Is fictional literature true?

I often ask my students if it is possible for a work of fiction to tell the truth. I have yet to hear a student answer “yes.” I find that both stunning and disappointing. Someone inevitably asks, “do you mean like historical fiction?” They have not moved past their third grade definition of fiction as a “made-up story.”

This also betrays an unexamined acceptance of empiricism’s claim to the throne of truth. Francis Crick ostensibly said this of facts, “Any theory that can account for all of the facts is wrong, because some of the facts are always wrong.” Since facts are the conclusions of human investigations and arguments, there is an inherent possibility, if not likelihood, of error. Sadly, my students do not see the complexity of truth, nor the richness of literature, nor the tendentiousness of what often goes by the name of “fact.” At least, they do not see it at the beginning of my courses — hopefully by the end of the semester their vision has improved a bit.

My answer, of course, is that fiction, or what I prefer to call “imaginative literature,” not only can, but should tell the truth. To understand what I mean, you have to move away from a narrow definition of truth. You have to move away from a view that defines truth only as that which corresponds to observable and demonstrable reality. You have to accept that there are such things as transcendent realities and transcendent truths.

To keep things simple, I divide reality into three domains: the human, the natural world, and the transcendent. When I teach this to college students, I explain that “the natural world” is measurable reality, whether that is a 2 X 4 or the speed of light. Humans occupy a kind of middling space between the natural and the transcendent, partaking of both, interacting with both, but not a full member of either. We are third things. The “transcendent” is what gives meaning to the human and natural domains. The transcendent is what happens when you realize that there is more to the wardrobe than you ever imagined.

If you recall, in my last post I quoted James Berlin who said that “to teach writing is to argue for a version of reality.” I borrow his language and claim that literature itself portrays, explicitly or implicitly, a version of reality.  Given my definition of reality, I believe that every work of literature “says” something about people, the world and the metaphysical or transcendent realm.

To read literature is to enter its version of reality with our imaginations. It may require us, in Coleridge’s famous phrase, to “suspend disbelief” and accept that fairies or monsters or time travel are real. But even when we read about fairies or time travel, literature is enjoyable and meaningful if we sense deep down that it portrays something true. The true thing is not the lamppost in the forest, it is the imaginative experience of Narnia which allows us to experience the three domains of reality from new perspectives.

Let’s get back to my claim that literature not only can, but should tell the truth. Implicit in my “should” is a self-conscious rejection of the autonomy of the artist to represent reality howsoever he sees fit. This also implies a self-conscious rejection of the absolute maxim that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But I am getting ahead of myself…

Insofar as literature creates (or re-creates) a version of reality, it makes claims about what is true, what is good and what is beautiful. Literature, at least the best literature, is only superficially about what people say and do. It is, or wants to be, about the fundamental realities of what it means to be human, living on this earth and under that sky. This places a huge burden on authors. They do not just write stories or poems; they work in the realm of profound correspondences. Creativity is not just the ability to come up with clever plots and memorable characters. It is about the ability to re-create and re-present what Russell Kirk called “the permanent things.” It is not about entertaining, but about entering in. I will explore some of what that means in my next post.

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