In the last post I tentatively proposed that the relationship between fiction and truth is mediated by meaning. Fiction writers create an imaginary reality; most of a novel consists of ordinary narrative prose that describes that imagined reality: who’s there, what they’re like, what’s going on, etc. These are the truths of the fictional reality. Still, no matter how much the fictional reality resembles the world as we experience it, the people, events, etc. aren’t true of the ordinary world we live in. It’s true that Moby Dick is a big white whale, but only in the fictional version of the seven seas that Melville created.
I proposed that the correspondence between fictional reality and everyday reality is to be found not in truth but in meaning. The author writes a bunch of truth statements describing a fictional world. Through the selection and organization of these truth statements, and in the narrator’s and characters’ commentaries about the fictional world, the author ascribes meaning to the fictional world. A string of mere truths is a collection; truths infused with meaning become transformed into a reality. If the meaning that the author builds into fictional truths also makes sense of everyday factual truths, then the meaning is robust enough to extend beyond fictional reality into the world of true facts.
C.S. Lewis distinguishes between truth and reality. In his scheme too a single reality may encompass a multitude of truths. For Lewis reality comes before truth; or, perhaps more precisely, truths are the diverse manifestations of a single underlying reality. “Truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is.” Or, unraveling the syntax, truth is about reality. The interpreter’s job is to look past the specific truths in order to discover the reality that is the source of those truths.
In a prior post I said that truths are about the stuff that sentences refer to. The statement “Moby Dick is a great white whale” is a truth statement about a particular thing in a particular world. But truths are also about what they mean and why they’re important – their reality. The reality of Moby Dick – he is the great Nemesis of Promethean man, God and the devil rolled into one, the unswerveable force of destiny that confounds all acts of human freedom, and so on – is what Moby Dick is about in Melville’s created reality. This reality may manifest itself variously as a great white whale in Melville’s fictional world, as an unapproachable castle in Kafka’s world, as the father in Freud’s world, and so on.
Fictional realities don’t just come into existence; they’re created. Even if the writer claims to let the characters develop, to let the story emerge spontaneously, there’s always a ghost in the machine. Maybe Melville began with a clear picture of the reality of Moby Dick; or maybe the whale’s character and role in the story unfolded gradually. Either way, Melville wrote the great white whale into existence. An intelligent designer stands behind the fictional facts, and also behind the reality that makes sense of the facts.
But Melville wasn’t the designer of the everyday world of nineteenth-century New England. In what way is the reality he created in Moby Dick relevant to his own world, or to ours? I presume it might have worked like this: Melville experienced in his own life something that led him to conclude that perhaps free choice is an illusion, that the results of even the most forceful acts of individual will are determined by unassailable and impersonal forces. And so in Moby Dick he created a fictional world, some characters, and a story that illustrated his insight about reality as he had come to understand it. Melville the man found a strand of meaning in his life; Melville the author imposed that meaning on a world of his own creation. Seeing meaning in the world is the author’s vision; extending meaning into a created reality is the author’s art. Extracting the meaning out of a fictional world and seeing whether it makes sense of everyday life: that’s the reader’s creative contribution to the “work” of fiction.
Now we’re about ready to address a related question: is there such a thing as “true myth”?