so saturated by media, by images and data bombarding us, it is often the case that thoughts and ideas and even feelings that emerge from within us, may not have actually originated with us. Advertising may have implanted an idea, or you may have read something but forgotten you ever had read it and now credit that the idea was your own. This is the world of the hyperreal, where everything is constructed through media, sign and symbol and nothing is definitively real. Or if it is, we certainly can't tell the difference, because it has all become conflated. Now imagine constructing your fictions out of that? You already start from the world of the fictional. You are reflecting the unreality of constructed reality back on itself. In this way, fiction may just help us in our ways of seeing and conceptualising reality and to consider the part language plays in moderating and defining our reality back to us. Fiction isn't real, but it can help interrogate the world around us to see what may equally not be as real and unconstructed, unfabricated by various assumptions, connections and abbreviations. Novels can't solve the conundrum of reality, but it can help us get beneath the surface of appearances

This is not to say all fictions have to engage with writing about the manufacture and prefabrication of the hyperreal. But if writing contemporary fiction you ought probably to be aware of it. Add to that a consciousness of how language operates to obfuscate as much as illuminate and the power bases and relationships it has stemmed from. Although part of the liberation from religion and supernatural explanations of the world came from a greater understanding of cause and effect, ironically we still don't understand much, such as the workings of the human brain, about the nature of the cosmos, the blind drive of genes to reproduce themselves. The contemporary author who seeks to explore our world should really start from a position of acknowledging the limits of his understanding and that the world, or parts of it at least, go in and out of focus like a mirage as he seeks to grasp hold of it.

If the author accordingly is dialoguing with this mirage in his fiction, then it will also entail the reader does the same. The author and reader constantly dialogue together through the book,  as the levels of its 'reality' shift and mutate, as the language and perspectives on offer are constantly being redefined between the two of them.

This is unlike the vast majority of books which lead the reader passively through a constructed story. No matter how much the reader's imagination is engaged in following the author's carefully laid out trail, the book does not change in its essence. It does not take on a life of its own outside of the story being read. There may be twists and unexpected turns, but how much is the reader determining these? These beautifully crafted, self-confident yarns leave no room for doubt, even if the ending is left open or ambiguous. It is done so artfully. The implication behind such crafted stories is that the world is and has to be exactly as is portrayed in the book and by this I don't mean the real world, merely the world described in the book. The author is in absolute control of the world he builds, creates every detail and knows even the workings of things not referenced in the book at all.

Nowhere is there room for fictional scepticism to be chipping in. That although say a city or a planet is described, the reflexivness of the writing pulls against that surety at the same time (one example where the author does this is Stanislau Lem's "Solaris". Kafka's work though more mundane in setting also had this pull-me, push-you dynamic). Instead the world of the yarn book is established by the author to facilitate the plot. It can't heave loose threads that might unravel it. It must be hermetically sealed within the world of the novel, narrators can't be picking holes in it unless it's a "Matrix" type scenario being written about. The world is great or terrible and the hero reacts accordingly, but the world is unquestionable and unbreakable even if the hero manages to effect some sort of regime change within it. We cannot be so certain about the workings of our own world. Fiction perhaps ought to reflect that tremulous doubt in our own minds in its presentations. Authors who start from a postion of confessing their own relative ignorance about the nature of reality, will produce very different novels from those who either feel they have an excellent grip on the nature of reality, or deny any need to bother trying to comprehend it.


Anne Stormont said...

An excellent essay, Marc. Good comparison with visual art's evolution. A stimulating read for the old brain.
I do agree about the need to recognise our own subjective and tenuous grip on reality - and it's that bewilderment and cause/pause for thought that makes us and our lives so fascinating - and gives fiction its infinite possibilities.

Katherine Hajer said...

I really enjoyed this. Truth be told, nothing irritates me so much as a novel lauded for its "realism". Usually it's only describing the reality of a privileged subset. An acknowledgement of fiction seems more authentic to me.

Anonymous said...

Two words:
Bloody. Brilliant.

John J. Hohn said...

Very thought provoking, brilliant essay. I have copied portions of it to reread for time to time.

Robyn McIntyre said...

Yes, our understanding of reality does tend to go in and out of focus, though I think less like a mirage and more like a camera. What we choose to see and understand becomes sharp and everything on the periphery becomes blurry. This is both a plus and a minus in living. But as marvelous as our brains are, there is no way any one of them could possibly behold reality in all its awful awesomeness. The most we can do is acknowledge that reality exists, but we are forever outside of it, though it holds us fast. To play with reality in fiction and in prose remains a experiment, an exercise, for which of us can even comprehend another's reality in it's totality - even a made-up one?