Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

Fictional Truths: Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things between Image and Language

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

Fictional Truths: Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things between Image and Language

Article excerpt

Not a just image, just an image.--Jean-Luc Godard

Already with its puzzling title, Gilbert Sorrentino's Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things poses the question of the relations between two categories of being: those qualified as "fictive," "imaginary," or "artistic" on the one side, and those designated as "actual," "nonfictional," or "living" on the other In addition, the terms true or real waver unsteadily between these two domains, but come increasingly in the novel's course to stand for the compositional integrity of a written work against any pretense that it refer to something independent of words. Sorrentino prefaces his narrative with a quotation from William Carlos Williams, which lends the book its title and sets up the terms on which it will engage the problems of words and images, the perceiver and the perceived, the imaginary and the actual:

   In the mind there is a continual play of obscure images which coming
   between the eyes and their prey seem pictures on the screen at the
   Somewhere there appears to be a mal-adjustment. The wish would
   be to see not floating visions of unknown purport but the
   qualities of the actual things being perceived accompany their
   gross vision
   in a slow dance, interpreting as they go. But inasmuch as this will
   not always be the case one must dance nevertheless as he can. (ix)

Williams here addresses a classic romantic problem, the adequation of the mind's representations to the characteristics of the material object, yet he offers an atypical, unromantic answer. For a late romantic poet such as Yeats, the merging of "dancer" and the "dance" metaphorizes the poetic image's seamless fusion of subject and object, its capacity to intermesh the artistic product with reflections of the productive/receptive processes that shape it. For Williams, in contrast, the metaphor of the dance and of its "images" is an index of a "mal-adjustment" between these phases, symptoms of an irresolvable dissonance in the artistic process. In Williams's poetics, contrary to the celebratory puzzlement of Yeats, one can always tell the dancer from the dance: the "image" they create in their dissension signifies first and foremost this very disharmony. For Williams, thus, the dance is not just image, rather just an image.

In comparing the mind's processes to the cinema and insisting that "one must dance ... as he can," Williams emphasizes that the image is not the product of mental acts, but rather emerges through an alien automatism, the intensive passivity of the mind as it is alternately shocked and seduced by what is thrown upon its screen. Still, Williams does not suggest that there might be some orthopsychic posture of mind that could harmonize this infelicity of mind and world or correct the epistemological uncertainties born of social and erotic surprise. Rather, he refers to a further fictionalizing act of mind that follows the passive moment of imagination, a supplementary act of "interpretation" that implicitly translates to a new dimension the misadjustment of mind and world in which the dance of images is born. (We need not insist on the Nietzschean overtones of the term interpretation here; the Jameses, William and Henry, suffice as Williams's intellectual patrimony in this meditation. (1)) In reiterating the disharmony at the heart of things, the fictionalizing, interpreting imagination takes up the chaos of objects as the very inner structure of the artwork, compositionally capturing the temporal shapes in which the phenomena converge and disperse again. But this suggests, then, that interpreted objects somehow occupy a status different from either "real" object or "fictional" images. The dissonant interaction of mind and world spurs the activity of fictionalizing interpretation, which leaves neither pole untransformed.

Although I will explore this complex third status at greater length in what follows, one aspect to mention at the outset is the degree to which Williams's interpretative imagination rematerializes the passionate body dissolved in the romantic imagistic "dance. …

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