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.

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