Metalepsis in Real Time

by Elaine Freedgood

As I’m sure you have all noticed, the world has changed recently, and part of the change is a matter of narration, and specifically, the figure of metalepsis. In Genette’s classic definition, metalepsis is an intrusion of one diegetic level into another, as in Julio Cortázar’s very short story, “A Contiguity of Parks,” in which a character is shot by the murderer in the mystery novel he is reading.  The vertiginous quality of this figure is, ultimately, that we wonder if we ourselves are in the outermost layer of narration, or if someone is actually narrating us.

This last was a purely, or almost purely, theoretical problem until November 9, 2016, worsening considerably on January 20th of the following year. The question of who is narrating, who can narrate, who is a reliable narrator and at what point we are in the outermost diegetic level that we fondly or hopefully think of as reality has become a serious one.  And not least because Kellyanne Conway’s idea of “alternative facts” is not entirely divorced from my own poststructuralist ideas about facts. I often say things in my theory class about the interpretive quality of facts, and I question the transparency of statistics and other so-called (sic sic sic) empirical data.

This has all made me wonder deeply about fiction as a technology that acts on history.  Is it a solvent?  Does fiction denature history to the point that we accept that we don’t and can’t know what happened, even in our own present tense?  And if it does, is there a riposte to this seemingly negative function of fiction, especially the novel, in which fact and fiction rub shoulders hospitably from the very beginning of the novel.

And yet there is a current critical movement that would seem to turn the tide on this torrent: all of the critics working in Thing Theory have perhaps put the final nails in the coffin of the idea of the referential illusion. We let our things refer all they like, and then some.  So the idea of reference has been, to some extent, naturalized. Jami Bartlett’s recent book Object Lessons argues that realist novels are “actually about the many hows of referring, the varieties rather than the essence of referring” (103, author’s emphasis). This is from a discussion of the ordinary language philosopher Gareth Evans, whose Varieties of Reference takes a reasonably relaxed position vis-à-vis reference, having no problem for example with the “reality” of fictional characters. It is probably possible to refer and to fictionalize at the same time, as Bartlett points out: David Copperfield is born in penury and David Copperfield doesn’t exist are not problematic for the philosophers of language she cites.

We can refer to fictional characters, but what about historical characters in fiction?  I’m going to discuss two such people, Jack Palance and William Wordsworth, and I am going to appropriate them for thing theory in the sense that they are nouns, and as famous people they have a celebrity status that perhaps further objectifies them. Roland Barthes called the appearance of famous characters in novels the ultimate reality effect (as long as they stay in the background). But when the rugged and craggy actor Jack Palance makes a cameo appearance in Javier Marias’s most recent novel, Thus Bad Begins, the reality effect is seriously undercut by the details Marias provides: he tells us that Palance studied at Stanford, and that he wrote and illustrated a volume called The Forest of Love: A Love Story in Blank Verse (117-8).  Unlike typical reality effects, which are reassuring and accord with our sense of the real, these details are derailing.  Are they true? Is Marias fictionalizing Palance?  But The Forest of Love exists, it is available on Amazon for about five dollars, and Palance discussed the book in an appearance on Regis and Kathie Lee. Still, on the copyright page of Thus Bad Begins we have the familiar disclaimer: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.”  What does it mean to use Jack Palance fictitiously?   Palance mingles with fictional characters in the novel, even lifts one very short one right off the floor. As Nicholas Paige has pointed out in his study Before Fiction, such mingling is characteristic of the novel form itself (173). My question is whether or not such characters enhance the “realism” of the realist novel or if in sharing an ontological plane with fictional characters, they enhance the fictional world, becoming less real and more fictional, dissolving rather than solving reference.

In Middlemarch, Wordsworth is both a character and an epigraph writer.  Mr. Brooke says he had dinner with Wordsworth and Humphrey Davy, inventor of the Davy Lamp, which saved many miners’ lives (and in a nice turn of fate for this paper, Palance was the son of coal miners in Pennsylvania and was briefly one himself before becoming a boxer and then a poet, with some acting between) (16). It may be that a dinner with Wordsworth is a figment of Brooke’s imagination (although strictly speaking Brooke does not have an imagination): Brooke is, after all, unreliable and likely to say anything at any moment.  Does this make Wordsworth a fictional character? In the 1860s there was no rider on the copyright page of the novel that proclaimed its fictionality; indeed the nineteenth century is the resting place between claiming that the novel is factual and insisting that it’s fictional. 

If a proper name, especially a name like Wordsworth, is a “rigid designator” in Saul Kripke’s sense and therefore true in all possible worlds, then Middlemarch is either several worlds—paratext and text, or one world in which rigid designation is impossible.1 Fiction becomes the turpentine of history.  In good times, we can imagine this as opening us to the possibility of what could be or what could have been.  The tale, our tale, can be re-written. In bad times it seems to suggest that history is dangerously open to such solvency and that one of the functions of fiction is to alert us to this possibility. 

John Plotz has observed that characters in Eliot’s novels often seem to be reading the chapter epigraphs such that one can imagine a stage version of the novel with the epigraphs hanging like so many billboards around the periphery of the stage (412). This would make the paratexts continuous with the text, in a kind of unfolded ontological origami. But what if Wordsworth is imagined reading the epigraphs attributed to him?  Eliot has created a kind of divine metalepsis in which a character could encounter himself in another layer of the text. And in Genette’s classic description of metalepsis, its vertiginous quality is precisely that we may ourselves not be in the outermost layer of diegesis, and that we might encounter ourselves in a disorienting diegetic space.

If fictionalizing is the opposite of referring, and I’m not sure that it is, it is still interesting to think about what happens to real people in novels if they are declared unreal on the copyright page, or if they are not quite there, as Wordsworth may have had dinner with Mr. Brooke in a past before Middlemarch begins, which is of course a past that doesn’t exist. But Jack Palance is an actual person, although his original name was Pahluniak and so he is also in some sense a fiction. Wordsworth existed but is something of a fiction, something of a legend for us since we certainly didn’t have dinner with him or even a beer.  If fiction denatures historical people, making them into natural characters but less real as human beings, then fiction, with all of its impossible nouns, may be the genre to which we will need to turn to understand and interpret our post-truth era. 

Works Cited

Bartlett, Jamie. Object Lessons: The Novel as a Theory of Reference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1871-2. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Evans, Gareth. Varieties of Reference. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Marías, Javier. Thus Bad Begins. Trans. Margaret Jull Costa. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Paige, Nicholas D. Before Fiction: The Ancien Régime of the Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Plotz, John. “The Semi-Detached Provincial Novel.” Victorian Studies 53.3 (Spring 2011): 405-16.

Previously in this series: David J. Alworth, "Related Things"

  • 1. For an overview of the rigid designator, see Saul A. Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1980.

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