Science 1, Realism 0

I’ve been reading Tom Jones, which is probably today most known for, if anything, a somewhat quaint 18th century salaciousness. But like Lolita, there is a very learned intention behind the scandal. It is probably one of the first novels in English to overtly propound realism in fiction (by overtly I mean directly, in little essays at the beginning of each section).

Two hundred years of indoctrination have dulled our awareness of just how paradoxical the claim of verisimilitude in fiction is. After learning Jamesian distinctions between “specific” and “general” truths in literature classes most of us probably didn’t even feel any conscious violation of our basic categories of truth and falsehood in this. This may be because it seemed like merely an abstruse historical controversy, as the dogma of realism is taken less seriously these days. But in any case, that claim of truth for a genre which is by definition unreal on the factual level is just that-a violation.

It is probably true that to insist on some sort of rigorous factuality in literature would be to grossly mistake its true value and strengths. But I do not particularly buy the aforementioned distinction between “specific” and “general” truth, with literature staking just as firm of a claim to truth as any other discipline, but on a general rather than specific level. For the so-called “general” truth typically (this is certainly true in Tom Jones) seems to consist of subjective interpretation, such as matters of character or ethics, rather than objective facts. Which is fine, but it tends to negate (or rather evade) any objective distinction between truth and falsehood. As the scientific method demonstrates, warring general interpretations are often irresolvable; it is only through prediction of specific facts that theories are ultimately delineated. Fiction, by remaining in the realm of the hypothetical, claims freedom from fidelity to specific facts, but cannot regain the trustworthiness that that fidelity implies, or the respect that prediction of new facts brings.

What any of this matters is debateable. Since most people don’t take novelistic claims of veracity all that seriously anyway, probably not terribly as far as readers are concerned. But maybe it pertains more to the writing than to the reading of fiction. A writer really attuned to the diversity and mutitudinousness of the world has to be aware of the fallibility and the non-universality of all interpretations. Hopefully, this might have the additional benefit of dampening the academic pretensions of fiction writers, and turning them back towards their entertainment function (and also, perhaps, a sort of moral pedagogical function, as Fielding definitely claims for himself in Tom Jones). But even in the realm of theory, I think an awareness of the essential difference between fact and theory will ultimately lead to a greater awareness of plurality and diversity at the level of the intellect and spirit, a realization to which science, surprisingly, has greatly contributed.

To summarize: the pretensions of realim have been largely discredited by an awareness of how suspect interpretations are objectively when unconnected to any specific factual content (as fiction by definition is). Therefore, writers ought to carry on their projects of entertaining and inspiring in the awareness of their own subjectivity.

2 Responses to “Science 1, Realism 0”

  1. shonk Says:

    Therefore, writers ought to carry on their projects of entertaining and inspiring in the awareness of their own subjectivity.

    Isn’t that the whole conceit of post-modernism/metafiction?

    Okay, maybe you have to leave out words like “entertaining” and “inspiring”, but still.

  2. Curt Says:

    Right, but a) I was critiquing realism, not post-modernism and b) you’ve just answered the question as to why the average “metafiction” is not a very good solution to the realist conundrum. While post-modernists may be free of realist dogma (usually), they still labor under the Romantic illusion that whatever they, as the divinely inspired artist, have to say will be, or at any rate should be, infinitely interesting to the lowly audience. The result is of course usually extremely self-indulgent. As a matter of fact, the only reason I felt a critique of realism to be at all pertinent at this point is that a number of writers have been trying to revive realism as part of a reaction against post-modernism. It’s sort of like a bunch of physicists deciding that quantum physics is just too damn messy, and that they are therefore going heneforth embrace the classical elegance and predictability of classical mechanics.

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