The Anthropological Structure of the Imaginary

25/04/2019

Telling Truths

In an essay on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, V. S. Pritchett muses over the Victorian fascination with murder. “In earlier periods, when life was cheap, rape, seduction and incest were the crimes favoured by literature. If we look to literature rather than to life, it is certain the Victorian writers took over murder from the popular taste of the eighteenth century and succeeded, against the outcry of the older critics – in making it respectable.” (The Living Novel) In Encounter, Milan Kundera says “scarcely 1 percent of the world's population are childless, but at least 50 percent of the great literary characters exit the book without having reproduced.” (Encounter) Kundera may be underestimating how many people are childless and overestimating how many characters in great novels don't have children, but the point is well made, and a very useful insight. Frank Kermode in The Sense of an Ending discusses A. S. Byatt on Iris Murdoch, seeing in Murdoch some “metaphysical regret”: about Murdoch's idea that “literature must always represent a battle between real people and images.” Kermode adds: this is “what I call the dilemma of fiction and reality.” What both Pritchett and Kundera's observations address, and that Kermode attends to, is a question raised by Gerard Genette when he says “Gaston Bachelard gave us a typology of the 'material imagination', in the broad sense of the term, which strongly animates the production and consumption of theatrical and fictional work.” This suggests that what we expect from art is not a representation of life but perhaps the possibilities within it, which is quite distinct from our oneiric world which suspends both us and our reasoning faculties for the purposes of various stages of deep rest.

Now we often use the term suspension of disbelief to make sense of our willingness to accept that a book, a painting, a film, can give us a vicariously emotional experience. Yet this is a suspension quite different from the unavoidable removal of reasoning that takes place within our dreams. We need to get to London in a hurry and manage to leave from Waverley station in the Scottish capital to arrive at King's Cross in five minutes. Our reasoning does not intrude; it accepts: the dream logic is emotional rather than rational and so geography collapses within the oneiric state. While of course there are art movements that absorb an aspect of this freedom (from Surrealism to Magic Realism), this wouldn't seem to be the nature of the aesthetic imaginary as Genette couches it, and when he talks of Gilbert Durand and what he calls “the anthropological structure of the imaginary.” Perhaps what we wish for from art is a certain type of escape from life which isn't the same thing as escapism. Paul Valery (whom Genette references) talks through his fictional Socrates in 'Dance of the Soul' of “the tedium of living.” This is not passing ennui or the tedium that comes with fatigue. It has little to do “with infirmity or misfortune.” No, this tedium “...in short, the stuff of which is nothing else than life itself...this absolute tedium is essentially nothing but life in its nakedness when it sees itself with unclouded eyes.” (Selected Writings of Paul Valery) A proper anthropology of the imaginary will seek to reveal this nakedness. We do not wish from art an escape from ourselves in a narrow notion of identifying with characters and situations, but find in art the nakedness which somehow incorporates a self halfway between the pragmatic figure who must have his primary needs met, and the sleeping self that surrenders to the seductive drowsiness of unavoidable rest. Art in this sense isn't an escape from or an eschewal of reality, it is beside what we usually call life, finding in it and out of it an extractive means by which we can allow for the world to possess the subjunctive. It is this possible world that generates less meaning than the meaningful: to find a means by which to see life through the prism of more life rather than the prism of the afterlife religion is so often couched in. Art gives us the other life in this one without anticipating another after death, nor insisting on a moral system that will dictate our place in that unknown realm. We can find in art the possible which is the same time quite distinct from hope. A better word might be consolation, taking into account Van Gogh's beautiful remark that “art is for those broken by life”, and also of course comments by Boethius in his book The Consolations of Philosophy. Here he says. “likewise the truth of Plato's doctrine is evident; only the wise can do what they want to do; the wicked can follow their desires, but they cannot accomplish what they want. For they do what they feel like doing, and they suppose that they will find among their pleasures the good they are really looking for.” There is the suggestion in consolation of a removal from existence without at all disengaging with it, or losing feeling for it. Van Gogh's figure is far from affectless; more that his affections have passed through a great sadness, have understood the limitations of life and its inevitable failures. Art in this sense doe not activate our desires, nor appeal to our hopes, but instead demands that we console ourselves with the nature of being through the art work. If art too readily imitates life there would not be the space available for this removal.

For our purposes this has nothing to do with the aesthetic object itself, nor the degree to which the art work involves us or leaves us disinterested. Though we will chiefly explore this question through literature since this is the context in which Genette utilises the Durand remark, we can easily accept for example cinema as an art form even if it happens to be much more life-like than literature, and can more obviously involve us in the experience. Films much more than books are likely to make us cry, jump and scream, and this needn't only be in generic works, but also in films that, while the filmmaker acknowledges cinema is an art, can also accept that the properties of cinema, the music, the editing, the real locations, the presence of live actors, all generate strong affects that begin to call into question the nature of our disinterest. The object of the art in the art object doesn't reside in the formal or technological properties, but in consoling us, and this consolation is what allows for the an anthropological structure similar to but not the same as in life. It is as if there is the drive for existence that Bergson explores so well in Creative Evolution when he says “the cerebral mechanism is arranged just so as to drive back into the unconscious almost the whole of this past, and to admit beyond the threshold only that which can give useful work.” In contrast, T. E. Hulme, utilising some of Bergson's ideas, says in Speculations, “the artist is the man, then, who on one side of his nature is born detached from the necessities of action. According as this detachment is inherent in one or the other of the senses or is inherent in the consciousness, he is painter, musician, or sculptor. “ But the artistic is not especially in the endeavour, as in the receptive capacity for believing in the aesthetic. When Robert Bolano says in the introduction to Between Parenthesis that he was “much happier reading than writing”, we might wonder given how much he wrote how true that statement happened to be, but equally the writer who does not enjoy reading would be unlikely to be much of a writer. In other words, the space which is opened up in the consideration of art (whether as creation or reception) is in the terrain of eschewing the biologically practical, considering Bergson's remark and a further one by Hulme: “when, therefore, you do get an artist, i.e. a man who either in one of his senses or in his mind generally is emancipated from this orientation of the mind towards action...”

This is partly why the anthropological structure of the imaginary is different from the structure of reality: that its foremost concern is not with an orientation towards action but instead affective cognition. Now of course we can often witness events that have little bearing on our being, but very few would be inclined for example to pass a couple who seem to in the middle of a mild altercation and then to see what the altercation might be over. But if the person passing thought the situation could escalate, they might do so to intervene directly or to phone the authorities. In both these latter instances the purpose would be towards action, The former would indictate reflection. We might dismiss the concerns as nosy, but taking into account Hulme's remarks, we needn't throw a social judgement on the person intrigued, but indicate that it is rare because of reasons greater than social disapproval. It is rare because humans don't usually break so completely with their sensory motor system: their need to act in the world rather than reflect upon it.

Gilles Deleuze was also greatly influenced by Bergson and writes (alongside Felix Guattari) about the different branches of knowledge, offering the terms affect, percepts, concepts and functives to describe different experiences of understanding and feeling. “The object of science is not concepts but rather functions that are presented as propositions in discursive systems. The elements of functions are called functives.” (What is Philosophy?) Philosophy, however, works with concepts as it tries to give texture and meaning to opinion, while analytic philosophy is too concerned with logic to arrive at the possibility of the conceptual. “Logic is reductionist not accidentally but essentially and necessarily: following the route marked by Frege and Russell, it wants to turn the concept into a function.” Yet what interests Deleuze much more is how concepts are created, and in this we can see similarities with the affects and percepts available to art. When Deleuze describes a dinner party scene where various people have an opinion on the cheese, he wonders how we might elevate such a discussion to the status of a concept. Everyone can have an opinion on it; whether it happens to be a good cheese, whether one prefers cheese to ham, how one should cut it, at what stage in the meal ought it to be eaten and so on. Opinion here “gives to the recognition of truth, an extension and criteria that are naturally those of an 'orthodoxy': a true opinion will be the one that coincides with that of the group to which one belongs by expressing it.” A concept however will work against the doxa and find something more: “art, science, and philosophy require more: they cast planes over the chaos.” This is why have in art affects and percepts. “By means of the material, the aim of art is to wrest the percept from perceptions of objects and the states of perceiving subject, to wrest the affect from affections as the transition from one state to another, to extract a bloc of sensations, a pure being of sensations.” If the person of opinion remains within the doxical, the artist plunges into the sensational, and finds the individual rather than the doxical exploration of this affect. Hence there is a world of a difference between Pessoa and Proust: their affective reality is quite distinct.

This may have taken us a little far away from our point, but let us hope it has instead taken us closer to being able to explain it. When Genette discusses the anthropological structure of the imaginary, it is to muse over what makes the world of art different from the world of life. Now if science expects us to understand life more vividly through an abstraction that universalises, creating laws and principles, then art abstracts for very different reasons: for singularities. Copernicus, Newton and Einstein cannot create a theory that works only for their own needs, it must possess a function of the universal: it must be precise rather than true. But Proust's notion of jealousy can be his own, just as Tolstoy can insist that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, just as Flaubert can claim his own version of what stupidity happens to be. It is partly this affective and perceptual freedom that gives the aesthetic its own world slightly contrary to the one in which we would seem to live, the sort of real world we invoked through the remarks of Pritchett and Kundera.

A common term in the comprehension of aesthetics is the notion of artistic license, the degree to which someone is entitled to twist the facts according to the needs of the imagination. This more imaginative the genre or the more necessary the generic, the more inclined we are to find the artistic license at work. Crime novelist and former police officer Lisa Cutts notes that many crime novels suggest only two people are working on a case when it is usually a team, and how little paperwork there seems to be. But she also notes that  “I only keep essential detail or detail I think would be interesting so the plot continues to flow.” (In Maidstone) Mark Twain reckoned one needed to “get your facts first, then you can distort them as much as you please.” Ian McEwan talks about the reverse when he went to someone for advice on how to cut up a body. “He [Michael Dunill) said something even more frightening. When I asked him how long would it take to saw through an arm, he invited me to one of his regular early Monday morning autopsies. You come along, he said, and we’ll cut an arm off and see. I said, But what about the relatives? And he said, Oh, my assistant will sew it back on and it won’t show at all.” McEwan says, “I began to have serious doubts about this Monday morning appointment. I felt the writing was going well and I didn’t want to be blown off course. At the same time, I felt it was my novelist’s duty to go. Then, very fortunately, I had supper with Richard Eyre, who thought I was crazy to go. He said, You’ll invent it much better than you’ll describe it. Immediately he said this, I knew he was right. Later, I showed my scene to Michael Dunnill, and he passed it. Had I gone to the autopsy, I would have had to become a journalist—and I don’t think I’m a good journalist. I can describe accurately the thing that I imagine far better than the thing I remember seeing.” (Paris Review)

McEwan, with a novel like Saturday, is a writer who hasn't always taken his own advice. “There is a certain nervousness about whether the author is simply transcribing research notes”, Mark Lawson says, reviewing the book in the Guardian, before deciding that “by the end, there is no doubt that Perowne has the hands, eyes and thoughts of a neurosurgeon rather than a novelist.” But what constitutes necessary research, if literature and life are not one and the same? Do we really want a novel about a neurosurgeon's thoughts rather than a novelist's, or do we want just enough of a neurosurgeon present to explore a theme that investigates the aesthetic? Interviewing McEwan, Zadie Smith says “talking of parallels, there’s a paragraph in Saturday about surgery, apparently, but it seems to me to be about writing.” McEwan replies “Oh, well done” and Smith adds “I read it and thought it can’t be about anything else.” We don't read literature, surely to understand how the world works, but to comprehend how the writer's mind works. We can return here to Deleuze's What is Philosophy? where he explores what he calls conceptual personae: the means by which philosophers create characters to explore the philosophical, and how these characters generate conceptual possibilities for the philosopher: Nietzsche's Zarathustra, Kierkegaard's Don Juan in The Diary of a Seducer. But he also mentions Melville, who said that “a novel includes an infinite number of interesting characters but just one original Figure like the single sun of a constellation of a universe...” “The great aesthetic figures of thought and the novel,” Deleuze says “but also of painting, sculpture, and music produce affects that surpass ordinary affectations and perceptions, just as concepts go beyond everyday opinions.” If the writer stays too close to the character he creates, this generates a plausible person but doesn't come close to generating a Figure, a conceptual personae in literary form. As Deleuze says “these thinkers are half philosophers. But they are not sages. There is such force in these unhinged works of Holderlin, Kleist, Rimbaud, Mallarme, Kafka, Michaux, Pessoa, Artaud, and many English and American novelists, from Melville to Lawrence or Miller...”

We can see the enormous difference between Deleuze's notion of literature and the conventional, perhaps very English approach adopted by Lawson when talking about McEwan's work: that research is useful but only if it allows us to get inside the character's head, so that the author recedes and the surgeon becomes a proper character in his own right. The world is imitated well; the presence of the McEwanesque matters much less than the generation of the surgeon Perowne. Deleuze on the other hand has little interest in character as Lawson would couch it. Yet maybe McEwan is more on Deleuze's side than Lawson's, for all the writer's research. Smith's noticing of the surgery resembling writing and McEwan's delight in her noticing this, suggests that the writer who possesses vision is always writing about if not themselves then that space between the self that writes and the self that creates characters. It is this liminal space that surely creates great characters because they come into being through the presence of a new author and generate new anthropological possibilities in being. They might never be actualised in any narrow sense – in the 'real world' – but remain vivid with the fictional one as they can conjure up in a single figure a composite value, as we find in Captain Ahab, Madame Bovary or Jude the Obscure. Yet Deleuze invokes poets too, who create affects and percepts in pure form, an affective and perceptual presence on the page that needn't quite become characterisational, but is no less an embodiment for that. One of the dangers of the well-researched novel is that the real-world details flood the aesthetic imaginary: the anthropological imagination is swamped by the anthropologically real.

Again, we come to Kundera, and a couple of passages from his essay collection, Testaments Betrayed. Here Kundera talks about how in fiction the novel must, in Balzac's formulation “compete with the etat civil (the state registry of citizens).” Thus a character must have a real name; yet Kundera is suspicious of this, saying “already in my early stories, by instinct, I avoided naming the characters. In Life is Elsewhere, the hero has only a first name...” “At the time I was operating with total spontaneity...I did not want to make readers think my characters are real and have an official family record.” Why? For Kundera, it rests partly on the difference between a traditional fictional realism evident in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, and Robert Musil's shift towards something more clearly cerebral in The Man Without Qualities. “In the Mann novel, the intellectuality shows mainly in the dialogues about ideas carried on before the backdrop of a descriptive novel. In The Man without Qualities, the intellectuality is manifest at every instant, thoroughgoing as against Mann's descriptive novel.” Kundera is both historicising and personalising the novel, while Deleuze suggests that it is not a question of characterisation, it is one of generating Figures. The writer might not at all be self-aware in creating conceptual personae in fictional form; just that out of these characters a figure might emerge. In both instances, in Deleuze's mention of Melville's insight, and Kundera's examination of novelistic modes, the idea of the real world retreats.

In a fine, fairly brief article in the London Review of Books, Tom McCarthy usefully differentiates reality, realism and the real, seeing realism and the real as different ways one can look at 'reality for the purposes of art. “Let's start with 'realism',” he says, “since it's the easiest target of the lot. Realism is a literary convention", he says, quoting Ford Madox Ford: “Life does not say to you: in 1914 my next door neighbour, Mr Slack, erected a greenhouse and painted it with Cox's green aluminium paint.” No, instead we recall it as a series of semi-disjointed images that we try and piece together. Realism allows us to assume an order that is a choice. But it is no less realistic to accept a rather different approach to recounting an event. And what about the real? McCarthy thinks of George Perec's La Disparition (A Void) which famously contained no letter e, as he muses over the idea that neither father (pere) nor mother (mere) can be mentioned in a book by a writer whose parents were lost in the war – his mother to Auschwitz. “The same real – the Holocaust in particular – impinges on all of Beckett's work, whose unnameables and catastrophes convey the horror and unspeakability of this event to which they never refer far more profoundly than the directly representational of, say, Primo Levi.”  What matters is what the nature of absence can mean structurally. What is it that isn't getting expressed when an artwork confronts the real? In realism there is usually no structuring absence: the point is to impress on us presence, and a sense of unity that passes for realism. In this sense, the real moves much further into the anthropological structure of the imagination than realism happens to, and this is no doubt partly why many see it as a more imaginative original endeavour than those seeking realism. As McCarthy says, the real can “be a process of 'deformation' that releases objects, and the world, the entire universe, from all categories of the knowable and denotative until they 'resemble nothing'. Viewed from this position, a thing's real world consists in its materiality: a sticky, messy and above all base materiality that overflows all boundaries defining the thing's – and everything's – identity.”

McCarthy's piece is shot through with (and briefly references Jacques Lacan's) ideas, an ontology of absence exemplified in his triad, the imaginary, the symbolic and the real, and the objet petit a. What we have in the imaginary is a belief in the wholeness of the self as the ego regulates between the inside and the outside world, as evident in the child in the first eighteen months of its life as it sees itself not separated from the world. However once it recognizes itself in the mirror, it sees that the relationship is fragmented, and thus enters the symbolic order. “the symbolic involves the formation of signifiers and language and is considered to be the 'determining order of the subject'...Seeing the entire system of the unconscious/conscious as manifesting in an endless web of signifiers/ieds and associations, Lacan claims that, 'Symbols in fact envelop the life of man in a network so total that they join together, before he comes into the world, those who are going to engender him…'" (University of Chicago: Theories of Media) However, the real is what escapes this symbolic order and cannot quite be named. It is some ways the desires we chase and hence why Lacan would later offer the term the objet petit a to describe this impossibility. It is the structuring absence that McCarthy invokes in his remarks about the missing e in Perec's novel. We sense the real in the absence that the symbolic order cannot grasp.

We might provocatively wonder if one reason there is a gap between the real world and the aesthetic one rests on this point: that an artist's purpose isn't to contribute to the symbolic realm but to the real – and to find in the chaos of our existence not the conventions that can give the impression of ready containment and sense, but a desire that suggests greater possibilities to existence. One of the key differences here between Deleuze and Lacan would seem to rest on that between lack in Lacan's formulation and desire in Deleuze's. While Lacan sees the objet petit a as an impossible and false need for plenitude, desire for Deleuze is the capacity for this fullness in life. “But such a life”, John Rajchman says “is not to be confused with “the life” of the corresponding individual. It is a potential or virtuality that exceeds our specification as particular individuals, and we are never fully “constituted” or “accomplished” individuals...” (The Deleuze Connections) Deleuze insists that lack and the symbolic order is not how he is defining desire. “We said that desire is in no way connected to the 'Law' and cannot be defined by any fundamental lack.” (Negotiations) This is an aesthetic lawlessness in the face of a symbolic order, and partly why in various places Deleuze has talked of laying into the signifier, of finding ways to dismantle ready assumption. One of the problems with a realistic aesthetic, and one reason why we need an anthropological structure of the imaginary, is that an art hemmed in by real-world expectations doesn't allow for a revolutionary potential in being. If we see realism instead as a convention, as McCarthy proposes, we see it as a choice. One accepts realism as a means by which to generate comprehension rather than the comprehensive. Both Kundera and Pritchett's initial comments don't insist on the eschewal of realism but neither do they insist on a slavish respect for it.

Sometimes realism needn't be a representational question, but more a mode of composition. While many insist on the importance of mimesis, Genette talks also of the possibilities in diegesis. This is the difference between a direct and indirect approach, evident in much contemporary discourse in “the barely transposed terms of showing vs telling.” Most writing courses will insist on the importance of the former over the latter. Here is a typical example: “Maybe you want to rid your fiction of telling but you simply can’t see it—not in other people’s fiction and certainly not in your own. So how can you delete something you can’t even see? There’s a question you can ask of any passage you feel may be telling. You ready? Get the passage in front of you and ask this of it: Can the camera see it?” (Writer's Digest) This is mimetic writing, of course, and also indicates the importance of realism as the writer's job is to capture more or less what the camera would see. But this seems not too far removed from someone saying that artists should paint as though they had a camera rather than painting well aware that they must escape from apparent verisimilitude because photography can do so more plausibly. Why repeat what another art form can do better; surely it is more useful to find a method by which you capture what cannot be shown? One of the hardest things for film to do is complex thought, and in achieving it often does so with the aid of voice-over and thus literature. We wouldn't want to say however that film should avoid using voice over. After all, cinema is an audio-visual medium and must use whatever techniques it feels appropriate given the two senses it can activate. But equally, we wouldn't wish to be prescriptive over literature either, which going as far back as Plato allowed both diegetic and mimetic methods their place. Genette notices not everyone believes that the mimetic is the only way for a fiction writer to go as he mentions Henry James. If Hemingway did often suggest a world in which only the camera could film; James indicated a world only a mind could observe. Trying to generate an aesthetic that removes itself from the conventions of realism can still show the world 'realistically', yet dissolves that reality into different perspectives that become mutually impossible but not at all surreal or absurd. By opening up the diegetic perspective a writer can show an event but speculate about the motives behind it. The murder will be unequivocal but the killer speculative as the writer muses over the various motives other characters might have for killing the victim. Yet this approach which is quite conventional in crime drama, can be utilised concerning numerous other incidents as well, however minor. This can give to an event a perspectival dissolution quite different from the surrealist play with the real, yet equally challenging to an assumption about the real world. In this context, the anthropological structure of the imaginary in fiction can take advantage of the mutually contrary reality that is nevertheless not unreal. This is where the structuring absence replaces the murder. While many a crime thriller will open with the murder and then show the detective setting out to solve it without much harm likely to come to the detective, as Tsvetan Todorov explores it in the 'Typology of Detective Fiction', so he noticed how the genre developed in different manifestations, including post-war American thrillers where the detective is in danger, and where the emphasis is on what happens now, rather than what happened before. There is suspense more than mystery. Todorov also says, though, that “as a rule, the literary masterpiece does not enter any genre save perhaps its own; but the masterpiece of popular literature is precisely the book which best fits its genre...to 'improve upon' detective fiction is to write 'literature,' not detective fiction.”

One way in which to write literature that improves upon detective fiction is to replace the categorical mystery with ambiguous detail. This is what Todorov often finds in Henry James' work, saying “the essential secret is the motive force of Henry James' tales, it determines their structure."(The Poetics of Literature) But more than this – such a principle of organization becomes the explicit theme of at least two of them as he discusses the 'Figure in the Carpet' and 'The Beast in the Jungle'. Todorov quotes Philippe Sollers saying “the solution of the problem which is expounded to us is nothing other than the very exposition of this problem.” What matters in James' work is usually not the mystery revealed, but the symptoms involved in the perception of events, what it will reveal about character over situation, the mystery within us rather than the mystery resolved out there. As Todorov says, linking his own criticism to James' fiction: “it is the search for truth, not its revelation, a treasure hunt rather than the treasure itself, for the treasure can only be absent.” Detective fiction usually demands a solution to the mystery generated' the type of fiction Todorov invokes and that he finds in James is much closer to a dissolution of a mystery out there in the world all the better to comprehend a mystery within the self. This is centrally why an indirect style is adopted. It can allow for realizations over 'reality', with the truth not a mystery solved but a thought mused over. In this sense, the imaginary structure is a proper structure of the imagination. It is a mental process applied that nevertheless leaves our perception of reality intact as its physical laws still apply while in surrealism, for example, they do not. Yet the nature of its speculation is to dissolve the idea of a real world as a piece of detective fiction confirms its existence. If the detective might utilize the forensic analysis of information to solve a crime, the type of fiction that interested James is forensic in understanding the subtle permutations of human thought and feeling.

What point of view can offer is an exploration of the imaginary without the categorical reconfiguration of the laws under which our reality functions. People can perceive events differently, but they can be mutually, compatibly different because perspective is more important than resolution and thus is the difference between the typical detective work and the Jamesian approach to narrative. A character can be perceived simultaneously as a virgin, a homosexual and a womanizer as long as the ambiguity of perspective is retained, as we might see someone perceived from various points of view, but if that perspective is made real – if someone witnesses the character viewed making love to another man – then the structural ambiguity gives way to the certitude of situation. If we think of Agatha Christie's typical thriller Murder on the Orient Express we can see how a potentially perspectivist possibility is turned into narrative certainty. A character is killed on a train and the detective interviews the numerous possible suspects and concludes on the guilt of all of them. They all had a reason to want the victim dead and the book concludes with Poiret discovering none are innocent. A reversal of this in a 'Jamesian' manner would be for us to remain unsure who the killer might have been but to be much more aware of the grievances, frustrations and irritations that could lead someone to kill another. What would matter wouldn't be the whodunnit, but the psychology and behaviour of the resentful. Reality intruding in the resolution of the murder removes the perspectival advantage of the possible: the multiple realities that needn't be reduced to one.

If we accept that we want from art an anthropological structure that isn't quite the same as the one in which we live, taking into account our opening remarks by Kundera and Pritchett, then nevertheless what we regard as literature is usually consistent with a respect for the real, for its exploration. If one reason why fantasy literature, for example, is less respected than fiction more inclined to stay close to the real, it rests on the fantastic generating a meta-reality rather than an alternative reality. In Kundera and Pritchett's comments we have worlds that are tweaked but recognizable; in fantasy we have worlds that are beyond our own. This can lead to escapism over recognition, to comprehending less the world in which we live, than refusing to understand our reality – instead of findings ourselves in the realm of indeterminacy of Kafka, James and so on, we escape instead into the realm of heroes and heroines in a timeless universe where good can conquer evil. Some might include in this fantastic world Magic Realism, but one reason why Marquez's work is seen as literature rests on the refusal of fantastic convention coinciding with the demands of internal plausibility because there needs to be a meeting with external necessity. As Marquez says, when asked why he loathes fantasy, “I believe the imagination is just an instrument for producing reality and that the source of creation is always, in the last instance, reality. Fantasy, in the Walt Disney-style invention without any basis in reality is the most loathsome at all.” (The Fragrance of Guava)

This suggests that the anthropological structure of the imaginary is not a fantastic realm, but a mode by which truths can be explored, one in which works too hemmed in by notions of reality would be unable to seek. Yet this is perhaps where we can muse over the term artistic license and what it means. Many commercial writers will claim artistic license to play with historical facts or the laws of physics, but the purpose will not be a greater truth but a bottom line: that a reader likes to escape reality. But by replacing reality with truth, the artist generates the same degree of freedom from artistic license, but for very different ends. One escapes reality and retreats into a sort of aesthetic mode of false consciousness; the other eschews reality and finds in it the means to discover truths that our usual perception of reality hides. “Truth, as the clearing and concealing of beings,” Heidegger says, “happens in being composed. All art, as the letting happen of the advent of the truth of beings, is as such, in essence poetry. The essence of art, on which both the artwork and the artist depend, is the setting-itself-into-work of truth.” ('The Origins of the Work of Art') If the writer finds him or herself too closely obliged to either the real world or the generic one can the truth be found, as Heidegger analyses it and as Marquez sees it? The anthropological structure of the imaginary is the attempt to find through aesthetic means the nature of our being, the truth that lies concealed, covered up or unknown in the everyday, an existence that cannot easily countenance, or find space, for the liminal that indicates a self much broader than the contractive being demanded of our functional lives. Aesthetic choices that too readily admit the world in which we live, or too completely deny it, struggle to find the revelation of our existence, the surprise of our being.

This doesn't, of course, mean that art of the 19th century is less impressive than art of the 20th, where in the former the idea of realism was much more expected and accepted of an artist than in the wake of Modernism. It would be silly to suggest that there is more truth in Beckett than there happens to be in Flaubert; more in Kafka than Dostoevsky. To help here let us think of Tolstoy's position in What is Art? and Adorno's in Aesthetic Theory. Tolstoy offers an often conservative perspective evident in his remark that “great works of art are great only because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone.” Adorno says rather the opposite: “no art work, regardless of what its maker thinks of it, is directed towards an observer, not even toward a transcendental subject of apperception; no artwork is to be described or explained in terms of the categories of communication.” Tolstoy does suggest “people of the first half the century - admirers of Goethe, Musset, Hugo, Dickens, Beethoven...understanding nothing of this new art, often simply regard its works as tasteless madness. But this attitude towards the new art is completely unfounded” as Tolstoy acknowledges that there are still many people “including all working people and many non-workers” who do not understand the work Tolstoy and others find so beautiful. Tolstoy's argument is in places tentatively offered as he admits he could be wrong about the new art because he comes from another generation, but what he more especially argues is that though the art of Beethoven, Hugo and Dickens would have still been for a minority, it was for a larger minority than the new art, suggesting that “I can only conclude from it that art, as it has become more and more exclusive, has become more and more incomprehensible for a larger and larger number if people...and that this number if elect gets smaller and smaller.”

Perhaps one way of countering Tolstoy's position is to say that just as in science the comprehension of the world demands ever finer analysis to comprehend how things work on a molecular, atomic level, so in aesthetics we expect the same in relation to truth. It isn't that the artist wishes not to be understood but instead sees that understanding is of a very specific nature. Its truth quotient is much harder to find than in the nineteenth partly because those truths have already been discovered. If someone proposes that they don't understand Einstein and wishes he could be as straightforward as Newton, claiming they understand gravity easily enough, but can't get their head around quantum mechanics, we don't assume Einstein's the problem. In this sense, invoking Deleuze once more, we could say that the functive has taken on a greater degree of complexity in science, and that the affect and percept have taken on greater complexity in art. Deleuze sees science as “like a freeze frame. It is a fantastic slowing down, and it is by slowing down that matter, as well as the scientific thought able to penetrate it with propositions, is actualized.” (What is Philosophy?) Does a similar slowing down frequently take place in modern art, or some variation of it? Are Remembrance of Things Past and Ulysses not slowed down works as they find their truths in the minutiae of existence just as Einstein and Heisenberg were doing likewise? If in the 20th century we have got ostensibly deeper into the anthropological structure of the imagination. and further away from the anthropological structure of perceived reality, this is not because of the greater presence of fantasy, but often the ever more subtle exploration of affect and percept. It is the difference let us say between the jealousy of Boldwood in Hardy's fine Far from the Madding Crowd, and the jealousy evident in Remembrance of Things Past. Boldwood has very tangible reasons for being jealous and vulnerable. He was jilted on the altar many years before, and when it looks like Bathsheba shows interest he becomes besotted but she is rather more intrigued by Sergeant Troy. Boldwood is in love with a woman who will not have him and who is infatuated with another. Jealousy in Proust's work is much more rarefied. Swann frequently muses over the other men Odette might be sleeping with, but one day he says to himself, “looking at things quite honestly, I can't say I got much pleasure last night from being in bed with her. It's an odd thing, but I actually thought her ugly.” The narrator adds, “And certainly he was sincere, but his love extended a long way beyond the province of physical desire. Odette's person, indeed, no longer held a great place in it.” Boldwood's jealousy is the literary equivalent of gravitational theory; Proust's the theory of relativity. For many, Boldwood's jealousy would be more realistic, more plausible, but Proust's is surely much more nuanced so that it doesn't so much escape from reality as involve itself in the constant process of refining it. To do so the writer might retreat from the anthropological structure of the real to search out the anthropological structure of the imaginary, but the escape from the former is often to offer a greater inroad into it through the latter.

In the Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard quotes Gerard de Nerval: “I believe that the human imagination never invented anything that was not true, in this world or any other.” The operative word here is true, as though this is the regulating principle of literature: that any deviation from the notion of reality has to come up against the pressure of the truthful. This is by no means a principle that can be quantified; it is part of the ongoing negotiating conscience of the artist. As Bachelard says at the beginning of his book, “a philosopher who has evolved his entire thinking from the fundamental themes of the philosophy of science, and followed the main line of the active, growing rationalism of contemporary science as closely as he could, must forget his learning and break with all his habits of philosophical research, if he wants to study the problems posed by the poetic imagination.” Bachelard adds, “the idea of principle or “basis” in this case would be disastrous, for it would interfere with the essential psychic actuality, the essential novelty of the poem.” The scientist finds laws rather than truths, and this is why we talk of the law of gravity as opposed to the truth of Shakespeare. There is no law of Shakespeare and no truth of gravity. A person can resist the truth of Shakespeare and remain well within the realm of sanity; the same cannot be said for someone who doesn't believe in the gravitational pull of the earth. “Of course,” Bachelard says, in describing a phenomenology of the man with the magnifying glass, “I was not thinking of the magnifying glass. A scientific worker has a discipline of objectivity that precludes all daydreams of the imagination. He has already seen what he observes in the microscope and, paradoxically, one might say that he never sees anything for the first time.” What Bachelard means by this is that the scientist does not have that revelation of truth the artist possesses. The scientist verifies, objectifies; the artist glimpses and subjectifies. We must acknowledge the artist's truths, not insist upon the evidence of those claims.

Of course, and in conclusion, we don't want to pretend the artist is not concerned with logic and reason: part of admiring many a great writer is their capacity for plot construction, the generation of complex and narratively coherent character creation. But the novel does not fall apart because we work out that a character could not have been twenty one when a certain event took place if forty years have passed, or whether someone shoots another character with a pistol and then hides the rifle. These are no more than details, often quite cosmetically correctable, and left in an already published book because we respect the author's rights, and don't want to tamper with the imagination even if it happens to be for the purposes of correction. Obviously too numerous errors might be detrimental to the writer's capacity for conveying a truth, yet it seems great writing can accommodate many. As Samuel Johnson claimed, “Shakespeare never has six lines together without a fault. Perhaps you may find seven, but this does not refute my general assertion.” The writer's purpose is to generate a vision of the world, a scientist's is to capture it as accurately as possible within the formula that can allow the theory to pass for a law. We expect from science, in this sense, the anthropological structure of reality and not of the imagination. When Kundera suggests that far fewer characters in fiction have children than in life, this is not a statistical error but an imaginative freedom, the opportunity to explore being without the hampering a family might generate. It may not be true to life, but it might be much truer to the inner life, as if familial existence can obstruct the necessary enquiry into individuality in its various manifestations. We must continue of course to resist claims that art should resemble life while at the same time demanding a truth that will in many instances insist on staying close to what passes for the reality of our existence. Yet the operative word should remain truth and not reality.

 

©Tony McKibbin

 

 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

The Anthropological Structure of the Imaginary

Telling Truths

In an essay on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, V. S. Pritchett muses over the Victorian fascination with murder. "In earlier periods, when life was cheap, rape, seduction and incest were the crimes favoured by literature. If we look to literature rather than to life, it is certain the Victorian writers took over murder from the popular taste of the eighteenth century and succeeded, against the outcry of the older critics - in making it respectable." (The Living Novel) In Encounter, Milan Kundera says "scarcely 1 percent of the world's population are childless, but at least 50 percent of the great literary characters exit the book without having reproduced." (Encounter) Kundera may be underestimating how many people are childless and overestimating how many characters in great novels don't have children, but the point is well made, and a very useful insight. Frank Kermode in The Sense of an Ending discusses A. S. Byatt on Iris Murdoch, seeing in Murdoch some "metaphysical regret": about Murdoch's idea that "literature must always represent a battle between real people and images." Kermode adds: this is "what I call the dilemma of fiction and reality." What both Pritchett and Kundera's observations address, and that Kermode attends to, is a question raised by Gerard Genette when he says "Gaston Bachelard gave us a typology of the 'material imagination', in the broad sense of the term, which strongly animates the production and consumption of theatrical and fictional work." This suggests that what we expect from art is not a representation of life but perhaps the possibilities within it, which is quite distinct from our oneiric world which suspends both us and our reasoning faculties for the purposes of various stages of deep rest.

Now we often use the term suspension of disbelief to make sense of our willingness to accept that a book, a painting, a film, can give us a vicariously emotional experience. Yet this is a suspension quite different from the unavoidable removal of reasoning that takes place within our dreams. We need to get to London in a hurry and manage to leave from Waverley station in the Scottish capital to arrive at King's Cross in five minutes. Our reasoning does not intrude; it accepts: the dream logic is emotional rather than rational and so geography collapses within the oneiric state. While of course there are art movements that absorb an aspect of this freedom (from Surrealism to Magic Realism), this wouldn't seem to be the nature of the aesthetic imaginary as Genette couches it, and when he talks of Gilbert Durand and what he calls "the anthropological structure of the imaginary." Perhaps what we wish for from art is a certain type of escape from life which isn't the same thing as escapism. Paul Valery (whom Genette references) talks through his fictional Socrates in 'Dance of the Soul' of "the tedium of living." This is not passing ennui or the tedium that comes with fatigue. It has little to do "with infirmity or misfortune." No, this tedium "...in short, the stuff of which is nothing else than life itself...this absolute tedium is essentially nothing but life in its nakedness when it sees itself with unclouded eyes." (Selected Writings of Paul Valery) A proper anthropology of the imaginary will seek to reveal this nakedness. We do not wish from art an escape from ourselves in a narrow notion of identifying with characters and situations, but find in art the nakedness which somehow incorporates a self halfway between the pragmatic figure who must have his primary needs met, and the sleeping self that surrenders to the seductive drowsiness of unavoidable rest. Art in this sense isn't an escape from or an eschewal of reality, it is beside what we usually call life, finding in it and out of it an extractive means by which we can allow for the world to possess the subjunctive. It is this possible world that generates less meaning than the meaningful: to find a means by which to see life through the prism of more life rather than the prism of the afterlife religion is so often couched in. Art gives us the other life in this one without anticipating another after death, nor insisting on a moral system that will dictate our place in that unknown realm. We can find in art the possible which is the same time quite distinct from hope. A better word might be consolation, taking into account Van Gogh's beautiful remark that "art is for those broken by life", and also of course comments by Boethius in his book The Consolations of Philosophy. Here he says. "likewise the truth of Plato's doctrine is evident; only the wise can do what they want to do; the wicked can follow their desires, but they cannot accomplish what they want. For they do what they feel like doing, and they suppose that they will find among their pleasures the good they are really looking for." There is the suggestion in consolation of a removal from existence without at all disengaging with it, or losing feeling for it. Van Gogh's figure is far from affectless; more that his affections have passed through a great sadness, have understood the limitations of life and its inevitable failures. Art in this sense doe not activate our desires, nor appeal to our hopes, but instead demands that we console ourselves with the nature of being through the art work. If art too readily imitates life there would not be the space available for this removal.

For our purposes this has nothing to do with the aesthetic object itself, nor the degree to which the art work involves us or leaves us disinterested. Though we will chiefly explore this question through literature since this is the context in which Genette utilises the Durand remark, we can easily accept for example cinema as an art form even if it happens to be much more life-like than literature, and can more obviously involve us in the experience. Films much more than books are likely to make us cry, jump and scream, and this needn't only be in generic works, but also in films that, while the filmmaker acknowledges cinema is an art, can also accept that the properties of cinema, the music, the editing, the real locations, the presence of live actors, all generate strong affects that begin to call into question the nature of our disinterest. The object of the art in the art object doesn't reside in the formal or technological properties, but in consoling us, and this consolation is what allows for the an anthropological structure similar to but not the same as in life. It is as if there is the drive for existence that Bergson explores so well in Creative Evolution when he says "the cerebral mechanism is arranged just so as to drive back into the unconscious almost the whole of this past, and to admit beyond the threshold only that which can give useful work." In contrast, T. E. Hulme, utilising some of Bergson's ideas, says in Speculations, "the artist is the man, then, who on one side of his nature is born detached from the necessities of action. According as this detachment is inherent in one or the other of the senses or is inherent in the consciousness, he is painter, musician, or sculptor. " But the artistic is not especially in the endeavour, as in the receptive capacity for believing in the aesthetic. When Robert Bolano says in the introduction to Between Parenthesis that he was "much happier reading than writing", we might wonder given how much he wrote how true that statement happened to be, but equally the writer who does not enjoy reading would be unlikely to be much of a writer. In other words, the space which is opened up in the consideration of art (whether as creation or reception) is in the terrain of eschewing the biologically practical, considering Bergson's remark and a further one by Hulme: "when, therefore, you do get an artist, i.e. a man who either in one of his senses or in his mind generally is emancipated from this orientation of the mind towards action..."

This is partly why the anthropological structure of the imaginary is different from the structure of reality: that its foremost concern is not with an orientation towards action but instead affective cognition. Now of course we can often witness events that have little bearing on our being, but very few would be inclined for example to pass a couple who seem to in the middle of a mild altercation and then to see what the altercation might be over. But if the person passing thought the situation could escalate, they might do so to intervene directly or to phone the authorities. In both these latter instances the purpose would be towards action, The former would indictate reflection. We might dismiss the concerns as nosy, but taking into account Hulme's remarks, we needn't throw a social judgement on the person intrigued, but indicate that it is rare because of reasons greater than social disapproval. It is rare because humans don't usually break so completely with their sensory motor system: their need to act in the world rather than reflect upon it.

Gilles Deleuze was also greatly influenced by Bergson and writes (alongside Felix Guattari) about the different branches of knowledge, offering the terms affect, percepts, concepts and functives to describe different experiences of understanding and feeling. "The object of science is not concepts but rather functions that are presented as propositions in discursive systems. The elements of functions are called functives." (What is Philosophy?) Philosophy, however, works with concepts as it tries to give texture and meaning to opinion, while analytic philosophy is too concerned with logic to arrive at the possibility of the conceptual. "Logic is reductionist not accidentally but essentially and necessarily: following the route marked by Frege and Russell, it wants to turn the concept into a function." Yet what interests Deleuze much more is how concepts are created, and in this we can see similarities with the affects and percepts available to art. When Deleuze describes a dinner party scene where various people have an opinion on the cheese, he wonders how we might elevate such a discussion to the status of a concept. Everyone can have an opinion on it; whether it happens to be a good cheese, whether one prefers cheese to ham, how one should cut it, at what stage in the meal ought it to be eaten and so on. Opinion here "gives to the recognition of truth, an extension and criteria that are naturally those of an 'orthodoxy': a true opinion will be the one that coincides with that of the group to which one belongs by expressing it." A concept however will work against the doxa and find something more: "art, science, and philosophy require more: they cast planes over the chaos." This is why have in art affects and percepts. "By means of the material, the aim of art is to wrest the percept from perceptions of objects and the states of perceiving subject, to wrest the affect from affections as the transition from one state to another, to extract a bloc of sensations, a pure being of sensations." If the person of opinion remains within the doxical, the artist plunges into the sensational, and finds the individual rather than the doxical exploration of this affect. Hence there is a world of a difference between Pessoa and Proust: their affective reality is quite distinct.

This may have taken us a little far away from our point, but let us hope it has instead taken us closer to being able to explain it. When Genette discusses the anthropological structure of the imaginary, it is to muse over what makes the world of art different from the world of life. Now if science expects us to understand life more vividly through an abstraction that universalises, creating laws and principles, then art abstracts for very different reasons: for singularities. Copernicus, Newton and Einstein cannot create a theory that works only for their own needs, it must possess a function of the universal: it must be precise rather than true. But Proust's notion of jealousy can be his own, just as Tolstoy can insist that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, just as Flaubert can claim his own version of what stupidity happens to be. It is partly this affective and perceptual freedom that gives the aesthetic its own world slightly contrary to the one in which we would seem to live, the sort of real world we invoked through the remarks of Pritchett and Kundera.

A common term in the comprehension of aesthetics is the notion of artistic license, the degree to which someone is entitled to twist the facts according to the needs of the imagination. This more imaginative the genre or the more necessary the generic, the more inclined we are to find the artistic license at work. Crime novelist and former police officer Lisa Cutts notes that many crime novels suggest only two people are working on a case when it is usually a team, and how little paperwork there seems to be. But she also notes that "I only keep essential detail or detail I think would be interesting so the plot continues to flow." (In Maidstone) Mark Twain reckoned one needed to "get your facts first, then you can distort them as much as you please." Ian McEwan talks about the reverse when he went to someone for advice on how to cut up a body. "He [Michael Dunill) said something even more frightening. When I asked him how long would it take to saw through an arm, he invited me to one of his regular early Monday morning autopsies. You come along, he said, and we'll cut an arm off and see. I said, But what about the relatives? And he said, Oh, my assistant will sew it back on and it won't show at all." McEwan says, "I began to have serious doubts about this Monday morning appointment. I felt the writing was going well and I didn't want to be blown off course. At the same time, I felt it was my novelist's duty to go. Then, very fortunately, I had supper with Richard Eyre, who thought I was crazy to go. He said, You'll invent it much better than you'll describe it. Immediately he said this, I knew he was right. Later, I showed my scene to Michael Dunnill, and he passed it. Had I gone to the autopsy, I would have had to become a journalistand I don't think I'm a good journalist. I can describe accurately the thing that I imagine far better than the thing I remember seeing." (Paris Review)

McEwan, with a novel like Saturday, is a writer who hasn't always taken his own advice. "There is a certain nervousness about whether the author is simply transcribing research notes", Mark Lawson says, reviewing the book in the Guardian, before deciding that "by the end, there is no doubt that Perowne has the hands, eyes and thoughts of a neurosurgeon rather than a novelist." But what constitutes necessary research, if literature and life are not one and the same? Do we really want a novel about a neurosurgeon's thoughts rather than a novelist's, or do we want just enough of a neurosurgeon present to explore a theme that investigates the aesthetic? Interviewing McEwan, Zadie Smith says "talking of parallels, there's a paragraph in Saturday about surgery, apparently, but it seems to me to be about writing." McEwan replies "Oh, well done" and Smith adds "I read it and thought it can't be about anything else." We don't read literature, surely to understand how the world works, but to comprehend how the writer's mind works. We can return here to Deleuze's What is Philosophy? where he explores what he calls conceptual personae: the means by which philosophers create characters to explore the philosophical, and how these characters generate conceptual possibilities for the philosopher: Nietzsche's Zarathustra, Kierkegaard's Don Juan in The Diary of a Seducer. But he also mentions Melville, who said that "a novel includes an infinite number of interesting characters but just one original Figure like the single sun of a constellation of a universe..." "The great aesthetic figures of thought and the novel," Deleuze says "but also of painting, sculpture, and music produce affects that surpass ordinary affectations and perceptions, just as concepts go beyond everyday opinions." If the writer stays too close to the character he creates, this generates a plausible person but doesn't come close to generating a Figure, a conceptual personae in literary form. As Deleuze says "these thinkers are half philosophers. But they are not sages. There is such force in these unhinged works of Holderlin, Kleist, Rimbaud, Mallarme, Kafka, Michaux, Pessoa, Artaud, and many English and American novelists, from Melville to Lawrence or Miller..."

We can see the enormous difference between Deleuze's notion of literature and the conventional, perhaps very English approach adopted by Lawson when talking about McEwan's work: that research is useful but only if it allows us to get inside the character's head, so that the author recedes and the surgeon becomes a proper character in his own right. The world is imitated well; the presence of the McEwanesque matters much less than the generation of the surgeon Perowne. Deleuze on the other hand has little interest in character as Lawson would couch it. Yet maybe McEwan is more on Deleuze's side than Lawson's, for all the writer's research. Smith's noticing of the surgery resembling writing and McEwan's delight in her noticing this, suggests that the writer who possesses vision is always writing about if not themselves then that space between the self that writes and the self that creates characters. It is this liminal space that surely creates great characters because they come into being through the presence of a new author and generate new anthropological possibilities in being. They might never be actualised in any narrow sense - in the 'real world' - but remain vivid with the fictional one as they can conjure up in a single figure a composite value, as we find in Captain Ahab, Madame Bovary or Jude the Obscure. Yet Deleuze invokes poets too, who create affects and percepts in pure form, an affective and perceptual presence on the page that needn't quite become characterisational, but is no less an embodiment for that. One of the dangers of the well-researched novel is that the real-world details flood the aesthetic imaginary: the anthropological imagination is swamped by the anthropologically real.

Again, we come to Kundera, and a couple of passages from his essay collection, Testaments Betrayed. Here Kundera talks about how in fiction the novel must, in Balzac's formulation "compete with the etat civil (the state registry of citizens)." Thus a character must have a real name; yet Kundera is suspicious of this, saying "already in my early stories, by instinct, I avoided naming the characters. In Life is Elsewhere, the hero has only a first name..." "At the time I was operating with total spontaneity...I did not want to make readers think my characters are real and have an official family record." Why? For Kundera, it rests partly on the difference between a traditional fictional realism evident in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, and Robert Musil's shift towards something more clearly cerebral in The Man Without Qualities. "In the Mann novel, the intellectuality shows mainly in the dialogues about ideas carried on before the backdrop of a descriptive novel. In The Man without Qualities, the intellectuality is manifest at every instant, thoroughgoing as against Mann's descriptive novel." Kundera is both historicising and personalising the novel, while Deleuze suggests that it is not a question of characterisation, it is one of generating Figures. The writer might not at all be self-aware in creating conceptual personae in fictional form; just that out of these characters a figure might emerge. In both instances, in Deleuze's mention of Melville's insight, and Kundera's examination of novelistic modes, the idea of the real world retreats.

In a fine, fairly brief article in the London Review of Books, Tom McCarthy usefully differentiates reality, realism and the real, seeing realism and the real as different ways one can look at 'reality for the purposes of art. "Let's start with 'realism'," he says, "since it's the easiest target of the lot. Realism is a literary convention, he says, quoting Ford Madox Ford: "Life does not say to you: in 1914 my next door neighbour, Mr Slack, erected a greenhouse and painted it with Cox's green aluminium paint." No, instead we recall it as a series of semi-disjointed images that we try and piece together. Realism allows us to assume an order that is a choice. But it is no less realistic to accept a rather different approach to recounting an event. And what about the real? McCarthy thinks of George Perec's La Disparition (A Void) which famously contained no letter e, as he muses over the idea that neither father (pere) nor mother (mere) can be mentioned in a book by a writer whose parents were lost in the war - his mother to Auschwitz. "The same real - the Holocaust in particular - impinges on all of Beckett's work, whose unnameables and catastrophes convey the horror and unspeakability of this event to which they never refer far more profoundly than the directly representational of, say, Primo Levi." What matters is what the nature of absence can mean structurally. What is it that isn't getting expressed when an artwork confronts the real? In realism there is usually no structuring absence: the point is to impress on us presence, and a sense of unity that passes for realism. In this sense, the real moves much further into the anthropological structure of the imagination than realism happens to, and this is no doubt partly why many see it as a more imaginative original endeavour than those seeking realism. As McCarthy says, the real can "be a process of 'deformation' that releases objects, and the world, the entire universe, from all categories of the knowable and denotative until they 'resemble nothing'. Viewed from this position, a thing's real world consists in its materiality: a sticky, messy and above all base materiality that overflows all boundaries defining the thing's - and everything's - identity."

McCarthy's piece is shot through with (and briefly references Jacques Lacan's) ideas, an ontology of absence exemplified in his triad, the imaginary, the symbolic and the real, and the objet petit a. What we have in the imaginary is a belief in the wholeness of the self as the ego regulates between the inside and the outside world, as evident in the child in the first eighteen months of its life as it sees itself not separated from the world. However once it recognizes itself in the mirror, it sees that the relationship is fragmented, and thus enters the symbolic order. "the symbolic involves the formation of signifiers and language and is considered to be the 'determining order of the subject'...Seeing the entire system of the unconscious/conscious as manifesting in an endless web of signifiers/ieds and associations, Lacan claims that, 'Symbols in fact envelop the life of man in a network so total that they join together, before he comes into the world, those who are going to engender him...' (University of Chicago: Theories of Media) However, the real is what escapes this symbolic order and cannot quite be named. It is some ways the desires we chase and hence why Lacan would later offer the term the objet petit a to describe this impossibility. It is the structuring absence that McCarthy invokes in his remarks about the missing e in Perec's novel. We sense the real in the absence that the symbolic order cannot grasp.

We might provocatively wonder if one reason there is a gap between the real world and the aesthetic one rests on this point: that an artist's purpose isn't to contribute to the symbolic realm but to the real - and to find in the chaos of our existence not the conventions that can give the impression of ready containment and sense, but a desire that suggests greater possibilities to existence. One of the key differences here between Deleuze and Lacan would seem to rest on that between lack in Lacan's formulation and desire in Deleuze's. While Lacan sees the objet petit a as an impossible and false need for plenitude, desire for Deleuze is the capacity for this fullness in life. "But such a life", John Rajchman says "is not to be confused with "the life" of the corresponding individual. It is a potential or virtuality that exceeds our specification as particular individuals, and we are never fully "constituted" or "accomplished" individuals..." (The Deleuze Connections) Deleuze insists that lack and the symbolic order is not how he is defining desire. "We said that desire is in no way connected to the 'Law' and cannot be defined by any fundamental lack." (Negotiations) This is an aesthetic lawlessness in the face of a symbolic order, and partly why in various places Deleuze has talked of laying into the signifier, of finding ways to dismantle ready assumption. One of the problems with a realistic aesthetic, and one reason why we need an anthropological structure of the imaginary, is that an art hemmed in by real-world expectations doesn't allow for a revolutionary potential in being. If we see realism instead as a convention, as McCarthy proposes, we see it as a choice. One accepts realism as a means by which to generate comprehension rather than the comprehensive. Both Kundera and Pritchett's initial comments don't insist on the eschewal of realism but neither do they insist on a slavish respect for it.

Sometimes realism needn't be a representational question, but more a mode of composition. While many insist on the importance of mimesis, Genette talks also of the possibilities in diegesis. This is the difference between a direct and indirect approach, evident in much contemporary discourse in "the barely transposed terms of showing vs telling." Most writing courses will insist on the importance of the former over the latter. Here is a typical example: "Maybe you want to rid your fiction of telling but you simply can't see itnot in other people's fiction and certainly not in your own. So how can you delete something you can't even see? There's a question you can ask of any passage you feel may be telling. You ready? Get the passage in front of you and ask this of it: Can the camera see it?" (Writer's Digest) This is mimetic writing, of course, and also indicates the importance of realism as the writer's job is to capture more or less what the camera would see. But this seems not too far removed from someone saying that artists should paint as though they had a camera rather than painting well aware that they must escape from apparent verisimilitude because photography can do so more plausibly. Why repeat what another art form can do better; surely it is more useful to find a method by which you capture what cannot be shown? One of the hardest things for film to do is complex thought, and in achieving it often does so with the aid of voice-over and thus literature. We wouldn't want to say however that film should avoid using voice over. After all, cinema is an audio-visual medium and must use whatever techniques it feels appropriate given the two senses it can activate. But equally, we wouldn't wish to be prescriptive over literature either, which going as far back as Plato allowed both diegetic and mimetic methods their place. Genette notices not everyone believes that the mimetic is the only way for a fiction writer to go as he mentions Henry James. If Hemingway did often suggest a world in which only the camera could film; James indicated a world only a mind could observe. Trying to generate an aesthetic that removes itself from the conventions of realism can still show the world 'realistically', yet dissolves that reality into different perspectives that become mutually impossible but not at all surreal or absurd. By opening up the diegetic perspective a writer can show an event but speculate about the motives behind it. The murder will be unequivocal but the killer speculative as the writer muses over the various motives other characters might have for killing the victim. Yet this approach which is quite conventional in crime drama, can be utilised concerning numerous other incidents as well, however minor. This can give to an event a perspectival dissolution quite different from the surrealist play with the real, yet equally challenging to an assumption about the real world. In this context, the anthropological structure of the imaginary in fiction can take advantage of the mutually contrary reality that is nevertheless not unreal. This is where the structuring absence replaces the murder. While many a crime thriller will open with the murder and then show the detective setting out to solve it without much harm likely to come to the detective, as Tsvetan Todorov explores it in the 'Typology of Detective Fiction', so he noticed how the genre developed in different manifestations, including post-war American thrillers where the detective is in danger, and where the emphasis is on what happens now, rather than what happened before. There is suspense more than mystery. Todorov also says, though, that "as a rule, the literary masterpiece does not enter any genre save perhaps its own; but the masterpiece of popular literature is precisely the book which best fits its genre...to 'improve upon' detective fiction is to write 'literature,' not detective fiction."

One way in which to write literature that improves upon detective fiction is to replace the categorical mystery with ambiguous detail. This is what Todorov often finds in Henry James' work, saying "the essential secret is the motive force of Henry James' tales, it determines their structure.(The Poetics of Literature) But more than this - such a principle of organization becomes the explicit theme of at least two of them as he discusses the 'Figure in the Carpet' and 'The Beast in the Jungle'. Todorov quotes Philippe Sollers saying "the solution of the problem which is expounded to us is nothing other than the very exposition of this problem." What matters in James' work is usually not the mystery revealed, but the symptoms involved in the perception of events, what it will reveal about character over situation, the mystery within us rather than the mystery resolved out there. As Todorov says, linking his own criticism to James' fiction: "it is the search for truth, not its revelation, a treasure hunt rather than the treasure itself, for the treasure can only be absent." Detective fiction usually demands a solution to the mystery generated' the type of fiction Todorov invokes and that he finds in James is much closer to a dissolution of a mystery out there in the world all the better to comprehend a mystery within the self. This is centrally why an indirect style is adopted. It can allow for realizations over 'reality', with the truth not a mystery solved but a thought mused over. In this sense, the imaginary structure is a proper structure of the imagination. It is a mental process applied that nevertheless leaves our perception of reality intact as its physical laws still apply while in surrealism, for example, they do not. Yet the nature of its speculation is to dissolve the idea of a real world as a piece of detective fiction confirms its existence. If the detective might utilize the forensic analysis of information to solve a crime, the type of fiction that interested James is forensic in understanding the subtle permutations of human thought and feeling.

What point of view can offer is an exploration of the imaginary without the categorical reconfiguration of the laws under which our reality functions. People can perceive events differently, but they can be mutually, compatibly different because perspective is more important than resolution and thus is the difference between the typical detective work and the Jamesian approach to narrative. A character can be perceived simultaneously as a virgin, a homosexual and a womanizer as long as the ambiguity of perspective is retained, as we might see someone perceived from various points of view, but if that perspective is made real - if someone witnesses the character viewed making love to another man - then the structural ambiguity gives way to the certitude of situation. If we think of Agatha Christie's typical thriller Murder on the Orient Express we can see how a potentially perspectivist possibility is turned into narrative certainty. A character is killed on a train and the detective interviews the numerous possible suspects and concludes on the guilt of all of them. They all had a reason to want the victim dead and the book concludes with Poiret discovering none are innocent. A reversal of this in a 'Jamesian' manner would be for us to remain unsure who the killer might have been but to be much more aware of the grievances, frustrations and irritations that could lead someone to kill another. What would matter wouldn't be the whodunnit, but the psychology and behaviour of the resentful. Reality intruding in the resolution of the murder removes the perspectival advantage of the possible: the multiple realities that needn't be reduced to one.

If we accept that we want from art an anthropological structure that isn't quite the same as the one in which we live, taking into account our opening remarks by Kundera and Pritchett, then nevertheless what we regard as literature is usually consistent with a respect for the real, for its exploration. If one reason why fantasy literature, for example, is less respected than fiction more inclined to stay close to the real, it rests on the fantastic generating a meta-reality rather than an alternative reality. In Kundera and Pritchett's comments we have worlds that are tweaked but recognizable; in fantasy we have worlds that are beyond our own. This can lead to escapism over recognition, to comprehending less the world in which we live, than refusing to understand our reality - instead of findings ourselves in the realm of indeterminacy of Kafka, James and so on, we escape instead into the realm of heroes and heroines in a timeless universe where good can conquer evil. Some might include in this fantastic world Magic Realism, but one reason why Marquez's work is seen as literature rests on the refusal of fantastic convention coinciding with the demands of internal plausibility because there needs to be a meeting with external necessity. As Marquez says, when asked why he loathes fantasy, "I believe the imagination is just an instrument for producing reality and that the source of creation is always, in the last instance, reality. Fantasy, in the Walt Disney-style invention without any basis in reality is the most loathsome at all." (The Fragrance of Guava)

This suggests that the anthropological structure of the imaginary is not a fantastic realm, but a mode by which truths can be explored, one in which works too hemmed in by notions of reality would be unable to seek. Yet this is perhaps where we can muse over the term artistic license and what it means. Many commercial writers will claim artistic license to play with historical facts or the laws of physics, but the purpose will not be a greater truth but a bottom line: that a reader likes to escape reality. But by replacing reality with truth, the artist generates the same degree of freedom from artistic license, but for very different ends. One escapes reality and retreats into a sort of aesthetic mode of false consciousness; the other eschews reality and finds in it the means to discover truths that our usual perception of reality hides. "Truth, as the clearing and concealing of beings," Heidegger says, "happens in being composed. All art, as the letting happen of the advent of the truth of beings, is as such, in essence poetry. The essence of art, on which both the artwork and the artist depend, is the setting-itself-into-work of truth." ('The Origins of the Work of Art') If the writer finds him or herself too closely obliged to either the real world or the generic one can the truth be found, as Heidegger analyses it and as Marquez sees it? The anthropological structure of the imaginary is the attempt to find through aesthetic means the nature of our being, the truth that lies concealed, covered up or unknown in the everyday, an existence that cannot easily countenance, or find space, for the liminal that indicates a self much broader than the contractive being demanded of our functional lives. Aesthetic choices that too readily admit the world in which we live, or too completely deny it, struggle to find the revelation of our existence, the surprise of our being.

This doesn't, of course, mean that art of the 19th century is less impressive than art of the 20th, where in the former the idea of realism was much more expected and accepted of an artist than in the wake of Modernism. It would be silly to suggest that there is more truth in Beckett than there happens to be in Flaubert; more in Kafka than Dostoevsky. To help here let us think of Tolstoy's position in What is Art? and Adorno's in Aesthetic Theory. Tolstoy offers an often conservative perspective evident in his remark that "great works of art are great only because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone." Adorno says rather the opposite: "no art work, regardless of what its maker thinks of it, is directed towards an observer, not even toward a transcendental subject of apperception; no artwork is to be described or explained in terms of the categories of communication." Tolstoy does suggest "people of the first half the century - admirers of Goethe, Musset, Hugo, Dickens, Beethoven...understanding nothing of this new art, often simply regard its works as tasteless madness. But this attitude towards the new art is completely unfounded" as Tolstoy acknowledges that there are still many people "including all working people and many non-workers" who do not understand the work Tolstoy and others find so beautiful. Tolstoy's argument is in places tentatively offered as he admits he could be wrong about the new art because he comes from another generation, but what he more especially argues is that though the art of Beethoven, Hugo and Dickens would have still been for a minority, it was for a larger minority than the new art, suggesting that "I can only conclude from it that art, as it has become more and more exclusive, has become more and more incomprehensible for a larger and larger number if people...and that this number if elect gets smaller and smaller."

Perhaps one way of countering Tolstoy's position is to say that just as in science the comprehension of the world demands ever finer analysis to comprehend how things work on a molecular, atomic level, so in aesthetics we expect the same in relation to truth. It isn't that the artist wishes not to be understood but instead sees that understanding is of a very specific nature. Its truth quotient is much harder to find than in the nineteenth partly because those truths have already been discovered. If someone proposes that they don't understand Einstein and wishes he could be as straightforward as Newton, claiming they understand gravity easily enough, but can't get their head around quantum mechanics, we don't assume Einstein's the problem. In this sense, invoking Deleuze once more, we could say that the functive has taken on a greater degree of complexity in science, and that the affect and percept have taken on greater complexity in art. Deleuze sees science as "like a freeze frame. It is a fantastic slowing down, and it is by slowing down that matter, as well as the scientific thought able to penetrate it with propositions, is actualized." (What is Philosophy?) Does a similar slowing down frequently take place in modern art, or some variation of it? Are Remembrance of Things Past and Ulysses not slowed down works as they find their truths in the minutiae of existence just as Einstein and Heisenberg were doing likewise? If in the 20th century we have got ostensibly deeper into the anthropological structure of the imagination. and further away from the anthropological structure of perceived reality, this is not because of the greater presence of fantasy, but often the ever more subtle exploration of affect and percept. It is the difference let us say between the jealousy of Boldwood in Hardy's fine Far from the Madding Crowd, and the jealousy evident in Remembrance of Things Past. Boldwood has very tangible reasons for being jealous and vulnerable. He was jilted on the altar many years before, and when it looks like Bathsheba shows interest he becomes besotted but she is rather more intrigued by Sergeant Troy. Boldwood is in love with a woman who will not have him and who is infatuated with another. Jealousy in Proust's work is much more rarefied. Swann frequently muses over the other men Odette might be sleeping with, but one day he says to himself, "looking at things quite honestly, I can't say I got much pleasure last night from being in bed with her. It's an odd thing, but I actually thought her ugly." The narrator adds, "And certainly he was sincere, but his love extended a long way beyond the province of physical desire. Odette's person, indeed, no longer held a great place in it." Boldwood's jealousy is the literary equivalent of gravitational theory; Proust's the theory of relativity. For many, Boldwood's jealousy would be more realistic, more plausible, but Proust's is surely much more nuanced so that it doesn't so much escape from reality as involve itself in the constant process of refining it. To do so the writer might retreat from the anthropological structure of the real to search out the anthropological structure of the imaginary, but the escape from the former is often to offer a greater inroad into it through the latter.

In the Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard quotes Gerard de Nerval: "I believe that the human imagination never invented anything that was not true, in this world or any other." The operative word here is true, as though this is the regulating principle of literature: that any deviation from the notion of reality has to come up against the pressure of the truthful. This is by no means a principle that can be quantified; it is part of the ongoing negotiating conscience of the artist. As Bachelard says at the beginning of his book, "a philosopher who has evolved his entire thinking from the fundamental themes of the philosophy of science, and followed the main line of the active, growing rationalism of contemporary science as closely as he could, must forget his learning and break with all his habits of philosophical research, if he wants to study the problems posed by the poetic imagination." Bachelard adds, "the idea of principle or "basis" in this case would be disastrous, for it would interfere with the essential psychic actuality, the essential novelty of the poem." The scientist finds laws rather than truths, and this is why we talk of the law of gravity as opposed to the truth of Shakespeare. There is no law of Shakespeare and no truth of gravity. A person can resist the truth of Shakespeare and remain well within the realm of sanity; the same cannot be said for someone who doesn't believe in the gravitational pull of the earth. "Of course," Bachelard says, in describing a phenomenology of the man with the magnifying glass, "I was not thinking of the magnifying glass. A scientific worker has a discipline of objectivity that precludes all daydreams of the imagination. He has already seen what he observes in the microscope and, paradoxically, one might say that he never sees anything for the first time." What Bachelard means by this is that the scientist does not have that revelation of truth the artist possesses. The scientist verifies, objectifies; the artist glimpses and subjectifies. We must acknowledge the artist's truths, not insist upon the evidence of those claims.

Of course, and in conclusion, we don't want to pretend the artist is not concerned with logic and reason: part of admiring many a great writer is their capacity for plot construction, the generation of complex and narratively coherent character creation. But the novel does not fall apart because we work out that a character could not have been twenty one when a certain event took place if forty years have passed, or whether someone shoots another character with a pistol and then hides the rifle. These are no more than details, often quite cosmetically correctable, and left in an already published book because we respect the author's rights, and don't want to tamper with the imagination even if it happens to be for the purposes of correction. Obviously too numerous errors might be detrimental to the writer's capacity for conveying a truth, yet it seems great writing can accommodate many. As Samuel Johnson claimed, "Shakespeare never has six lines together without a fault. Perhaps you may find seven, but this does not refute my general assertion." The writer's purpose is to generate a vision of the world, a scientist's is to capture it as accurately as possible within the formula that can allow the theory to pass for a law. We expect from science, in this sense, the anthropological structure of reality and not of the imagination. When Kundera suggests that far fewer characters in fiction have children than in life, this is not a statistical error but an imaginative freedom, the opportunity to explore being without the hampering a family might generate. It may not be true to life, but it might be much truer to the inner life, as if familial existence can obstruct the necessary enquiry into individuality in its various manifestations. We must continue of course to resist claims that art should resemble life while at the same time demanding a truth that will in many instances insist on staying close to what passes for the reality of our existence. Yet the operative word should remain truth and not reality.

Tony McKibbin


© Tony McKibbin