The Adventure of Fiction
Why do people read fiction? Why does anyone have anything to do with any kind of imaginative art, for that matter?
A very practically-minded visitor from another world would understand our need for instruction manuals, technical documents, how-to-do books and so on. It’s important to know what one is doing in a huge range of human activities, from driving a car to programming a computer, or from performing a medical operation to baking bread. These things obviously lead to a better, fuller and more efficient life, and their removal would paralyse humanity to a great degree.
But what would happen if we removed all the imaginative work created by human beings? If, overnight, every book, every piece of music, every aesthetically designed building, every play, every poem, every song -in short, the entire world’s creative output- vanished? Would not the paralysis be even more profound?
Whatever humanity is, this thing which it calls Art is clearly as much a part of it as its internal organs. It’s almost possible to imagine a world without Art, yes - as long as we recognise that that piece of imagining is itself a artistic act.
It’s self evident that every culture in the world, then, is built around what might be called an almost obsessive preoccupation with imaginative creations of one kind or another, and it is also self-evident that Art cannot be removed from humanity without making it inhuman.
In two books in particular, Anatomy of Criticism by Northrop Frye, written in 1957, and in The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, 2004, it is not only shown that Literature as a form of Art is a cohesive, self-contained expression of something, but that it actually might have an overall external psychological purpose, possibly related to the very presence of humanity on this planet. There are a host of other works, too, which explore the innermost meanings of imaginative literature and strive to encapsulate what fiction ‘actually’ means as a body of work. Their conclusions are various, but most are highly convincing. Whether literature is an ongoing method whereby human beings come to terms with their psychological place in the universe, or whether it is a refracted version of a higher truth, or whether it is something else entirely, there do seem to be certain patterns in common within it.
When we are first struck by an idea, especially a similarity between things which we had not thought to compare before, it seems as though we have found a clue to something vitally important. Like a trail of coins which eventually leads to the dragon’s hoard at the back of the cave, or like Ariadne’s thread which Theseus used to find his way back out of the labyrinth, patterns in stories hint at something, something which has a shape, though the shape might be too large or too obscure or too dim for us to make out immediately. The hint of that shape is exciting. When we realise that we have discovered something startlingly structured about one of humanity’s chief activities, in this case the creation of fictional tales - hidden structure which extends not only outwards to eventually embrace all kinds of things which at first it seemed to exclude, but also pervades the inner composition of a work, right down to the pattern of sentences and use of language - we can be forgiven for believing that something profound has been revealed about the world as a whole, not only literature.
As a matter of fact, the revelation is so large and irrefutable that it can be of the same magnitude as a religious revelation or even a mystical experience. Mystics and visionaries claim to have glimpsed something beyond the Veil of the mortal world, even if briefly; they have stood in the Light that shines beyond the stars. While the humble student of literature cannot claim to have shared such a vision, the quality of the experience is similar: there is a Light which shines beyond Literature which can be glimpsed in a similarly overwhelming and ecstatic way.
It’s not quite like discovering that secret handbook of writing principles that great authors have passed down through the ages - that would be merely another technical manual like the computer instructions or the Highway Code. It’s more like stepping onto another plane of operation or perception. The fact that this exteriorisation is possible in the very wide but essentially finite world of literature suggests, by a process of harmonics, that it might be possible in the wider but perhaps nevertheless finite world in which we eat and breathe.
Many paradoxes are thrown up in that process, and perhaps it engenders more questions than it can provide answers.
For example, as Frye says, 'The romance [by which he means the Epic story] is nearest of all literary forms to the wish fulfilment dream, and for that reason it has socially a curiously paradoxical role.' This is demonstrably true to the degree that one can take instances of the romance and show that 'the essential element of plot in romance is adventure, which means that romance is naturally a sequential and processional form'. But which comes first, our idea of adventure, or our stories about it? Do we define Romance as ‘a sequential and processional form’ because of our life’s experience of adventure? Or, when something adventurous happens in life, are we calling it ‘adventurous’ because it has those qualities which we have called adventurous based on certain stories we have read?
But Frye also says, 'The complete form of the romance is clearly the successful quest, and such a completed form has three main stages: the stage of the perilous journey and the preliminary minor adventures; the crucial struggle, usually some kind of battle in which either the hero of his foe, or both, must die; and the exaltation of the hero'. It’s a good definition, there’s nothing wrong with it - but we have to ask why is this the form of the Quest? Is there an alternate form? And why does this form pervade so much literature that we note it by its absence to the degree that a story which is not a quest story may depend entirely for its resonance on that Quest template’s absence? Compare The Odyssey with Joyce’s Ulysses, for example - one is the basic blueprint of the Quest, the other the opposite. But the opposite would not be opposite of anything were there not a blueprint to oppose in the first place. Had Joyce come first, and somehow managed to write his book, would Homer have followed eventually with its opposite and written his epic poem? Can the structure that we will call Epic be extracted from the lack of structure which we will call Irony? Or does one have to come first and the other follow?
Answering those questions has implications for the field of literature and outside it.
Here’s another example, from Frye: 'A quest involving conflict assumes two main characters, a protagonist or hero, and an antagonist or enemy'. It certainly seems so. But which is the hero, which the enemy? And if one is removed, do we have a story? Or are we so attuned to the presence of both that, if we removed one or the other, our expectations as readers or as an audience would be for the other to appear - and if no such appearance was forthcoming, would we not seek it out or even create it for ourselves out of whatever raw material was at hand, whether in the work or outside it?
Frye says 'We have distinguished myth from romance by the hero's power of action: in the myth proper he is divine, in the romance proper he is human.' Are the two so easily separated in our minds? Is not part of the power of myth the fact that the protagonist resembles us to some degree? Is not part of the power of romance the fact that the protagonist possesses god-like attributes to some extent?
These are the questions explored - and to some extent answered - in the book How Stories Really Work and in articles on this blog. Stay tuned for more!