What’s Hecuba to him?

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?

From Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

Indeed. And, for that matter, what’s Hamlet to us? What’s Desdemona to us, that we should weep for her? What’s Achilles? Or Falstaff, or Sancho Panza, or Emma Woodhouse, or Emma Bovary, or Dorothea Brooke, or Hedda Gabler, or Count Dracula? Made-up names of made-up people. And why should we – fully grown adults, with, presumably, some measure of intelligence – care what happens to made-up  people with made-up names? Is it not – as the made-up Hamlet says – monstrous that we can so force our souls to our own conceit?

Perhaps it is true that fiction is but a childish game, something we should have grown out of, and that failure to do so is merely indicative of immaturity. Perhaps this is why Philip Roth tells us that he no longer reads fiction because, he says, he has “wised up”. The interviewer does not press him on this point, although it is surely worth asking, given Roth has neither repudiated his fiction nor stopped writing it, why he considers himself more “wised up” than his readers. But Roth’s comment is similar to what I have heard from many others: apparently, with age, we grow out of fiction – we grow out of all that stuff about people who never existed and events that never happened. When we read a bit of history, or a bit of science, or a bit of philosophy, we actually learn something: such books are all so much more worthwhile than mere storybooks.

So, is fiction really a leftover from our childish selves, which we put behind us as soon as we “wise up”? It is not, I think, possible to argue against such a claim, any more than it is to argue for it: no real evidence can be produced on either side. But before we join Roth in rejecting fiction, it might be worth considering just what it is that we are rejecting. It is not merely short stories and novels: if fiction is a depiction of invented people and of invented events, then its range includes The Ramayana, The Iliad, The Oresteia, The Commedia, Hamlet, Paradise Lost, and even – why not? – the Bible. That’s quite a lot of substantial literature to leave behind. And the novel and the short story make, I think, equally strong claims. In the last few centuries, prose fiction has, perhaps, established itself as the major literary form: it is not, I think, too far-fetched to claim that some of the most deeply felt, most profound, and most life-enhancing of artistic visions can be found within the pages of Don Quixote, Clarissa, Tristram Shandy, Mansfield Park, Dead Souls, Madame Bovary, Moby-Dick, Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, The Ambassadors, Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, The Trial, and so on, and so forth. And even forgetting for a moment such lofty peaks of achievements as these, would we really want to do without the likes of, say, The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, The Code of the Woosters, Flashman at the Charge? Roth & co may: I certainly wouldn’t.

The question I find more interesting is not so much “Is fiction worthwhile?” (I know from my own personal experience that it is, and that’s good enough for me!), but “Why am I so affected by what I know is merely made up?” Is it merely that I am not “wised up”? Of course, I do not refer to all fiction. Much of fiction nowadays does leave me wondering why the author should expect me to take an interest in these non-existent, made-up people. But that is not the case with the best writers, and everything deserves to be judged at its best: the best authors of fiction, by some magic that cannot be analysed if only because its nature differs from writer to writer, do involve me with their made-up characters; and I can find myself shedding tears at the fate of Desdemona, or feeling the hairs at the back of my neck stand up in terror at the appearance of Peter Quint, even though I know that neither of them has ever existed.

Perhaps there is no clear answer to these questions, except perhaps to say that we are not as rational as we would like to imagine ourselves. The enjoyment of made-up characters and made-up events is as irrational as is the enjoyment of certain arrangements of sounds; but for all that, neither the enjoyment of fiction nor the enjoyment of music can be dismissed: it is enjoyments such as these, irrational though they may be, that make us what we are. And one can only be grateful for that. If we were so rational as to be able to forgo fiction – if we were sufficiently “wised up” – just imagine what we’d have missed! (Although, I must confess, that when I talk about fiction, I’m not entirely sure whether or not to include Holmes and Watson: they existed, goddammit!)

Somewhere in the Spanish town of El Toboso, I believe there exists a museum dedicated to Dulcinea – Dulcinea del Toboso, a character who, even in a fiction, did not exist. But who else has come from the town of El Toboso to compare with the peerless Dulcinea? There are times, as Don Quixote (the creator of Dulcinea, and himself a fiction) well knew, when fiction can be more potent even than life itself. I am sure Philip Roth is well aware of this. And I have no idea why, being aware of it, he should choose to denigrate the very form in which he has himself been so distinguished a practitioner.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on July 9, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    I think it reasonable to assume that Roth is engaging in a bit of schtick.

    Reply

    • Yes, I agree. But even without Roth’s comments, the feeling tends to persist that reading fiction is somehow an irrelevant activity, and teh sort of thing we grow out of with age. In my 50s now, I can see notthe slightest hint in myself of growing out of it!

      Reply

  2. Posted by alan on July 11, 2011 at 12:24 am

    The view often repeated in the UK is that it is males that grow out of reading fiction.
    I suggest one possibility for debate : Boys stop reading fiction when they start to realise that they are not going to be the hero of their story, and other stories stop being a way to process and extract meaning from events in their lives.
    But, even in these supposedly liberated times girls remain aspirational that they will be rescued and therefore will carry on reading tales about the trials and tribulations of alpha males, or women chasing alpha males.
    Of course, the above is a very crude and sexist characterisation of both public taste and most fiction, and it could be that the cessation of reading is due to a lack of an introduction to more powerful material.
    In my case, I am beginning to suspect that I read due to both a lack of religion and a poor understanding of human beings. I read because in the better sort of literature I think that there is still hope to extract meaning and gain some small insight into how you aliens think.

    Reply

    • I think that for most people, the point of reading fiction is to discover what happens next. This is not to be looked down upon, of course – far from it – but if this is all we think fiction can deliver, then it is easy to arrive at the conclusion that fiction is but a means of escaping from our lives rather than of gaining a deeper understanding of it. Thus, the reading of fiction may be seen as essentially a frivolous activity: enjoyable, perhaps, but frivolous nonetheless.

      I think this is how fiction is viewed by most people. And yet, as Anthony Briggs reports in an essay at the end of his translation of War and Peace, the writer Mikhail Prishvin, after reading the novel for the thirteenth time, wrote in his diary that he felt, at last, that he understood his life. I don’t think it is generally acknowledged that mere fiction could have so powerful an effect. Perhaps only those who have experienced such an effect at first hand can acknowledge it: those who think the reading of fiction as essentially a frivolous activity remain at best sceptical, or, more frequently, scoffing.

      I think I agree with you that many do stop reading fiction “due to a lack of an introduction to more powerful material”. But the current state of teaching literature in British schools does not give me any great confidence that things will get better any time soon on this front.

      I find it interesting that one of the reasons you give for reading fiction is “a lack of religion”. It has often been suggested that art (not merely fiction, but also painting, poetry, music, etc.) is filling in the gap that religion previously used to fill (and still does fill) for many – that the arts provide the sort of experience that religion used to provide, and that, despite our rejection of religion, we have not stopped needing the this sort of experience. As I say, do correct me if I have misinterpreted your comment. For religious people, the arts complement their faith; but for the rest of us, it replaces it. I don’t know that I want to follow this thread through much further, because already I am feeling out of my depth.

      As for the other reason you give – “ … [to] gain some small insight into how you aliens think” – in a sense, yes, we are all aliens to each other, since no two people can be exactly alike. But have you never felt while reading something along the lines of “Yes, in that situation, I’d have felt exactly the same thing”? Many readers actually read because they like to identify with characters, and, looking around comments on the net, they often feel cheated when they come across fiction that refuses to allow them any such sense of identification. While I am certainly not suggesting that this is the best way to approach serious fiction, there may, I think, be something to be said for finding in fiction some degree of commonality, some underlying unifying principle that tells us that we are not all of us merely isolated entities.

      Reply

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