20 March 2008

Fiction: The Art of Consciousness

A contribution to the ongoing blogland discussion concerning the nature of fiction appears in this week's The New Yorker here. Jill Lepore uses fiction and memoir (faked and real) as the sounding board for understanding "what makes a book a history?"

Lepore, I believe, misunderstands fiction. She says: "Fiction, in other words, can do what history doesn’t but should: it can tell the story of ordinary people." As she acknowledges, this view is a bit outdated because much current history is precisely the study of private life. But, her equation is at the level of story: history and fiction tell stories about people, great and small. This is a shallow view of fiction. Sure, history can tell stories about events—how they happened, why they happened, what their consequences were, etc. And fiction can tell similar stories, the only difference being that the fictional stories are putatively made up.

However, as a historian, the writer cannot enter into the consciousness of his subject. The historian cannot say how richly succulent the juice from the veal loin Henry IV ate the night he learned of Richard II's death tasted as it dribbled down his chin. The historian cannot say how delicious Cleopatra's wet sex smelled to Marc Antony as their boat sailed down the gentle Nile on a warm summer evening. The historian cannot say how the point of the ice axe felt as it entered Trotsky's head. Nor can the historian say what Shakespeare's voice sounded like as he intoned his lines on the stage of the Globe theater. And, lastly, the historian cannot tell us what Marie Antoinette last saw in the vulgar crowd as the guillotine lopped her head into the waiting basket. The historian can tell us that these things happened and give us some background facts, but she cannot imagine us into the consciousness of historical persons, great or small. That is the sole province of the writer of fiction, the artist of consciousness.

2 comments:

Lloyd Mintern said...

That is quite a degraded list of things that (supposedly) fiction can achieve!

Where did you get the idea that Shakespeare acted in his own plays?

Jim H. said...

Fair question, Lloyd.

The list is simply meant to be illustrative—though it is does sort of grab you, doesn't it? The idea that the emotions of the characters flows directly from their experience and is often best illustrated through the use of sensory impressions is not unique to me.

As for Wm. S., I assumed it was common knowledge he was an actor in a troupe that performed his work. See, e.g., http://www.william-shakespeare.org.uk/william-shakespeare-actor.htm:

"It is also assumed that he played smaller roles in a variety of his own plays, including As You Like It (Adam), Macbeth (King Duncan), Henry IV (King Henry), and Hamlet (Hamlet's father)

Shakespeare's first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, referred to a role by William Shakespeare as "the Ghost in his own Hamlet" and that he was "the top of his performance""

Best,
Jim H.