To Only Know, and Not Imagine

Here’s today’s most awful story:

…out of 1,000 nursery workers surveyed, 72 percent percent said that fewer children have invisible friends than they did five years ago, the potential cause of which likely won’t come as a shock. Two-thirds of those surveyed placed the blame on the growing prevalence of screens like iPads and cell phones, which kids can now turn to whenever they don’t know what to do with themselves.

“I think that children are not allowed to be ‘bored’ any more,” David Wright, the owner of Paint Pots Nursery in England, told the Daily Mail.“When children have free time to themselves, they find something creative to do with their mind, such as forming an imaginary friend.”

Children are never allowed to have free time to themselves. They can’t be allowed to roam, lest they be abducted within seconds. They can’t come home to an empty house after school for a couple of hours, lest they be bored or in danger of falling or tripping or choking or home invasions or a non-optimized snack.

And by the time they get to college, they had damned well better know exactly what they’re going to study, and exactly what kind of a career they’re aimed at. Anything else would be irresponsible, would have no way to calculate ROI or opportunity cost or any of the other ways to pretend that a human life is nothing more than an arbitrage investment.

I was never, ever bored as a child. I was sad and lonely once in a while, but I used those moments to open up new opportunities, through reading or playing board games or inventing chemical formulae out of crushed dogberries and urine and an old tarnished penny. (I wanted to kill a tree. Don’t ask. Like all childhood fantasies, it both makes no sense and has acres and acres of socio-scientific backstory.)

Every episode of Gilligan’s Island and The Beverly Hillbillies fifty years ago made me a better writer today.

Every hour I spent alone in our basement rec room made me more capable of focusing my attention for long periods of time.

Every afternoon I spent alone wandering the aisles of the big discount store across the freeway made me more able to understand the temperature and fluctuations of popular culture.

Listen. I know I’m old. I know I’m at dire risk of crabby grandpa, even though I never had children. But this strikes me as the contemporary analogue to The Fall. Before, Adam and Eve were new to one another, and the world was new to them. They had to give names to every damn animal they encountered. But once they succumbed to the Tree of Knowledge, they lost their ability to imagine. Were left to lives of repeated pain and degradation, through their endless layers of begats.

The Land of Make Believe, by Jaro Hess, 1930

I grew up with this poster on my bedroom wall: The Land of Make Believe, by the Czech-Michigander Jaroslav Hes (later Jaro Hess), published in 1930 by J&R Enterprises of Grand Rapids, MI. I spent hours and hours inside this map, studying the terrain and the characters (and being both scandalized and thrilled that the mermaids had nipples!!!). The map taught me nothing factually true. It taught me instead that other worlds were possible.

Will we teach our kids that other worlds are possible? Will we teach our college students that they can be people they’d never imagined? Or will we make them all into technicians, to serve us and never become themselves?

Governance at the Smallest Scale

I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life, and I’m still in close contact with… I don’t know, way less than a dozen of all the hundreds and hundreds of people I’ve worked with, as co-workers and clients and professional colleagues. When you leave most jobs, you almost never run into the people you used to work with. For the most part, that’s okay.

When you’re on the city council of a major city, you meet people all the time at meetings and public events who want to talk with you—pleasantly, or less so—about your official duties. But you can usually mow your lawn or go to the grocery store without comment.

But for the past five and a half years, I’ve been on the Selectboard of a community of about 700 people. Every one of my neighbors knows who I am, and a lot of them are pretty open about their opinions. So every trip to the local general store, the post office, and the transfer station is another opportunity to hear what we have and haven’t done right.

And every fellow employee whom we have to work with or supervise or counsel lives here in town. We don’t get to walk away from our ongoing contact when one or another of us changes roles. And so those roles become blended. I am simultaneously a board member and a neighbor and the guy who isn’t taking care of their road. I am simultaneously a colleague and a friend and an interloper from away. I am simultaneously the person who supports our non-profits and bake sales and potlucks, and the person who’s responsible for setting our tax rates and reviewing property assessments and asking them to clear some of the junk from the public face of their yard.

I had a neighbor stop the car and come up into the yard while I was cleaning the porch on Saturday to tell me that I was sugarcoating the state of our roads. (His language was somewhat other than that.) When I told him that the section of road he was most concerned about is actually scheduled to be rebuilt next month, he wanted to know why we hadn’t done it last spring.

I get complaints about roads and unkempt properties that aren’t even in our town. I get complaints about state policies, and about disputed property boundaries between two taxpayers. I get complaints about board decisions that were made years before I moved to town, and about other non-profit organizations that don’t answer to the board at all.


And I’m pumping gas, and the neighbor filling the truck in front of me says thank you for the communication work I do to let people know about road construction and storm conditions.

And one of my colleagues says at a meeting that the Town’s dragged its feet for fifteen years, and appreciates how far I’ve been able to move a project in just four months.

And one of my friends says that he’s grateful that I’m on the board, because he knows that he doesn’t have the temperament to hear it all.

And one of my friends stops me at the post office, and says their driveway is washing out (a private driveway), and is there anything we can do to help? And then sends an e-mail of thanks when I put together a local and State review visit to their property.

The work of government at the very smallest scale isn’t mediated by staff or by distance. We interact as volunteers all day long with innumerable people who are actually paid to do their jobs, with state agencies and insurance companies and backhoe mechanics and waste haulers, and we take responsibility for all of it. And all of the praise and criticism alike are close at hand.

So my request today is: no matter what size community you live in, no matter what state you live in, drop a line of thanks to one of your elected officials about something you’ve noticed and appreciated. It means the world.

The Secrets in the Book

It turns out there are also drawings which can make people dislike you. Drawings that make people think you are dirty or stupid or lame. One by one most kids I knew quit drawing and never drew again. It left behind too much evidence.

Lynda Barry, What It Is

We’re pretty good learners. We learn the things that will make the people around us happy, and we learn to do those things more reliably and more often. We learn how to read new people more quickly, so that we don’t get ourselves in trouble. We learn how to make them happy almost as soon as we know them. (Or at least we learn how to not make them unhappy, which feels the same most of the time.)

We spend a lot of time in schools, thirteen years or seventeen years or twenty-five years or whole careers, and we learn to do the things that the other people in that system appreciate. Just as importantly, we learn to not do some other things.

Now that I don’t live in that world any more, I’ve spent the last six years writing. Writing every day. Of course, I wrote every day before, too. I wrote emails and analytical studies, I wrote accreditation reports and peer-reviewed journal articles and funding proposals. I wrote nearly as much then as I do now, just different stuff, stuff designed to make those people happy. Or at least to not make them unhappy, which felt the same most of the time.

Without that culture’s happiness on my mind so much, I’m able to write a greater variety of things. That leaves me responsible for choosing what to write. I don’t have to follow their templates, the nine chapters of the accreditation report or the problem statement-lit review-methods-findings-implications sequence of the journal article. So every word, every character, every line of dialogue and every decision… all up to me.

Writers do nothing but leave evidence behind us. Evidence of the things that interest us enough to spend months investigating.

And we still want to make people happy, but sometimes we write things that can make them unhappy. It turns out that there are stories you can write that will make people dislike you, too. They can be stories we’re enormously proud of on their own terms, stories that speak to us profoundly, but they can make other people think that we’re dirty or stupid or lame.

We hide those. We learn which stories are safe to share, and which must be concealed. We learn which levers to press to deliver the pellets of happiness to our readers, and which levers must never be pressed lest we dispense the shock. We experimenters are also the subjects of our own experiments, learning to modulate our work to gain approval, or to avoid disapproval.

What secrets do your stories hold? Which secrets do you dare to reveal?

As I work in the coming months to make my stories visible, I’ll confront that question a dozen times a day: Which stories? All of those characters and families are equally deserving of visitors, of welcoming readers to their world. I’m proud to know them all. Would readers recoil from some of them? Would my friends think less of me?

Part of the problem comes because I write realist stories set in recognizable places. I’m not very interested in what one of my characters called “an adventure trilogy about billionaire vampire spies who ride dragons into battle with medieval sorcerer knights.” I’m more interested in the guy who runs the pool room in a small Michigan city, or the woman who runs the laundromat in southern Missouri, or the radio DJ who finally decides that he’s heard pop music for far too long, or the man who has to decide how to make himself vulnerable in a new relationship. And the recognizable similarities between the World 1 of the stories and the World 2 of our daily lives causes people to be confused, causes them to think that the writer must actually be writing descriptively about himself or about his friends. One of my stories begins with this disclaimer:

  1. This is a work of fiction. No real persons are represented here, except for the musicians and artists and brands that these imagined characters might appreciate. All names of persons, employers and job titles, restaurants visited and so on, have been invented. The cities of Saigon and Sunnyvale probably exist, along with Stanford University, but none of the people or things described therein.
  2. This is a work of fiction. It exists in a world somewhat like our own, but really, not quite. Do not take it fully as a literal guide to your own behavior. Inspiration, perhaps.
  3. This is a work of fiction. Anne Rice writes about vampires, but nobody ever thinks to ask her whether she is one.

But disclaimers aside, I think that a lot of people will make the correspondence between what my characters do, and want, and what therefore I must do, or want. I think my commitment to realism invites that confusion.

I live in a small place, and a lot of people know me. Gossip and speculation are normal modes of communication here, as they are in many places. And if some of my neighbors read some of my stories, they’d invent their own, about me and about my own family, about the kind of people we must be to have ideas like that come into my head. So I have to weigh that, have to carry those secrets. Maybe to the grave. Maybe beyond.

Truth and freedom are principles. Kindness is sometimes a choice to leave those principles behind in favor of the needs and sensibilities of others. And kindness has a cost, or else it wouldn’t really be kindness at all.

Grown-Up Man

Back in January, Gillette posted a short film about the need to understand manhood differently than we have. I thought it was beautifully done, and badly needed. A lot of men disagreed. Its YouTube post shows about 800,000 likes, compared against a million and a half dislikes. Commenters called it emasculating. “What Gillette is doing here is trying to lower our testosterone to the point we won’t have to shave anymore.”

(Poor babies, afraid for the health of their testicles in the face of a little advertisement. And they call US snowflakes…)

The pushback couldn’t have been unexpected. It was twenty years ago that Susan Faludi published Stiffed: The Betrayal of The American Man. In this crucial book, she laid out stories and analysis of the ways in which our expectations about appropriate masculine behavior have laid our own trap of disaster. The four cardinal orientations of manhood—stoic self-sufficiency, unquestioning loyalty, ritual competition, and boastful vanity—have left us hollow, uncentered.

It’s not just women who are bombarded by cultural messages about appropriate gender behavior. In the past half century, Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and the mass media have operated relentlessly on men, too. The level of mockery, suspicion and animosity directed at men who step out of line is profound, and men respond profoundly—with acquiescence.

And I’m tired of acquiescence. It’s time to stand up.

I can’t give you all of the context, but I have a scene in one of my novels where the protagonist goes to do some life coaching at a fraternity, and talks about the ways in which a recently disbanded fraternity on that same campus had failed so badly in their very conceptualization of manhood. He talked with them about what he came to call The Ten Understandings of the Grown-Up Man:

A Grown-Up Man understands that respect is a given, that it starts out full and can be diminished rather than starting out empty and needing to be won.

A Grown-Up Man understands that he can enhance the lives of those around him, no matter who that might be.

A Grown-Up Man understands that he is at his best when he is surrounded by strong, capable people, and works to help others become stronger and more capable.

A Grown-Up Man understands that dignity is always to be defended, and that he has a responsibility to intervene in the face of cruelty.

A Grown-Up Man understands that loyalty can be expanded rather than restricted.

A Grown-Up Man understands his responsibilities before he signs on, and then fulfills those responsibilities beyond expectations.

A Grown-Up Man understands that his body is for use rather than for vanity, and tunes his body to the uses that he cares about.

A Grown-Up Man understands that his beliefs and values are conditioned by his experiences, and that others have different experiences that reasonably lead to different beliefs and values.

A Grown-Up Man understands that he will never know enough to act with perfect confidence, but understands also that action is necessary even in the absence of confidence.

A Grown-Up Man understands that the admiration of fools is worth nothing.

Grown-Up Man is not a status to be attained.

Grown-Up Man is an aspiration to strive for.

I’ve Seen All Good People

Nora’s on the scent again.

For about six years, she’s been tracking the spinning wheels of Samuel Morison (1775-1862), a Quaker wheelwright and generally talented guy from our region of the Vermont/New York borderlands. So far, she’s found about forty of his wheels. Twenty five are variously called great wheels or walking wheels or wool wheels, the giant ones you think of when you see an antique store sign on the side of the road.

The Vermont official roadside iconography

The other fifteen or so are sometimes called treadle wheels or flax wheels, used for making linen. You sit at a treadleboard, turning the wheel by foot while spinning with both hands. Think Rumplestiltskin.

How many stereotypes can YOU count?

Nora owns three or four Morisons herself, but more fundamentally, her research is in support of both nonfictional and fictional writing projects. So whenever she learns of a new one, she goes to visit it if she can, takes careful measurements and detailed photos so that she has a rigorous material culture record of one man’s expression of a way of life.

She now has tons of allies in the hunt, gets calls and messages from friends who imagine that they might have spotted a Morison on an Ebay auction or an Etsy shop. And last week, she got a call from a friend whose friend might have seen one at a local history museum. Nora called the museum, told them what to look for, and they confirmed that it was indeed an S Morison wheel.

We drove over today to photograph and measure it, and left absolutely assured of its origins in his shop. But as I was doing the final picture-taking upstairs, Nora was talking with the museum’s director down in the main gallery. And among the many things they talked about was how few people came to the museum. “I don’t know if we’re doing something wrong…” the director said in some despair.

I can’t tell you how many fabulously talented people I know who are in that same situation. They do elegant, thoughtful, beautiful, rigorous work that hardly anyone sees. They sing or build cabinets, they play darts or write novels, they teach continuing-ed courses that don’t fill, give book talks attended by eight.

When I was at Bread Loaf a couple of years ago, I was sitting on the porch of the great house one morning, talking with my workshop leader Peter Ho Davies. He said, “It doesn’t make any sense for a writer to be greedy for money. But we can absolutely be greedy for readers.” And that’s really it. None of us pursue our craft because we want to be rich. We’re not trying to spin our straw into gold. What we want is for our work to bring someone pleasure. What we want is for someone to say, “That was awesome. I learned a ton. I really appreciate the care that you take.” What we want is for someone to see the world just a little differently because of what we’ve made.

So, to all good people laboring in private, making and creating work that you fear may never be seen… you are part of a vast, invisible community of good will and good faith. You add to the world’s inventory of beauty and compassion. Don’t wait for it to be seen. Show it. Bring it out and put it on display. It was a hundred years ago this year that Yeats wrote, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Let’s rise up and prove him wrong. Let’s be a force of grace in a difficult world, the resistance army of joy.

A Message of Absolution

You hear something a thousand times, and then one day, you hear it differently. Today, I received a message of mercy, from forty-four years ago. Thank you.

Remember when you were young you shone like the sun
Shine on you crazy diamond
Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky
Shine on you crazy diamond
You were caught in the cross-fire of childhood and stardom
Blown on the steel breeze
Come on you target for faraway laughter
Come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine

You reached for the secret too soon
You cried for the moon
Shine on you crazy diamond

Threatened by shadows at night and exposed in the light
Shine on you crazy diamond
Well you wore out your welcome with random precision
Rode on the steel breeze
Come on you raver, you seer of visions
Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine

Nobody knows where you are, how near or how far
Shine on you crazy diamond
Pile on many more layers and I’ll be joining you there
Shine on you crazy diamond
And we’ll bask in the shadow of yesterday’s triumph
And sail on the steel breeze
Come on you boy-child, you winner and loser
Come on you miner for truth and delusion, and shine

— David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Richard Wright

Let Other Pens Dwell on Guilt and Misery

This is the fourth and final post having to do with Frank Palmer’s book Literature and Moral Understanding: A Philosophical Essay on Ethics, Aesthetics, Education, and Culture (1992, Oxford University Press). You should start at the beginning.

Welcome to our home.

I went into architecture because I wanted to take care of people. I later realized that wasn’t the profession’s goal, but it’s always been mine. Let the other designers play their intellectual games, challenge our expectations, decenter our understandings, throw our easy recognition into question. I wanted to create places where people could be comfortable, and where they could become even more generous and welcoming than they imagined themselves capable of being.

One of the things that Nora and I love most about our home is that other people feel comfortable here. It’s almost impossible to get people out of the kitchen and dining room, unless we started on the patio and the back yard, which is just as magnetic. People come for dinner, and discover without knowing how we got there that it’s eleven o’clock and we’re still talking. It’s a fine home for Nora and me and the cats on a daily basis, it allows us our rituals as partners and writers and cooks and diners, allows us to be independent when we need to be and together when we need to be. But it’s particularly good for hosting our friends, and for helping random guests become friends.

I mention this because of my morning’s reading of Palmer’s Literature and Moral Understanding, which has now done what good philosophy should do; it has let me apply its lessons to a question I’ve already carried. In Chapter 5 (“Readers and Spectators”), he begins with a long conversation about Jane Austen and her novel Mansfield Park, which he quite likes. But he offers one brief passage that took me out of his book and into my own understanding of my role as a writer of fiction:

As far as the world in the novel is concerned Jane Austen does not exist. Certainly Jane Austen has written the novel, but in responding to the world she has created we react to its occupants, and Jane Austen is not, and cannot be, one of its occupants any more than we can be. (106-7)

Let’s recap Palmer’s earlier assertion that we have two modes of discourse about a book, which he calls the internal discourse of World 1, the fictional world, and the external discourse of World 2, the actual world we live in every day. Both worlds are equally “real,” though not mutually interchangeable—the inhabitants of one cannot inhabit the other.

What I understood this morning is that, as a writer—a creator of World 1—I play the same role as the designer or builder of a home. I am not a member of the family who lives there, and cannot be. What I do is to facilitate the pleasures and the growth of that family, and to help them welcome friends to their table.

The family are the body of people who inhabit World 1, the world of the book. I want them to be not merely comfortable, but to be loved, to be successful, to discover strengths they weren’t sure they could muster (just as our home has helped me to exercise a generosity that hasn’t always been available to me). I bear the same responsibility to my characters that I always imagined I would bear to the residents of the homes I might design.

And what of the friends who visit? That would be the body of readers, unimaginable and ever changing, people invited and people who drop by. Palmer quotes a fellow philosopher, Rush Rhees, to say that “the artist does not work to satisfy an existing audience, but to create an audience through his work.” And how is that audience created? My goal, as a writer and as a designer, has been to allow the World 1 family and their home to be so engaging that people want to stop by. Nobody watches The Big Bang Theory for the plots; they watch because they find that Sheldon and Penny and Leonard and Amy are people they want to spend time with.

So that’s the underlying work I bring to the building of a story. I discover a character. I discover the other characters that surround him or her. And I work to help them be strong, to help them be proud, to help them learn that they can do great things with humble gifts. I build the home that I will never inhabit, not as a shrine to my own ingenuity, but as a gift to the family who will live within it, and to the unknowable guests who will stop by for a while.

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest. — Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

Game On!

This is the third of a few posts having to do with Frank Palmer’s book Literature and Moral Understanding: A Philosophical Essay on Ethics, Aesthetics, Education, and Culture (1992, Oxford University Press). You should start at the beginning.

As I said yesterday, the early work of Palmer’s book was the laying out of terms, rules, and opposing constructions. But with Chapter 4, “Moral Responses to Fictional Characters”… well, in the immortal words of Wayne Campbell, Game On!

The chapter begins with a recounting of the famous Radford/Weston debate of 1975. (Famous in some circles, anyway. It’s not as well known as the Ali-Frasier Thrilla in Manila of that same year, but it was a big deal at the Aristotelian Society.)

Colin Radford entered the ring first, to declare that our emotions about fiction are simply a category error, to which we humans are vulnerable because we’re just the kind of creatures that have emotions, even about things that we shouldn’t. Parker paraphrases Radford’s position thus: “…our emotional responses to fiction, brute and unavoidable though they are, rest upon a mistake.”

Michael Weston then took his place in the box, to declare that our emotional responses to fiction are not on behalf of the travails of the fictional characters, but rather of the literary work as a whole. Weston sees a work of fiction in ways analogous to a work of music, a composition by which we can be moved without an attachment to any particular component. He rejects emotional responses to characters by saying that we can’t actually interact with them, and that “fictional characters are never free to do other than they are portrayed as doing,” just as the notes of a concerto have to come in a predetermined array.

By this point, Palmer can take no more, vaulting the ropes himself to take on both opponents (albeit thirteen years later). In a sequence as finely scripted as a fight scene in which Jackie Chan singlehandedly dispatches a legion, Palmer walks calmly into the fray. He uses both Radford’s and Weston’s arguments against one another, and adds some fine moves of his own to leave them both gasping and bloodied on the mat.

Of course it would not be the Anna Karenina we know if her life had gone differently; but it would not be the Florence Nightingale we know if her life had gone differently. (95)

Oh, THAT left a mark!

But that’s just the highlight reel blow. The real work is to evoke Wittgenstein’s formulation that our attitude towards another person is ‘an attitude to a soul” (or, though he doesn’t refer to it here, what Martin Buber would call an I-Thou relation).

The application of this argument to fiction is that in so far as we are to regard fictional characters as doing things, as engaging in acts and actions, we cannot have a non-moral or non-human perspective on their actions. Our moral expectations are built into our very conception of what they are doing, e.g., when they tell lies, commit acts of cruelty, disregard bonds of friendship, mistreat their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, or when they are kind and generous, loyal and faithful, honest and true, self-sacrificing, brave, principled, or fair-minded. Whatever further significance we see in their actions, or however much we may enter into further debate about the nature and quality of their deeds and of their significance for the meaning of the literary work, our conception of a character as a human being has the mark of an ‘attitude to a soul’. (99)

The very fact that we see fictional characters’ actions not as neutral body-cam recordings of physical motion, but as bearing motivation and moral implication, means that we have entered into a specific, mutual relation with them. We grant them the emotional agency to determine both their actions and their intentions.

This is similar to the ways in which I can regard ‘real-world’ people I don’t know, whether historical (Gandhi and Stalin seem pretty different to me, though I never met either) or contemporary, as when we judge the character (a revealing word) of the political candidates from which we choose. We don’t know them, don’t interact with them. We merely hear and see what they do, and intuit their ‘character’ from those actions. On a day-to-day basis, Cory Booker is no more ‘real’ to me than Clark Kent; I grant them both reality because they both mean something to me, because I have an emotional resonance of a certain timbre and pitch when I see their actions. I have chosen to make them real, just as we can choose to deem some people other than human when it’s in our interest to mistreat them.

More tomorrow.

Groundskeeping and Framed Worlds

This is the second of a few posts having to do with Frank Palmer’s book Literature and Moral Understanding: A Philosophical Essay on Ethics, Aesthetics, Education, and Culture (1992, Oxford University Press). You should start at the beginning.

The second and third chapters of Palmer’s book represent the kind of groundskeeping that all academic books must do early on: defining terms, acknowledging the work of rivals, preparing the playing field to facilitate the daring maneuvers to come. It’s fascinating work if you can give it the time it deserves, deadly dull if you only came to watch the game. (And in that way, it’s just like the ritual of the poolroom I described a few days ago.)

One thing Palmer does to lay out the background is to assert that judgments only make sense in certain contexts. We say that a child is pretending to ride a horse, but we do not say that an actor is pretending to be a character. He uses the analogue of a person playing the role of a middle-forward in soccer: her actions only make sense within the context of the game and its rules, but it makes no sense to say that she is pretending to be a midfielder, nor that she is in a make-believe game. The game and her role are both absolutely real, but only within that context. In fact, the agreed-upon reality are what give the game and her actions their meaning, are what prevent her from using her hands to block a pass, from tripping a rushing ballhandler.

Palmer also lays out some characteristics of imagination, one of the most interesting being that we can imagine something being true without actually asserting that it is true. I can imagine that it’s raining right now, without actually perceiving that it is.

… when we apply this distinction to the problem of fiction the bare fact that we neither believe, nor are required to believe, that fictional occurrences are actual occurrences constitutes no impediment to our ability to understand them… Since it it literally inconceivable that a non-existent man should perform the deeds of Hamlet, in attending to the play we think of Hamlet as an existent man without thinking that there is any such person. (53)

He then follows that with the imaginative attitude that readers or viewers take when encountering a work of fiction:

… we are led through a writer’s handing of his chosen medium to experience characters and their circumstances within some sort of Gestalt. In order to accept the invitation to the imagination we therefore must be prepared to enter into a relationship with the work, such that our understanding of the characters needs to be as genuine and convincing as our understanding of actual people. (59)

Finally, he asserts that we bring the same sorts of contextualized judgments to fictional characters’ behavior as we do to that of “real” people. Actions are never merely neutral, they exist within a context of history and motive and circumstance that utterly change their meanings.

Suppose that I discover a friend has betrayed a confidence… Suppose I now discover circumstances which suggest he is not the rogue I thought he was. The words slipped out while he was drunk, or he was talking in his sleep, or perhaps his wife was depressed and, in a desperate attempt to get her to see things in perspective, he found himself revealing my long battle against alcoholism or the brave face I had been putting on a terminal illness. Discovering this, I may feel inclined to say that I no longer blame him, But this lessens my inclination to say that he ‘betrayed’ a confidence. Perhaps the changed description is ‘he revealed my secret’. At any rate I shall be seeing his act under some different description. I shall have a different conception of what he has done. (63)

And of course, we do exactly this when we consider the actions and statements of any fictional character. We encounter them within the context of the story as well as within the context of our understanding of how people behave in daily life, and both sets of rules shape our meaning and our judgments. That is, we treat those characters as though they had normal human agency, and we treat the world of the novel as analogously real to the world we otherwise inhabit. Fiction would not matter otherwise, just as people running up and down a soccer pitch would not matter without our acceptance of the rules and rituals and history of the sport. The fictional world is real. The fact that its reality is enclosed within the context of that particular story makes it no different than the reality of any workplace, any economic system, any religious belief. All of those worlds have internal facts that are crucial within them, irrelevant or inapplicable beyond them.

More tomorrow.

When The Characters Exist, And We Don’t

This is the first of a few posts having to do with Frank Palmer’s book Literature and Moral Understanding: A Philosophical Essay on Ethics, Aesthetics, Education, and Culture (1992, Oxford University Press)

I’ve been wrestling with the idea that I bear ethical responsibilities to the fictional characters I create. In order to think more carefully about that, I asked our local library to obtain a copy of Frank Palmer’s Literature and Moral Understanding, the 1992 book drawn from his 1988 dissertation in philosophy from London University. I’m really just underway with it, so I’ll be giving you a reader’s report as I go.

It’s not my intention to recapitulate his entire argument, which would be the same as making a 1:1 scale model of a house. (Here’s the book, if you’d like.) Rather, I’m going to stop the tape periodically and point out some idea that he’s made me think about.

He makes the argument that there is an internal mode of discourse about fiction, in which it makes sense to speak of a character doing or wanting or saying something, and an external mode of discourse, in which those characters and settings do not exist. So far, that makes pretty obvious sense. When we read The Hustler, we get to say things like “Eddie Felson grew up in Oakland,” but when we stand outside the book, it makes no sense for us to find a 1930s Oakland telephone directory and look for the Felson family’s listing.

But then Palmer makes an important claim, and one that I don’t think even he quite understands the importance of. He says “… I cannot rush on to the heath to reason with Lear—not because he does not exist, but because as far as the play is concerned I do not, and indeed cannot, if I am to understand it.” (38)

Let’s call these world 1 (the world internal to the story) and world 2 (the ‘real’ world). In world 2, the world I’m sitting in right now in Vermont on August 11, 2019, the fictional characters I might discuss don’t exist. But in world 1, the world inside the story… I don’t exist, and those characters and places do! Put another way, I am not a participant in those stories:

The ‘world” of Mansfield Park differs from our world, not in the sense that it contains different sorts of creatures from actual persons, but in the sense that we cannot be a party to anything that happens in it. (38-9).

And really, isn’t that a description of the best possible experience of reading? We cease to exist. We are not in our chair, not feeling the sweat of a humid day, not thinking about the itch between our shoulders or the thirst of our empty water bottle. We are lost to the world of the pages… not because we play any role within it, but because we have left the world in which even the concept of our self has no meaning, and have entered a different world.

When a book fails us, our selves are fully present in our experience. We feel ourselves to be frustrated, or angry, or bored, or confused. We have opinions. But when we’re fully in world 1, when the writer has opened that portal for us, we no longer inhabit our world 2 selves, our minds nor our bodies… but we also have no place in world 1. We are not doing those story things, we cannot intervene in what’s happening, we can’t talk things over with the confused hero who has misinterpreted her friend’s words. We are nowhere. We do not exist at all.

Two thoughts come from this realization, for me. One is that this helps explain why I’m so frustrated with so much fiction that comes from academic MFA programs. Those writers make their bones through critical analysis, through actively using their world 2 brains and references to explain—and later, to create—world 1 people and phenomena. They don’t play by fiction rules, they play by critical rules, and their fiction suffers greatly for it, always held at an ironic arm’s length for active, constant consideration.

The other, though, is that Parker’s analysis (at least so far, I’m only 40 pages in) deals with the role of the reader, and not the role of the writer. The writer is that strange creature sitting in world 2 who really can make things happen in world 1, not as a character, but in a completely different role. If the reader exists nowhere at all, the writer exists in two places at once. Who, then, am I when I write?

More tomorrow.