Academic journal article Style

Fictional Worlds: Density, Gaps, and Inference

Academic journal article Style

Fictional Worlds: Density, Gaps, and Inference

Article excerpt

1. Gaps and facts. Possible-worlds semantics claims that fictions are possible worlds, but, disturbingly, in some essential features they differ from, or are even in contrast to, the formalized systems that are known by that name in logical semantics. One of the most troubling contrasts is that possible worlds of logical semantics are complete, but fictional worlds of literature are not. The theorem of incompleteness has been accepted almost unanimously by the philosophers and literary theorists who formulated the possible-worlds semantics of fictionality from David Lewis to Ruth Ronen (Lewis 42-43; Heintz 90-92; Howell 134-35; Eco, Role 217-22; Parsons 182-85; Wolterstorff 131-34; Dolezel, "Literary" 194-95; Pavel 105-13; Ronen 108-43; and others). The Carnapian test of incompleteness is simple: only some conceivable statements can be said to be true or false with respect to a given fictional world while others are undecidable. It is false to state that Emma Bovary died a natural death; it is true that she committed suicide; but we cannot decide the question whether she did or did not have a birthmark on her left shoulder (Heintz 94). Referring to a cause celebre of literary criticism, Nicholas Wolterstorff explains what kind of lack we are faced with: "We will never know how many children had Lady Macbeth in the worlds of Macbeth. That is not because to know this would require knowledge beyond the capacity of human beings. It is because there is nothing of the sort to know" (133). Nicholas Rescher and Robert Brandom are even more definite when pointing out the source of the undecidability: "The situation is not just that we don't know whether P or its contradictory [similar to] P, but that the world itself is indeterminate in this regard in its make-up - it is ontologically indecisive in point of P vs. [similar to] P" (Rescher and Brandom 5). Barry Smith, having distinguished between ontological and epistemological incompleteness (a distinction derived from Husserl's and Ingarden's suggestions), comes to the same conclusion: fictional objects are ontologically incomplete since "from the very start we can exclude the possibility of supplementary information, information which would be additional to that which is to be found in (or, within certain limits, read into) the texts themselves" (381).

The incompleteness of fictional worlds results from the very act of their creation. Fictional worlds are brought into existence by means of fictional texts, and it would take a text of infinite length to construct a complete fictional world. Finite texts, the only texts that humans are capable of producing, necessarily create incomplete worlds. Since the shape of the fictional world is determined by the constructing fictional text, the incompleteness is controlled and modulated by the author's choices implemented in his/her writing. To construct a fictional fact, the author has to create an authenticating texture; if he/she writes nothing that is, produces zero texture - no fictional fact comes into existence, and thus a gap appears in the fictional world. This situation means that the number, distribution, and function of gaps is a variable, depending on the author's aesthetic principles, on his individual style, and on the historical and genre norms implemented.

Some telling instances of this diversity have been pointed out in recent literary semantics. So, for instance, I have indicated how the radically incomplete physique of the hero of a Romantic narrative serves a specific stylistic aim: a physical detail surrounded by emptiness is brought into sharp focus and thus offered for symbolic interpretation (Dolezel, "Note"). Thomas G. Pavel has observed that "authors and cultures have the choice to minimize or maximize" the "unavoidable incompleteness" of fictional worlds; he has suggested that cultures and periods of a "stable world view" tend to minimize incompleteness whereas periods of "transition and conflict" tend to maximize it (108-09). …

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