Persons and Optics

by Peter Brooks

The question posed about the nature of literary being called to mind Mark Twain’s rules of fiction, in his lambasting of James Fenimore Cooper, rules that “require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.” Yet there are a number of corpses in fiction, and they can be as important as the putatively living. This line of thought was no doubt inspired by my discovery, a few years ago, that my favorite contemporary Irish novelist, John Banville, had an alter ego, Benjamin Black, who wrote strange detective stories. At their heart is a couple of investigators who represent Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in mirror reversal: the sidekick, Inspector Hackett, is the detective, whereas the principal is the medical man, Dr. Quirke. He is a pathologist, who spends his days dissecting corpses in the basement of the hospital. When working as forensic pathologist, he seeks to make dead bodies speak of what happened to end their lives. Quirke the pathologist is a logical avatar of the classic detective: someone immersed with the dead, and generally more comfortable in their presence than with the living. He probes the dead for their secrets about life—which of course generally turn out to be violent secrets, often concealed by the respectable and the powerful, themselves moral cadavers, and the institutions they master through corruption, including State and Church. The dead, to Quirke, are easier to understand than the living, closer presences, more articulate, in their bodies, of what the world is really like.

The detective story may be said to give a debased version of Walter Benjamin’s famous pronouncement, in his essay on “The Storyteller,” that “death is the sanction of everything the storyteller has to tell.” In the detective story, all significance, all understanding of the world, arises from that moment of death. The narrative is triggered by the finding of a dead body. The work of detection attempts to find and order clues so that one can simulate the movements of victim and perpetrator leading up to their intersection in the moment of homicide. Death is the mother of invention, of animation, of fiction. 

Quirke uses the enigmatic messages left by the dead as the starting point for an inquest that points him to clues about those considered to be alive. Although the quick and the dead often can’t be morally disentangled in these fictions, the corpses persuade us to believe in the animation of persons who, however death-dealing, are distinguishable, for a time, from the dead. Distinguishable how? How are we led to believe in their aliveness, and why do we want to?

Here we reach the questions that have not on the whole been well dealt with by the kind of criticism I otherwise generally admire: that is, formalist narratology, work—deriving originally from the Russian Formalists—that shows how a piece if literature is constructed. Boris Eichenbaum’s essay on Gogol, “How the Overcoat is Made,” well emblematizes the constructivist concern. It’s not been successful in showing how characters are made, and indeed—in its later French manifestations—tended to dismiss “character” as a nineteenth-century illusion that fiction would do well to move beyond. By the time we reach the masterpiece of French narratology, Roland Barthes’ S/Z, character has come to be no more than the point of intersection of several narrative codes—a kind of crossroads of connotations to which we for ideological convenience assign a proper name, which we then delusionally believe in. As in the nouveau roman, the “Balzacian character,” as it came to be known, pejoratively, has been assigned to the dustier rooms of literary history, an outmoded belief that we moderns in the age of the end of man can do without.

In defense of the Barthesian view, I might note that our interaction with other people is in many ways a matter of codes. Everything we have learned from anthropologists and students of everyday life such as Erving Goffman suggests that social existence proceeds according to codes. It’s how we know one another and communicate with one another. And if we are able to appreciate anew such nineteenth-century novelists as Austen or Balzac, dismissed by new novelists and nouvelle critique, it is in part because we read them in a renewed admiration of how they understand, define, and deploy the codes of social existence. We do live at the intersection of narrative (and other) codes, and to that extent (and here is where Barthes et al. erred in their designation of the unreadable) we are very much like Emma Woodhouse and Emma Bovary, like Eugène de Rastignac and Dr. Tertius Lydgate. 

Where such a coded understanding of character and the interaction of characters fails us may be most of all in our bodiliness, and in senses other than sight and hearing.  And this brings us to the mysteries hinted at in Nancy Ruttenburg’s program for this conference: how, in Jacques Rancière’s “suspensive existence of literature,” there may come “a crossing over of the reader’s material actuality with the character’s immateriality.” That something of this sort happens seems to me undeniable—as in Quirke’s movement from the dead to the living—though it may work in the opposite direction as well. And that this has been a renewed question of critical interest is clear not only from this conference, but as well from Alex Woloch’s foundational The One versus the Many and a number of inquiries inspired by it, including the 2011 issue of New Literary History on “character.”

Proust, in the celebrated scene where the young Marcel reads in the garden, well describes how the fictive life of the novel creates a kind of bright diaphanous screen between reader and the external world, so that that world is erased and subsumed into the fictional world, which becomes the more real—an experience we all have had, and which probably largely accounts for our having become “readers”—in an intensive sense—in the first place. The invention of the fictional character, says Proust, was ingenious, since it enables us to experience life through other eyes. This eventually will lead—hundreds of pages later—to one of those operatic Proustian moments:

The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we can do with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star. (3:762)

Proust’s fictional painter Elstir and his fictional composer Vinteuil become over the course of the novel precisely the promise of other optics on the world, a simulation of what it would mean to inhabit another being. And while this touches on what we consider the most inaesthetic and least avowable functions of fiction—“escape literature”—for Proust it becomes, if you eschew the lazy escapes of Swann and other dilettantes staged in the novel, escape into a cosmic world. 

(Recall Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” about the creation of a new universe from the conjunction of an encyclopedia and a mirror.  In his Postscript to that story, he describes how the imaginary, ordered, symmetrical world of Tlön eventually comes to destroy the real world. “Reality gave way on all fronts.  In truth, it hankered to give way.” Borges in part writes political allegory here: about the coming of fascism and its capacity to destroy reality in the name of fearsomely handsome fictions. His tale is about the dangers of the fictional, which has been a lesson of the novel at least since Don Quixote.  But those dangers would not exist without the capacity to enter into the fictional mind and body that invite us.)

The “embodiment” described by Nancy Ruttenburg surely does take place. But we still have everything to learn about how and why. One could turn here to the theory of fictions, their heuristic value as models and metaphors of things we don’t otherwise know about life. This is a prime concern of Proust’s, who is both aroused and frustrated by the eyes of others, as in his first meeting with Albertine in Balbec:

If we thought that the eyes of such a girl were only shining chips of mica, we wouldn’t be avid to know her life and to join it to our own. But we sense that what shines in this reflective disk is not only due to its material composition; that these are, unbeknownst to us, the black shadows of the thoughts that this being forms, relative to the people and things it meets—turf of the racetracks, sand of the paths where, pedaling through fields and wood, this little Peri, more seductive for me that that of the Persian paradise, would have led me—the shadows too of the house where she will return home, the projects that she is forming or that others have formed for her; and especially that it is she, with her desires, her sympathies, her repulsions, her obscure and unceasing will.  I knew that I would not possess this young cyclist unless I possessed also what was in her eyes.  (2:152)

It is our knowledge that a consciousness is lodged behind those chips of mica, that someone is looking out at us through them, that is the source of our longing and our torture. We want to be able to take up our dwelling behind those eyes, to know intimately everything that they know in the course of a day and a night. Here begins the painful and impossible desire to make another’s life one’s own, the scenario that will play out over thousands of pages and produce the physical imprisonment of Albertine—until she escapes, in a flight leading to her death. But the passage is not only about that impossible wish to possess another physically, it also lays the groundwork for that later moment I already quoted, where the art of the painter, the composer—and the novelist—provide the only true way to enter behind the eyes of another. 

Proust proposes an understanding of the novel as the place of imagined lives that enable us to displace ourselves from our own lives—to unsettle that place a few inches behind the eyes from which we view other lives, and to take up a fictional vantage point. So far, that sounds like a traditional apologia for the novel, one that easily flips into the critique of the novel: since it displaces us from our normal place of moral residence, it can make us lose our moral compass, espouse unbridled erotic experiences and long for forbidden emotions. It’s the source of the long suspicion of the novel on the part of churchmen and moralists, given perhaps its most sophisticated discussion by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who will both castigate the fictional simulation and stimulation of the emotions, and make the eighteenth century’s most celebrated use of them in his one novel, which begins with the epigraph: “Theatre is necessary in large cities, and novels for corrupt populations. I have looked at the manners of my time, and published these letters. If only I had lived in a time when I should have thrown them in the fire!” (Préface, 5). That is to say, once emotions have become the stuff of feigning, of theatre, of cultivation, then one needs to use the genre in which espousing the feigned emotions of another can lead you through corruption to something else. The use of novelistic life becomes nearly theological: it is the vehicle that makes fall redeemable. It is the place of the felix culpa.

Proust is of course aware of the critique of the novel as immoral, and will give it a new turn of the screw in demonstrating how sexual “inversion,” as he calls it, inverts and changes all our optics on social life. His large claim about the value of fictions, as I understand it, lies in the morality that may be said to inhere in the extension of a single life and consciousness into multiple others. The more these others may “invert” us the better. The reader’s relation to fictional characters is less a matter of “identification,” as we were once, lazily, taught to think than what Proust calls “metempsychosis,” reincarnation in another’s body. And it is a willed metempsychosis, something we choose to do whenever we open a novel, in an act of what Henry James called “immersion.” But again, what this might mean needs further scrutiny if we are to understand the cognitive and ethical value of fictional beings.

Let me return to that moment in Swann’s Way where Marcel has been sent into the garden gazebo to read—since his grandmother has pronounced the weather too fine to remain indoors—and quote a bit from a very long paragraph that it would be tempting to give in full. It is true, the narrator tells us, that the characters in the book are not what the maid Françoise would call “real.” 

But all the feelings we are made to experience by the joy or the misfortune of a real person are produced in us only through the intermediary of an image of that joy or that misfortune; the ingeniousness of the first novelist consisted in understanding that in the apparatus of our emotions, the image being the only essential element, the simplification that would consist in purely and simply abolishing real people would be a decisive improvement. A real human being, however profoundly we sympathize with him, is in large part perceived by our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibility cannot lift. . . . The novelist’s happy discovery was to have the idea of replacing these parts [of real persons], impenetrable to the soul, by an equal quantity of immaterial parts, that is to say, parts which our soul can assimilate.  What does it matter thenceforth if the actions, and the emotions, of this new order of creatures seem to us true, since we have made them our ours, since it is within us that they occur, that they hold within their control, as we feverishly turn the pages of the book, the rapidty of our breathing and the intensity of our gaze. (Swann, trans. Lydia Davis, 86-87)

Once inhabited in this manner by the fictional, we will be troubled as by certain dreams, yet more lucid than a dream, and we will know in the space of a couple of hours what we can learn in life only over many years—or not at all, since perception of the profound changes of life are hidden from us by the slowness of their process. The heart changes in life; that is our worst sorrow; but we know this change only in reading. 

Proust gives here an apologia for the fictional person as cognitive instrument, an optics (and there is of course much about optics in his novel) that lets us read the meanings of temporal change in ways that are closed to us in life. It’s not only, as Benjamin claims, that we seek in fiction the knowledge of the meaning of death that is foreclosed to us in our own lives.  It is that, yes, but Proust goes farther, to claim that the non-real person is an essential instrument in this cognitive process. There is a kinship here to Catherine Gallagher’s argument that the fictionality of the novelistic person is a necessary correlate of the person’s capacity to represent the real for us. By suppressing “real people,” that putative first novelist creates an extension to our hard wiring, enabling us to see the world around us as transformed through a vision by way of other eyes. Once these other eyes on the world have taken over, they are in control; our ordinary selves have become merely virtual.

To insist (in the manner of much modern criticism, from the New Critics through the French Narratologists) that characters in the novel are mere textual markings that we ought not to speak about as if they had an extra-textual dimension is true enough (and an important pedagogical point with students who think “identifying with” a character is what reading is all about) but limited. As we have moved through various formalisms toward a rediscovery of the referential and ethical dimensions of literature, we have also revived its cognitive claims. In a sense, we have restored to a place of honor what Coleridge and many another Romantic told us about the imagination, though we have come no closer to understanding how it works. In an apparent paradox, our understanding of ourselves as coded structures, in the manner of Barthes or Foucault, has allowed us to relax somewhat about the loss of self involved in the reading of fictions. If, in the Rousseauian argument, we lose our moral compass when we assimilate fictional lives to our own and start to view the world through other eyes, so much the better, we may decide. We may want to go so far as the claim advanced by Lynn Hunt, in her Inventing Human Rights, that our imaginative investment in other selves lies at the origin of our capacity to understand others as having irreducible rights that cannot be violated: precisely our understanding of what is human. And this understanding is now leading many to think about the claims of non-human species in relation to us.

Long before Proust, Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments argued the basis of sympathetic or empathetic identification by way of the imagination. His famous passage on torture (which should be required reading in the CIA):

Though our brother is upon the rack, as long was we ourselves are at our ease, our senses never will inform us of what he suffers. . . . By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble andshudder at the thought of what he feels. (Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 9)

Like Proust, Smith is alert to the movement between self and other that the imagination permits. He does not take Proust’s further step: that the suppression of “our brother” in favor of a fictional person makes entry into the other’s body easier and more complete, a substitution rather than a simulation, and thus, paradoxically, a fuller realization of another kind of being in the world.

That is a potent argument in favor of fictions, a strong justification of our modern choice of the novel to represent everything we think we want to know, from past history to future dystopia while passing through endless scenes of contemporary life. But we might recall what Proust tells us about the price paid for novelistic representation during those final pages of Time Regained—pages of a triumphant joy at his vocation at last discovered, but with a dark undercurrent that we should not neglect. The discovery of his fiction-making vocation means, for Marcel, the renunciation of those he has loved, destined to become figures in the fiction. Persons are annihilated by the novelist. “A book is a vast cemetery where on most of the gravestones one can no longer read the names that have been effaced” (4:482). The fictionalist’s task is resolutely egotistical, the extinction of the world in favor of fictional life. And the realized fiction itself is no more than a new optical instrument: “In reality, each reader is when he reads the very reader of himself. The work of the writer is only a kind of optical instrument that he offers the reader in order to allow him to discern what, without this book, he might not have seen in himself” (4:489-90).  Cognition is incorporate with extinction and destruction: people must die for the novel to live (4:615).  The novelist, too, who finally compares himself to Scheherazade, telling stories under the threat of extinction. 

The cognitive value of the fictional person—that person as cognitive instrument—both affirms our traditional sense of “real life” of literary characters and at the same time annihilates the existence of characters. Because ultimately character is no one, as person, but rather the workings of mind through the optics of other, invented people. Proust’s ultimate notion of character I think points toward that of his avid reader, Samuel Beckett: character as the Unnameable, L’Innommable.  Character returns to mind, ultimately the reader’s, a consciousness somewhere between Scheherazade’s and he Sultan’s, in the suspensive space of reading in which one is everyone and no one. For myself, I can’t accept what appear to be Jacques Rancière’s references to “incarnation.” Our embodiment by way of the characters whose lives we read about is itself fictional, provisional, a trying-on of costumes, manners, sensations, eyeglasses—including telescopes and microscopes—that is protean in its mobility. That we can talk about Dorothea Brooke or Eugène de Rastignac beyond the boundaries of the pages we have read is testimony not so much to our wish we could invite them to dinner with us as to our need to reimagine our own existences through their eyes. As Freud said, much too simplistically but with much truth, fiction is all about “His Majesty, the ego.” The ego learns its own shape by trying on others. That’s why we need the novel.

I want to give the last word not to Proust but to another great experimenter with the fictive person, Henry James, who presents a perverse and sinister version of what I believe is under discussion in this conference. I am thinking of the moment in The Beast in the Jungle—eminently a tale of the nothingness of character—when May Bartram, the one who will see the nothingness, manages to peer through the mask of John Marcher’s persona. Marcher’s social behavior is described as “a long act of dissimulation.” The following lines are more radical still:

What it had come to was that he wore a mask painted with the social simper, out of the eye-holes of which there looked eyes of an expression not in the least matching the other features. This the stupid world, even after years, had never more than half-discovered. It was only May Bartram who had, and she achieved, by an art indescribable, the feat of at once—or perhaps it was only alternately—meeting the eyes from in front and mingling her own vision, as from over his shoulder, with their peep through the apertures. (Selected Tales, 437)

May Bartram in this manner is produced as the perfect reader of fiction, who by this “art indescribable” both espouses Marcher’s optics on the world, from behind his mask, and confronts it from outside him. May Bartram discovers truth—and later on can only plead that the truth never come out.

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The Nature of Literary Being

Nancy Ruttenburg
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