Head Dust


WRITING ABOUT NOT WRITING #2: On the Problem of Detail

When we read fiction we assume that each detail is evidence of the author’s intention. We assume that the author must be using the detail to communicate something that is beyond the detail and that this something is somehow conveyed by the detail or by the accumulation of details (perhaps through metaphor, emotional suggestion or exemplary didaction [1]). If the detail were there only to give evidence of the suchness of itself, merely to describe something which does not exist, it would not be very interesting (and the author’s motives or sanity would perhaps be suspect). In fiction, detail is meaning’s paydirt. [2]

But in actuality (sometimes misleadingly called ‘reality’) we know that details carry no intrinsic meaning, that the contents of the world in which we live are not put there in order to be evidence of the intention of someone beyond them. When our deep ancestors began to think of things as entities they could isolate conceptually and interact with usefully, they accorded them an immanence, a will, a capriciousness or generosity which they sought to influence by practices that became habituated as magic. As the power to control the actual became more concentrated, immanence gave way to transcendence: the details of actuality became a message from a god or gods, a ‘text’, which could be ‘read’ by those who wielded the perceived ability to do so. But of course, it is we who have projected meaning onto the world, just as it is we who differentiate entities in that which is without entities, so either I must say “it is sunny because I am happy” and treat all details as evidence of my own mentality (the tendency towards this extreme is surprisingly widespread, although it is incompatible with sanity if I live in a world that contains more than one mind), or I must say “I am happy because it is sunny” and recognise that the sunniness does not depend on me (though the idea of sunniness might), that the sunniness is not a message from anyone beyond this world, that the sunniness is not an expression of the benignity of the weather or the world towards me, but that sunniness is without meaning or message or emotional colour: it just is.

We accept (most of us) that we live in a world without transcendent control or intrinsic meaning, but why do we still have transcendent literature? Isn’t this regressive? How can we tolerate fictional worlds in which the characters and events are entirely at the whim and mercy of an author? What is the use of a world in which the characters are seen to live and act as if unaware of the author who in fact controls every detail of their lives? [3]

In the world of the fictional character the author and the reader do not exist, and a particular set of details are true. In the world of the author and the reader, the character and the set of details are recognised as fictitious, and yet the world of the fictional character is contained within the world of the author and the reader, and so the world in which the set of details are true and in which the author and the reader do not exist is able to be experienced by the author and the reader [4]. In their little game of “as if” the author and the reader have a dual consciousness, both immersing themselves and observing that into which they cannot be immersed.

Perhaps we should recognise that any idea we have of our world (‘actuality’ with all its ‘entities’) is also a game of “as if” and that there is something about consciousness which makes us both authors and readers of the world as we think it to be. Perhaps fiction is important to us partly because it exercises that dual consciousness which is appropriate to our existence in a world which we must both observe without being immersed and also be immersed, in which we are entities in a world of entities but must live as if the blind-cane tentativeness of our consciousness were not part of the story.

[1] Neologism for the sake of precision.
[2] Detail does some other things too of course, like calibrate textual time against narrative time, but we'll talk about that some other day perhaps.
[3] If the characters became aware or their fictional nature, or if they came to belive in the author, their world would have begun to collapse.
[4] "There are other worlds, but they are all in this one" - Paul Eluard.

1 comment:

  1. But to be truly free of the burden of meaning that makes a metaphor of entities, we should have to cease thinking of them as entities (that is, to cease thinking of them at all). To give something an identity is to make it a metaphor, to figure it in our interreferential system of metaphors.