Sunday, July 8, 2007

When is it Fiction?

Yesterday I made the rather audacious claim that I tend to focus my attention on non-fiction to avoid having to compete with the likes of Harold Bloom on the "turf" of critical reading. It is definitely true that non-fiction almost always bumps fiction off of my priority list of books I want to read; but this is usually because the books that receive highest priority are those likely to inform writing projects I have set for myself. Thus, when Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past actually made it to the top of the priority list (and managed to stay there through the whole cycle of novels), the reason had a lot to do with my being in the midst of writing about the problem of "organizational memory" and deep-ending on the broader question of memory itself.

All this presumes an ontology that supports a clean delineation between fiction and non-fiction, which is, if you will forgive the play on words, presumptuous to the point of absurdity. Even public libraries continue to have trouble with the distinction; and this is not a problem of our modern (or postmodern) condition. The blurring of fiction and non-fiction can be traced all the way back to the days on Aesop and Hesiod in our "Western civilization;" and I suspect that things are not that different in other world cultures. Indeed, the distinction has absolutely no relevance in the context of the very opening passage in the Preface of Harold Bloom's How to Read and Why:

There is no single way to read well, though there is a prime reason why we should read. Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?

As I wrote not too long ago, the "knowledge movement" has left a bad taste in my mouth where the word "wisdom" is concerned; but, since I know that Bloom is not trying to "sell a knowledge management solution," it is not hard for me to show a bit more respect when he introduces the noun. In that sense I can read this passage as an extension of one of my initial premises: If I choose the books I read on the basis of how they will inform specific writing projects, Bloom's "prime reason" has to do with the more general capacity for reading to inform the more general "project" of being-in-the-world (having no idea what, if any, opinions Bloom has about Heidegger). In that respect fiction has as much of a capacity (if not more so) to inform our being-in-the-world as non-fiction does, perhaps even to the extent that, even if there is "no single way to read well," we need not invoke different strategies for the respective reading of fiction and non-fiction.

In my previous blog I tried to address this question of reading strategy in the matter of an "essay" by Heinrich von Kleist. I invoked scare quotes because I doubt that any reader will ever know with certainty whether or not Kleist took seriously the propositions he set forth in this particular text or whether he was just pushing the envelope for what one could do with the expository text type. From this point of view, Kleist was playing the same game with expository prose that Raymond Queneau would later do with the texts of pure mathematics in his "The Foundations of Literature (after David Hilbert)" (Number 3 in the Bibliothèque Oulipienne collection). It is with this mindset that I realized I would have to approach the excerpt from J. M. Coetzee's new novel, Diary of a Bad Year, which appears in the current issue of The New York Review.

On the surface this is an interweaving of two texts, a first-person narrative account of a personal experience (that could be based on Coetzee's personal experience but could just as easily be entirely fictitious) and an expository analysis of "central problems in social theory" (if I may be allowed to appropriate the title of one of Anthony Giddens' books, whether or not Coetzee knows about Giddens' writings). In approaching this text, I suspect that it is important to note that, just as it does not matter whether the narrative account has anything to do with Coetzee's past experiences, it also does not matter whether or not the expository analysis reflects Coetzee's personal thoughts and values in the domain of social theory. The first of these "central problems" is "the origins of the state;" and the text takes Thomas Hobbes as its point of departure, including an extended (and footnoted) quotation from On the Citizen. However, Hobbes is rather quickly "interrupted" by an excursus on The Seven Samurai, which makes it immediately clear that the author sees this film as much more than an homage to John Ford. Rather, it is, in that author's words, "no less than the Kurosawan theory of the origin of the state" (perhaps in the same way that the first season of Deadwood elevated the genre of the Western to an exploration of issues also concerned with "the origins of the state").

The author now proceeds to summarize the plot in terms of the village plundered by bandits once a year. This is where things get interesting, because the premise for the plot also becomes a premise of social theory:

The bandits have not yet begun to live among their subjects, having their wants taken care of day by day—that is to say, they have not yet turned the villagers into a slave population. Kurosawa is thus laying out for our consideration a very early stage in the growth of the state.

This is the point at which the reader can only stare at the text and think, as I had previously described in the case of Kleist, "I can't believe I'm reading this!" The author has introduced the proposition that the "state" is fundamentally an institutionalization of slavery (in a manner not that different from Max Weber's definition of politics as the institutionalization of the exercise of authority). This is the point at which the reader has to take a stand on whether or not "context matters" in reading this text. Yesterday I cited the argument of the relevance of context in reading literature but felt strongly that one could not ignore context in reading non-fiction. Does context matter in reading this text that Coetzee is calling a "novel?" I find it hard to believe that Coetzee wishes us to ignore his own South African nationality, let alone the many years during which South African governance had been built on a foundation of institutionalized slavery.

I am not sure I should take this argument much further for now. After all, the only text I have is an excerpt from a larger work. What I have just written is not so much a document about that larger work as an attempt to document the formation of "first impressions" upon reading this excerpt. Of course first impressions are important for any text. They contribute to the frame of mind that the reader brings to the remainder of the text and may often determine whether the subsequent text is read at all. Suffice it to say here that Coetzee has introduced an intriguing strategy for "hooking" his reader. That strategy seems to have worked with me; and, for all I know, I shall still be "hooked" when the book is finally published in January of 2008!

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