Politics of Fiction
At the end of Mimesis, Erich Auerbach, a sagacious fellow little given to grandiloquent declarations, praises a book that represented for him not only the supreme coronation of Western literature, but the promise of “a common life of mankind on earth” as well. There is no lack of books in position to dredge the depths of a mutating society’s tormented yearnings, though the one Auerbach chooses seems a long way off from being able to manage this. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse takes place entirely within a family circle in an island summer home. The passage Auerbach comments on describes a domestic detail that could hardly be less significant: Mrs. Ramsay knits a pair of stockings for the son of the lighthouse keeper, having her own son try them on first for size.
How might the future of humanity be announced in the summer evening of some petit bourgeois family? Two chapters earlier, Auerbach defines the essence of realism in the modern novel, arguing its only possibility was to represent man fully engaged with the political, economic and social reality of the world, in plenteous evolution. Yet it seems that over the course of two chapters this global reality has slipped away, and with it, it would seem, the sequenced chain of events found at the very core of novelized action. Is this not the twinned loss denounced in the 1930s by György Lukács? What were understood as “complete personalities” and their confrontations, by means of which Balzac revealed the influence of capitalism on the society of his time, gave way to the “still lifes” of Zola, where the stages of social process are described, one after another, as inert facts, before finally coming with James Joyce to the extreme of fragmented experience, transforming the inner lives of characters “into something static and reified.”
Is this not the path Auerbach pursues in his transit from Le Père Goriot to To the Lighthouse? A path in turn setting itself apart from the constructed agency of fictional intrigue and the common life of men? Auerbach, in spite of this, gives this question (and the suspicion of “apoliticism” it bears) a reply that ends up breaking the deck: Virginia Woolf’s micro-tale does not detour us from the affairs of the human community, pointing the ways instead to what is to come. It does this, however, not in spite of but precisely because it is able to wipe out this arrangement of actions upheld until then as the very principle of fiction: “What takes place here in Virginia Woolf’s novel is precisely what was attempted everywhere in works of this kind (although not everywhere with the same insight and mastery) – that is, to put the emphasis on the random occurrence, to exploit it not in the service of a planned continuity of action but in itself.”
It is an extraordinary affirmation: the supreme conclusion of Western realist fiction is the destruction of this “planned continuity of action” that seems to be the most basic condition of all fiction. It is the privilege it concedes to random occurrence, which he also calls the random moment. How might this conclusion be interpreted in the form of radical destruction? And how might the reign of the random occurrence presage a new common life on earth? Auerbach does not respond except with banal observations on the content of such random occurrences, including “the elementary things which men in general have in common.” Yet he has said enough beforehand so as to help us understand that the common feature in play in the random moment does not correspond to the content of time, but to its very form. If there is such thing as a politics of fiction, it does not come from the way it represents the structure of society and its conflicts; nor does it emerge from the sympathy it might arouse for the oppressed, or the energy it is able muster in taking on oppression. It arises instead from that very thing determining it as fiction: the way of identifying events and linking them to one another. At the heart of the politics of fiction is the treatment of time.
The question, after all, has been well enough known since antiquity, having been formulated in exemplary fashion in the ninth chapter of Aristotle’s Poetics, where he explains why poetry is more philosophical than history. The reason is that poetry (understood here not as the musicality of verse but as the construction of fictional intrigue) tells us how things might come about, the way they might happen as a consequence of their very own possibility, while history in contrast can only tell us how one thing happens after another, in empirical succession. Tragic action thus shows us the necessary or plausible thread of events by which men move from ignorance to knowledge and from fortune to misfortune. Little difference does it make which men we are speaking of, indeed, as long as they are “renowned and high-standing.” To go from fortune to misfortune you must belong to that group of men whose actions depend upon the whims of fortune. In order to put up with such tragic mischance, brought about not by some fatal vice but by error alone, you must be one of those people allowed to make errors, able to set out for yourself grand designs – and then err in calculating the measure of your action. The poetic rationality of the necessary or plausible thread of events is applied to those men we call active, because they live in the time of aims. We are speaking of those for whom action can be proposed, but also where such a proposition in and of itself might constitute that privileged form of inaction known as leisure. This time is clearly in opposition to the time of men we know as passive or mechanical, not because they do not do anything, but because their entire activity is closed off inside a circle of resources centred on the most immediate will to survival, where inaction is nothing but that necessary rest taken between two energy-expending experiences.
Constructed fiction is more rational than the empirical reality described, and this superior status corresponds to that of one temporality over another. These two Aristotelian theses are fused for the period the dominant rationality of fiction lasts. Yet the merger is made on the basis of a hierarchy that did not need to be discussed, since it pertained to those evident realities that structure the world: the hierarchy of life forms that distinguish “active” from “passive” men in the same way they inhabit time, by means of the palpable setting of their activity and inactivity. Yet we may ask: has not this hierarchy of temporalities sustaining fictional rationality been destroyed by the modern state? Has not Marxism turned the game on its head? With it, the dark world of the production and reproduction of life becomes precisely the world of causal rationality. It is history, defined on the basis of its essence (the production of material life), that opposes its rationality to the arbitrary arrangements of fiction, which opens the future of a humanity without hierarchies to those that take advantage of its laws. Still, reversing an oppositional contrast means upholding its terms and the very structure of the relationship. The science of history has taken up the hierarchy of time on its very own. This science is clearly no longer the ultimately useless knowledge that tragic heroes discovered all too late, in the moment they found themselves tumbling from fortune to misfortune. Instead it gives to whoever possesses it a vision of the linked thread of causes and the tools to adjust resources to propositions, doing so by once again opposing the time of active men, the time of linked causes, to the time of passive men, whose mental concerns require them to live inside the cave where things only appear one after another, in a contiguity that puts nothing in order but the very mirages of ideology.
As a kind of narrative, the science of history is still Aristotelian. Thus in a fully natural way, where literary fiction is taken into consideration, it matches its reasons with those of the old fictional hierarchy. That is precisely what Lukács does when he compares the time of the authentically realist novel, that of “complete personalities” who in pursuing their own ends at their own risk reveal to us the structure of social reality and of historical evolution, to successive time, the reified time of the still lives of the naturalist novel or the Joycean fragmentation of experience. This very complicity is foreseen by Auerbach in spite of the “serious realism of modern times”, representing man as “committed to a global, economic and social reality in constant evolution.” This continually evolving reality perhaps does little more than constantly reproduce the separation between those who live in the time of causes and those who live in the time of effects. Thus the examples illustrating his ideas are in every case counter-examples, places and moments where this evolution seems to be suspended: the secluded dining room in the Pension Vauquer, in Le Père Goriot; the tedious evening meals at the la Mole palais, in The Red and the Black; or the damp quarters where meals are taken in Madame Bovary. Still, this contradiction has its logic: “serious realism” is also and above all that puts paid to the longstanding divide whereby representation of the humblest human beings was reserved for minor genres, such as comedy and satire, whereas now they become subjects fully capable of the deepest, richest emotions. This is also what we see symbolized by Julien Sorel, the carpenter’s son making his assault on social hierarchy, and by Emma Bovary, the farmer’s daughter striving to conquer ideal passions, both of them “serious” unto death – for it is death that will eventually castigate their will to live another life, quite apart from the one set aside for people of their condition. Here though, living another life means, first of all, inhabiting another time. In entering such a time, tedium is the toll one must pay. It is the experience of empty time, usually quite unknown to those whose everyday experience is split between the work they need to live by and restorative repose. This is why experience of it is not just frustrating but an accomplishment as well, as it represents a transgression of the line dividing humans into two categories, in function of their ways of inhabiting time.
This division does not vanish with productive work and global social reality, but rather, quite the contrary, with their suspension, with the entrance of any individual into the empty time drawing itself out in a world of unbeknownst passions and sensations. We refer to feelings unknown to those reckless individuals who fly and live too close to the sun, but also to that fiction that encounters a fully new way of time: a temporal mesh where the rhythms are no longer defined by temporary goals, by actions seeking to fulfil them, by obstacles setting them back – but by bodies moving in the rhythm of time, by hands wiping condensed breath off window panes to watch the falling rain, by heads titled in rest, by arms let fall, by familiar and unfamiliar faces peering out from behind windows, by steps that can be heard or not (in a fleeting melody), by minutes slipping one past another and merging in nameless emotion. This is the time of Emma Bovary, with Auerbach extracting the celebrated mealtime from out of her day. An exasperating time for the heroine of the novel, who does not know what awaits her, nor that this very fact of unknowing will be in and of itself a new form of pleasure. In any case, this is a new time for fiction, freed from so much waiting (which we know too well), introduced instead into the infinite multiplicity of minuscule sensations and nameless emotions that the lives extracted from the hierarchy of temporalities are comprised of.
This is clearly the path that uproots the fictional democracy of almighty History, there where the science of history saw it naturally set off in relation to the world of tangible micro-events. The democratic revolution of fiction does not involve some great invasion of the masses onto the stage of history. As happens in any revolution, it has to do instead with the movement by which those who were nothing become everything. And becoming everything, in the fictional order, means turning into the very fabric within which (by the very weave of which) events uphold each other. The great revolution Auerbach points to, without offering details, takes place when the fabric holding all events together is the same one making it possible for events to make their way to those men and women to whom nothing should ever come, condemned to live in the limbo of reproductive time, in the cave where things just happen. The random moment does not simply pertain to those essential activities all human beings are bound to deliver themselves up to. What is more, the promise of humanity found in random moments in Virginia Woolf does not depend on what is going on in the world at that same time, women knitting and taking care of their children.
The random moment is not, in fact, random at all. Surely it could come about in any moment, due to any insignificant circumstance. It is also the decisive moment, the moment of balance that finds a place for itself at the very threshold between nothing and everything. “It was nothing. Just sound”, says Faulkner, when writing in The Sound and the Fury of the whining complaints of Benjy, the “idiot”. Yet immediately this nothing becomes quite everything: “It might have been all time and injustice and sorrow become vocal for an instant by a conjunction of planets.” The story of Benjy would not be much indeed, if all it had to do was illustrate that famous phrase from Macbeth about a tale full of sound and fury, told by an idiot. When the sound of idiocy becomes the voice of injustice, it does so to confront the irascible temperament of the reasonable man, in this case Jason, his manipulative brother, who is all bound up in the economy of the world with his petty speculative ploys, just waiting for the moment he will finally be able to send the idiot to the asylum. Yet the writing of the novel is there precisely to delay that moment indefinitely, spreading out this “random moment” over a continuum, where the nothing of Benjy’s whimpering becomes the very everything of time, injustice and pain.
To be hanging here on the limb, where lives fallen into abject nothingness are upraised to a total reality of time and injustice, is perhaps the deepest politics literature can engage in. We would love to see the combatants sent out to battle, going along with the victorious movement of the historical process. Yet perhaps literature perceives that history goes about betraying its promises and changing the victors’ names, and that its task is precisely to put a halt to these victories, keeping itself on out there where the division between passive and active human beings is disputed. An affair of words, like everything separating out the sound of the voice. Interpreting the world when the point is to change it. Perhaps it senses too that the contrast of the two opposing sides is in itself an interpretation, an affair of words, carried out to confirm that there is a time for passive humans and a time for active humans. It is not then a question of fiction against reality, but of fiction against fiction, two contrasting ways of constructing common time, in the very heart of which the landscape of the visible unfolds. There is fiction of global process where everybody and every thing is in its place, from the centre where the winners live to the peripheries where the retarded and mentally ill are left to rot, in recondite hovels where the vanquished are made to wallow away. There is fiction of the edge of nothing and of everything, where this order of global social reality is reduced to the arbitrary nature of interpretation: precisely what Jason the little manipulator is left to do.
This battle of fictions does not pertain to men of letters. Quite the contrary: it takes place wherever the framework of what constitutes shared reality must be played out. In the summer of 1936 the Fortune commissioned James Agee, then a young journalist, to do a report on how the shareholders of Alabama were handling the Depression. The usual way of responding to this kind of assignment is well known. It commonly involves taking minor, unimportant details that simply offer evidence, and matching them to the signs that give it all meaning. That is, it involves consensus, meaning keeping a balance between what has been witnessed of hardships suffered and the signs proving these same folk have been able to adapt (as they are wont to do), with resignation and resourcefulness. In this way everything stays in order and reality looks just how it should. But James Agee did something else. By day, he emptied out all the drawers, showing the full-fledged reality of a way of living in the world in every clothespin, in every bit of cloth. By night, he listened to the breathing of those asleep, perceiving in this imperceptible flow of air not just the pause that follows the tiring challenges of the day, but the injustice of all those lives that could have been saved. Agee associated this breath to the sounds of the night engulfing everything, to the multiplicity of lives that breathe everywhere and all at once, to the sweetness and violence of the starry sky, to cosmic respiration. In this way he constructed the “conjunction of planets” that extracts these lives from the similitude of social reality and the necessities of globalized time, giving a voice to a totality of “time and injustice and sorrow”. In times of the victors, of this never-ending, horizontal time decried today as “globalization”, literature provides the contrast of a shredded time, run through at all times by these points raising any sort of nothing to the very heights of everything. Something we might call a time of the unvanquished.
© Jacques Rancière
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