Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Annie Dillard, "Living by Fiction"

 – Harper Perennial 1998; 192 p.; ISBN 0-06-091544-7


Read from May 31st to June 21st 2016

My rating:



With her “Living by Fiction”, Annie Dillard seems to contradict Emile Cioran’s belief that building on the ideas/ creations of others is a form of intellectual parasitism, such an outstanding proof is this book that criticism can be art, that it can use literature as an inspirational source to its own glory, just like art uses world to the same purpose. In fact these are the two main themes of the essay: criticism versus art and art versus the world, both suggested by the inspired title. The second one is also emphasized by a clever question asked in Introduction: “Does fiction illuminate the great world itself or only the mind of its human creator?”

The answer is gradually developed in the three parts by discussing the how, the what and why of the fiction-world relationship. Part One, “Some Contemporary Fiction”, compares what the author calls historical modernists (Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, Gide, Woolf, etc.) with contemporary modernists (Borges, Nabokov, Beckett, Barth, Robe-Grillet, Calvino, Cortazar, etc.) to show that the techniques of the first are still employed by the latter, by looking over time, characters, point of view, fable or themes.


One of the most preferred techniques in nowadays fiction is the narrative collage, that breaks time “in smithereens” and simulates chaos, although, in the author’s opinion, art cannot imitate disorder, only pretend it, for there is always unity and meaning in the true art: “In this structural unity lies integrity, and it is integrity which separates art from nonart.” Integrity, says Annie Dillard, is the essential criterion by which we should judge a work, the sieve that separates sentimental art (which “attempts to force preexistent emotions upon us”) from real art (which creates “characters and events which will elicit special feelings unique to the text”).

On the other hand, characters, once the center of the fiction, do not longer appeal to us emotionally, but intellectually. They are flattened (as opposed to the rounded, “drawn in depth” traditional ones), reduced to surfaces, and anyone, and anything can become a character: a mental defective (Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury), a toddler (Grass, The Tin Drum), a dinosaur (Calvino, Cosmicomics), a breast (Roth, The Breast), an axolotl (Cortazar, Axolotl), a goat (Barth, Giles Goat-Boy). Moreover, they are mocked or commented, are given funny names (Humbert Humbert, Betty Bliss, Word Smith, Benny Profane), and sometimes the authors even try to impose a pronunciation (Barth wanted that Giles be pronounced in the same way as “guiles” and Nabokov that Ada be pronounced in the same way as “ardor”).

The same goes for the point of view, already limited by the Modernists to one narrator. Now there may be several voices to tell the story, or an axolotl, or a breast, and it is not a rare event for these points of view to collide, becoming another aspect of the collage. As for the story they tell, well, the drama and action that appeal to everybody are avoided (in the same way modern painting avoids representation) by serious novelists, who want to separate their work from trash, keeping in check the readers’ emotions by telling a bad story:

Literature as a whole has moved from contemplating cosmology – Dante – for the sake of God, to analyzing society – George Eliot – for the sake of man, to abstracting pattern itself – Nabokov – for the sake of art.

As a result, one of the main themes of the contemporary fiction has become art itself, be it in novels that talk about art (with heroes who are artists like in Gide’s The Counterfeiters), be it in novels in which the referents don’t leave the surface of art and the fragmented world becomes an art object contained on its own plane (like in Gertrude Stein’s works or in Nabokov’s Pale Fire). In relation to this theme there is the relationship between the tale and its teller, which can lead not only to the nature of art and narration but also to the nature of perception (the biased narrator deals in part with the theme of perceptual bias):

Gradually, then, the question of the relationship between tale, teller and world fades into the question of the relationship between any perceiver and any object. And this matter is a frequent theme – nay, obsession – in contemporary, modernist fiction.

However, the big challenge of Art, the problem of knowing the world, is by no means abandoned. The problem of cognition can be approached by isolating the object from its context (surrealists), by using language as a cognitive tool to plainly describe the world of objects (Henry Green, Wright Morris, Alain Robbe-Grillet), by looking for the nature of knowing (Stanslaw Lem, The Cyberiad, Robbe-Grillet, The Voyeur, Borges, Death and the Compass), by transforming the world in an arena of possibilities (Calvino, Invisible Cities).

But in the end most contemporary writers are in the middle of the distance between traditionalism and contemporary modernism, as are the Modernists themselves, for their mainstream still consists of stories that, using modernist techniques, penetrate the world and order it, and are populated by complex characters.

The second part of the study, “The State of Art”, after observing that there is no real revolution in literature, most techniques being known and used from Sterne’s time, with the new including the old (Gertrude Stein and Finnegans Wake’s efforts to alter the language remained without proselytes, “because the material of fiction is world”), considers that one of the greatest strengths of fiction is that any reader feels qualified to review his readings, the audience of literature being eclectic – educated but not necessarily specialized, which distinguish fiction from the other contemporary arts that “have rid themselves of all impure elements, including an audience”:

Who apart of specialist will say of a Di Suvero sculpture, “It doesn’t work,” or of a Alvin Lucier composition, “It’s no good”? yet who hesitates to rate contemporary novels? This symptom reveals the assumption that fiction, even when it is literature, should answer to its audience by pleasing it.

This easy approach has been facilitated by a blissful mixing of genres (a phenomenon unheard of in visual art). There is no minor or despised genre for most serious writers: Murdoch has written gothic romances, Calvino fantasies, Barth fairy-tales, etc. Unfortunately, from this blurring profits also the book industry, which has no reservation to recommend, for example, a detective novel to those who loved Ficciones.  This halo effect can increase or decrease the literary value of a book:

And it is here that the blurring of genres goes too far for art’s health. For the viewpoint of big business, a dog care manual and a novel of genius are both marketable objects called “books”; since the dog care manual will be easier to market for profit, there is no point in taking a chance on the novel.

Therefore, the role of the critics should be to help the readers to escape this halo effect, and in a way it is, since it influences the students’ thinking about fiction and it keeps fiction traditional by defending the canonic works, the national writers, and by ignoring the contemporary writers. But the critic experts are not as needed as in painting, for everyone can approach any work (except Finnegans Wake, maybe). They seem to influence more the contemporary fiction itself, both by canonizing the historical modernism and by making the contemporary one aware of criticism to the point that it helps to create it.  Thus, criticism (to reassume the argument I opened my review with) has become a source of inspiration for fiction while proudly separating itself from it:

As an art form, criticism is more highly developed than fiction is. Its own theories are actually the most suitable objects of its intelligence.

If the Part One spoke about the main traits of the contemporary modernism and Part Two about the role and place of Art in contemporary society, Part Three, “Does the World Have Meaning?” speaks about the broken links between criticism, art, and world. Criticism cannot truly interpret art, only create a parallel world and become itself art:

Criticism must always try to know a text on its own terms; but it will always fail. Criticism cannot know its object. There is no guaranteed thread of connection between any interpretation and any text; so criticism is a particularly fanciful and baroque form of skywriting.

And this is because art cannot (and doesn’t want to) interpret the world. What it does is create something that did not exist before, because the artist is more interested to be original than to interpret the world: Melville’s whale is not the object of the world, but the tool of interpretation:   

The art object does not teach, exhort, arouse, aid, and so forth. It does not “help us to see”, like an optometrist; it does not “make us realize” like a therapist; it does not “open doors for us”, like a butler. Nevertheless, insofar as art has any function whatsoever (and I am coming to believe that it does), it requires an audience. (…) If outside human perception the art object has no human value, then the art object needs a perceiver, lest or it is or does be lost.


If there is a meaning of the world, the author concludes, it could be found in Art. Art’s greatest gift, finally, is to convince us that the world has a meaning and a purpose. Even if it has not.

No comments:

Post a Comment