What Has Literature to Do With Reality?

By Dr. Dwight Lindley

To answer this question, we will have to ask first what “literature” itself is, and second, what “reality” itself is, for my opening suggestion is that we have trouble with this question because we are unclear about its terms.
First, then, what is literature? While there have been many answers to this question, I think we can isolate three strands of thought emerging from the classical world that give us our most basic options: the first I will call the “Ionic” tradition (after Plato’s Ion), according to which the poet produces beautiful poems because he is “inspired and possessed” by some divinity, perhaps a muse (534b). This model arises again in the Roman idea of the vates, and later in the dark Romantic theory of Percy Shelley, for whom poets are “the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration” (Defense of Poetry 48). The second model is that of Aristotle, who famously understood poetry, and in fact all art, as imitative of reality: literature is essentially mimetic. When we hear Hamlet tell his players “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature,” we catch the echo of Aristotle’s mimetic theory (3.2.18–19). The third model, finally, finds its origin in the poetic theory of Horace, who recommended in the Ars Poetica that poets “aim either to do good or to give pleasure—or, thirdly, to say things which are both pleasing and serviceable to life” (334–335). Literature is to be judged chiefly in terms of the good it can do and the pleasure it can give, then, and we hear later versions of this theme in, for example, Sidney’s Defense of Poesy, where literature’s work is “to teach and delight” (10).

What are we to make of these three traditions, and how can they get us closer to what poetry is? First, I want to suggest that we need not choose between them, though it seems that way: at times, we hear latter-day Ionians promoting an irrationalist view of poetry over against the “rationalism” of the Aristotelian model : for example, Wallace Stevens, in his fascinating essay, “The Irrational Element in Poetry”. Again, we are sometimes told that we must choose whether to be more concerned about poetry’s moral meaning or its truth-value: “A Poem should not mean, / But be,” according to a famous verse of Archibald MacLeish (“Ars Poetica” 23–24). But, as my argument will eventually show, I do not think the three traditions are irreconcilable: they can, and should be, synthesized in the right kind of theory.

I want to propose now that we if we attend first to the Aristotelian model and develop it in the right ways, we will be able to come back through and weave the other two into our final account. For Aristotle, poetry—literature—is a mimesis of reality, but here we have to stop and ask, what is reality? For Aristotle, it is being in motion, each kind of thing unfolding in accord with its nature. For the mimetic artist, any kind of motion could be the object of a work of art—Tennyson’s eagle diving, or Dickinson’s snake in the grass—but it is especially human action that concerns us, as there is simply more to care about when rational deliberation and choice are involved. We might talk first of all about the dramas that unfold in the lives of characters in fiction, of the intelligibility of their choices and of the plot in relation to their traits of character. And this is indeed the heart of the artist’s mimesis. But I want to draw attention instead to that sometimes overlooked aspect of the author’s craft: what I will call the mimesis of the audience. There is no object for contemplation without a subject, the one contemplating, and just so no author depicts a drama of character without also framing a point of view and a progression of realizations for that character’s audience. Art is always participatory. We speak of a drama as cogent or believable because it is such to a certain kind of audience, and a good work of literature will construct that audience’s role in the work just as carefully as it does the characters’. Indeed, as many critics have shown over the last forty years, the epistemic drama of the audience is a crucial part of the reality imitated in a well-crafted work of fiction (e.g. Stanley Fish’s work on Milton).

What is that epistemic drama? I think it can be broken down into a few basic elements, which are present in our every-day lives, just as they are in literature. In daily life, our experience in the world is the experience of knowing subjects: as rational animals, we cannot not want to know the truth about things and people around us, and we walk into each situation in life looking to see what it is. The first stage in any of these epistemic situations is the initial vision we get of its being: that first vision might be of a small room full of students and faculty, slightly warm, tense with expectation, and yet paradoxically dulled by the time of day, as well as faintly distracted with hunger. Or, later today, it might be a home, pulsing with boyish energy, with a thin layer of detritus and overturned toys on the floor, the noise of cooking and flailing infancy just offstage, and the sense that conditions are stable, but on the edge of not being so. In either case, one has gotten an initial sense of the whole—this is what is happening here—with its complexity, interpersonal dynamics, and loaded potential: it is a beautiful thing, if we have time and attention to devote to it, and it is just enough to stimulate one’s further involvement.

In fact, I want to say that this first stage, our initial sense of the situation as a whole, leads organically into our further involvement with it: this is a beautiful thing, and I want to deal further with it, to understand it on its own terms and love it for its own sake—this room, with these persons and things, at this time. That home, with those persons and things, at that time. I have picked prosaic examples on purpose in order to show that this account is true of our lives in general, all the way down: any rich human situation will lead us into itself, if we allow it to. Once inside the situation, and committed to seeing it through, we begin to inquire rationally into its parts: what are these people actually doing? What is the history of this situation? Does the tension in the air come from anxious anticipation, as I at first supposed, or from bitterness and alienation? What needs to be done? What are the possible trajectories of the moment? At this stage—the second stage—we are bound to find that some of our initial conceptions have been faulty, and need to be revised, while others were spot on: we experience a mixture of surprise, upheaval, and confirmation. We learn that, as usual, the thing is much more complicated than we at first supposed, and yet we are also frequently relieved to find that our initial grasp was not entirely off base.

By the time the situation—an afternoon lecture; an evening homecoming—comes to a close, we have a revised, more adequate, more complicated view of the whole, but I would also suggest that we have better grounds for appreciating its beauty. Once I know all the work, tears, love, and jokes that have gone into the home to which I have now returned, I am all the happier for it, all the more appreciative of that home, that family, those people. If the first stage is a vision of the whole, and the second stage is the investigation and complication of that vision, the third stage is the re-formation of a more adequate, more beautiful, more various account of the whole. This, I am suggesting, is the common, dramatic structure of our epistemic lives, and I think it will be even easier to see in our relations with individual persons over time. My colleague, my student, my friend, my wife: in the case of each of these persons, I could chart the stages of the same cycle, on many a given day. The initial glimpse of the whole person, the complication and deepening, the revised, more various, more desirable picture. This is the drama of personal relationship, and it is easy to see that it unfolds cyclically: my relation to my wife is still just as dramatic, in this sense, as it was when we were students. I could say the same, of course, about my relation to any real friend. A good relationship deepens over time, dramatically, in both understanding and wonder at the beauty of the other.

Here, then, is the epistemic drama imitated in a good work of fiction. As a brief account of Hamlet will show, a good or great author can reconstruct the same kind of epistemic experience, with the same three stages and cyclical structure. In the first few lines of Shakespeare’s play, we are given a glimpse of the whole: “Who’s there?”, a fearful Barnardo asks Francisco, and our minds immediately begin to work, forming a view of the whole: this opening line, together with the palpable anxiety, confusion, and heartsickness that brood over the entire first scene, suggests a human situation plagued by uncertainty about identity, in which those nearest are likely to be objects of suspicion and misunderstanding. Indeed, this turns out to be largely true as we are led further into the experience of the text, but our initial vision of the whole is also necessarily unsettled by the unfolding drama: is Hamlet overplaying his distrust of others out of a desire not to face his difficult moral situation squarely? Does the pitiable Ophelia somehow rise above the toxicity of the rest of the Danish court? Why do the commoners seem unaffected by the climate of suspicion and skepticism? These and other complicating questions surprise us with their urgency—even as Hamlet is surprised by the wisdom of the gravedigger in Act Five—and force us to adjust our initial view, bringing us to a more satisfying and brilliant account of the whole. If wonder draws us in initially, leading us further into the play, forcing us to inquire rationally into its parts, then that process of rational inquiry leads organically to a new vision and a deeper wonder, just as in the case of a human situation or an individual person. We are now ready to read Hamlet again, beginning from a more complicated grasp of the whole. In the case of a great work such as this, a lifetime of dramatic reading becomes easy to imagine, for the cycle is never finished: we stand to know Hamlet and the situation of the play better and better with each passing year, all the while realizing how much they transcend our ability to describe them. Wonder and understanding coexist dramatically, just as they do in our most important human relationships outside books.

Clearly I am suggesting, now, that a good mimesis unfolds a piece of literature before us in the same way that a friend unfolds him or herself to us: there is a sense in each case of a gift of self, a self-revelation set to open up dramatically through time. This is why we love literature: because, if it is good, it imitates the epistemic structure of the relationships we most value, only in a more focused way. A good book can be like a good friend, if we let it. Now, these two qualifications are important: it has to be good, and we have to let it be itself. The epistemic experience of reading a work of literature will be better or worse, depending on the quality of the mimesis: does the author give us humans, and human situations, as they actually are, or is there a noticeable ideological filter? Virginia Woolf’s devastating critique of the early-twentieth-century novel was that it was all ideas, with no real people: as she put it, “there are no Mrs Browns in Utopia” (“Character in Fiction” 45). Does the narration explain the characters’ conditions too much, or does it reveal who they are—their intelligibility and their mystery—in flashes of action and speech? A good mimesis will unfold itself just as a person normally does.

On the other hand, again, as in friendship, our orientation toward the text must be of a certain kind if it is to unfold itself before us. Do we let the text be itself, or do we insist on imposing a model? It is easy to lampoon some of the more absurd Freudian or Marxist readings, and forget our own temptation to fit the text into a box. When Yeats died, W.H. Auden wrote ominously that his poetry would no longer be his own: “the words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living” (“In Memory of W.B. Yeats”, 22–23): of course we are going to have a point-of-view, but do we try to avoid modifying the words of the dead man? This would be to treat the text as we would a good friend, and it is essential to a good ethics of reading: if we fail to let the text be itself, we will miss the unfolding drama. We will miss both the wonder and the intelligibility of the thing. It is not that we will actually change the meaning of the work; we will just keep ourselves from seeing it. The loss is all ours. Clearly, then, if good literature unfolds itself on the model of a good friend, interpretation must be a matter for great care indeed.

At this point, at least one aspect of the Aristotelian model should be clear: that good literature imitates the epistemic structure of personal life. Perhaps we can now make our way back to the other two traditions, the Ionic and the Horatian. Their insights, I think, have an important, intelligible role to play in the theory I have been developing. First, the Ionic: if the account so far has been correct, the drama of reading, like the drama of life, begins in wonder, which steadily deepens as the reader is led further into rational study of the text. In a good reader, an ever-greater understanding of the parts and the whole will yield an ever greater wonder at the being represented in the work: it has been given to us, just as the self-revelation of a friend is given to us, and the more we know of this gift, the more we see that it transcends us. Here, the truth of the Ionic tradition becomes clear: a good mimesis is revelatory inasmuch as all being—all creation—is revelatory. The more we know of it, the more it transcends us. The Horatian element may be even easier to see: if the drama of reading is analogous to the drama of our epistemic lives, then it must be moral just as our epistemic lives are. That is, as I have already suggested, moral character will necessarily shape the way one reads a text. And yet the reverse is also true: the faithful reading of a text, especially the reading of it over time, will necessarily make a moral difference in the reader, educating even as it delights. Inasmuch as we open ourselves to the revelation of the text, letting it be itself, we will be changed. The Horatian element in literature, like the Ionic, finds its place if we first grant a rich enough account of the reality imitated.

What is literature, then, finally? It is an imitation of the reality of life in all its revelatory givenness and moral richness, an imitation that draws us further into the drama of understanding typical of a life well-lived. The epistemic stages we cycle through in reading and re-reading a good piece of literature are precisely the same stages that deepen our understanding of life itself, along with our wonder at its transcendent beauty. That is, the drama of reading is the drama of a life well-lived. If man is a rational animal (and I suspect he is), then man is a dramatic animal, caught up in a cyclical ascent of wonder and knowing that may lead, eventually, beyond “the sun, and the other stars.”

Dr. Dwight Lindley is an Assistant Professor of English at Hillsdale College.

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