21 September 2009

Moby Dick Sub-Reality

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology — ktismatics @ 4:57 pm

Certainly we can agree on a few things. Fictional characters are real in the sense of being the subject matter of real books, the focus of real human conversations and literary analyses and flights of imagination.  But fictional characters aren’t real people. Fictional worlds too might be real, but they aren’t the real world. So where does that leave us?

In a recent post I acknowledged that I had written a particular fictional character in a very sketchy way, leaving the reader plenty of leeway to imagine what this character is “really” like. But creating characters wasn’t my main concern in writing the novel. Mostly I was trying to open up a window onto an alternate reality. The fictional characters serve as proxies, stand-ins for real people who might occupy this alternate reality. The characters also function as lures, attempting to draw readers into this alternate reality.

I could go into some detail describing the dimensions and contours of the reality I tried to open up in that book. The characters and events occupy pretty much the same time and space as the real material world we live in. What’s important in establishing the alterity of that particular fictional reality are the strands of meaning that link the characters together, that motivate their actions, nad that shape the imaginary trajectories they trace through the world.

There is no reason why real people, occupying the real world, couldn’t find their lives shaped by these same forces. They may in fact be so shaped, at least in part, without their consciously being aware of it. This possible overlap between fictional and ordinary realities isn’t true just of my book. Anyone could become entangled in obsessive vengeance, even if he’s not the captain  of a ship and the object of his passion isn’t a great white whale.

Still, you and I aren’t characters in Moby Dick — that fictional story does not include us as characters. Ahab isn’t real in our world, but by the same token we aren’t real in his. This isn’t to say that, as people, Ahab and you are of equal standing: you’re not. For one thing, Ahab is a lot more famous and influential in our world than you are; for another, Ahab has no material human existence in the real world and he never did.

There are strands of meaning and motivation that link fictional with nonfictional worlds. In understanding megalomania, Ahab presents an excellent case study. Of course we understand that he’s a fictional character. But Ahab is entwined in strands of meaning that affect us just as firmly as he is wrapped up in the harpooneer’s rope.

Sure, ultimately there is only one reality, even if it turns out that we occupy only one among countless universes in the multiverse. In our universe everything came out of the Big Bang, eventually including Herman Melville, his books, the characters who populate them, and the abstract themes that link them to us still. But isn’t it useful for certain purposes to partition the one reality into many?

The fictional reality created  inside Moby Dick involves certain characters doing various things in certain places that have a direct correspondence to the material world in which Melville lived. Real people alive at the time the book was written, as well as real places not directly mentioned in the book, as well as everyone who has ever read the book, do not exist inside that fictional reality. We live in a world that can be partitioned into a sub-reality consisting entirely of every novel ever written. Melville, though no longer alive in the real world, occupies a place in this sub-reality as an author. The original manuscript of Moby Dick may well be lost, but millions of physical copies of the book exist in various languages, as do online versions that can be downloaded onto computers. From the perspective of our sub-reality we can disregard all the physical and virtual copies, focusing on the single abstract object called “Moby Dick the novel.” Likewise we can disregard all the copies of Ahab residing in all the copies of the book, focusing on the single, abstract, never-alive but fictionally-real sea captain. And the theme of megalomania, though it’s never written in so many words in the book, emerges from the book as a theme that links Ahab to other fictional characters, to those of us who choose to occupy the sub-reality of all novels ever written.

In some other sub-reality, consisting of all printed documents, all those hard copies of Moby Dick do count as real. And in another sub-reality the megalomaniacal theme is real even to those who have never heard of Moby Dick.



  1. I’ve been thinking about a few things along these lines recently. I’ve been quite struck by the world and characters created by Matthew Weiner in Mad Men (also did some writing and producing on the Sopranos). Weiner calls Mad Men science fiction done in the past. Science fiction writers project out contemporary concerns into the future, using a fabricated future world as a context to discuss whatever it is they think is important to discuss. That’s what Weiner does, only he uses the past instead of a techie-cool future. When I first read that, I thought, “Wow. Nice one. Impressive, etc.” Then I thought that while I still like the way he phrased it, it’s still historical fiction, but now I see historical fiction in a bit of a different light, because all historical fiction is still speculative fiction. I think it’s important to be absorbed in the past, if one’s writing about the past, but we can’t escape our “thrownness” (Heidegger). The writer’s own concerns will invade the past and “distort” it and warp it and bend it to the purposes of the writer. Again, I don’t think this gives us license to intentionally manipulate the past ala a D’Agata-type move, nor do I think it gives us an out to fail to research a period. On the contrary, I think the deeper one is absorbed in the time period one is writing about, the more the writer is able to effectively convey his own concerns/perspective. Kind of an irony there, perhaps.


    Comment by erdman31 — 10 April 2016 @ 2:47 pm

  2. I see the scifi connection — it’s like being a time traveler from the present going back to the past, bringing not factual knowledge of how history is going to unfold but rather how people’s points of view are going to change over time. Importing today’s POV into an alternate reality implies the possibility of the complement; i.e., importing an alternate POV into today’s reality. That seems like a worthwhile stance for a fiction writer, or a nonfiction writer for that matter, to take up — a bit disentangled from the entanglement of “being there,” a bit separated from “the they,” a bit out of attunement with the contemporary mood, not completely falling prey to the facticity. I’ve been thinking about Heidegger some lately too, especially this idea of inescapable thrownness into the here-and-now of our human condition. It seems to me that the spirit of the times isn’t so unitary, absorbing everyone into its force field. And the facticity into which we’re thrown isn’t strictly factual. Our ecosystem includes many components that could be otherwise than what they are, including fictions that consensus agrees to regard as facts. You’ve been stepping off from the thrownness yourself, veering away from “the they,” occupying the position of the stranger.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 April 2016 @ 5:23 pm

  3. Yes, and the both of us are kind of stepping back into the past, into a previously shared context or “world” if you will of your ktsimatics blog, commenting on old posts. Doesn’t our thrownness include this, as well as all other previous experiences? Was thrownness ever meant to be “unitary” or even “absorbing everyone into its force field”? I wonder.


    Comment by erdman31 — 10 April 2016 @ 5:31 pm

    • Yes indeed, as Sam Carr used to say — or perhaps as I imagine him saying. I think the Bible itself is a great illustration of this kind of narrative moving back and forth in time. In particular you’ve got the New Testament writers quoting Old Testament passages and claiming “this is that;” i.e., this facet of Jesus fulfills that prophetic passage from hundreds of years ago. The prophets are positioned as time travelers from the future, delivering dispatches from the future to their contemporaries. Frequently I’ve been a time traveler in my own fictions, taking fragments I might have written ten years ago and melding them in with new stuff. The overlap results in action taking place in a sort of hybrid timestamp that’s neither now nor then, which might start to feel like eternity.

      Regarding the unitary all-absorbing aspects of “facticity”… a few months back I reserved the WordPress blog name “Ficticities” to explore some of these ideas, but so far that blog remains an empty shell. I have been writing about it though in this so-called novel I’m working on, working title “Writing to an Imaginary Audience.”


      Comment by ktismatics — 10 April 2016 @ 6:03 pm

      • Very true, that bit about the Bible. At my conservative evangelical seminary, I raised questions of meta-narrative. Everyone there (with a few notable exceptions, later fired/downsized by the institution) presumed that the Bible itself was a meta-narrative. I always saw separate strands, not necessarily disconnected but connected in very diverse ways not at all indicative of one author (God) sitting down to write his magnum opus.


        Comment by erdman31 — 10 April 2016 @ 6:59 pm

      • These separate strands make for an impressive collection taken as a whole. Different types of text, different styles, different agendas, written across vast distances in historic time. I’m pretty sure the Bible has had the greatest influence on my own fiction writing.


        Comment by ktismatics — 10 April 2016 @ 9:30 pm

  4. I’ve taken to Moby Dick for a bit of inspiration for my novel writing, so in that sense, perhaps I’m also retreading some of your ground. A pilgrimage of sorts? https://erdman31.com/2016/04/10/a-grand-ungodly-god-like-man/


    Comment by erdman31 — 10 April 2016 @ 8:47 pm

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