Ktismatics

8 December 2006

Truth and Meaning in Fictional Realities

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 11:17 pm

This was a hard post to write. I hope it’s coherent.

We read a text. We understand the language of the text – vocabulary, grammar, syntax. We understand the referential characteristics of the text – the word “whale” refers to a big sea creature, etc. The question remains: in what reality is the text’s meaning true? In normal conversation we communicate about the social reality we occupy jointly. Likewise with normal writing: what I write in this post refers to a reality I share with the reader that includes things like conversations and texts. This is the three-fold requirement for a literal reading: normal use of language, normal linguistic reference, normal mutual reality.

Most fiction uses language normally, with normal referential meaning – straightforward narrative prose. It just happens to refer to a different reality. A fictional text presents a series of statements that are true in some alternative, fictional reality. Because we understand how language refers to the kinds of things that comprise a reality, we can use a fictional text to infer characteristics of the fictional reality to which it points.

But a text doesn’t provide an exhaustive description of a reality. The reader of a novel has to read between the lines to infer characteristics of the fictional reality that aren’t explicitly described in the text. As a rule of thumb, the reader infers that the fictional reality is a lot like ordinary everyday reality unless the text says or infers otherwise. So if the novel says that Bob is married to Susie, the reader infers that Bob is married only to Susie and not to someone else at the same time. Love, anger, deception, jealousy forgiveness – interpersonal relationships in the fictional reality work pretty much the same as in normal reality, unless the author tells us otherwise. In general, most fictional realities work pretty much the same as ordinary reality: fictional people are like real people, they have realistic thoughts and feelings, they engage in realistic activities and relationships. It’s generally easy to understand fiction, both because the language is straightforward and because the fictional reality is so much like ordinary reality.

What about going the other direction, from fictional reality to ordinary reality? Are we able to understand ordinary reality because it’s similar to some fictional reality we’ve come to understand? I think perhaps it can be done, but the relationship is more tenuous. Fictional realities are sparser than ordinary reality, so it’s hard to picture how a sketchy fictional reality can fill in the truth gaps in a relatively more complete ordinary reality. However, features of fictional realities aren’t simply there, like they are in ordinary reality: they’re put there by the author. Still, nonfiction writers do the same thing, calling attention to certain features of ordinary reality by writing about them.

Still, I made the case in an earlier post that the truth of a statement is relative to a particular reality, and I still think there’s something sound in that contention. Truth is a judgment of factuality or accuracy. No matter how relevant I might think Moby Dick is to ordinary life, the facts of that book are not true in ordinary life.

But the meaning of Moby Dick can apply to ordinary life even if the facts don’t.

I’ve already talked about the meaning of texts in two other ways: the linguistic meaning and the referential meaning. Now I’m talking about something more metaphysical or interpretive. In what way do the truths of a reality hang together so that I can make sense of things? Part of what a good novelist does is to impose a meaningful framework on the facts and truths and events described in the book. Arguably it’s this larger interpretive meaning that gives shape to the reality of the novel, not the individual facts and characters and events that populate it.

So, if an interpretive reality arises within a work of fiction that seems to work when applied to ordinary reality, then that fictional reality is meaningful also in ordinary reality. In fact, one could argue that part of the fiction writer’s job is to illustrate in a fictional setting the robustness of a particular interpretive context for making sense of the world. The writer doesn’t just tell stories; he shows what the stories mean to the reader’s life.

So, instead of talking about whether truths cross between fictional and ordinary realities, it’s more important to talk about the crossover of meaning. It’s meaning that defines a reality, not the specific truth statements that can be made within that reality. If the author embeds a fictional reality within a robust enough set of meanings, then the novel’ crossover to ordinary reality may be strong even if the specific facts do not overlap between the two realities.

 

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5 Comments »

  1. I’ll tell you what, this is a strong post.

    K says…
    What about going the other direction, from fictional reality to ordinary reality? Are we able to understand ordinary reality because it’s similar to some fictional reality we’ve come to understand?I think perhaps it can be done, but the relationship is more tenuous.

    I would suggest a sort-of circular relationship. The factual informs the fictional and the fictional informs the factual, and in the end it is hard to see which side started it all b/c they both feed off of each other.

    Arguably it’s this larger interpretive meaning that gives shape to the reality of the novel, not the individual facts and characters and events that populate it.

    As you suggest, I think this is an arguable point. For example, how can there be a larger interpretive meaning without individual facts and characters. As mentioned before, perhaps there is something circular at work here in which meaning is embeded in the larger framework as well as the individual/specific characters/facts.

    It’s meaning that defines a reality, not the specific truth statements that can be made within that reality. If the author embeds a fictional reality within a robust enough set of meanings, then the novel’ crossover to ordinary reality may be strong even if the specific facts do not overlap between the two realities.

    Ok. I agree with that last sentence. However, I don’t know that I 100% agree with the first sentence. The reason I don’t agree so much with the first statement goes back to the circularity point that I made above. To the point: how can you have meaning without specific truth statements? That meaning is operative in that context and framework and the framework includes the details (facts/characters) – I don’t know that you can divorce the framework from the details.

    However, I do agree with that last sentence very strongly, which I believe is your main point, anyway.

    Very informative post.

    Like

    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 9 December 2006 @ 9:18 pm

  2. Thanks. I agree that there is some kind of circularity between fiction and the everyday world. Novels and stories and films are shaped by the writer’s real experiences, and our interpretations of the world have been shaped by fiction. There is, however, a real time sequence: first the writer writes a text, then the reader reads it. So I’m trying to figure out how it is that a reader can draw inferences from a particular text and apply them to the everyday world. As you say, the realities overlap and influence each other.

    “How can there be a larger interpretive meaning without facts and characters.” You’re right: both need to be there. Facts without meaning is just raw substance; meaning without facts is just form. And I think you’re right about the circularity too: we induce new meaning from new facts, and we also impose meaning on the facts we encounter. I suppose the question I’m exploring here is whether the same meaning can apply to different sets of facts. If the fact/meaning link cannot be broken, then realities are incommensurable and it becomes a tougher case to claim that fiction informs our understanding of everyday life. We agree, though, that fact and meaning can be separated, at least theoretically. So we carry on…

    Like

    Comment by holytrinitynice — 10 December 2006 @ 4:45 am

  3. Hey, I just noticed that I’m commenting as “holytrinitynice.” I’ve inadvertently stolen one of my wife’s virtual alter-egos.

    Like

    Comment by holytrinitynice — 10 December 2006 @ 4:47 am

  4. K (posing as his own wife) says…
    If the fact/meaning link cannot be broken, then realities are incommensurable and it becomes a tougher case to claim that fiction informs our understanding of everyday life.

    How so? Can you expand this thought?

    Like

    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 12 December 2006 @ 5:12 pm

  5. I’m responding to a Locke/Berkekey version of empiricism, where the physical world conveys its intrinsic meaning directly to the observer. If that’s how it works — if the raw facts of the world are meaningful and our job is only to apprehend it — then every set of raw facts generates its own unique meaning. That would make it tough to say that a reality derived from, say, the facts of a novel would have any connection whatever to the reality of normal everyday life. If, on the other hand, meaning has some existence independent of the raw data — in the mind, say, or in some external source of revelation — then meaning kind of “floats above” the specific facts. In this case the same meaning can be draped over different sets of facts. Yes?

    Like

    Comment by ktismatics — 12 December 2006 @ 6:09 pm


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