Skirting the Precipice: Truth and Audience in Literature

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I. Is Literature True?

The question whether written works are true, false, or in between, as well as the question of what we should make of our answer to that question, are central to Western considerations of the arts. Plato, speaking through Socrates in The Republic, famously proposed that poetry, being the shadow of a shadow (the latter being what we call "reality": as in the shadow of the eternal Ideas), should be banned from his ideal polls. Aristotle, in the Poetics, sought to defend tragedy, which was "more philosophical" than history: it had the positive effect of purging our emotions, rather like a good emetic for the feeling glands. Sir Philip Sidney, in his Apology for Poetry, came down on the Aristotelian side of the debate; poetry wasn't false: "The poet nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth." Poetry, thought Sidney, following Horace, showed things as they should be, not as they are. And in the twentieth century John Searle has worried the same question of affirmation in literature, reaching the somewhat dispiriting and ultimately rather Platonic conclusion that the assertions of fiction have the form but not the substance of true assertions: positive qualities they apparently have none ("The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse").

Many common readers too wake up one morning to find fiction odd, or abruptly wonder, on opening a novel, what they are dealing with. "I was born . . . on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night," David Copperfield tells us. What have we just learned? And from whom have we learned it? Who is this David Copperfield? Was he born or was he not? If this is an assertion, we might ask, along with Searle, is it true or is it not?

Bertrand Russell analyzed the seemingly paradoxical statement "the present King of France is bald" (there being no present King of France, is the statement true or false?) as consisting of two assertions: first, the implicit one that there is a present King of France, and second, that that person was bald. If the first assertion is false, the whole assertion is false. But if David Copperfield did not exist (the comparable first implied assertion), then why read a book of falsehoods? My grandmother, a turn-of-the-century one-room schoolteacher on Maryland's Eastern Shore whose class bell sits in my office here at the U.S. Naval Academy, would read only school books and the Bible: they were, she told me, the only thing that was true. Do we English professors then concern ourselves with lies?

Nelson Goodman (in Ways of Worldmaking, among other books) has attempted to redeem the honor of art by asserting that it too, like hard science, gives information, merely a different kind of information from science. Yet many readers feel uncomfortable with this attempt to defend the arts by clothing them in the borrowed robes of their attacker (for usually it is the positivist/objectivist viewpoint of the scientist that is taken by those who question the validity of art): we sense that there has to be a point to literature in its own right, which has nothing to do with transmitting information, even if we cannot articulate what it is. Northrop Frye, too, became famous for trying to beat the scientists at their own game: his adherents nowadays are few. What we learn from literature isn't information, we want to say, and it isn't science. But what is it?

Literature, therefore, has again and again seemed a problematic entity. Indeed, the question of whether literature is true, false, or other is merely a specific form of the more general question, What is the relation of the arts to life? The answers to this larger question compose the whole of aesthetics.

Yet if all written works of the imagination can appear, in this sense, problematic, some works are more problematic than others. Those that hug the home base of well-established conventions, which we use to define a genre or literary type, such as novelistic fiction or biography, have at least the "cover" and protection of many other works: we know what we are getting. …