Language does not desire to instruct, but to convey to others a subjective impulse and its acceptance. Man, who forms language, does not perceive things or events, but impulses: he does not communicate sensations, but merely copies of sensations. The sensation, evoked through a nerve impulse, does not take in the thing itself: this sensation is presented externally through an image.If we are to consider the relationship of art to truth, then we must be willing to give up the notion that truth is attainable as a thing that can be grasped, held, and cherished. Truth is not a thing. If it were, we would examine an image of truth not truth itself.
Vladimir Nabakov, with his novel Pale Fire, purposefully confuses the relationship between a text as a presentation of a possible thing itself and the image one reader has of it and its author. In his foreword to John Shade’s poem Pale Fire, Charles Kinbote writes as if he knows how Shade intended to end his poem and, therefore, edit it for publication. (This example adds poignancy to my use of Nietzsche above. His later notebooks were turned (tropic, indeed) into Will to Power, a text that misrepresents many of his later ideas and writing.) After Kinbote explains how he believes the poem should have looked like had Shade finished, he writes:
Knowing Shade’s combinational turn of mind and subtle sense of harmonic balance, I cannot imagine that he intended to deform the faces of his crystal by meddling with its predictable growth.Nabakov writing as Kinbote writing on behalf of Shade provides a clue to what a “combinational turn of mind” looks like, but Nabakov doesn’t explain what the turn means. Whatever interpretations readers bring to his novel, the search for a more or less true representation of what is intended by the reading about an author writing about a man editing a poem that all of us readers together read together will only ever increase in complexity. Interpreting our reading of readings is a kind of discourse that refuses to be confined by simple logic. Logic limits discourse to a set of known parameters and accepted constants that always allows us to find any unknown variables on our own.
The discourse of verisimilitude is not containable within any set of parameters. After explaining to his future readers how he thinks Shade would have finished Pale Fire, Kinbote shares with us a recollection of the poet with the note cards on which he wrote drafts of his work:
I recall seeing him from my porch, on a brilliant morning, burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator before which he stood with bent head like an official mourner among the wind-borne black butterflies of that backyard auto-da-fé.As Nietzsche reflects in his lectures from 1872-1873, the thing about language is that it is, like Kinbote, more concerned with translating its impulses and seeking some acceptance for its creative excesses. The truth that Kinbote relays to me lies more in his image of Shade at the incinerator than it does in his knowledge about the facts about Shade’s work. Kinbote’s recollection certainly betrays about his disregard for accuracy; moreover, it illustrates his inability to differentiate between the thing itself and his image of it. (This is, of course, an important issue in literary studies. We all know colleagues who are more interested in the return-of-the-repressed impulses as well as their recollections of reading and learning experiences than they are in giving a good hard look at the discourse itself. In other words, there are those who believe in magic and mysticism and those who study language.)
Kinbote introduces readers to tropics. His foreword and commentary on Pale Fire is a study in tropics. He constitutes that object he claims to discuss realistically and objectively. Hayden White, in his Tropics of Discourse, appeals to us to see discourse as tropical rather than logical because discourse slips from “the grasp of logic [and] constantly ask[s] if logic is adequate to capture the essence of its subject matter” (4). He proposes a turn away from the dialectical—reasoning that is used to determine (over- and under-) what is more or less true—towards the diatactical—reasoning that is as self-critical as it is critical of others, that is critical of “the syntactical middle-ground itself,” and that is willing to doubt all tactical rules “governing its own formation.” Diatactical reasoning demands an acknowledgment that a text is merely a representation; therefore, the correspondence of events to actual truth in any narrative become less important than the art through which the facts that construct the truth are put into action.
Plato explicitly sets truth above representation. Persuasion, as rhetoric, is not capable of telling the truth only presenting the facts according to a style that suits an author’s needs. We may present facts in order to represent truth to others, but this situation relies on the construction of a narrative that depends on verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is quite simply truth-likeness.
We tend to use images of things in correspondence to determine truth. Truth is the relation of X to a picture of X, whatever the nature of X and its picture might be. The Scholastic definition is veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus. (“Truth is the equality of the thing and the mind.” I use a scholastic definition because it leads into my discussion of Stephen Dedalus’s aesthetics of stasis below.) Verisimilitude is a turn of discourse through which authors and readers-- artists and spectators; speakers and listeners—seek adequate apprehension of truth in art so authors can rely on readers accepting their narratives as possible. Verisimilitude in fiction permits authors to face truth authentically without worrying about the facts of the case. Art persuades individuals to challenge their preconceived notions of truth. Art is somewhere between the true and the false.
A text, no matter how close a likeness, always adds or subtracts to what actually happened at any given time; consequently, the relationship of history to the novel is problematic. White argues that “[h]istory came to be set over against fiction, and especially the novel, as the representation of the ‘actual’ to the representation of the ‘possible’ or only ‘imaginable’” (123). I argue that the novel is as much a representation of the actual as the historical can be because both require readers to accept as more or less true the content as it is prior to engaging a text.
Henry James complains that the novel form is asked to apologize and “renounce the pretension of attempting to really represent life” (346). For him, the novel is an “attempt to represent life.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his Preface to The House of the Seven Gables, explains why his work should be considered a romance instead of a novel. He argues the novel form aims at “a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary cause of man’s experience” (vii). In other words, novels use verisimilitude to illustrate moments of believable, ordinary experience. For both Hawthorne and James, then, the novel is always in relation to truth. We might even be convinced to read “minute” not as small or modest, but as precise.
Hawthorne claims the novel is a work of art through which the author exercises choice:
[W]hile, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart [Romance] has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.Novelists attempt to meet specific demands determined by the market and the human heart. Hawthorne’s prose intends to connect a “by-gone time” with a present tale that is by nature fleeting. He claims to leave the significance of the past to the whim of his readers.
His problem and plea are authentic. How can he, using verisimilitude, represent something true about the past through characters living in the present? He uses a haunting, which is precisely the past inhabiting the present. He uses a haunted house, which is precisely the presence of a thing in a place that extends from the past into the future without much expected change, carrying along with it the weight of a deed in history. Hawthorne’s gesture to verisimilitude, his fidelity to moment and truth in his art, exists in his representation of an actual locale—from people, families, and communities to houses, streets, and towns. Readers will evaluate his tale based on the probable likeness of these elements (not the ghost story) in comparison to what they know of similar elements as much as they will evaluate his art.
If the approach to a narrative by author and reader alike is an agreement to work out the likelihood of events taking place or having taken place, then both parties must have reached some agreement about what things should look like and how events should occur. We share an implicit agreement how to properly see things in the world. We expect certain things to appear in certain ways. Such expectation takes a social form and an aesthetic form and both affect the way we relate to supposed truths through art. Our expectations illustrate the important role art plays in the comprehension of truth.
Kate Chopin was ruthlessly criticized for creating Edna Pontellier, who failed to meet her social obligations as a mother and wife. In a “mock-apology” for The Awakening, Chopin claims she “never dreamed of Mrs. Pontellier making such a mess of things.” As Nancy Walker notes, “the reviewers themselves seemed unable to regard Edna as a fictional creation” (Chopin 170). The verisimilitude in The Awakening arouses debate about social issues through its narrative about a woman who doesn’t exist, and exhibits how author and reader can agree to see things similarly and so approach the truth of how things actually are.
The failure to miss Chopin’s point must not be over-determined. Edna Pontellier is as much aesthetic exploration as she is social critique. Until her “awakening,” Edna is always at the whim of powerful, private, and passing impressions:
She slept but a few hours. They were troubled and feverish hours, disturbed with dreams that were intangible, that eluded her, leaving only an impression upon her half-wakened senses of something unattainable.An impression is a passive response to a sensation; in its simplest form, it is a transitory acknowledgment of a state of affairs from a subjective point of view. (I do not wish to complicate my essay and confuse my readers with notions of technical terms from art and art history; so, a little explanation on word choice seems appropriate. I am using impression and expression in the sense that both terms are used in addressing peculiar aesthetic responses. If I were merely speaking of a social form of verisimilitude, then I might make better use of terms like private and public in context with positive communicative acts. As it is, I am not implying anything concerning the history of Impressionism and Expressionism in painting and film in this essay.) Her impressions are undercut through the latter half of the novel when her emotional state is violently altered. Readers are asked to consider (even though they rejected the offer when the book was initially published) Edna’s state of mind from an aesthetic perspective. From subjective and fleeting points of view, Chopin constructs a highly personal and radically different way of looking at everyday reality. In sharp contrast to restless sleep and bad dreams, Edna wakes from a nap with “the conviction that she had slept long and soundly.” She eats and drinks food and wine left for her:
Edna bit a piece from the brown loaf, tearing into it with her strong, white teeth. She poured some of the wine into the glass and drank it down. Then she went softly out of doors, and plucking an orange from the low-hanging bough of a tree, threw it at Robert, who did not know she was awake and up.The narrative itself is now far less concerned with telling a tale than it is in grasping its image for us to hold onto for a while.
Stephen Dedalus discusses just this aesthetic response to the radiance of a thing or event in Part V of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While developing his thesis on “esthetics” to his friend Lynch, Stephen mentions quidditas, the whatness of a thing. Authors not only wish to convey to readers something they will understand because it relates to the truth of things; they desire to convey the “supreme quality” felt when an image is initially conceived in the imagination. Stephen describes this instant as “the clear radiance of the esthetic image…apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness” or “the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, …the enchantment of the heart” (Joyce 231).
We depend on the novel to document reality in a manner that engages reader and author in a conversation about the truth about what happens in a text. Verisimilitude, in this case, is probability. Readers are encouraged to endure moments of stasis in aesthetic pleasure after the manner of an artist’s experience. These moments erupt into the public space of narrative whenever an object radiates through a text in expressionistic descriptions that leave more than a subjective point of view. In this way, the use of verisimilitude runs the risk of straining credulity through its portrayal of an abundance of descriptive detail that may go beyond a reader’s experience (hence, the document.)
Novel moments are often considered self-contained. Carlo Ginzburg, in his study of a sixteenth-century miller, argues that his subject unconsciously placed a screen between himself and the printed page, “a filter that emphasized certain words while obscuring others, that stretched the meaning of a word, taking it out of context.” This screen “leads us back to a culture that is different from the one expressed on the printed page” (33). Ginzburg illustrates the problem a writer encounters during an attempt to recover an oral culture not recorded so that we can, as students of the sixteenth century, know to what extent “we can consider such an unusual figure” typical.
Ginzburg’s problem is engaging. If knowledge and understanding (phronesis) are intuitive paths to familiarize the unfamiliar, then we may be able to use verisimilitude to work out the gaps that exist in such studies. In novels, these problems are allowed space—literally, the production of textual space depends on what needs to be composed and is not limited to what has been recorded—to work themselves out.
In Absalom, Absalom!, Quentin Compson endures Rosa Coldfield’s testimony; he listens to his father fill in the gaps of her tale; he shares the story with his college friend. The discourse of the novel turns on the need for the listener to have specific questions answered, but all originate with the desire of one woman to tell her version of the history of a tragic event. Faulkner refers to Quentin inhabiting a “long unamaze.” For Quentin the tale really has no beginning or end.
It (the talking, the telling) seemed (to him, to Quentin) to partake of that logic- and reason-flouting quality of a dream which the sleeper knows must have occurred, stillborn and complete, in a second, yet the very quality upon which it must depend to move the dreamer (verisimilitude) to credulity—horror or pleasure or amazement—depends as completely upon a formal recognition of and acceptance of elapsed and yet-elapsing time as music or a printed tale.For the narrative to work, for its purpose to be conveyed, it needs more than being told—more than what is being told having already happened. The peculiar state of being for a tale is that, once read, it has always already happened and was always there that way. Rosa’s tale, unlike Faulkner’s novel, lacks verisimilitude; her story is a long unamaze. Quentin isn’t moved by her indictments. Her attempt at documenting history is truly false.
The seeming of a logic- and reason-flouting dream, a tropic dream that participates in verisimilitude, appears to occur instantaneously. Raimundo Silva is a proofreader in José Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon. He takes it upon himself to create a personal relationship with history and its documentation. His comments below sound like a reflection on Faulkner’s narrative point and Quentin Compson’s dilemma:
Why, in this history accepted as being true, must I myself invent another history so that it might be false and false so that it may be different…He realized until he overcame the problem he would make no progress, and was surprised, accustomed as he was to books in which everything seemed fluent and spontaneous, almost essential, not because it was effectively true, but because any piece of writing, good or bad, always ended up appearing like a predetermined crystallisation….Saramago repeats this sentiment throughout his novel: literature already existed before it was born. Verisimilitude, in this case, is a process marked by pre-crystallized moments of time, not simply historical events. If we accept that all accounts are merely perspectives and use verisimilitude as a means to discourse about the object in question—for Raimundo Silva, the history of the siege of Lisbon, for Edna Pontellier, an “awakening,” for Carlo Ginzburg, Menocchio the miller, for Stephen Dedalus, a few sentences from Aristotle in his primer—time becomes a thing that serves a diatactical purpose.
The novel, like history, documents an attitude directing the attention of readers somewhere useful. Daniel Defoe opens A Journal of the Plague Year with a sentiment designed to attenuate how we stretch the screen between his text and his readers (see Ginzburg’s mention of Menocchio’s screen above):
I have set this particular down so fully, because I know not but it may be of Moment to those who come after me, if they come to be brought to the same Distress, and to the same Manner of making their Choice and therefore I desire this Account may pass with them, rather for a Direction to themselves to act by, than a History of my actings, seeing it may not be of one Farthing value to them to note what became of me.And after all, it isn’t of value for us to note what became of the narrator of A Journal. Instead, we still read it for the account of what happened in that moment. In this way, we are directed to read it and other records of that time as representations of what did happen.
Nietzsche heralds a new philosopher who experiments. As Ginzburg notes about his sixteenth-century miller, we cannot know what Menocchio used to interpret the texts and customs he confronted; we can only know what was recorded concerning what he said. In this way, it seems that fiction in whatever form is a discourse that is pre-crystallized. In other words, once written, it is always already there. The reader, then, enters into a discourse with an author about a document’s social and aesthetic forms that, through the author’s use of verisimilitude, may be more or less persuasive. Readers tend to make the mistake that Kinbote does while reading Pale Fire. What is there, in the document, is there and that is the crystallized substance. It isn’t incomplete. To speak about something more is tempting. And what we are tempted to experiment with is not what happened or what will happen. We experiment with the image of things, and as we look at art objects in galleries from different perspectives to get better views, we engage in discourse not for the logical rigor the looking permits, but for the tropical nature of verisimilitude that allows us to behold the pale fire of the thing itself, as it were, vanishing in the flames of an incinerator. We only too happily destroy it.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Ed. Nancy A. Walker. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.
Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. New York: Modern Library, 2001.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage Int’l, 1990.
Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. Trans. John and Anne Tedeschi. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Preface by the Author.” The House of the Seven Gables. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction.” Tales of Henry James. Ed. Christof Wegelin. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1984.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
Nabakov, Vladimir. Pale Fire. New York: Vintage Int’l, 1989.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
_____. Friedrich Nietzsche on Language and Rhetoric. Ed. & Trans. Sander L. Gilman, Carole Blair, and David J. Parent. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
Saramago, José. The History of the Siege of Lisbon. Trans. Giovanni Pontiero. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1996.
White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. 4th ed. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1990.