INTRODUCTION TO IMAGINATIVE LITERATURE
By Jeff Riggenbach
[Announcement preceding Part 1 of the series as it originally appeared in August 1975 in Libertarian Review: This month we are proud to begin Jeff Riggenbach’s long-awaited series on imaginative literature. The six-part series will appear every other month. On the alternate months, and beginning next month, Neil McCaffrey, Publisher and President of Arlington House and jazz buff extraordinary, will take us on a tour of the world of recorded jazz. We are very pleased and excited about these two new features, and we hope you will be, too.]
Part I: Preface
Once, a few years ago when I was ghost-writing college term papers for a living, I was asked to discuss, compare, and contrast the epistemological theories of five philosophers (Descartes, Hume, Kant, C. I. Lewis, and Merleau-Ponty) in seven typewritten pages (about 1700words). The present assignment—to write a reasonably comprehensive, reasonably useful introduction to imaginative literature in around 36 typed pages (8400 words)—is not nearly so absurd, but it is equally difficult of achievement. If I try to be reasonably comprehensive about only the Western literary tradition, I will have about three words at my disposal for each year of literary history. (“It was good,” “It was bad,” “It was so-so.” That kind of thing.) If I try to be reasonably useful—Ah! But here we have the issue whose disposition will determine what words like “reasonable” and “comprehensive” will mean in this context: Just what use is there in a series of six 1400 word articles on imaginative literature (whatever that is)?
The use of such a series is neither more nor less than the use of any literary criticism—rendering the criticized literature more accessible to its readers and, thereby, making a more intense aesthetic experience available to them. But already I am knee-deep in terms for which no definitions have been offered and for which (alas for the discipline of literary study!) no commonly accepted definitions exist. The definitions I am about to propose and the theory of literature I am about to sketch around them are not commonly or even uncommonly accepted; I know no one who accepts them, save myself. And I am no more able to argue for them effectively in a few hundred words than I was able to discuss, compare, and contrast the epistemologies of five philosophers in seven typewritten pages. All I can do at present is assert my ideas, cite sources of supportive argument for certain of them and indicate the kinds of comprehensiveness and usefulness which they justify as reasonable goals for this series of articles.
A work of imaginative literature is a presentational symbol of human feeling or experience, a verbal presentation of an imaginary world in which imaginary beings engage in imaginary acts and processes, the whole being useful to human beings by enabling them to make certain kinds of abstractions—abstractions about the nature of the world and about the ways in which the conceptual faculty may be used to describe and understand it. (See Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form.) Now it must be emphasized that no work of imaginative literature is about the real world, and no work of imaginative literature espouses or implies any theory about the way the real world is. A work of imaginative literature presents an imaginary world which is a certain way; we find it useful to contemplate this imaginary world because, in so doing, we are enabled to make an abstraction of the sort Ayn Rand calls a “metaphysical value judgment,” and being enabled to do that with respect to an imaginary world acquaints us with the mode of conceptual thought we need to do it with respect to the real one. (See Ayn Rand, “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” in The Romantic Manifesto, and “Art and Cognition. Part I,” in The Objectivist, April 1971.)
Actually, I should say that being enabled to make such abstractions with respect to an imaginary world acquaints us with the mode of conceptual thought we need to do it with respect to the real one if the writer does his job as an artist properly and if we do our jobs as readers properly. The artist’s job, essentially, is to present an imaginary world the total of whose specified detail enables us to make only one abstraction—that is, to present an imaginary world all of whose details may be accounted for by only one abstract idea and all of whose details are relevant to the formation of that idea. The reader’s job, essentially, is to engage in the process of concept formation without making errors and to properly interpret the sentences which present the details of the world of the work. No one, of course, is born knowing how to form concepts or interpret sentences; both skills are learned. And the sentences of which imaginative literary works are composed are not always of the same sort as those used in the composition of (for example) philosophical or historical works: they employ rhetorical devices such as metaphor which literally mean differently (according to different semantic and logical principles) and must be understood differently. The job of the literary critic is to discover the interpretive methods appropriate to imaginative works and communicate them to those readers who experience difficulty in discovering such methods themselves.
And what do these general principles imply for this series of articles? That, in recommending works of imaginative literature (and I use “imaginative” here in something like the Coleridgean sense to designate the esemplastic faculty which, rather than rearranging the concretes of the real world into new combinations, creates imaginary concretes and entire imaginary worlds, building up from the same base in sensuous experience from which percepts and concepts of the real world are formed), I must indicate the works’ themes, the abstractions which they enable their readers to make. And that I omit from consideration works which are only partially literary (in the sense of using words as only one of two or more ways of presenting their imaginary worlds) and works which I am unqualified to criticize comprehensively. The chief works in the first category are plays (see Susanne Langer’s Feeling and Form for a discussion of why plays are not literature); the chief works in the second category are works composed in languages other than English (the only language in which I am competent). A literary work is made of words in much the same way a painting is made of canvas and pigment, a bust of plaster, a concerto of tones. Judging a work written in a language one does not read is like judging a painting composed of colors one cannot see. Translation is a difficult business at best; outside of certain unusual circumstances, it is impossible where imaginative literature is concerned. (See William H. Gass’s “The Medium of Fiction,” in Fiction and the Figures of Life, and chapters five and six of Rudolf Flesch’s otherwise almost valueless book The Art of Clear Thinking.)
Nevertheless, as almost every lover of literature knows, some of the finest imaginative writing ever done in the English language has been done by playwrights, and some of the most perfectly integrated imaginary worlds in literature have been created by writers who described them in other languages. (It is possible, within limits, when reading a work in translation, to judge the coherence of its world; it is not possible to judge the style in which that world is described.) Accordingly, I want to conclude this preface with a discussion of some plays and some works in translation which I have found particularly exciting. Since any ordinary survey of the “Literature Made Simple” variety can provide the reader with a list of significant English-language playwrights and foreign-language imaginative writers, I shall restrict my own discussion to a handful of the most outstanding of their works.
Oblomov, by the late 19th century Russian Ivan Goncharov, is a brilliant character study of the under-achiever, locating his failure to achieve in his failure to think for himself, and presenting one of the most (contextually) admirable heroines I know in fiction. Jealousy, a short novel by the avant-garde French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, is the most devastating and devastatingly clever presentation of that emotion I have ever read. Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus ingeniously interweaves the Faust legend with the development of contemporary music and the social and intellectual forces responsible for the transformation of the Weimar Republic into the Third Reich. (The almost incredible complexity of this novel is best appreciated when it is read in combination with Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Goethe’s Faust, the latter preferably in Phillip Wayne’s fine translation.) Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game (in the translation by Richard and Clara Winston) is the most effective and moving presentation I know of what it really means to be dedicated to the life of the mind. And the beautifully polished miniatures of the Argentine genius Jorge Luis Borges are available for sampling in the collection called Labyrinths; there is almost literally no describing these stories and essays, each of which presents the sensuous reality of a philosophical idea with an economy and precision of expression any writer could use as a model.
William Shakespeare is, and deservedly, the most universally revered of literary playwrights. Read Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, or The Tempest. (This one—my personal favorite—is particularly enjoyable if read in conjunction with Robert Browning’s “Caliban Upon Setebos” and James Branch Cabell’s “Prologue of Duke Prospero at Milan.”) And for a fascinating experience of revenge, greed, and their consequences, read and savor The Visit by Swiss playwright-novelist Friedrich Duerrenmatt. (In October: A look at fiction in English and why not much of it written before this century is of much artistic value. Also, a definition of the one key term left undefined this month. Next month: The first part of Neil McCaffrey’s jazz series.]
[This essay was first published in Libertarian Review, August 1975, Vol. IV, No. 8, and was posted to Objectivist Living on Wednesday, November 15, 2006 with the author's permission.]