Why should we be particularly interested, from a prosophic viewpoint, in contemporary fiction? The visual arts – with rare exceptions even in motion pictures – present mostly metaphors of the drifting involvedness between life’s immediate co-factors. Contemporary narratives – of the kind often found in vanguard, world-class fiction – offer instead in-depth studies of commonplace, minimal-looking events, intricate webs of them for that matter, and in so doing they explore the foundations of evenience as if this investigation were precisely their purpose. This mission is a relatively new one, though. The range and scope of fictional exploration has greatly expanded over the time. To understand where we are in fiction, and how it has evolved into the aptest place where to hunt for prosophic commitment, let’s have a quick peek at past storytelling.

A pilgrim’s progress

In fact, the heroic legends of the origins pursued almost the opposite: every detail in the story sent the public back to the celebratory program and purveyed morality. The sheer extension of some narrative, anyway, entailed a mutation of incidents that submitted fresh viewpoints about different aspects of the being-to-the-world condition. The more dutifully you wished to commemorate your hero, the less you would flatly repeat the same circumstances. The greatest hero, Herakles, has inspired the richest collection of stories, through which his humanity deepens and thickens, and ours does as well. But there was a handicap, to be sure, in that the narrative had to ultimately surrender its energy to the celebrating intent.
As stories went, another very successful model was the pilgrimage through dire straits to salvation. The pilgrim’s recount was supposed to transfix the audience, to heal and inspire. And so it did. The fascination with stories where the hero learns top-rate lessons by being tried in the extreme is still vivid in our times. What we go back to and marvel at, though, is not the success, or failure, endings – Odysseus winning back his wife and scepter, for instance, or Dante’s coming to see God’s light, or Ahab losing his fight against the Whale, or Raskolnikov’s last-page redemption – but the variety of experiences that the characters are going through, the worlds they have to navigate. Nonetheless, the pilgrimage model usually suffers from its need to oppose extremes of evil and good, desolation and recovery. It shows more than ever in philosophical narratives, like in Plato’s tale of the cave, where in order to heighten the narrative effect of the soul’s liberation the philosopher is bound to depict the men in the cave – that is the rest of us – as kind of living dead. [top]

Manners and feelings

A very different liberation surfaced in modern times with late medieval and Renaissance stories like Boccaccio’s, Rabelais’s and Ariosto’s. But to shorten this speedy recollection, let’s go on as far as Jane Austen in the history of fiction, when writers began to focus their interest into everyday manners, sense, wit, and vainness. Everyday life – with its subtle deviations in sanity and balance – was previously of little interest, except as a pale background for the weirdly tragic or the oddly comic. Since Austen’s times the writer’s gaze widened to cover the way of life of all social milieux, while the Romantic spirit added its discontent with appearances, its angst about feelings and the shadows of ardor. The road was open for such vast accounts of human evenience as Balzac’s Comédie. In progress, the 19th century saw personal emotions and passions minutely described, social concerns keenly exposed. Thanks to the likes of Gogol, Turgenev, Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant, James, Cechov, and Tolstoy novels had already remodeled into big vessels of all kind of vibrant, true-to-life occurrences when an ‘inner’ revolution took place in fiction. [top]

The live stream

Until then the story had usually been spun by an omniscient author or told by a character, an imaginary onlooker. There were, on separate grounds, the facts to be recounted, the storyteller’s voice, the mimicking dialogues, and the overall authoring style. What James Joyce had in mind in writing Ulysses was to blend acts, voices, characters, and styles in one pulsing organism, as if fiction could embody life’s entwined growth, its all-embracing weave, in a wholesome amalgam both realistic and symbolic. The interior monologue, forever epitomized by Molly Bloom’s loose thoughts in bed at the end of the day, should be seen as just one manifestation of Joyce’s life-streaming intent. His example set a new ambitious standard for fiction. In the meantime, the Freudian fascination with sexual drives, lusty instincts, and the unconscious aspects of human mind, while contributing in its way to the overall awareness of what life entails, was a factor of distraction, too, since it seemed for a while that those unconscious forces were to wipe the being-to-the-world complexity, reducing it to an archaic clash between, as Herbert Marcuse put it later, Eros and Civilization. Hence again, ironically, a lot of one-dimensional literature, novels thought of as self-exposing devices, etc. [top]

The funny thing

Nonetheless, all past seasons in fictional narrative having added their different viewpoints on life’s fabric, it seems to me that contemporary authors – prompted by the melting together of cultures, the Internet-driven changes, the surviving, even expanding, abysmal differences of horizons between individuals – are now committing themselves to represent, as if on direct drive and with impressive accuracy, the grain of the event, the A|D|R texture of human evenience. Painstaking care is exercised by the most innovative novelists in order to keep their narratives true to the web of life and clear of ideology.
I’m thinking here of Don DeLillo, David F. Wallace, Jonathan Frazer, Roddy Doyle, Zadie Smith, Alice Munro, Christos Tsiolkas, Colum McCann, Ian McEwan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Meg Wolitzer, to name a few. In depicting without intruding they seem endowed with an almost magical touch. Life, so it seems, sort of unveils itself the way it is – double-edged, poker-faced, protean, yet solid with its joys and sorrows. For this very reason, their works seem sometimes to be missing their center of gravity. What are they built around? It’s not a set of values, or an artistic theory, or a high-minded idea. They care about the full flow of ordinary life. No need to stage-manage it.
Nonetheless, you cannot really write altogether neutrally. A conceptual backdrop is sought after. I have seen mentioned fun, of all things, as an overall motivation, the way in the 18th century one would have mentioned wit. Fun in a pregnant sense, though. For, I imagine, if you want to look into life’s amazing diversity with no preset screenplay, dramatic or didactic, to rehearse, you are left with the unanticipated interaction of, in our terms, what happens to happen (the arising seed), who affects it and is in any manner affected by it (the deciding seed), and how it is actually translated into meaning, sense, and message (the relating seed). Sure, such complex interaction is a never-ending source of bafflement, but an alert mind is able to transfer the best of it into the elation typical of comprehensive empathy. Which elation is unassumingly spoken of as funny. [top]

The pilgrim’s progress
Manners and feelings
The live stream
The funny thing

Posts and Notes


Published October 10, 2014