Under The Sun

Monday, October 13, 2003

Josh Chafetz on "fiction":

"It never ceases to amaze me that some people claim to be too busy for fiction -- as if only non-fiction can teach you things, and fiction is a frivolous diversion that can be dispensed with at any time without serious loss.

"That's bunk. Ricoeur has a fantastic essay, "Imagination in Discourse and in Action" (it's in his From Text to Action), in which he talks about the crucial importance of imagination for both making sense of the world ("what certain fictions redescribe is, precisely, human action itself. Or, to say the same thing the other way around, the first way human beings attempt to understand and to master the 'manifold' of the practical field is to give themselves a fictive representation of it.") and for acting in it ("imagination is involved in the very process of motivation. It is imagination that provides the milieu, the luminous clearing, in which we can compare and evaluate motives as diverse as desires and ethical obligations, themselves as disparate as professional rules, social customs, or intensely personal values.")

"Okay, I'll stop quoting hermeneutic theory now (you really should read the essay, though), but you get the point: imagination, and therefore fiction, is essential to who and what we are. As far as we know, we're the only species for which the idea of a text exists. A text (as Ricoeur understands it -- and I don't think someone like Gadamer would fundamentally disagree, although he would phrase it very differently) projects a world -- it allows us to imagine things as they are not, but could be. Idealism, utopianism, and therefore fiction, is intimately bound up with motivation for human action. But the capacity to present things as they are not is also bound up with human understanding -- from the banal (for those of us who could never get our brains around the concept of dimensions other than the four to which we have intuitive access (or, at least, access via the forms of intuition, to borrow Kantian language), Edwin Abbott's Flatland is invaluable, because it provides us with a metaphor by which extra dimensions become at least partly conceivable) to the sublime (Shakespeare, more than anyone else, has shaped how we think and feel about love -- this is part of what Harold Bloom means by his assertion that Shakespeare invented the human, and it's part of what Allan Bloom meant when he wrote that you can't have great sex without great books). Not having time for fiction means not having time to be fully human, and that's unfortunate, to say the least."

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