A Family Supper
The Necessary Testing of the Hypothesis
In his essay 'Structuralism and Literary Criticism', Gerard Genette interestingly and judiciously discusses Structuralism, acknowledging its importance while indicating its potential limits. "Literature had long enough been regarded as a message without a code for it to become necessary to regard it for a time as a code without a message." Yet he also says, "the prejudice of which is to value structures at the expense of substances, and which may therefore overestimate their explanatory value." It is a pressing question for one looking to find importance in a work of fiction to try to understand what that might mean. If we comprehend its structures are we ignoring its meaning; if we attend to its meaningfulness are we imposing on the artwork little more than an affective fallacy: are we imposing our feelings onto it rather than extracting substance from it?
Perhaps this is where explication of the text has its uses, but that it serves let us say a bigger question, what some would see as a hermeneutic inquiry. Genette quotes Georges Poulet who says "contrary to common belief, criticism must avoid attending to any object whatever (whether it be the person of the author, considered as someone else, or his work, considered as a thing), for what must be obtained is a subject, that is to say a spiritual activity that can only be understood if one puts oneself in its place and revives within us its role as subject." It is this question of how we insert ourselves as a subject within the material while still attending to the work at hand which interests us.
Just say we happen to be teaching a class and the students believe that a writer has written a more suspenseful work than actually happens to be the case. One thinks here of 'A Family Supper' by Kazuo Ishiguro that some students read as a story about a father potentially keen to murder the son who returns to Japan from the States. We hear early on in the story that the mother has died when the son was State-side while eating the potentially deadly Pufferfish - a meal that has to be very carefully prepared because of the toxins it contains. On the son's return, the father is cooking fish, so a number of students wondered if the son will go the same way as the mother. Yet this take on the story that assumes the father is the poisoner is weakened by empirical detail. The story is written in the past tense and Ishiguro makes clear early on that the central character has survived this meal, while the father has since passed away. My father was a formidable man with a large stony jaw and furious black eyebrows. I think now in retrospect that he much resembled Chou En-lai, although he would not have cherished such a comparison, being particularly proud of the pure samurai blood that ran in the family. Shortly afterwards, the narrator says, as I sat opposite him that afternoon, a boyhood memory came back to me... To see suspense in the tale is to ignore the details of the story itself. Yet to invest a meaning in the story that might not be categorical, isn't without its uses as long as the reader returns to the tale to see if such a response is justifiable. Simply to describe the plot is not enough, nor to pinpoint the symbolism, to comment on whether the story is in the first person or the third, or to remark on the presence or absence of adverbs. Better to read the story and impose upon it a subjectivity; yet at the same time have the rigorous modesty to accept that one's reading might not fit: to accept that our interpretation doesn't quite stick.
This would be a little like a literary equivalent of Karl Popper's insistence in The Logic of Scientific Discovery that in science one doesn't prove a thesis, one tries to disprove it. The notion of falsifiability is predicated on the idea that information can be proved empirically false. Newton's theory of gravity might be close to foolproof, but it is still based on the evidential: it relies on observation to justify its findings. Whether God exists or not cannot be, and is thus un-scientific. Now literature isn't exactly a science, and nor would we wish it to be. But in this context it is closer to a science rather than to a metaphysics, taking into account Hopper's delineation in 'Metaphysics and criticizability'. "First, logic and mathematical theories. Second, empirical and scientific theories. Three, philosophical or metaphysical problems. How can we, in each of these groups, distinguish between true and false theories?" We go the text to find evidence for our claims, yet we must find in it examples that justify our hypothesis. Hence, the empirical. However, obviosuly it is not enough that we find evidence for it; even one piece of evidence against it damages our thesis. While lines like " 'you must be hungry', he said. one side of his face had fallen into shadow" and "'very good', I said. 'what is it?' 'just fish?" taken out of context can hint at suspense, we would then have to ignore those earlier passages in the story which contradict such a reading.
What might be happening in the students' response to the story is paradoxically an absence of subjectivity rather than a surfeit of it. They may be reading the story not through a very personal response, but through generic convention. They wish for more plot than the story is willing to give them, and instead of working on the story's subtleties, impose upon it a thriller schema. Yet as we can see, by setting the students right we wouldn't simply be 'correcting' them and insisting on the 'right' reading, but saying that their reading is both erroneous and impoverishing. Instead of finding the richness in the story and in their own freedom within it concerning the nuanced emotion of the various characters as we find out about the daughter's quiet deceits concerning her father, the late mother's sorrow about the absence of her son, the father's thoughts about a colleague who committed suicide, we turn everything into 'plot'.
Hence our 'Popperesque' approach to literature in this instance isn't to weaken subjective responses, as we expect in science where we search out an answer that removes our free interpretation from the material studied. No, if science generally expects a meaning to become standard, it does so by offering easily the most plausible way of looking at the empirical world. Aristotle believed that the sun revolved around the Earth, Copernicus proved otherwise. Creationists think the world was founded six thousand years ago; evolutionary theory indicates this isn't the case: that it is 4.5 billion years old. These are big differences of interpretation, and the evidence indicates that Copernicus and evolutionary theory are closer to fact than Aristotle and creationists. The former have the advantage of rather more empirical evidence, so while it would be perfectly understandable in Aristotle's time for people to believe the sun revolved around the earth, due to limited knowledge, to believe it now would be closer to ignorance, even madness.
Literature doesn't work this way, which isn't the same thing as saying all interpretations are equal. As we have proposed, reading 'A Family Supper' as a thriller story doesn't work - as in science, the evidence contradicts it. Yet the evidence doesn't contradict numerous other readings. Some might insist that the father feels more guilt towards the mother's death than he feels the son responsible for her demise because of his absence. He might wish to take his life just as the colleague did, though he insists he wouldn't wish to do because there are other things in life other than one's job. The father and colleague's business collapsed. But one of those other things in his life is his daughter, who he hopes will return home after studying in Osaka, but who has told her brother that she may wish to go the States. The narrator may be looking back on a father who is now dead, but we don't know how or when he passed away. We also don't know whether the mother wanted to die and ate the fish, or just ate the fish. A photograph suggests she aged greatly during the son's absence, and the father says: "It's my belief your mother's death was no accident. She had many worries. And some disappointments." There is plenty space for interpretive manoeuvre in Ishiguro's story, as there is in much fiction, but literary interpretation, like scientific propositions, demands evidence. The joy in fiction often resides in the tension between the freedom to interpret and the resistance to do so too freely because of the evidential nature of the text.
This leads to our final point. If someone in the class proposed that a character thinks something not because they find it in the story but because they claim the character is exactly like their uncle, we might wish to dismiss it not only on the basis that it doesn't stem from the text, but perhaps also because texts don't always stem from life: that our expectations of literature and life are often subtly different. Genette references Gilbert Durand and what Durand calls the "anthropological structure of the imaginary'. Genette talks of "the distinction between the genres, the notions of epic, tragic, heroic, comical fictional, corresponded to certain broad categories of mental attitudes that predispose the reader's imagination in one way or another and make him want or expect particular types of situations and actions, of psychological, moral and esthetic values" Just as the students who wished to read a murderous act into 'A Family Supper', by imposing too firmly a generic expectation, so the student who would insist that someone in a story reacts a certain way because that is how their uncle would respond, would be eschewing the codes altogether and seeing it as 'real life'.
So what is fiction? That is a hopelessly broad question, but let us say it is neither an issue of science nor of life. A reading of a story needn't undermine another one (as Copernicus disproved Aristotle) Equally, however, fiction is neither capable of any interpretation whatever (while nevertheless allowing for numerous competing readings) nor can it be tested against the world we walk around in and justified purely on the basis of verisimilitude. When Genette says that before Structuralism, literature had for too long been viewed as a mode without a code, this would be the notion that literature's purpose was to give the reader a sense of life as readily if not more than a sense of form. This is why Genette says "Classical criticism - from Aristotle to La Harpe - was in a sense much more attentive to these anthropological aspects of literature; it knew how to measure narrowly but precisely the requirements of what it called verisimilitude, that is the idea that the public has of the true or the possible." We might not wish to lose this relationship, but instead to challenge it by a constant play of the form and an interpretation of the world as it exists in the literary. It is the necessary testing of the hypothesis.
© Tony McKibbin