25 February 2008

The Ghost in the Wood(s)

In "A Brief History of Consciousness," the sixth chapter of How Fiction Works, James Wood traces the evolution of fictional characterization from King David in the Old Testament to Shakespeare's Macbeth to Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. The differences lie in their respective audiences: David—the god, to whom the psalms and prayers are addressed; Macbeth—the audience, to whom the soliloquies; Rasky—the readers, to whom his interior is revealed over the course of the book. It is, in other words, a descent into subjectivity.

I return to Wm. Gass. In his book Finding a Form, in the essay "The Book as a Container of Consciousness" he explains:
..the consciousness contained in any text is not an actual functioning consciousness; it is a constructed one, improved, pared, paced, enriched by endless retrospections, irrelevancies removed, so that into the ideal awareness which I imagined for the poet, who possesses passion, perception, thought, imagination, and desire and has them present in amounts appropriate to the circumstances—just as, in the lab, we need more observation than fervor, more imagination than lust—there is introduced patterns of disclosure, hierarchies of value, chains of inference, orders of images, natures of things. ...It remains for the reader to realize the text, not only by reachieving the consciousness some works create (since not all books are bent on that result), but by appreciating the unity of book/body and book/mind that the best books bring about...[pp. 348,351]

The notion of "character" is at the bottom of Wood's inquiries in this book. He believes they have some 'reality', some 'truth' somehow. Clearly, he doesn't believe that fictional characters are flesh-and-blood entities and he doesn't believe we should judge them by whether we would want to have them as friends—that may be the case with memoir and autobiography, those popularity contests that now predominate the booklists. Obversely, he doesn't believe they are merely 'men made out of words'; their reality is more substantive somehow.

Maybe, they're zombies. Maybe not, since zombies, by all accounts, seem to have bodies. They're more akin to ghosts: identities without bodies. Disembodied consciousnesses. These are the sorts of things you have to believe in if you hold any sort of religious belief. The idea of the 'soul' as some sort of eternally-existing individuated entity is fundamental to the religious delusion. The 'soul delusion' necessarily precedes the 'god delusion'.

If, like this blog, you take an agnostic approach to such matters, you find yourself in disagreement with a fundamental philosophical position of Wood. The mechanistic view of 'soul' or 'mind' is that there is no such thing absent the 'body' or the 'brain'. They are functions of complex neuronal activity, which itself is a function of genetic attributes, etc., etc. And it is the utmost hubris to assume either of the former [soul, mind] exists absent the platform provided by the latter [body, brain]. By analogy, it would seem folly to assume that the consciousness or the character or the reality or the truth of fiction—as Wood would have it—can exist apart from the form of fiction or apart from the textual words in which they are presented.

I don't want to get too analytical here, but I think it bears exploring. Now, we can say of the current President of the U.S.: "George Bush has beady eyes." All good fiction readers know how to interpret the connotations of such a statement and may or may not agree. And anyone who knows what beady eyes look like can then go to a picture of President Bush, or indeed examine the man himself, and determine for themselves whether it is true. There may be disagreement in the interpretation, but we have a way of testing that statement's truth or falsity, or at least a common ground for argument.

However, if I say of the fictional Thane of Caldor "Macbeth has beady eyes," there's no real way to verify or falsify that statement—short of a pronouncement to that effect in the Shakespearean text. The only thing we can know about Macbeth is what we are given. But, that begs the question of realism here. What is it, in fact, that we are given?

What we are given is something like a model. This model is presented to us in the same words and language we would use to describe a real flesh-and-blood person's character. It's just that the flesh-and-blood part doesn't exist. The language fools us. Indeed, it deludes us (however usefully). It makes us believe this character is real and elicits responses from us as if this character were real. We see the character in action, we see the character carrying out his/her routines, we see the character responding to certain situations, we see the character making certain decisions. Often, depending on the book's POV, we see the character's limitations, we understand his/her current state of knowledge, we recognize his/her flaws. And, with certain exceptions, we see the changes the character goes through over a period of time (or their refusal to change). That is art.

And the question of how this art works is the question Wood is proposing to answer in his book. Yet, I don't see how he can quite accomplish what he sets out to do if he truncates his analysis at the purported middle-ground of 'realism' or 'truth'. His analysis does not give us an account of the forms of fiction, of narrative (in the technical sense), of dialogue, of action, of story, of plot, or, for that matter, of dramatic structure. He stops short of showing us how these tools and techniques work together to achieve this illusion of reality, this illusion of character, this illusion of truth to which he stubbornly clings.

1 comment:

NigelBeale said...

Interesting post Jim.

I suppose Wood could have written a much longer book, covering the traditional points...and perhaps he could have muzzled the publicity types who so hyped this book...my expectations weren't evidently as high as yours and others...I see the book as an effective, characteristically beautifully written and argued book on How Realism Works...understanding this, is for Wood at least, understanding How Fiction Works...