Thursday, January 15, 2009

The authority to comment

A quarter century ago, Gerald Graff argued that propositional assertions are a key element of fiction customarily overlooked or discounted by critics. Fiction is “hyper-assertive rather than non-assertive,” he said, able to make “stronger, more universalizable” claims than reliably “factual” discourses like history and philosophy.1

By the time I journeyed to Northwestern University to study under him, Graff had not so much renounced this view as he had walked away from it like a bad memory. It was perhaps the last remaining scar of Yvor Winters’s influence upon him. (Graff wrote a dissertation under Winters that became Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma, his first book. Although I was drawn to him because he had been Winters’s student, Graff was non-committal about that passage of his curriculum vitae, and would say very little in reply to my eager questions. He talked me out of writing a dissertation on Winters, his wife Janet Lewis, and the “school” of poets and critics associated with them.)

In the years since then the assertorical view of literature has grown in my estimation. Consider the following passage from The Longest Journey. When Agnes returns to Sawston from a visit with Mrs Failing, she learns that an enemy has come and gone, and Rickie spoke with him! About what? Rickie won’t say. It is not that he was reluctant to tell her. “It was only the feeling of pleasure that he wished to conceal,” Forster writes. “Even when we love people, we desire to keep some corner secret from them, however small: it is a human right: it is personality.” What else are these if not assertions, demanding to be weighed as such? They invite the response “True, true.”

To deny that literature is a compound or even miscellaneous form of discourse, which necessarily includes assertions, is to miss a large part of what is going on in literary texts. Many novels contain what I call the digression-into-theme. Roland Merullo’s Fidel’s Last Days, for example, in a passage I merely alluded to in my review, swerves into the following at a crucial moment when Carolina Aznar Perez meets her contact in Cuba:

From the beginning of her career, from the first days of her CIA training in a windowless room in northern Virginia, she had been taught the most essential lesson: People are human begins first, and spies second. Human beings first, and soldiers second. Human beings first and government officials second. The greatest of mistakes was to forget the fact that in addition to their official duties, men and women were motivated by their individual psychological makeup, their need for sex, love, admiration, money, revenge, protection, security, approval. Bush, Clinton, Castro, Hussein, Kennedy, Mussolini, Hannibal, all the way back to Pontius Pilate and the Old Testament kings—there was the title and the office, and then, beneath that, buried in the mystery of the human personality, something else. History was the sum total of these “something else’s.”Merullo begins the passage by attributing his assertions to a “lesson” that Carolina learned in her CIA training. By the end of the passage, however, this pretense has dropped away. It is difficult to believe that a CIA trainer would drill recruits in the lesson that History was the sum total of these “something else’s.” That lesson is Merullo’s. One might almost suspect that his novel was written up to this proverb.

What gives fictional assertions their validity? They are not produced by logical argument; they are not always corroborated, as neither Forster’s nor Merullo’s are, by the evidence of the drama. My hypothesis is that they are validated by authority. Because you are taken in by the author’s world—because you are persuaded that it exists, that it is peopled by the characters he sets in motion, performing acts that he tells you happened—you come by degrees to trust his authority to comment upon other worlds too, including yours.

1. Gerald Graff, “Literature as Assertions,” in American Criticism in the Poststructuralist Age, ed. Ira Konigsberg (Ann Arbor: Michigan Studies in the Humanities, 1981), pp. 135–61.


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