“Life's nonsense pierces us with strange relation.” This is one of the wonderful lines in Wallace Stevens “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” – a poem that makes much of that “toward”, that motion which, seemingly, is oriented towards an endpoint that is itself on an absolute scale – it is supreme – and at the same time – being “a supreme fiction” – seemingly, diminishingly, not the only one, leaving us rather puzzled about the entire movement and meaning that will be convened in the poem’s sweep.
I am thinking about this poem in relation to Michael Wood’s Literature and the Taste of Knowledge. The book gestures a lot to Empson, since it is made up of Wood’s Empson Lectures given at Cambridge. Levi-Strauss once said that totem’s are good to think with, and one could say the same for this book: it is in that way evidently totemic. Like a good totem pole, it mounts one head on another, beginning with Henry James and ending with John Banville – it is mostly novelists – and so we have can think of the tradition that is being performed. But there is also the strange notion of the taste of knowledge. Wood procedes to mutilate or distort the idea of knowledge until we give up our simple idea that we know what knowing is, and take another look.
It is a book that quotes philosophers, but isn’t philosophy – rather, it is at the crossroads of philosophy and literature, which is not a spot haunted by many philosophers, unfortunately.
But here’s the thing I latched onto in reading Wood’s book – the idea of fictionable worlds. The lovely phrase comes originally from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, where it is a play on the fashionable world. Wood sees the immense idea that could be here, and how it helps us to think about fiction by asking whether there could be a world without fiction. How could a world actively resist its fictionability? Perhaps this is the melancholic idea behind Adorno’s famous phrase about there being no more poetry after Auschwitz. There is a point in which the fictionable impulse dies.
That at least is one possible reading of the limits of the fictionable world. However, realistically, there has been poetry after Auschwitz, and there have even been novels about Auschwitz.
So lets find another point of entry to the fictionable world, one that Wood doesn’t deal with, even as he intimates the direction I want to go in. That point of entry is the error, the mistake, the misperception.
The comedy of errors is, in Shakespeare, essential to comedy at all. Without mistakes of identity, disguises, mishearings and misinterpretations – think of Malvolio, for instance - there would be no comedic business.
Two of the great novelists of the twentieth century – Nabokov and Queneau – are specialists in the mistake. Pnin, for instance, is wound around a mistake that is signaled at the very beginning of the book by the omniscient and ominous narrator – Pnin is on the wrong train. From whence he proceeds to the wrong bus. Queneau, in Chiendent, sets the plot in motion with a mistaken inference by the terrible Madame Cloche, who thinks that Pierre Le Grand and Etienne Marcel are planning to rob pere Taupe. This misunderstanding has many levels. It derives from a misunderstanding of a phrase that Cloche overheard; and it leads her to infer that Pere Taupe, contrary to his appearance as a miserable quasi-bum, is actually a mythical miser.
If the world and logic were one and the same thing, these errors would cancel themselves out. They couldn’t cause anything, because they wouldn’t have any substance. From the moment that we see that logic and the world are two separate things, we see how the world is fictionable. We see the work of error, we see how it blooms in the world. Michael Wood touches briefly on a question that was once vexatious – what use is art, or how can art be useful – to get to the question of how literature knows things. This locution – taking an object that is known and making it a knower, as in such book titles as “what buildings know” or “what poems know”, etc., is a contemporary fashion that, I can’t help but think, was helped along by the fact that computers, which we all use, seem to do things like knowing. In the early modern era, the displacement of knowing from the consciousness to the object was a principle in alchemy and, in general, occult knowledge. Even then, the fact that a place “has a memory” – a theory of Cornelius Agrippa – was not attributed, ultimately, to the place, but rather to spirits. The question of the cognitive function of literature is, though, a bastard continuation of the great aesthetic debate between the old purists, the high modernists, for whom literature was autonomous and removed from the world of use, and the counter-modernists, the realists (socialist and otherwise), for whom literature was a means to an end – usually consciousness raising, sometimes outrage, sometimes pointing out a social ill.
That debate, while it is no longer conducted on the lofty, Adorno-ian plane, is still definitely around. My own tastes are mostly for the high modern monuments, but I don’t think my tastes encompass all literature, and it is easy to see how a literary work could also be didactically important, or raise consciousness, etc.
We could look at this another way by using elements of Victor Turner’s idea of “ritual process”, and in particular the ideas of anti-structure and liminality. Turner writes of these things under the general notion of communitas – a non-structured, non-hierarchical gathering that inevitably hardens into organization. But I think of this non-structured thrusting of the liminal as something larger than communitas. It is, in fact, the fictionable world, the world in which mistakes actually produce ontologically real events – in which the nothing of falsehood is a cause. The world in which we pretend logic and the world are identical bears a name: the serious world. But the world in which logic and the world suddenly separate is harder to name. It is the ludicrous world. It can be terrible, or terribly funny, or both.
That is an aspect of the world that fascinates me.