Fiction and the Real

“… It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us…” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

We take a moment’s hiatus from our long discussion of poetry to talk about Reality. The purpose for this discussion is mostly clarity; but clarity in this sense is not so much trying to expand our knowledge of something but to show its limitations more clearly. The subject of this essay is realism and what will enable our digression is the set of genres known as ‘fiction’.

The term realistic can refer to at least two different concepts that are related. The first is the concept of things being most like what actually happened, such as a realistic re-enactment of a battle. The second, and seemingly identical idea, is the concept of things being most like what would have happened given a set of circumstances. The relationship between the two concepts is clear, pertaining to a conceptual real, but only one actually pertains to facts. From this second concept we have the literary genre called ‘Realistic Fiction’ – which I think we will find is actually a misnomer, or at the very least conceals an important qualifier.

Fiction is in a particularly odd position in regards to reality. In the original sense, fiction cannot be realistic because it cannot pertain to facts; it being a fiction is it being made up, for if it were not made up it would be ‘nonfiction’. This distinction does not clarify, however; fictions employ various factual elements, and some nonfiction employs fictional elements (sometimes called ‘dramatizations’). We must say, to be as clear as possible, that something is a fiction to the degree that it is made up, and a fact to the degree that it is not. Some forms of fiction push this boundary by, for instance, taking historical personages or events and fictionalizing them; but we sense that if the overall work is a contrivance it is still fiction.

From this comes the secondary sense of realistic; what is more properly called (perhaps) the plausible. Fiction makes itself plausible by borrowing from the factual. Plausibly Real Fiction doesn’t have the same ring to it, though. We’ll just have to remember our distinction in that case.

In general, this second sense and it alone is what pertains to the concept of realism in art, while it is true that in painting realism starts as an effort to paint what you would have really seen if you were there with the painter, painting the subject, it does not stay there. The style itself then gets imitated in imaginary depictions, creating an unusual sensation of ‘the fact of a fiction’. The fact of a fiction is, in fact, the kernel of simulation. In all cases now, however, realism is about ‘true to life’ and not ‘as pertains to the facts’ – the style does not distinguish that such and such scene really occurred. The style is, especially in regards to photorealism, a style of plausibility and visual accuracy. But the latter term is also deceptive; accuracy would not apply in the case of an imaginary subject since one would not actually be replicating accurately what it looks like, since it doesn’t exist in a normal sense. It goes without saying that Realism is much harder with imaginary subjects.

*****

There is a whole species of literary criticisms that go something like this: “X wouldn’t have happened that way.”, “X wouldn’t have done that…” These criticisms often follow a denunciation of a work as ‘unrealistic’. This, however, exposes a problem with the concept of realism as a judgement of quality.

In general, we deem the real as being ‘what really happened’ or ‘what must happen’ or at least ‘what would have happened’. Given our limitation in time and space in multiple ways, it is obvious that even if we restrict ‘real’ to the first sense our account of it must be lacking. Our accounts therefore must be either 1. based on our knowledge of events, or 2. based on trusted knowledge of events from others. Intuition can disguise that this is the case, since by it we may ‘know what we did not know’ – even in that case we would not have complete knowledge of history or of the principles that underlie all history (which would give us a unitive theory of the real, truly combining ‘what was’, ‘what must be’, and ‘what would be’.)

These judgment calls, often disputed, show that realism is not progress towards a unitive real in the literary, but merely a digression into subjective judgment. One man, like the others, not having a full grasp of all human history, disputes that such and such character would have taken such and such action in such and such an event. But let us say, since it seems to make the most sense, that the author of the work disagreed, considering the action to be wholly plausible. Now, if someone holds the position that the act in the fictional work is a fact, they obviously cannot be correct. But the general rule is that a broadest possible interpretation of the plausible is most likely to be correct. This is simple logic; the person who calls something unrealistic is saying in other words, “for all possible iterations of the event described, in none of them would this even have transpired as described.” The ability to support such a universal claim is little; but realism is essentially then, negatively defined: it is defined by enough readers, watchers or listeners not finding the work implausible. (This is distinct from Coleridge’s suspension of disbelief, which applies to intentionally fantastic works as well.) More specifically, we would consider it an agreement where an author intends a work to be wholly plausible and whomever speaks for the audience agrees with them. For we wouldn’t call ‘realistic’ something that only the author thought was realistic (we would propose the author was mad) nor would we call something realistic that the author intended to be fantastical.

But in the latter case, we run into the invasion of ‘mere realism’ into other genres. Aspects of the story that are based on fact must remain plausible; for example, a real little boy ought to do things that a real little boy would do in a certain situation. But this ought is a huge weight; since we do not either know all of human history to judge if such an event had ever occurred, or the principles of history that we would know if such an event could occur, what we’re really saying is, “the little boy is doing what I BELIEVE a real little boy would or wouldn’t do in such and such a situation.” If our judgement is based only on fact we are bound to be caught by a black swan; that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ is a trivial saying for an individual’s judgment: it doesn’t mean that you should expect only repetition, but rather that even the novelties and unexpected things have in some way already occurred. But history and time are a vast ocean; wisdom does not seek salvation in novelty.

Even our judgements based on trusted knowledge are merely a cascading version of the same problem; they are definitely an improvement (even if their fidelity may be reduced by transmission) and we may have access to minds that saw and understood things which we ourselves do not.

It would seem, therefore, that realism, or Realism, is the overgrowth of the element of the plausible in literature. Resistance against this overgrowth has created other pathologies as well, in the same way that some people fear paranoia as much as paranoids fear their fears. (Psychologically, paranoia is a normal function of the mind, but must be kept in balance.)

But let us propose a rule to save ourselves some time arguing. And that is the following: fiction is not realistic. Realism, except as it pertains to retellings of historical events, does not exist; it is a sham. (Maybe this is where I tell you that I don’t believe in Realism?)

*****

But let us assume for a moment that we don’t believe that there are just two things, fact and fiction, or ‘that which happened’ and ‘that which man has made up’. Now, if we’re going to talk about the future in terms of normal prediction, we still haven’t exited those two categories — man discerns patterns from ‘that which happened’ and extrapolates over time. So predictions are, by intent, the most plausible fictions. This is distinction from visions proper, in which, if what we are told holds true, people see future events ‘as fact’ – they witness what has yet to be ‘that which happened’. Even if these visions are creations of the human mind they remain no less astounding, though even more inexplicable. (It is for this reason that ‘rationalism’ has tended to simply dismiss them.) If, as we have said, the envisioned events do occur as envisioned, what then? We are dealing with ‘that which must be’.

I do not deal with ‘that which is’ since as soon as you experience something, it is very slightly in the past, at least as regards the five senses. Even an odor must become a signal that travels to the brain. And if travels, there is time between the odor and the experience of the odor; sensible experience is always history. Thus the real is itself inextricably connected with history, and our knowledge of it empirically is nothing other than studying history. Even our scientific experiments – the scientific method – is a form of history. Inductively, if situation X created result Y repeatedly enough, we can postulate a pattern or rule (or even, if we dare, a law) that connects them. These postulates give us some limited power over history, as they allow us to say in some limited way ‘what must be’ or at least ‘what would be’ given certain conditions. (It isn’t true that operating conditions are always what experimental conditions were.)

But visions are peculiar since they do not proceed from a guess from limited data or induction; they are, if true visions (meaning that they describe ‘what must be’) a perfect simulation. They are not fact except anachronistically – the knowledge of them precedes their occurrence (therefore the knowledge is not ‘what happened’.) As with all simulations they are factual-in-themselves – that which happens in the simulation does really happen, but since simulations imitate or represent, their having occurred doesn’t mean that the things that they represent or imitate (even if perfectly) have occurred. Naturally, we wonder how a simulation can perfectly ‘imitate’ something which has not happened, since how would the imitation be discernible as perfect unless the subject being imitated already exists? The term ‘prefigure’ or ‘shadow’ in this case, is what we would use for accurate or perfect predictive simulations.

*****

Baudrilliard’s concept of ‘Pure Simulation’ is somewhat of a misnomer; it confuses (and somewhat intentionally, given such a level of opposition to technological culture) the concept of simulation, which is by definition allopoetic. But his concept of ‘Pure Simulation’ is identical to a concept of ‘nonsimulation’ – that which only imitates itself, only represents itself, whether directly or indirectly. It is autopoetic. Therefore calling it ‘pure’ (a positive word) implies that ‘the best simulation is evil.’ In other words, the essence of simulation is evil, if the best or purest simulations are evil. A clever linguistic trick, which we will disarm by detaching the terms and the concepts, and reconfiguring them to suit our desired set of connotations. (Ones that we feel are closer to the truth.) It may be argued that what B. means is ‘only simulation’ (‘it is purely simulation’) and thus the fault would be with his translators. Either way, we agree with his general concept though we may feel free to re-arrange the terminology. It is generally the case that B. has a negative apprehension of things that are associated with the information age, and we cannot dismiss Naming As Attack where no direct attack is advisable.

Given the definition of simulation, we find that the issue with ‘only simulation’ is that it does not ultimately refer outside of itself, assuming of course there is an Outside. If there is an Outside, the only-simulation (since true simulation implies simulation-simulated) is drastically incomplete, even if it is consistent. Baudrilliard’s implication is that the only-simulation is constructed as to intentionally but ‘harmlessly’ remove unwanted parts of reality. Of course, according to common realism that men in our time cling to very often, once they have been removed, they are no longer reality, since if such a man would hear of them, he would not think them plausible. Only-simulation is the most degenerate situation where things only point back into the simulation rather than the simulation pointing to them. When Sally sees a white wall she sees racism; the concrete experience points back into the simulation (racism) and is robbed of its power to point outward further, revealing that only-simulation is a hack of metaphysics.

How is it a hack of metaphysics? Simply put, metaphysics renders our experience of everyday things as participants in unseen and higher orders of the Real; and let us assume that intuiting our experiences to also have deeper meanings is a basic human cognitive fact. If we remove the traditions of the meanings of things, this drive does not disappear, but it is freed from shackles to external validations that the survival of traditions implies. Then, if we reconfigure the ‘hidden meaning’ to point into a closed system that only points back to itself (like a vortex or black hole) we dedicate the human metaphysical drive to the continuance of our desired, selectively incomplete reality. The final state of this incomplete reality is that nothing can point outside of it at all, and it can only point back to itself. It becomes a ‘cosmic bottom’ – which is an abyss. Generally, as with the theory of egregores, every ideology contains the seeds to becoming only-simulation within itself, if it is an incomplete system of ideas. (We might invoke Gödel here, but we won’t – you can do that for your own edification.)

In the old sense there is nothing more ‘authentic’ in the personal sense than only-simulation; provided it is your only-simulation. But the world is not just you – it is composed of a vast collection of contradictory things. Is God then a cosmic abyss? If all things point back to God, could God function as an only-simulation? Of course– monistic religions (particularly those that deny there is any multiplicity at all) tend strongly towards a religiously-flavored metaphysics-as-only-simulation. But the real experience of God is oddly different than this; it is as much a pull as a push; it is generative and expanding; things point to God but God points back to them and in man, ever-outward; and the traditions about God generally hold that he is Infinite as well as Absolute; so in ‘moving towards God’ things would not actually be going towards a center point, which in a black hole is a ‘only-oneness’- a singularity, but rather a center of infinite magnitude, which is larger and greater than all that is. In short, the movement towards God must be conceived as a spiral towards the Outside.

*****

Dreams are a difficult subject regarding realism; since intent cannot be known, and because they are a kind of vision, they are properly a category in-themselves. They have aspects of simulation, of fact, and of fiction. ‘Lucid’ dreams feel real because we experience them like reality; but it’s an experience. We do not know if they have really happened or will happen (if they were a vision or prophecy.) We do not know the intent (unless we take control of a dream) so we cannot call them ‘fictions’ proper other than to note that they do involve make-believe. We cannot even class dreams as simulations, since a person in a dream may be doing things with their body while dreaming, or things from outside of the dream may enter it unimitated.

*****

We broach this subject because the primary property of poetry is that of Imitation. Imitation seems to imply simulation or fiction, and seems also to be subject to questions of realism. But Imitation may also be part of a last category as well; recapitulation. Recapitulation is when a form re-occurs not identically, but in spirit, and so it is not a fact (recounting ‘what has happened’), a fiction (saying ‘what is imagined’), a simulation (representing ‘what might have been’), a vision (foretelling ‘what will be’) or a dream (seeing ‘what underlies’). It is a participation in archetypes, or in fact the only form of story which truly rests in the present; it participates in ‘what is’. When ritual is done in many contexts, it does not recount as history or re-enact as a simulation, it does not imagine a new thing or predict the future; it prolongs whatever that ritual is participation in, back into the present. (Note: this applies for the good as well as the ill.)

*****

Are questions of realism best served by stretching our sense of the plausible to include not merely an analysis of what actually happened but based on our limited knowledge, what might happen? Certainly if a plan is presented to us, a plan of action, we can only judge based on our knowledge and we are behooved to do so; but applying the same rule to stories – fictions for instance – is something else entirely and is not actually a question of ‘realism’.  Other forms that narrative may take make this distinction more clear; for dreams we cannot say ‘that is unrealistic’, except in a very limited sense, and with visions we can only guess. We require a more robust tool set – of things such as goodness, truth, and beauty.

Reality applies to what is certainly known to have occurred, and we do not ask to undermine its importance but to try not to meld it with an analysis of fiction. If you judge a fictional account against what has been, consider it a question of plausibility, which acknowledges the aspect of ‘possibility’ being questioned. For to call something fictional unrealistic is to imply ‘a lack of factuality’ when none of the things depicted ever actually occurred. Because we generalize knowledge about , say, human behavior, we take expected responses to be ‘facts’ when they are only ‘reasonable expectations’.

The flipside is that plausible stories, say favorite movies – are treated as fact since they are thought to be ‘realistic’. So much for adults being able to discern fact from fiction.

Young children who are exposed to religion have a hard time differentiating between fact and fiction, according to a new study published in the July issue of Cognitive Science.

Huffington Post

Horatio:
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

Hamlet:
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet & Horatio

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