26 March 2006

Conceiving possibility

Thanks to Steve Mitchelmore for drawing attention to this marvelous essay by Gabriel Josipovici:
Borges’ fondness for detective stories stems from his dislike for the classical novel. For the detective story, unlike the novel, accepts from the start that the logic of fiction is not the logic of life and that as a fictional construct its prime duty is to be interesting, not realistic. The novel, on the other hand, is a curious hybrid: it wants to assert at one and the same time that it is dealing with life in all its boring contingency, while at the same time telling a story which implies that life has a meaning, is always more than mere contingency. This is the secret of its hold over us, as Sartre, for one, understood so well. We open a novel, Sartre says in La Nausée, and read about a man walking down a road. The man seems free, the future open before him. At once we identify with him, for that is how our own existence seems to be to us. We too are walking down the road of life, not knowing what is to come. But the pleasure of reading a novel stems from the fact that we know that this man is in fact the subject of an adventure that is about to befall him. How do we know this? Because he is there at the start of the novel and he would not be there if nothing were going to happen to him. Thus, Sartre concludes, ‘the end is there, which transforms everything. For us the guy is already the hero of the story.’ The extraordinary power of the novel lies in this, that it makes us feel that our lives are both free and meaningful. It does not say this, for it neither needs to nor is it fully aware of it, but nonetheless that is its essence, the secret of its power.

Borges, like Beckett, dislikes the novel for two reasons, one having to do with literature and the other with life. He dislikes it because he finds it tedious and uninteresting to imitate reality, and he dislikes it because he feels that it propagates a false view of life which stops us seeing what life is really like. [...]

Kierkegaard’s great decade of writing took place exactly a century before Borges’, in the years 1840-50. Nevertheless, the problems he explored were almost identical to those of the Argentinian writer. Kierkegaard is concerned with what he calls ‘actuality’, with the stuff of life as it is lived, and with the way narratives about living, whether they be those of novelists or of a philosopher like Hegel, covertly falsify actuality. ‘“Actuality” cannot be conceived,’ he writes in his notebook for the year 1850. To conceive something is to dissolve actuality into possibility – but then it is impossible to conceive it, because conceiving something is transforming it into possibility and so not holding on to it as actuality.… But there’s this deplorable confusion in that modern times have incorporated ‘actuality’ into logic and then, in distraction, forgotten that ‘actuality’ in logic is still only a ‘thought actuality’, i.e. it is possibility.

Everything would be fine if works of fiction and works like Hegel’s Phenomenology presented themselves as hypotheses, but they do not, they present themselves as actuality. [...]

This helps explain why so many modern writers have been at pains to stress that their fictions are only fictions, not reality. This is not in order to play games with the reader or to deny the world, but on the contrary, out of a deep sense of the wondrous nature of the world and a determination not to confuse the world as it is with the world as we imagine it to be, not to confuse actuality with possibility.
Don't let my obsessive quoting keep you from reading the entire thing. (And you mustn't miss the Wallace Stevens poem at the end.)

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