Reality Hunger

I can usually tell that I’m enjoying an essay when I think as I read it “I should really blog about this.” And one of the marks of a truly great essay is when, once I’ve decided I’m going to blog it, I think “ahh, here is the perfect part to excerpt” . . . and then, a paragraph later, “ahh, here is the perfect part to excerpt” . . . and then again, and so on.

That was my recent experience while reading Gabriel Josipovici’s essay on Borges (discovered here, available here, collected in this book). The piece is an extended reading of Borges’ seminal story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” and it involves literature’s relationship to reality. There’s a paradox in this relationship: a book is a closed system (no matter how many times you read it, everything in it always occurs in the same way every time), which is distinctly unlike life, where each moment can open up to an infinity of possibilities. This paradox means that “chance” and “causality” have completely different meanings in a story and in real life.

This, Josipovici says, explains Borges’ fondness for detective fiction, because detective fiction, “unlike the novel, accepts from the start that the logic of fiction is not the logic of life and that as a fictional construct its prime duty is to be interesting, not realistic.” From here, Josipovici makes the leap from Borges to the many 20th century authors that are his spiritual kinsmen and -women

This helps explain why so many modern writers have been at pains to stress that their fictions are only fictions, not reality. This is not in order to play games with the reader or to deny the world, but on the contrary, out of a deep sense of the wondrous nature of the world and a determination not to confuse the world as it is with the world as we imagine it to be, not to confuse actuality with possibility. Borges is quite clear about this in both the parable and the poem he has devoted to the tiger: ‘Never can my dreams engender the wild beast I long for’ he writes in the parable. ‘The tiger indeed appears, but stuffed or flimsy, or with impure variations of shape, or of an implausible size, or all too fleeting, or with a touch of the dog or the bird.’ And the poem ends by directing us away from poetry to the living beast: ‘I go on/ Seeking through the afternoon time/ The other tiger, that which is not in verse.’ In his stories he invents plots that help bring out the contrast between the indicative and the subjunctive: the man who waits for his killers to come, imagining again and again the moment of their arrival, until he can no longer distinguish reality from his nightmares; the creature lost in the labyrinth of his melancholy life, welcoming with relief the coming of Theseus, who will put an end to his solitude; the Symbolist writer who refuses the pleasures of mere imagination and sets out to write that which is quite other than any of our imaginings. As with Beckett and Stevens, Borges’ imagination keeps trying to imagine the death of imagination, but it is only when the imagination has been given its head that it can be effectively exorcised and so allow actuality to shine through.

I think this “bringing out the contrast between the indicative and the subjunctive” explained why I’ve been so energized by Reality Hunger lately. Essentially this is a book that takes on faith Josipovici’s premise that reality in fiction and reality in the real world mean very different things, and then exhorts writers to find forms that push that fact to the forefront–and, in fact, use that very distinction as a tool for providing a feel of reality in their fictions.

And so I think Josipovici and Shields both have done a fine job of articulating my antipathy for the “true to life” realist novel. It’s not that I want to throw the 19th-century baby out with the bathwater: my life would be so much poorer without without, for instance, George Eliot, but it is so rare these days to read a traditionally realist novel and not end up feeling like the whole time I’ve been missing one very important thing: life.



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This in an interesting comment: ‘no matter how many times you read it, everything in it always occurs in the same way every time.’ But I disagree with it.

No matter how many times you read it, the letters are presented in the same order, but everything occurs in a much different way each time.

When I read ‘The Great Gatsby’ now is is a much different book with totally different characters in it than when I read it twenty years ago. It’s almost as if it was a new film made by a different director with an entirely new cast. In fact, I don’t think a fiction called ‘The Great Gatsby’ really exists at all. Only a very spare set of instructions exists that allows me, the reader, to create the fiction of Gatsby.

Alessandro: Agreed–but it’s you who has changed, not the book.

I see where we can go with this. It gets a little philosophical and strange. But I will venture a slight risk and say that in fact the book does change. There is no book without the observation. A person with one eye will actually see a differently shaped object representing a book. I think the book only exists as interpreted. The pile of paper, cardboard and ink does not add up to a book.

It just occurs to me that someone should write a book specifically for the Kindle or any e-reader device that changes itself in subtle ways over time. So when you read the book after several months it will be different in very profound ways. An evolving, living book. Or there could be really dirt-cheap e-readers that are single-book readers which connect directly to the publisher or the author and allow the book to slowly evolve. The reader would of course have to keep reading the damn thing over and over to keep up, so it had better be a bloody good book! Every book could be an e-reader in and of itself, connected, changing, updating, driving everyone insane. One could never trust a book on a shelf to be the same book it was last week! I can’t wait. Someone must do this.

Very interesting, this whole line of inquiry. I am currently reading ‘Reality Hunger’ and find it thoroughly engrossing and I think the author is circling around a very subtle point about art and creation in general. Your post is fascinating for bringing Borges into this argument.

Sorry, but I must post one more thought I had today. I’m carrying my Kindle around and reading ‘Reality Hunger.’ The book revels in clipping and patching quotes and ideas together into a new unique work. I’m big on personalizing one’s e-reader device on the outside, like with a leather folder or something like that. But it occurs to me that what you are doing with an e-reader is building one big single book. You’re loading in works and making clippings and notes and subscribing to things. You are making a unique book.

One might argue that one does the same with a PC, but that’s not really the same at all. The e-reader is a very focused literary device and I think this angle of the personal unique book is one that will become very important. This is where the iPad will fail as an e-reader. It will be a computer, not a literary device. The idea of a literary device is new and will probably have an enormous effect on writers. I think Mr. Shields’ book is the first big example of this. In fact, his book reminds me of my Kindle.

Great Josipovici quote – thanks for pointing it out.
I’ve got to admit I’m a bit mystified by all the hoopla surrounding Reality Hunger. Leaving aside the unattributed borrowings, there doesn’t seem to be anything in the manifesto that hasn’t been said hundreds of times by hundreds of different people for nigh on a hundred years.
“Essentially this is a book that takes on faith Josipovici’s premise that reality in fiction and reality in the real world mean very different things, and then exhorts writers to find forms that push that fact to the forefront–and, in fact, use that very distinction as a tool for providing a feel of reality in their fictions.”
Fair enough, but why do writers need to push this difference to the forefront? Surely we’re at the point where most sophisticated readers take the distinction as a given and don’t need to have the fact shoved in their face? Some of the most annoying books I’ve read have been by authors who seem to be hung-up on this distinction. Like being accosted by some pushy undergraduate who has just discovered literary theory, reading them feels like being patronised and poked in the chest at the same time.
There’s an assumption in Reality Hunger and in works like it that conventional literary fiction is somehow playing a trick on us and should therefore be disregarded – how dare it pretend to be real life when it’s not! But I’ve always felt that there’s something a little childish and strange in demanding that fiction should somehow carry the burden of reality. These are books we’re talking about – not magic spells.

[…] blame David Shields. Heck, I blame myself. After all, I’m a huge fan of the writer Enrique Vila-Matas, who has […]

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