September 1, 2018

Representing Reality in Literature

Fiction often fascinates philosophers of history. When Frank Ankersmit--in chapter 7 of his Historical Representation (2001)--surveys Erich Auerbach’s classic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953), Ankersmit observes that Auerbach’s work provides no general summary or concluding remarks. Thus, he says, “we readers are now obliged to ponder the book’s implications for ourselves.” Fortunately, Ankersmit helps guide that pondering for you and me:
[A]s a good historist Auerbach primarily wants to understand and not to recommend or to condemn. He therefore is ready to discern a sincere and original realism in an impressive variety of literary works culled from three thousand years of efforts to depict what the world and the human condition is like. And this is, perhaps, the explanation of why neither in this book nor in any other publication did Auerbach attempt to develop some general insights into the nature of realism. Realism only exists for him in the many variants in which it has shown itself in the course of the long history investigated in this book; all that we can meaningfully do is tell the narrative of its history.
Before I discuss this, here are two quick and fun observations. First, for a scholar of fiction to recognize that verisimilitude is conditioned strikes me as proper historical relativism. (NB: “Historical Relativism” is not ideological relativism; rather, it refers to the recognition of contextual differences in past situations.) Second, that last sentence in particular reminds me of Vanhoozer's synopsis of Ricoeur's answer to Kant, and of Carlyle's maxim, "History is the essence of innumerable biographies." At any rate, watching Ankersmit apply historical insights to Auerbach's chronological survey of western literature is a special treat which I hope you can enjoy and appreciate.

Now, sublime joy aside, there are points to be made.

First, it is experientially true that some (usually basic) concepts can only be learned through extensive sampling of differentiated exemplars. For one example, you did not learn basic quantifiable values by reading arabic numerals but rather by comparing different quantities of similar items (over and over and over). Likewise, you did not generalize the shape of human faces until you had seen many different human faces. In contrast, there are other (frequently complex) concepts which are more easily introduced through discourse. The ratio of a circle's circumference to its own diameter ("Pi") can be proven or derived by examining actual circles, but this is unnecessary for internalizing the concept, and for most students one demonstration on any given circle is adequate for the lesson. The concept of Pi is universal and abstract, but actual quantities (not the abstraction of "quantities" as universal concepts) are always varying and particular.

Theology, for another example, often focuses on universal abstractions.

Human experience, on the other hand, is usually differentiated by particulars.

Despite Ankersmit's admiration for the lack of a summative synopsis, he defines Auerbach's subtitle ("The Representation of Reality") by describing its goal. In the excerpt above, Ankersmit calls literary "Realism" an effort “to depict what the world and the human condition is like.” But even in this working definition, the point remains that representation requires particularity. Any proper study of Realism can only be a survey because the poetic power of language is indefinably magic. Instead of giving us "a general theory of realism," Auerbach’s “variety of literary works” each construct their own variants of realism, each particular in its own ways.

Realism requires particularity because particularity is the nature of human experience. If I tell you a story, I may or may not also give it my slant, but the primary goal of describing events is always to represent those (reported, vicarious, or hypothetical) events. However one tries to abstractify "narrative," proper narratologists must always return to narratives in actual practice. Each written narrative necessarily defines its own particular story, its own dynamic world, its own set of ostensible claims.

It is axiomatic that critical judgment can only address the particulars of whatever is being examined. Thus, when historians read narrative texts their first duty is to tentatively, hypothetically reify the world of the story. The same goes for scholars of literature. (NB)


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