The real in (and out of) realism


 If things are in the saddle and ride mankind, as Emerson said, then let us imagine that things take a break every now and then and let words ride.  It is a 30 – 70 split, perhaps, is what I am getting at. This being so, it is foolish to argue with a word once it has established a claim on mankind.

In fact, this is just the kind of foolishness that philosophers – who at one time acknowledged themselves to be half-fool, although now they more often consider themselves to be half-scientist, a half and half creature that to me is still fool – like to engage in. Thus, I, in my half a fool robes, have always had a steady dislike for the word “real” and its court favorite, “realism”.

Here’s my reasoning. If real is meant to refer to the constitution of reality, then, in my opinion, it can’t go picking out some bits of reality and discarding others. It must be wholly promiscuous, rather than half chaste. It must include magic, dreams, mirages and perceptions as well as carpenters crowns, heaps and pi. In other words, I take real to make the widest of ontological claims. However, in actual use, real has been turned into an ontological grift, setting itself up as something ontologicallly direct as opposed to all those soft ontologically indirect objects. In this way, the real becomes a metaphysical con man, a dealer of three card monte.  The dream, the magic, the realist wants to say, are dependent on  a subjective privilege that takes us out of the real and into the ideal, or the fantastic, or the superstitious – they aren’t “validated” by Science, an institution that is suddenly thrust upon us as our commission of the real.

Here we spot everyday dualism, doing its silent work. And everyday dualism has its advantages, or it wouldn’t hang around. But those advantages, which prime it for everyday distinctions, don’t prime it for metaphysical argument. There, it forgets its place. It rubs up against its own original quantitative claim – that reality is all, whereas non-reality is nothing – and  can only help itself out of its dilemma by silently inserting assumption into the discussion that , indeed, must be discussed before we can have the discussion.

In my opinion, realism is only plausibility writ large: it is a view on what is possible and important that gains its justification from a certain class background. The real itself shouldn’t generate an ideology, an ism, any more than the toe does. Like the toe, the real is simply there, the very thereness of there. But this view of the real, which genuflects to its ontological capaciousness, doesn’t correspond to its social meaning – which is always pulled into the dualism between the human and everything else. Aristotle, in the Topics, speaks of endoxa – credible opinions – that are “accepted by everyone or by the majority or by the wise”. This is the filter through which reality becomes realism. The privileged point of view is given us by the class system in the regime in which that point of view is expressed. The reputable class bears various names, depending on the regime we are talking about, whether it is the middle class in America, or public opinion, or most scientists, or – more commonly – an implied everybody who counts that lurks behind a passive construction (“as is well known,” “as is generally agreed”, etc.). Realism’s affiliation with plausibility, rather than reality, is the secret of why the term seems so indeterminate, when you come to close quarters with it.

This is not simply a matter of aesthetics. It is a matter of ordinary problems. To say that insanity is “real” is one thing, to say that insane ideations are “real” is another thing. This is the whole pragmatics of real, as opposed to its semantic promise – which would leave distinctions of what is natural, plausible, objective, communally accessible, all that, to other words and phases of society and perspectives. The whole discipline of psychology is folded over this problem, with one side contending that “talk therapy” – however that is filled out – doesn’t treat mental problems as “real”, that is, based on the neurochemistry of the brain, which is supposed to be a realer real than talk about our relations, say, in families, in sex, etc. It is not clear why the family is less real than the neuron – the idea is, probably, that the mental problem would express itself in some person regardless of whether that person grew up in family x or y – although, confusingly, the same scientific ideology hold in high regard the gene, which brings us back to social realities that mediate any sex act. It is very hard to understand how a neurochemical problem in the human brain, which evolved in a social animal – as opposed to, say, an aardvark – would articulate itself at all without having strong social links, having ties to sensemaking as the natural activity of the human animal.

The same bend, but with other variables, is found in physics, with the realists versus the Copenhagen interpretation, and may the best physicist win (that is, get the contract to write a pop sci book agented by John Brockman).




If the real does not, by itself, endorse any hierarchy, but rather all of them, realism is definitely all about hierarchy.  

In literary criticism,one finds the same kind of bends. Here, I think, a larger view of literature is necessary – one that doesn’t seem the novel just as a 19th century object, but rather as a far older object, the form taken by the picaresque in which a social totality is traversed, either by a man transmogrified as an ass or a mad Castilian gentleman or by various savagely immoral rapists going from castle to caste. The inheritors of the latter tendency find different ways to traverse that totality – for instance, by parodying various styles of telling that have developed within it. By citation, by decentering the self, etc.  And all of these picaresque gestures are not made up by authors first – they exist in the social fact that people are always, always telling stories to each other. People are not fact delivery machines – all the displays of the self in everyday life are intermediated by stories, stories of origin, stories of performance and success or failure, stories about spiritual belief, stories about kids, stories and stories and stories. The possibility of the story is as embedded in language as the possibility of the noun and the verb – which are, in turn, classifications from a certain grammar that have sunk into what we – the inheritors of Latin and Greek rhetoricians – think about all languages, as though they could most naturally be cut up our way.  And the stories of traversals, transitions, transformations are the ones we keep telling each other, even as literary criticism has cast a dim eye on these things, wanting, instead, that habit of “lyrical realism” – to use Zadie Smith’s term – to bring it all to a higher level of seriousness.

Back in 2013, Ian McEwen wrote an essay about disaffection from fiction which was all about realism, in a sense – imperial realism.  It was entitled: When I Stop Believing in Fiction

Here’s a key paragraph:


This is when I think I will go to my grave and not read Anna Karenina a fifth time, or Madame Bovary a fourth. I’m 64. If I’m lucky, I might have 20 good reading years left. Teach me about the world! Bring me the cosmologists on the creation of time, the annalists of the Holocaust, the philosopher who has married into neuroscience, the mathematician who can describe the beauty of numbers to the numbskull, the scholar of empires’ rises and falls, the adepts of the English Civil War. A few widely spaced pleasures apart, what will I have or know at the end of yet another novel beyond Henry’s remorse or triumph? Will a novelist please tell me why the Industrial Revolution began, or how the Higgs boson confers mass on fundamental particles, or how morality evolved, or what Antonio Salieri thought of the young Franz Schubert in his choir? If I cared enough about Henry’s gripes, I could read a John Berryman Dream Song in less than four minutes. And with the 15 hours saved, linger over some case law (real events!), as good a primer as any on the strangeness and savagery of the human heart.

I must admit I find this paragraph not only a bit repulsive, but a bit puzzling. What earthly use to Ian McEwan is the Higgs boson particle, or the beginning of the Industrial revolution? His cry for knowledge – not know-how, but “knowing something about” – is couched in terms of pure spectatorship. If he wants a primer on the “strangeness and savagery of the human heart”, I’d suggest visiting the kitchen of some popular pizza joint at rush time. It is much less boring than case files. McEwan’s is a cri de coeur for more nature docs on tv. It was put more lyrically and convincingly by the Bloodhound Gang:

“You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals
So let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel
(Do it again now)”

As for the re-reading Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary (I try not to laugh here, I’m trying hard not to laugh) – I am reminded of the way Joan Didion skewered Woody Allen for using “classics” as status markers in Manhattan, devaluing them into so much chatter. This looks not so much like a crisis of fiction as a bizarre attempt to get invited to’s next billionaire bash. Like other male British novelists of McEwen’s generation (I think especially of Martin Amis), McEwan seems to suffer from a post-imperial sense of not being taken seriously. And so he sets out for various Northwest Passages in a parody of the old Victorian sports and eccentrics, trying to find a way out of insularity and a route to the real. No wonder Ulysses is not on McEwen’s list: Joyce read the rites over that old British aggression long ago.

Joyce read Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet too. McEwen’s to-do list of pop science books to read would have been apple pie to those two, who were also animated, as well, by the encyclopedic furies, but at least were willing to make more sacrifices than the on-the-clock sequence thrust upon us by McEwan. Milan Kundera wrote that Flaubert was the discoverer of « betise » and that “I dare say that it was the greaest discovery of a century so proud of its scientific reason:

Of course, even before Flaubert nobody doubted the existence of stupidity, but it was understood a little differently : it was considered a simple absence of knowledge, a defect corrigible by instruction. Thus, in Flaubert’s novels, stupidity is a dimension inseparable from human existence. It accompanies poor Emma through her days and her beds just up to her deathbed above which two redoubtable debators, Homais and Bournisien, exchange their inept phrases at length, like a kind of funeral sermon. But the most shocking, the most scandalous thing in the Flaubertian vision of stupidity is this : stupidity is not effaced by science, technology, progress and modernity : on the contrary, it progresses as progress does.”

The “stupidity” that so irritated Flaubert is that historically specific moment that turned the real into a value system. For this involves us all in a vast sophism, one that cheats on the reality principle. That sophism conflates scientific truth with the “real”, the pop science explanation of the Higgs-Boson with the “world”. It is “re-reading” Madame Bovary and thinking that the hero of the story is Homais. Whose debates with Bournisien, the priest, have been commoditized into an infinite number of TED talks and New York Times opinion pieces, all cut from the same cloth as McEwan’s essay. The subcategory of the real having to do with facts, hypotheses, Bayesian nets and truth, which is built on that sub-category of the real called mathematics, and the real having to do with my dream of a monster last night, which is built on a subcategory of dreams that winds its way through all of sleeping humanity, are both parts of an unescapable union: the real itself.









I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.
About Roger 67 Articles
I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.

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