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Monday, March 07, 2011

the anthropological use of the novel

In his preface to Anthropology from the Pragmatic Point of View, Kant wrote:

“Finally, there are those things that are not, in truth, sources of Anthropology, but supplements [ Hülfsmittel] to it: world history, biographies, and yes, even plays and novels. Because although both of the last are not actually founded in experience and truth, but only in poetic imagining, and the exaggeration of characters and situations are allowed wherein persons are set as in dream images, and this seems to hold nothing out for the teaching of the knowledge of mankind, still these characters, as they are sketched out by a Richardson or a Moliere, must have their fundamental features taken from out of the observation of the real action and forbearance of men because they, although exaggerated to a degree in quality, must after all still agree with human nature.”

The key to the exaggeration of the artist is the degree of accuracy of his observation of the characters and situations of human kind. But what kind of accuracy is it that is pitched against exaggeration? It is not the mathematical precision of science; rather, what holds the correspondence together, here, is what is plausible. The “agreement” with human nature is not a correspondance with natural fact, but an correspondance to what we consider to be a plausible account of what humans do.

Evans, in Aristotle’s Concept of Dialectic, claims that Aristotle uses two words, endoxos and eikos, to speak of a certain kind of reasoning from probabilities. The two words are often confused in translation to mean ‘what is generally received” or what is plausible. Endoxos can mean famous or glorious, or it can be applied to views that have a certain weight, that come with a certain reputation; endoxon can mean a common belief, a commonplace or view. The weight of a view, its human probability, comes, then, not from some fact about the world, but from the regard we have for the source of the view, or in other words, the regard we have for the persons who, we suppose, have the view. The plausible is, thus, always a view that refers to some class or group. That view of a group, the opinion held by the public – and what counts, here, as the public – the consensus, the serious, is all encrypted in the exaggerations of ‘a Richardson or a Moliere”. The writers are, in a certain sense, allowed the dreamer’s freedom to distort. But, as with dreams that we consider to hold truths about the past or future, through the distortion we can read a certain message. The message, for the anthropologist, concerns what is magnified in dramatic incidences – that is, the elements of a character. And what gives the character its unity is the logic of the plausible, the inferences that find their objective side in, say, the deductions of Sherlock Holmes – who understands character in terms of the neglect of a sleeve, or the tilt of a hat. This logic, as Aristotle says in the Topics, defines the dialectical method:

“Now reasoning is an argument in which, certain things being laid down, something other than these necessarily comes about through them. (a) It is a 'demonstration', when the premises from which the reasoning starts are true and primary, or are such that our knowledge of them has originally come through premises which are primary and true: (b) reasoning, on the other hand, is 'dialectical', if it reasons from opinions that are generally accepted. Things are 'true' and 'primary' which are believed on the strength not of anything else but of themselves: for in regard to the first principles of science it is improper to ask any further for the why and wherefore of them; each of the first principles should command belief in and by itself. On the other hand, those opinions are 'generally accepted' which are accepted by every one or by the majority or by the philosophers-i.e. by all, or by the majority, or by the most notable and illustrious of them. Again (c), reasoning is 'contentious' if it starts from opinions that seem to be generally accepted, but are not really such, or again if it merely seems to reason from opinions that are or seem to be generally accepted. For not every opinion that seems to be generally accepted actually is generally accepted. For in none of the opinions which we call generally accepted is the illusion entirely on the surface, as happens in the case of the principles of contentious arguments; for the nature of the fallacy in these is obvious immediately, and as a rule even to persons with little power of comprehension. So then, of the contentious reasonings mentioned, the former really deserves to be called 'reasoning' as well, but the other should be called 'contentious reasoning', but not 'reasoning', since it appears to reason, but does not really do so.”

What is “generally accepted” is what is endoxos. There is, of course, a difference between a literary character and an argument, even in the most didactic of texts, but literary characters, in Kant’s view – a view that is ‘generally accepted’ by a philosophic tradition going back to Aristotle – are made out of what we would expect, and a little bit more – that little bit being a matter of the art of the observer.

In an essay by Genette on vraisemblence (or plausibility) and motivation in literature, he quotes a letter from Bussy-Rabotin to Madame Sevigne concerning The Princess de Cleves in which he decries one of the actions of the heroine for partaking of what ought not to be done, even if such things are done. What happened in the novel “should only be said in a true story.”

Bussy-Rabotin’s sentiment is one we can easily recognize. It is alive in the way people speak of books, plays, movies, tv. But, oddly, it drives more of a wedge between what Aristotle called the demonstrative and the plausible. It is as if we have gone through the mirror of art and come out on the other side, for the truth of art is precisely the contrary of what “should only be said in a true story.” This is not, I must emphasize, an aesthetic that died in Madame Sevigne’s salon – you have merely to hear politically committed people speak of a film or a novel to realize that there is a whole political bienseance in which what might be said in a true story should not be said, or should be said otherwise, in a false one.

In The Princess de Cleves, in fact, Madame de la Fayette underlines the violation of the rules of bienseance, and even plausibility, by having her heroine write that her confession to her husband is ‘without example’ – or as Genette puts it, has the support of no generally accepted maxim.

Genette applies the system of the plausible to the question of motive, which is after all the test of the property and distinctness of character – that is to say, the element that diversifies character. The avaricious character is motivated by love of money to make a certain deal. The saint is motivated by love of humanity to help a certain person. But the modern, Genette points out, is characterized by a movement away from the maxim, the reputation, the consensus, the ‘what ought to be’, and towards the gratuitous, the implausible – towards what Manchette, the French mystery writer, called the behavioristic style, in which action does not refer, explicitly, to motive. Genette calls this the decline, or transformation, of the discursive voice in the novel. Balzac, for Genette, is the classic example of a writer whose authorial asides – representing the whole system of the plausible - intrude the discursive, or the explanation by way of motives, into the heart of the story. But the massiveness of Balzac’s explanations actually undermine the system of the plausible by revealing the arbitrariness of the “psychological explanation”. One is continually coming across very different, even contradictory, psychological explanations in Balzac for the same type of action. As Genette points out, Balzac’s generalizations can often be reversed, as for instance in his novel The Cure of Tours, when he writes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit! He could not, like many stupid people, support the boredom that was caused in him by the presence of stupid people. People without wit are like weeds that like to grow in good soil, and they like to be amused as much as they bore others.” As Genette says, such explanations almost irresistibly call for “Ducassian inversion” – that is, for the kind of inversion of the common maxim that pleased Lautreamont. In so elaborately motivating his characters, Balzac ‘protests too much’: he betrays the “arbitrariness of the recit.” For, of course, the Cure of Tours can do almost anything. There is no natural control upon him, no fact that impinges on his making. This can lead to the direction of apparently immotivated action or, as Genette observes, to the absolute expansion of discourse, or the ‘essayistic’ – from Balzac to Proust there is less distance than one thinks.

It is the plausible, then, that is engaged by the dialectical. In consequence, dialectic always bears the slight impress of the “who” that believes, makes a maxim, follows a norm – that is, the slight impress of the banal.

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