Friday, January 04, 2008

Pullman's Right and the entrance to hell

And despite the profound and unsettling discoveries of modernism and post-modernism, and everything they show us about the unreliability of the narrator and the fallacy of omniscience, some of us still, when we read, are happy to accept that the narrative voice has the right to comment on a character, whether tartly or sympathetically, and the ability to go into that character's mind and tell us what's going on there.
Says Philip Pullman in The Guardian (link via Ward Six). Despite the article being blog-short, he identifies what I suspect is the most decisive yet unacknowledged distinction in contemporary literature: those for whom literature is defined by this right - let's call it Pullman's Right - and those who recognise no such thing.

I'll come back to this, but Pullman's affirmation comes at the end of a discussion of the differences so-called between story and literature which is instructive in itself. It helps me to explain why I think Establishment Literary Fiction is as artistically flawed as the genre fiction to which it is supposedly superior. Pullman uses an example from His Dark Materials to define literature as the ability to convey, by means of a metaphor, his character Lyra's unspoken feelings.
If the image of the dark house coming to life works on the page, it's precisely because we know it's an image: we know it's what Lyra feels like inside, even though all we'd see if we looked at her would be a girl sitting still. To film it would be absurd.
There's no arguing with that. But I would also claim that writing it is also absurd. I would instead define literature as that which brings to life the distance between the reader and Lyra. This would challenge the imagination rather than take its place. As a reader, I find this far more exhilarating; more so than characterisation, plot or prose style. Aharon Appelfeld's most recent novel is a good example of how one writer achieves this.

In his podcast interview with Philip Pullman, John Mullan begins by saying he's pleased to be able give attention to "a children's book so-called" that normally gets saved for "supposedly adult literary fiction". Yet if the distinction is false as he implies, it's not because children's books are literature but that most adult literature has not grown up; it still appeals to solipsistic wish-fulfilment.

By the way, this lack of distinction also justifies the epidemic frustration and critical contempt for the cultural advancement of fancy prose over the murderous. For this reason, we need to turn critical attention to the ethical dynamic of fiction; not for ethical reasons, mind, but artistic.

Pullman ends his article with a question that it has answered:
Do we ever stop to wonder how extraordinary it is that a disembodied voice can seem to tell us what is happening in someone's mind?
But the answer is a discharge of responsibility. Let the 20-year-old Franz Kafka, in a letter to Oskar Pollak in November 1903, ask it too:
We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours? And if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you, what more would you know about me than you know about hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful? For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to hell.


  1. Anonymous3:28 am

    But Pullman does not want to be challenged; he wants to be smothered. He does not seek to be exhilarated. he seeks to be annihilated.

  2. If I get what you’re saying here Stephen, the debate is between the ‘right’ of a narrator, reliable, omniscient or otherwise, to tell the reader what is in life unknowable…what’s going on in the heads of others. As I understand it, the modern novel is best characterized by uncertainty…the reader is left to ponder, with the characters, the nature of their specific uncertainties. I’ve been reading an essay called Our new Sense of the Comic by Wylie Sypher; in it he says this: “ the deepest ‘meanings’ of art therefore arise wherever there is an interplay between the patterns of surface-perception and the pressures of depth perception. Then the stated meanings will fringe off into unstated and unstatable meanings of great power, felt dimly but compellingly. “ This, I’d say, argues against the use of mind reading narrators. But, I’ve read great works with and without narrators.
    As to the question of ‘right,’ I’m with E.M. Forster: the novel has no rules. So there’s no such thing as the art of fiction, only the particular art that each novelist employs to write his particular book.

  3. Making known the unknowable has a long and worthy history, surely. The soliloquy on stage allows the character to include the audience in what is going on in his mind. It is not so different from the device of a narrator. Indeed, the convention might seem even more strained than that which lets us into the secret in the more abstract situation created by a book.

  4. Maybe it's just me but I don't see what would have been wrong about filming what is going on inside someone's head. Many directors have done that. The only example that jumps to mind, although I'm sure there are better, is Roman Polanski's Repulsion, particularly the scene in the hall where arms reach out of the walls; the audience is not stupid, we know it's all in her head. Now I think of it, in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, the walls of the apartment change to reflect the mental state of the protagonist.

    And why is the omniscient narrator suddenly coming under attack? That particular literary device, and let's not make more of it than what it is, has served us faithfully for years with little or no development; I did have one of mine turn on the reader at one point which was quite fun. Yes, on one level it is extraordinary, that's what the word means, ordinarily our lives are not narrated by a disembodied voice. On another level it's not extraordinary at all, far from it, it's a testament to the capacity of humans to conceptualise such a thing, the most ordinary human never thinks twice about the function of the omniscient narrator; even kids so-called accept it without question.

    If, as a modern author, you want to add a level of uncertainty to your narration then there's nothing to stop you hobbling your narrator in some way but then he wouldn’t be omniscient, he would be unreliable and there are plenty of examples of that, just look up 'Narrator' in Wikipedia.

  5. "why is the omniscient narrator suddenly coming under attack?"

    God question!

  6. I have the answer on my site if you'd care to know it :)

  7. Anonymous5:30 pm

    Interesting post, as usual, and these comments are great, as well. (If only the internet could always be like this!)

    I believe there is enough room for both approaches. After all, when the characters in a book are made up, the writer is simply pretending not to be omniscient, isn't he? How can the thoughts of a person who doesn't even exist be off limits?

    They're only so when the writer has decided to make them so.

    Unless I'm missing something, in which case, I'd be very interested to hear what it is.

  8. Anonymous9:14 pm

    Pullman: "If the image of the dark house coming to life works on the page, it's precisely because we know it's an image: we know it's what Lyra feels like inside, even though all we'd see if we looked at her would be a girl sitting still. To film it would be absurd."

    Er, I *will* argue with that... what about the films of Antonioni, Bela Tarr, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Robert Bresson, Pedro Costa?-- all great directors known for filming people sitting still, letting the camera linger - wihout having them explain away their feelings. Of course, one could reply, oh, film and writing, that's apples & oranges, but it's a question of presenting an image or situation and letting the reader/viewer do some work. If I'm reading something and there's little or no ambiguity, if I'm not doing *some* sort of work, I'm not really not reading. (Jean Genet: "if I'm not writing The Brothers Karamazov while I'm reading it, I'm not doing anything.")
    The most mundane acts and affairs of our lives have closure - are easily assimilated, pigeon-holed, lost. If I want more out of life, I certainly want more from something that takes me away from it -- whether that something's literature, or film. "Solipsistic wish-fulfilment" has its place; I call it television.

  9. Anonymous3:21 pm

    The novel thrives on exceptions to any rules. So, as soon as we attempt to define it in one particular way, or condemn one aspect of it, someone will be able to show us this particular function being used supremely artfully in some novel we've forgotten or have yet to find!

    Notwithstanding that, art is surely defined as much by ambiguity as anything else, and the omniscient narrator seems, in general, to work hard at closing down the possibilities opened up by the situation of his/her characters' creation.

    Human decisions are always overdetermined: an omniscient narrator seems absolutely determined to undermine this truth. Such narration feels artless because it feels false. It is often supremely artless because this falsity is in no way recognised by the author who seems to feel that his lazy realism is adequately mimetic of the world outside.

  10. Anonymous1:55 pm

    We don't "know it's what Lyra's feeling inside." We might well stop reading if we knew for sure what Lyra's feeling inside, or if the author told us only what we already knew about Lyra. Whether Lyra or another narrates, we keep reading to discover what we don't yet know and the narrator's job is to keep us respectfully guessing.



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