Narrative tension, character development, and verisimilitude are among the least interesting things writing can achieve. But that’s not all…
Literary realism is a mode of storytelling that precludes a reader’s “discretionary power” to transcend “superimposed images taken from a stock catalogue” (Andre Breton). It is, moreover, a version the materialism that makes “an evil, pointless joke out of the universe” (Vasilii Kandinsky).
In “Dialogue on the Art of Composition”, Milan Kundera remarks on what novels did prior to signing “the verisimilitude pact”:
They were not looking to simulate reality; they were looking to amuse, amaze, astonish, enchant. They were playful, and therein lay their virtuosity.
And let us also consider, when we tell a story, what ‘reality’ is, anyway.
Jorge Luis Borges:
I think one should work into a story the idea of not being sure of all things, because that’s the way reality is. If you state a given fact and then say that you know nothing whatever of some second element, that makes the first fact a real one, because it gives the whole a wider existence.
Andrei Tarkovsky, from Sculpting in Time:
… unless there is an organic link between the subjective impressions of the author and his objective representation of reality, he will not achieve even superficial credibility, let alone authenticity and inner truth. … the pattern of life is far more poetic than it is sometimes represented by the determined advocates of naturalism.
Murakami Haruki, from Underground:
Reality is created out of confusion and contradiction, and if you exclude those elements, you’re no longer talking about reality. You might think that—by following language and a logic that appears consistent—you’re able to exclude that aspect of reality, but it will always be lying in wait for you, ready to take its revenge.
More than one ‘reality’ can exist in a location and time. There is always an area of consciousness we have yet to unlock in the present… A book read by a dozen different people is a dozen different books…
Perhaps anyone who has studied literature is aware of Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”, and it is worth revisiting:
The author is a modern figure, a product of our society in so far as… it discovered the prestige of the individual… [The] culmination of capitalist ideology… has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author.
Surrealism… contributed to the desacrilization of the image of the Author by ceaselessly recommending the abrupt disappointment of expectations of meaning…
We know now that the text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-god) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.
Some literary cultures, however, have been running headlong back to the aforementioned ‘theological message.’ Very soon, literary journals will supply us with nothing more than biographical entries in a list of contributors who have supplied nothing more than their own biographical entries (often to confer upon themselves membership in—or the implied role of spokesperson for—a group or variety of groups). Taken to the next logical step, each entry will include the results of a genealogical DNA test. Lest we reach this point (we are very nearly there), let us savour the following passage from Robert Walser’s “The Walk,” regarding the oceanic connection between the artist (to be contrasted with the autobiographer) and the world around them:
Consider how the poet must grow impoverished and run sadly to ruin if that maternal and paternal and, in beauty childlike, beautiful nature does not ever and again refresh him from the source of the good and of the beautiful. Consider the great unabating importance for the poet of the instruction and golden holy teaching which he derives out there in the play of the open air. Without walking and the contemplation of nature which is connected with it, without this equally delicious and admonishing search, I deem myself lost, and I am lost. With the utmost love and attention the man who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly, a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, a flower, a man, a house, a tree, a hedge, a snail, a mouse, a cloud, a hill, a leaf, or no more than a poor discarded scrap of paper on which, perhaps, a dear good child at school has written his first clumsy letters. The highest and the lowest, the most serious and the most hilarious things are to him equally beloved, beautiful, and valuable. He must bring with him no sort of sentimentally sensitive self-love or quickness to take offense. Unselfish and unegoistic, he must let his careful eye wander and stroll where it will; only he must be continuously able in the contemplation and observation of things to efface himself, and to put behind him, little consider, and forget like a brave, zealous, and joyfully self-immolating front-line soldier, himself, his private complaints, needs, wants, and sacrifices. If he does not, then he walks only half attentive with only half his spirit, and that is worth nothing. He must at all times be capable of compassion, of sympathy, and of enthusiasm, and it is hoped that he is. He must be able to bow down and sink into the deepest and smallest everyday thing, and it is probable that he can. Faithful, devoted self-effacement and self-surrender among objects, and zealous love for all phenomena and things, make him happy in this, however, just as every performance of duty make that man happy and rich in his inmost being who is aware of his duty.
Some of these ideas—love, self-effacement—echo through Tarkovsky’s commentary on the role of art, with an added distinction between individualism and egoism, in a way that is prescient for our times:
…the results of our way of our way of life, our behaviour, are plain enough: the erosion of individuality by overt egoism; the degeneration of human bonds in to meaningless relationships between groups; and, still more alarming, the loss of all possibility of returning to that higher form of spiritual life…
This “spiritual life” is contrasted with “the existence of a blind consumer.” And then, for the artist, such existence turns itself, oroboros-like, toward the notion of the artist as commodity… the disappearance of art worthy of the name…
During the interwar years, surrealists sought alignment with communists, but communists were reluctant to have such friends. Italo Calvino comments, here, on the intersection between politics and literature:
When politicians and politically minded people pay too much attention to literature, it is a bad sign—a bad sign mostly for literature, because it is then that literature is in most danger. But it is also a bad sign when they don’t want to hear the word mentioned, and this happens as much to the most traditionally obtuse bourgeois politicians as to the most ideological revolutionaries. This is a bad sign mostly for them, because they are showing themselves afraid of any use of language that calls the certitude of their own language into question.
In “Sixty-three Words”, Milan Kundera writes of one kind of misomusist who “takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic”; in “Somewhere Behind”, of writing for “the preconceived truth”: “a poet who serves any truth other than the truth to be discovered (which is dazzlement) is a false poet.”
And from Theodor Adorno (one is obliged, it seems, to quote Adorno):
Artworks that want to divest themselves of fetishism by real and extremely dubious political commitment regularly enmesh themselves in false consciousness as the result of inevitable and vainly praised simplification. In the shortsighted praxis to which they blindly subscribe, their own blindness is prolonged.
There is a scene in the film The Road, by Darezhan Omirbaev, in which the protagonist—a film director—gives a long and heartfelt (even if pompous) speech to a theatre audience at the premier of his latest work. Then the film begins, but it is not his film: by mistake the projectionist has put on a martial arts movie. The director runs to the projection room to have the mistake corrected but is advised otherwise: the audience is clearly enjoying this wrong movie, and are likely to riot if it is changed. Dejected, the director leaves for the theatre’s washroom, where he intends to kill himself. He produces a gun, but puts it away just as quickly, embarrassed by the entry of another.
The majority of the books beloved by their time are trash.
Andrei Tarkovsky, from Sculpting in Time:
If you try to please audiences, uncritically accepting their tastes, it can only mean that you have no respect for them: that you simply want to collect their money; and instead of training the audience by giving them inspiring works of art, you are merely training the artist to ensure his own income. For their part, the audience will continue, their contentment unalloyed, to feel they are right—seldom a well-founded conviction. The failure to develop the audience’s capacity to criticise our own judgements is tantamount to treating them with total indifference.
Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.
A poet has the imagination and psychology of a child, for his impressions of the world are immediate, however profound his ideas about the world may be.
The feature image for this post is from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris.