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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Sunday, June 16, 2013


I promised an essay on "the two verisimilitudes" at the end of AFFECTIVE EFFECTS, but I had already touched on the topic in the April 2013 essay AN INCOHERENCE TRUTH:

What Frye calls "verisimilitude" overlaps with Langer's discursive symbolism. The author seeking verisimilitude seeks to make his work consistent with his culture's ideals with regard to proper mimesis and consistency, which can only be arrived at through discursive thought.  The quality of verisimilitude is certainly not limited to realistic fiction, though.  Zola's desire to write kitchen-sink novels of observed life displays one form of verisimilitude.  Nevertheless, when a science-fiction writer like Isaac Asimov seeks to ground his fantasy of super-intelligent robots in an aura of believability, he too resorts to a form of verisimilitude, by invoking the discursive symbolism found in current scientific theory, from which he then extrapolates in order to buttress his fantasy.
And long before that, I had seen one of the best distinctions of "the two verisimilitudes"-- better IMO than anything I've found in Northrop Frye as yet-- in the essay "On Realisms" in C.S. Lewis' AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM.

As a book, EXPERIMENT is a milestone work in pluralistic literary criticism, in that Lewis-- who was not quite in step with the dominant literary trends of his lifetime-- attempts to analyze such questions as why some people enjoy "bad books," and how even the sophisticated reader "must make sure that his contempt [for bad books] had in it no admixture of merely social snobbery or intellectual priggery."

In the essay "On Realisms," Lewis seeks to suss out the difference connotations of the word "realism," by distinguishing a "realism of content" and a "realism of presentation."  In my Asimov example above, the author's use of discursive symbolism to make robots seem "real" aligns with Lewis' "realism of presentation."  However, no matter how expertly Asimov articulates the fictional rules by which his robots function, they will always be unacceptable to the "realism of content." From this positivistic orientation, both well-described Asimovian robots and weakly described tin-can automatons out of BUCK ROGERS are beyond the pale of this realistic standard.  Only one type of robot might be acceptable to this standard: one that has already been constructed for use in current scientific laboratories, like the ones seen in the essay FIVE REAL ROBOTS THAT OUTPERFORM HUMANITY.   

Once such robots have been created, they are entirely within the sphere of casuality; one need not appeal to some hypothetical concept like Asimov's "positronic brains" to rationalize the robots' functions.  In similar fashion, no matter how learnedly Jules Verne referenced the science of his time to explain the operation of the Nautilus, his submarine was outside the bounds of causality in that it was depended upon "fudge factors" created by authorial imagination.  With real robots and submarines, as Lewis says, "there is no disbelief to be suspended."

Now, I add a caution: Lewis does not reference concepts of causality.  I've interpolated these, drawing on influences ranging from Cassirer to Roger Caillois to Tolkien.  Lewis is purely concerned with what is acceptable as "realistic" in social terms.  For this reason his take on "realism of presentation" is somewhat different from mine.  He's not overly concerned here with how a given author provides verisimilitude to explain a given wonder-- though of course he pursued such narrative strategies in his own fantasy and science fiction novels.  In this essay he's concerned with gestures that connote a continuity of realistic action, even when they appear in fantastic narratives. Thus one of his chief examples-- which are, as he himself says, mostly drawn from fantastic fiction-- includes "the dragon 'sniffing along the stone' in BEOWULF."  This action makes the dragon seem more like a real creature, in that he guides himself by scent, but it does nothing to explain the nature of his dragon-ness.

I had not read EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM in several years, and mainly remembered the opposition of the two realisms.  I reread it about a month after I finished the "Two Sublimities Have I" essay-series, where I proposed that narrative works in the uncanny phenomenality, even if they are governed by causality in the final analysis, possess a greater combinatory-sublimity than naturalistic works, and that they did so by articulating "coherent improbabilities."

Once a work partakes of  the uncanny phenomenality, that work is dealing with far more than mere "freshness of vision."  Such works are "coherent improbabilities," in which the source of the "strangeness"-- be it a weird house or a weird society, a wildly improbable hero or criminal-- circumvents the causal reality in which that element exists. 
Now, even though Lewis is not concerned with matters of causality, he is, as much as Cassirer, concerned with fulfilling the potential of literature:
The raison d'etre of the story is that we shall weep, or shudder, or wonder, or laugh as we follow it.
This strikes closely to Cassirer's conviction that *expressivity* is the bedrock of the arts, as opposed to Emile Zola's conviction that fiction should follow a "scientific methodology" as to what was or was not real-- which had the effect of privileging a *cognitive* view of the arts.  A paragraph or so down, Lewis grants special dispensation to improbabilities simply because they are entertaining:

The effort to force such stories into a radically realistic theory of literature seems to me perverse.  They are not, in any sense that matters, representations of life as we know it, and were never valued for being so.  The strange events are not clothed with hypothetical probability in order to increase our knowledge of real life by showing how it would react to this improbable test. It is the other way round.  The hypothetical probability is brought in to make the strange events more fully imaginable.

Though I doubt that Lewis would agree with my formulation of "coherent improbabilities" as they appear in "uncanny fiction," I think that at base we are talking about the literary use of "probability" in a very similar manner.  At the very least, we agree that the test of "the knowledge of real life" to which Zola would evaluate fiction is not an accurate test.

Just for symmetry's sake, since in this essay I invoked both naturalistic and marvelous conceptions of "the robot," I might as well throw in one of the few that belongs to the uncanny phenomenality-- sort of a "killer wind-up toy" from the serial SHADOW OF CHINATOWN.


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