The Case for Fiction
And the lost battle against blind skepticism
Anyone who has seriously considered writing fiction has at some point confronted the question of whether the subject matter of their work has any significant value beyond that of entertainment.
Modern life is swarming skepticism towards any creative endeavor whose output cannot be clearly expressed as a function of either facts or abstracted information.
A simple visit to a bookstore at an airport can reveal some of the mistrust addressed to the good old fiction we once praised so much. There will be more memoirs, how-tos, and self-help books than the fruits of the human imagination — as if a detached, non-utilitarian view upon life had become out of date.
Even the movie industry, naturally gifted with the means of conferring fiction factual standing, finds itself all too often tangled up in a self-referential web of witticisms, metalanguage, and shotting innovations. It’s so common to find in critically acclaimed films a silent tone recorded in-between frames whispering something like: “We both know we are above that.
Come on, let’s give ourselves a good reason to be here. How about an Easter egg hunt? Or would you rather try putting the scenes in chronological order? Not that? Maybe finding the villain is more like you…”
For the modern mind, fiction is increasingly being seen as an escape, pure entertainment, child’s play. As if there was nothing really important about it. Every time I hear things like “it’s only a movie” or “I don’t spend time with stories” as if to suggest that there’s nothing relevant about it, I think something really awful is happening to us.
When we lost our capacity to live by the inner coherence that comes out of us through imagination, unable to be the sources of sublime and wonder that we once were? Instead, we find ourselves gravitating towards a world where men are nothing but sophisticated information processors, for whom fiction would be as useful as the shadow cast out of a factory building.
Truth and Fiction
The beginnings of human history inform us about fiction in its purest form, when the urge to match the imagined to the factual had not yet taken place.
The written word turned out to be a very appropriate way of eternizing the stories that for time immemorial had guided humanity, working in addition as a repository for the accommodation of the psychological patterns that hide in themselves the very essence of the human experience.
Such psychic structures are not new, they have only been called by different names throughout the evolution of thought: Carl Jung talked about archetypes, Lévi-Bhuhl termed them “répresentations collectives”, while others have used expressions like “categories of the imagination” and “primordial thoughts”.
Even Plato, whose remarks (some of which reproduced below), could make shiver the faintest admirer of art, devised his famous concept of “original ideas” large enough to embrace those existing beyond our conscience, as patterns of thought that get to be expressed through human behavior.
“…tragedians and other dramatists — such representations definitely harm the minds of their audiences … removed from reality, and easy to produce without any knowledge of the truth … all the poets from Homer downwards have no grasp of reality but only give us superficial representation … the artist knows little or nothing about the subjects he represents and … his art is something that has no serious value” — from Plato’s The Republic
It’s true, though, that most myths, where these patterns can be most clearly found, were religious accounts of peoples trying to make sense of a world inhabited by deities and fate. While doing so, however, they happened to make alive the power of human creativity and eventually happened to extend the limits of our expression.
One has only to acquaint oneself with stories and teachings like those from Oedipus, Cybele and Attis, Sisyphus, Prometheus, Demeter and Persephone, and many others, to realize the incommensurable value they hold, especially in an age where physics, logic, and causality purport to provide all we need about the universe and ourselves. In the words of K. Kerényi: “In the domain of myth is to be found not ordinary truth but a higher truth”.
Fiction writing enters here as a striving towards those early stories, at which state it would crystalize as a bedrock statement of our most fundamental reality. It’s the age-old search for truth taken to new heights, to the kind of truth that Nietzsche sought to exalt when saying that “what must first be proved is worth little” — Hemingway’s “realer than real, truer than true”.
The myth (as is often the case for fiction) is a way of expressing the reality that escapes the conscious mind, a message from another world that we should neither ignore nor ridicule, at the risk of alienating our conscience from the rest of our being.
The cynic criticism of fiction is around for quite a while, as Plato makes evident. But it was only after the scientific revolution that fiction was really put under charges of pretension and instrumentalization (everything is ideology) as if society had finally taken the role requested by Plato and started to iconoclast its origins — for we might be under the spell of undercurrent tendencies of which we deny the existence, although they might be dangerous and even unreasonable.
In its place remained what survived of our witch hunt for the works of art that did not comply with the trends of self-reference, fourth-wall-breaking and social activism that characterize these postmodern times. What remained were labeled either populist or unsatisfactory.
Literature, painting and film making had to transform themselves in order to survive the new demands of a culture for whom the means became as important as the story itself. In other words, the technique supplanted the portrayed.
That’s too much an empoverishment on what we are capable of. We’ve got to bring back the unrestrained creative power found in authors like Hermann Hesse, John Milton, Goethe, and Shakespeare. Otherwise, we are not gonna live up to the miracles of our imagination, too busy been certain about how sterile everything has become.