Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Reality of Fiction

When one places life's center of gravity not in life but in the "beyond"--in nothingness--one deprives life of its center of gravity altogether. The great lie of personal immortality destroys all reason, everything natural in the instincts--whatever in the instincts is beneficent and life-promoting or guarantees a future now arouses mistrust. -Friedrich Nietzsche

My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. [...] The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic. Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised the earth. -G.K. Chesterton

Sometime in early February:

I sat at my usual spot at the coffee shop I've come to frequent here in Louisville. I cautiously brought the cup of hot cinnamon tea to my lips, hoping to bump into my new friend. I first met my friend Henry several months ago while helping some friends move. He reminded me of Thoreau, a man with luddite tendencies desperately trying as hard as he can to escape the corruption of the world. I would consider him to be some kind of existentialist, even though he would probably refuse the label and call himself an individual (as any good existentialist would).

A sip. Ah, the tea is perfect.

Henry arrived as if on cue. We greeted one another cordially and I slid aside my impressive (though only to me) stack of books on medieval theology. He took a seat and I lit my pipe. He produced a pack of cigarettes. We ignited our vices and began to reason together.

I had an ulterior motive in meeting with him, of course. You see, I care tremendously for his soul. As is so common in our ultra-modern, ultra-convenient times, he seems to me a listless and tempest-tossed alien. He has never been more comfortable and never so homeless. In addition to the cosmopolitan curse, he is also weighed down by survivor's guilt. His best friend drove thirty miles into the glorious New England countryside to drown himself ingloriously in a pond just a bit off the highway. Henry blamed himself for being so far south when his friend took his own life. Needless to say, I continue to release many fragrant prayers to the Lord for him.

"I'm working on a project," I announced after the pleasant small talk had subsided, "maybe you can help me."


"Yeah. I could use another pair of ears. Y'see, I'm writing on hope. Tryin' to figure out what exactly it is, what it does for us, why we need it, is it even real? Maybe you can help me sort through all my thoughts."

"Okay," Henry agreed. "What do you have so far?"

"Well, I began... um, are ya familiar with the 'Green Lantern' comics?" He nodded. "Well, then you know how the Blue Lanterns work. The symbiosis with the Greens and everything, the symbolism of hope being useless without willpower, but together hope can super charge willpower. Right?" Yes. "But isn't that just a fancy way of saying that hope is just a delusion?"

"How so?" he asked.

"Think of it. Hope isn't real, it's just a tool. It really doesn't matter what you hope in, so long as you hope for something. Nietzsche would say that hope is a great lie, particularly when imposed from the outside. It's a fantasy, a tool for control. Or it's just something we need in order to function, an existential necessity. Anyway," I concluded, "that's where I'm stuck. Ya got any thoughts for me?"

He mulled it over for a moment. Then he answered, "I think hope is fantastic in some sense. Honestly, I'm not really as much of a philosopher as a writer or English dork. But I think fiction really resonates with people because it IS fake. Maybe it's not real, but that's what so compelling about it."

"So you would say that the compelling things about literature aren't really based on anything real?"

"They're rooted in our experience, or how we perceive it. We want the world to be better than it is. We wish our experiences were more than they are."

"It's just a wish then? It has no reality?"

"It's a real desire for things to be better than they are. There's nothing false about wanting things to be better than they are. In fact, idealization keeps us going. Writers craft ideal characters to fit their stories. The people they invent function just the way they're supposed to in the narrative. But any good writer will tell you that a solid character eventually writes themselves. That sorta makes them real, doesn't it?" Henry asked whimsically.

"But are the characters really ideal? Are ideal or realistic characters better?"

"Realistic ones, of course. I meant that they function ideally in the story. They do what the author wants."

I conceded the point. "But why are realistic characters better? Why not the perfect ones?"

"I think real characters need to be relatable."

"Why do the readers need to relate?"

"Are you leading me somewhere?"

"I asked you first."

Henry sighed in defeat. He knew that I was in fact leading him somewhere. Still, he was the one who had to get there. To state it plainly wouldn't mean the same to him. "I think readers need to relate because they need to see themselves in the story. They ought to recognize what kind of person is in the story and how they're like that character. They need to see that a character will react in a story just like they will, or if they're different, why they did otherwise."

"So a realistic character has to seem real, not entirely fictional?"

He was thoughtfully quiet before replying, "I suppose so."

"So might it be fair to say that the compelling thing about fiction is, on some level, not what is imaginary but what is real about it. Aristotle praised poetry for this reason; it attained unto the universal. It uses narrative to tell us what's true about being human in a way that philosophy never could."


"Couldn't hope be the same?" I asked. "Could it be that we're not compelled by fiction but by reality? And not reality as it is--for the real world is a harsh place--but reality as we always hoped it could be? As though our hearts yearn for the world to be better than it actually is not because we can imagine it better but because it is supposed to be better than it really is? What if there's something terribly wrong with the world? We think that our hopes aren't real because we don't see any tangible proof of them. But the hope itself is the evidence! Or else why would there ever have been hope at all?"

(A more thorough treatment of the question of hope will follow this dialogue.)

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