Literature and Reality

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"To decide with what attitudes and expectations aesthetic objects are best approached,' Monroe Beardsley has written, 'we have to ask ... whether or in what way they connect with reality, that is with the rest of the world in which they exist. This problem is most acute in literature, for by their nature literary works seem to have an essential and unavoidable reference to, and concern with, reality.' (1) Literature's relationship with 'reality' or 'the real world' has long been a topic of major interest to the theory of literature. The relationship has been characterized in a variety of ways. One well known view, with a long history and numerous, subtle variations, is that the literary work represents', or 'imitates', reality. Almost as familiar perhaps is the proposition that the relationship should be seen in terms of 'expression', the literary work providing a means through which the author expresses his or her responses to reality. Some theorists have preferred to enlist notions such as symbol or metapho r, Murray Krieger, for example, arguing that each literary work '[constitutes] itself and its relation to reality through a master metaphor that is coextensive with its own body.' (2) An influential approach in recent times has been to see the relationship in terms of 'knowledge' or 'truth'. David Novitz, in his book Knowledge, Fiction and Imagination, argues, for example, that literature is not only an important source of knowledge about the real world but in fact provides knowledge that 'is richer and more varied than that afforded by empirical science.' (3) Contrasting with this is the view of some deconstructionist theorists that, although literature might appear to provide knowledge about the real world, its reliance on language stands in its way. Paul de Man, for example, writes that

Literature is fiction not because it somehow refuses to acknowledge 'reality,' but because it is not a priori certain that language functions according to principles which are those, or which are like those of phenomenal world. It is therefore not a priori certain that literature is a reliable source of information about anything but its own language. (4)

Further examples could easily be added. This is perhaps enough, however, to indicate the importance that theorists have placed on characterizing the relationship between literature and reality, even if, as some deconstructionists would have it, contact between the two is inhibited by the barrier of language. Yet, while even a brief acquaintance with literary theory reveals an enduring interest in the nature of this relationship, there appears to have been a much lower level of interest in examining and defining the concept of reality itself. The term is in frequent use, often employed interchangeably with phrases such as 'the real world', 'the realities of everyday life', 'human experience', or sometimes even 'human nature'. It is rare, however, to encounter a considered attempt to explain what these terms signify in the context of literary theory, and even rarer for any such attempt to be more than a brief phrase or sentence. Monroe Beardsley, we have seen, refers to reality for the purposes of his argument simply as 'the rest of the world in which [aesthetic objects] exist'. David Novitz's Knowledge, Fiction and Imagination provides no specific definition, but alternates the term 'reality' with phrases such as the 'actual world', 'our world', 'our nonfictional world', and 'the actual world in which we live'. (5) De Man, as we have seen, places the term in quotation marks, suggesting that he sees it as somehow problematical, but goes on simply to equate it with the somewhat enigmatic notion of 'the phenomenal world'. These examples are by no means exceptional. Although invoked repeatedly by theorists and critics, and often as an element within statements of basic theoretical positions, the concept of reality, or the terms used interchangeably with it, is rarely given more than the briefest of explanations. …