What Is Fiction For?: Literary Humanism Restored

What Is Fiction For?: Literary Humanism Restored

by Bernard Harrison


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How can literature, which consists of nothing more than the description of imaginary events and situations, offer any insight into the workings of "human reality" or "the human condition"? Can mere words illuminate something that we call "reality"? Bernard Harrison answers these questions in this profoundly original work that seeks to re-enfranchise reality in the realms of art and discourse. In an ambitious account of the relationship between literature and cognition, he seeks to show how literary fiction, by deploying words against a background of imagined circumstances, allows us to focus on the roots, in social practice, of the meanings by which we represent our world and ourselves. Engaging with philosophers and theorists as diverse as Wittgenstein, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Derrida, F. R. Leavis, Cleanth Brooks, and Stanley Fish, and illustrating his ideas through readings of works by Swift, Woolf, Appelfeld, and Dickens, among others, this book presents a systematic defense of humanism in literary studies, and of the study of the Humanities more generally, by a distinguished scholar.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253014085
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 12/29/2014
Pages: 620
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Bernard Harrison is Emeritus E. E. Ericksen Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah and Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Sussex, UK. He is author of Inconvenient Fictions: Literature and the Limits of Theory; The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel, and Liberal Opinion; and (with Patricia Hanna) Word and World: Practice and the Foundations of Language.

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What Is Fiction For?

Literary Humanism Restored

By Bernard Harrison

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Bernard Harrison
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01412-2


Humanism and Its Discontents


The study of literature in universities – "humane letters," as it was once quaintly known – has traditionally been held to belong, along with history, and for that matter with philosophy in its most central aspects, to "the humanities." That term trades on the common distinction between the natural world, the world of birds and beasts, stone, stars, and the sea, and the human world, the world of politics, religious beliefs, sexual and familial practices, cultural institutions, beliefs, loves, hatreds, hopes, and fears. The former, we tend to think, is the province of the natural sciences; the latter is that of the humanities, including literature.

But that is not quite the end of the matter. The "human world," so characterized, is also claimed as the field of study of the social sciences: economics, psychology, social psychology, sociology, and the rest. Hence any serious defense of the humanities as a worthwhile field of inquiry would presumably need to show that humane studies achieve results that the social sciences, for some reason, cannot achieve.

Let us call this, with the mixture of mildly comic pomposity and referential convenience not uncommon in academic philosophy, the Criterion of Independent Contribution (CIC), and formulate it as follows:

If the humanities, including the study of literature, are to be defended as an important part of university studies, then it needs to be shown that they contribute kinds of understanding of the human condition that are different from, and independent of, those contributed by the social sciences.

Can that criterion be met? The immediate problem is to define what is to be meant by "understanding." In a scientific age what people are apt to have in mind when they speak of understanding is the kind of understanding offered by a successful scientific explanation. Admittedly, the kinds of explanation purveyed by different sciences are quite disparate, both in nature and quality. No one would claim, for instance, that even the more plausible explanations touted by the social sciences – by economics, for instance, or sociology – offer anything approaching either the mathematical rigor or the degree of observational confirmation displayed by the central parts of the physical sciences. Nevertheless, in common with the physical sciences the social sciences subscribe to two principles that might be deemed indispensable to the conduct of any inquiry claiming to "contribute understanding" of anything whatsoever, including "the human condition": (1) logical rigor and (2) fidelity to "the facts." The latter is coupled with the exclusion of subjectivity in all its forms – meaning by "subjectivity" any personal difference between one observer and another that might make a difference to the account each gives of the same phenomenon – from the processes of observation that establish what "the facts," in fact, are.

Can the humanities claim to contribute kinds of understanding that satisfy these demands? History and philosophy alike can reasonably claim to do so. Both historians and philosophers oppose with admirable pertinacity colleagues who allow their personal preferences or ideological commitments to tempt them to play fast and loose with historical sources, or to pass swiftly and persuasively over the gaps in arguments whose essential shoddiness could hardly be disguised from a less indulgent because more impersonal scrutiny.

But what are we to say about the study of literature? The conviction that the study of literature can contribute special kinds of understanding of the human condition, different from those offered either by other components of the humanities or by the social sciences, is commonly defended by appeal to a variety of claims, of which the following are among the most common. The least that can be said in their favor is that they have all, at one time or another, received the considered assent of minds that are not obviously weaker or less distinguished than others of a less literary bent.

1. Literature can reveal to us profound truths concerning reality (or "life," or "the human condition" or "the human world").

2. Literature is "creative" in the sense that it is, in some important though not easily definable way, active in the creation or renovation of "culture" or "civilization."

3. The value of literature, whether as illuminating or as constituting or reconstituting the human world, lies in its relation to language. Literary writing of the highest order directs, upon the language in which our everyday lives are conducted, a scrutiny more searching than is directed by any other form of writing, renewing and renovating the "language of the tribe" by constantly sharpening and refining our sense of its implications and possibilities.

4. Literary criticism at its best is an intellectually serious pursuit, involving processes of thought as comparable in logical rigor and productive of results as important as any pursued or achieved in other disciplines.

5. Imaginative literature of the highest order offers the reader a direct contact – unmediated by the discursive, constative procedures of history, biography, anthropology, sociology, or any study founded upon the painstaking collection of facts – with other, alien cultures; other ages; and other minds. In this sense the humanist believes, or wishes to believe, we are at least potentially, given sufficient scholarship and attention to the difficulties of the text, capable of being addressed by a past writer – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Balzac, Proust – in very much the same way as were his contemporaries, and of receiving from him perhaps more, but at least as much, and the same kind of things, as they received from him. The truth of this claim further entails what might be called the Doctrine of Universal Address: the idea that the potential audience for the great literature of any age of any culture is not limited to the people of that culture or age, but extends, problems of translation apart, to all mankind.

6. Imaginative literature of the highest order possesses value of a kind solely dependent upon – inhering solely in – its employment of language. Value of this kind is what makes the difference between run-of-the-mill literary writing and "great" or "canonical" literature.

Attachment to CIC and to its defense in terms of some or all of these six claims is, I suggest, central to the tradition of humanism in literary studies, that "humanistic impulse" that, according to James Seaton, has "until recently has been central to literary criticism in the West."

Characterizing literary humanism in this very general way ignores, of course, the wide differences between humanistic critical movements and individual major critics. It ignores everything that divides, say, New Humanists from New Critics; Christian humanists like C. S. Lewis or T. S. Eliot from those like Trilling, Northrop Frye, Erich Auerbach, Henri Fluchère, Edmund Wilson, or M. H. Abrams, whose focus is cultural and historical rather than religious; or for that matter such major individual voices as F. R. Leavis, Trilling, Eliot, Frye, or Wilson, from one another. Nevertheless, I cannot think of any member of this distinguished, richly dissenting, loquaciously quarrelsome fraternity who would seriously dissent from CIC or from any of the six claims above. No doubt these are claims that are too basic to humanism to permit dissent: claims that constitute a bottom line, a last redoubt, of the humanistic enterprise.

That all of them are presently viewed with profound skepticism by many in the academy is a measure of the depth and seriousness of threat currently faced by an outlook that "until recently," as Seaton says, has been central to literary studies. "Recently," in this context, means since around 1960. Since then, attacks on literary humanism have come from a wide variety of sources – many, but by no means all, associated with the rather diverse collection of movements and voices loosely assembled under such labels as "theory," "critical theory," "cultural criticism," or "postmodernism." These attacks have called into question not only the intellectual credentials of this or that specific claim, including the six listed above, but also the basic intellectual viability of humanism as a general stance in literary studies.


My intention in this book is to mount a defense of literary humanism that is couched in equally general and fundamental terms. I hope to show, among other things, that CIC and the six aforementioned claims, on a plausible interpretation of some of the main terms in which they are couched, come out not merely as intelligible but as broadly correct.

To any mind whose primary impulses are of sympathy toward kinds of scientific, philosophical, and political skepticism central to our culture, it must appear very difficult to see how any of them could possibly be either. It would seem that a string of apparently powerful a priori arguments, seemingly fatal to the intellectual credentials of the six claims above, offer themselves to any scientifically inclined critical intelligence willing to give the matter five minutes' consideration. Take, for instance, the opening suggestion that imaginative literature is capable of revealing profound truths concerning the human condition. Only if it affirms truths, it would seem, can a body of writing claim to affirm "important" or "profound" ones. But the idea that affirmation is any part of the business of literature has long been contested. "Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth," said Sir Philip Sidney, "and therefore never lieth." More recently, Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen have devoted more than 450 pages to establishing that "whatever the purpose of fiction and literature may be, it is not 'truth telling' in any straightforward sense."

There is an obvious sense, of course, in which both Sidney and modern "no truth" theorists like Lamarque and Olsen are wrong. It is not that imaginative literature contains no indicative statements (no "affirmations" in Sidney's antique phrase), nothing, in other words, that could conceivably qualify for truth or falsity. On the contrary, novels, plays, and poems are characteristically stuffed with indicative statements, some of which are true while others are false. The trouble is that the vast bulk of statements found between the covers of works of literature come out true or false not with respect to anything in the real world outside the work, but rather with respect to matters also to be found between its covers. Hamlet, through its characters, has much to say – to affirm – of Gertrude, Claudius, Yorick, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the rest of the dramatis personae of the play; much also about the condition of the "Denmark" of the play; but nothing at all about any real person of flesh and blood or the real European state bearing that name.

Someone tender toward CIC and the six claims might protest that this is going altogether too fast and too far. Works of literature, he will urge, may indeed be largely occupied with what are in an obvious sense imaginary worlds. But that is not to say that the imaginary worlds of literature, however varied their nature, have nothing in common with the single real one. On the contrary, if the events of a fiction are to strike a reader as remotely plausible, and its characters as people who might conceivably have existed, its author must possess a comprehensive and penetrating knowledge of the real world that is common to him and his readers and must apply that knowledge in creating the imaginary world of his fiction.

This is sound enough. However, what follows from it is not that a successful fiction must deal in truths concerning the world outside the fiction, but only that it must possess verisimilitude. And verisimilitude is a far weaker condition of adequacy than truth, at least as far as any reasonably robust understanding of the latter term. It does not require that the fiction convey a literally accurate picture of "character," "life," "reality," or "the human condition," but merely that it conform to what its potential readers, or the bulk of them, imagine to be the case regarding those things. In short, it need not offer the reader reality itself; it need only offer him the plausible illusion of reality. The French critic Roland Barthes made the point forty years ago in a celebrated and frequently cited remark: "Le baromètre de Flaubert ne dit finalement rien d'autre que ceci: je suis le réel."

Barthes's remark applies with particular force to those occasional cases in which some statement in a work of fiction does depend for its truth or falsity on circumstances in the world outside the fiction. Thus, famously, William Wordsworth buttresses the claim to truth of the opening statement of his poem "Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798" – "Five years have past; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters! And again I hear / These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs / With a soft inland murmur" – with a footnote: "The river is not affected by the tides a few miles above Tintern." Similarly Jules Maigret, Georges Simenon's fictional detective, frequently goes about his inquiries in locatable, accurately described Parisian quarters and even buildings to the extent that each volume of a recent omnibus edition carries a section of photographs purporting, accurately enough, to depict "l'univers de Maigret." And there is no doubt, as Barthes suggests, that these extra-fictional references do contribute to the reader's sense that the bounds between the fictional worlds of the poem or the detective story and the everyday world of extra-fictional reality that he himself inhabits have mysteriously collapsed or evaporated. And yet, as Barthes's title "L'effet de réel" also suggests, that impression is no more than an effect. There is no disguising – or to put it more accurately, no way of doing more in this fashion than to disguise – the fact that in entering either the poem or the Maigret novel we leave the common world of everyday reality and enter instead worlds constituted, respectively, by the imaginations of Wordsworth or Simenon.

These admissions hardly seem consistent with the primary presumption of literary humanism: that literature can open our eyes to truths, accessible in no other way, about the human condition. To admit that the vast bulk of statements to be encountered in works of literature depend for their truth or falsity on matters that are internal to the fiction, and that in doing so those few that reach beyond the covers of the fiction contribute only an equally fictive verisimilitude, is surely to admit that reality – the way things stand in the extra-fictional world – has very little power to curb authorial license: to limit, or shape, that is, the author's power to determine how things are to stand within the boundaries of the fictional world that it is his business to create. But if the objective nature of things as they stand in the extra-fictional world has so little power to influence the content of literature, and presumably even that of "great" literature, if there is such a thing, then it is very hard to see how literature, in return, can possess very much power to illuminate the nature of extraliterary reality. The most fundamental presumption of literary humanism, the conviction that literature has the power to reveal important insights, unobtainable in other ways, concerning the nature of the human condition, appears to totter.

The same doubts implicitly threaten claim 2. At issue here is the idea, originating in the nineteenth century with Matthew Arnold, but dear to Leavis, Trilling, and many other important twentieth-century critics in the Arnoldian tradition, that literature is "creative" in the sense of being causally active in the criticism and renovation of culture or, more grandly, of "civilization" or (a favorite term of Leavis's) "the human world." Arnold distinguished between a Philistinism ruled by ideas of economic advantage and political domination, and "culture," the latter "bent on seeing things as they are, and on drawing the human race towards a more complete, a more harmonious perfection." "Culture," in Arnold's terms, sets against what he sees as the "Hebraism" of the profoundly Protestant England of his day – its "preference of earnestness of doing to delicacy and flexibility of thinking" – the more active "development of our Hellenising instincts, seeking ardently the intelligible law of things, and making a fresh stream of thought play about our stock notions and habits."


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Table of Contents

PART I: Getting Real
1. Humanism and its Discontents
2. The Mirror of Nature
3. Truth, Meaning and Reality
4. Leavis and Wittgenstein (I): A Living Language
5. Leavis and Wittgenstein (II): The "Third Realm"
PART II: Character, Language and Human Worlds
6. Nature and Artifice
7. Virginia Woolf and "The True Reality"
8. Aharon Appelfeld and the Problem of Holocaust Fiction
9. The Limits of Authorial License in Our Mutual Friend
PART III: Against "The Meaning of the Work"
10. Reactive versus Interpretive Criticism
11. Houyhnhnm Virtue
12. Sterne and Sentimentalism
PART IV: The Skeptic Side
13. Reanimating the Author
14. Persons and Narratives
15. Reading and Reading-In
16. Meaning It Literally: Derrida and his Critics Revisited
Epilogue: Telling the Great from the Good

What People are Saying About This

University of Louisville - John Gibson

What is Fiction For? offers a grand, and successful, rethinking of an entire discipline and the conceits, questions, and cares that animate it. It will be the first book that shows literary theorists and philosophers how to divorce, once and for all, a defense of humanism from a retreat to Enlightenment and Romantic exaggerations about the human and its place in the world.

Hebrew University of Jerusalem - Leona Toker

This book is interdisciplinary in the best sense of this term: firmly rooted in both philosophy and literary studies, it brings philosophy to bear, illuminatingly, on literary texts while also enlisting the latter for support of an innovative theory of meaning in language.

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