The “Real” and the “Realistic”

In this post and a few following I want to look at the mimetic aspect of narrative, the building of a narrative world. The word mimesis is complicated. Literary critics tend to equate mimesis and realism. You can see this bias in the title of Erich Auerbach’s great study, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. I like realism, but I also like lots of non-realistic literature. We need a word to talk about representation in non-realistic literature, too. I suggest (and I’m not the first to do so) that we should extend the word “mimesis” to cover non-realistic representation as well. Mimesis, as I use the word, means something like “world-making”; the world made may be realistic or not.

The “realistic” seems to be parasitic on the “real”. The “real” comes first, and the “realistic” in some way copies or imitates it; the “unrealistic” seems to be parasitic on the “realistic”. Thus fictions are two steps removed from the real. For these posts I will make a few initial assumptions: (1a) There is something we may as well call the “real” or “reality”. (1b) That reality is independent of us; that is, it would exist even without our perception of it. (2a) Our senses give us some information about this reality. (2b) Our senses are not always reliable. (3a) Language can refer to reality. (3b) Language can also be used to lie or to make fictions.

These principles seem reasonably straightforward, but they depend on knowing what constitutes the “real”. There are philosophic problems here, which I am happy to pass over, but there’s also a literary problem. It’s not easy, even for a non-philosopher, to say exactly what is real and what isn’t. Some fictions assume an answer, or different fictions assume different answers, but other fictions play with the problem to produce interesting aesthetic effects.

Every story needs a world, and every storyteller makes a world—though a lot of that making comes by assuming that the listener or reader will be able to fill in the inevitable gaps. As a first step, we can say that a story has to occur in time, long or short, and in space, big or small. Time in a story is not measured by a clock, and space is not measured by a ruler; time and space are measured by how human beings perceive and live and feel. Within the time and space of a story-world, there will be weather and objects and animals and human beings. Furthermore the people in the story will live in some sort of society, and they will have feelings about the weather and objects and animals and people in the story. All of these are part of the story-world, part of the mimetic aspect, and probably every story-teller constructs these idiosyncratically. In this post I will be concerned mostly with the mimesis of things, but in later posts I will discuss other kinds of representation.

I begin with a description of something “real”, but then I will move to descriptions that are “realistic” or “not-so-realistic” and see how they compare to the description of the “real”. Here’s the description of something “real”. This comes from the very beginning of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century:

“Formidable and grand on a hilltop in Picardy, the five-towered castle of Coucy dominated the approach to Paris from the North, but whether as guardian or as challenger of the monarchy in the capital was an open question. Thrusting up from the castle’s center, a gigantic cylinder rose to twice the height of the four corner towers. This was the donjon or central citadel, the largest in Europe, the mightiest of its kind ever built in the Middle Ages or thereafter. Ninety feet in diameter, 180 feet high, capable of housing a thousand men in a siege, it dwarfed and protected the castle at its base, the clustered roofs of the town, the bell tower of the church, and the thirty turrets of the massive wall enclosing the whole complex on the hill. Travelers coming from any direction could see this colossus of baronial power from miles away and, on approaching it, feel the awe of the traveler in infidel lands at first sight of the pyramids.” (3)

A description in a history book is judged, at least in part, by an external standard of truth. We could go to Picardy and test what Tuchman says with our own eyes; if we were to find, for example, that the castle of Coucy really had only four towers, or that the donjon was only 50 feet in diameter, or that it’s actually only 100 feet high, then we would say that the description is wrong. In a work of fiction, however, if the narrator tells us that the tower of So-and-so has four towers, that it’s 50 feet in diameter and 100 feet high, we have no external standard against which to check the description. (But what if the narrator of a work of fiction includes a description of something that exists outside the world of the fiction? I will return to this question later.)

Tuchman’s description of this castle includes more than the kind of physical detail which can be checked by counting and measuring. The castle and the donjon are not just things; they are things with a purpose and a relation to other things and people, and they are the source of impressions and experiences. The castle guards or challenges the capital; the donjon dwarfs and protects the castle, the town, the church, and the wall enclosing the complex. Travelers experience this “colossus of baronial power” as they would experience their first sight of the pyramids. These purposes and experiences belong to the real, just as much as the castle and the towers. This description significantly comes right at the beginning of the book and sets forth in physical terms some of the themes of power and conflict which will continue throughout. (Many novels begin with an initial description which sets the tone for the rest of the story; we will see an example below.)

As this description continues, we see hints of a move to something more than or other than the real:

“Seized by grandeur, the builders had carried out the scale of the donjon in interior features of more than mortal size: risers of steps were fifteen to sixteen inches, window seats three and a half feet from the ground, as if for use by a race of titans. Stone lintels measuring two cubic yards were no less heroic.” (3)

The measurements remain subject to external verification, and so they remain in the world of the real, but the things measured are “of more than mortal size”, “as if for use by a race of titans.” The details would be at home in a fantasy story, perhaps “Jack and the Beanstalk”: “When Jack entered the palace he saw that everything was built at more than mortal size: the risers of the steps were fifteen or sixteen inches, window seats were three and a half feet from the ground, chairs were as high as tables, and the tables were beyond his reach; it was all built for a race of giants. Jack turned and saw the giant himself standing in the doorway. ‘Fee, fi, fo, fum’ he said, ‘I smell the blood of an Englishman’”. Tuchman’s description is kept within the real only by the tiny phrase “as if”. This historian’s sense of the real includes impressions and opinions and also a hint of something beyond the real.

Here, for comparison, is an example of “realistic” mimesis. This comes from the very beginning of Émile Zola’s early novel, Thérèse Raquin. (I use the excellent English translation, by Leonard Tancock, in the Penguin edition.)  Zola is generally considered a realist, more specifically a naturalist. He aimed, so he said, to present a scientific description and analysis of French society of his time. He’s one of my favorite writers, but not because he’s scientific; I think he’s one of the great romancers. Let’s see how he builds a world and what kind of world he builds:

“At the end of the rue Guénégaud, as you come up from the river, you find the Passage du Pont-Neuf, a sort of narrow, dark corridor connecting rue Mazarine and rue de Seine. This passage is thirty yards long and two in width at the most; it is paved with yellowish flagstones, worn and loose, which always exude a damp, pungent smell, and it is covered with a flat, glazed roofing black with grime.

“On fine summer days, when the streets are baking in the oppressive heat, a whitish light does fall through the dingy glass roofing and hang dismally about this arcade, but on nasty winter ones, on foggy mornings, the panes send down nothing but gloom on to the greasy pavement below, and dirty, evil gloom at that.”

Observe the Émile Zola Construction Company as it builds a world. We can practically see the workers measuring and paving this dismal street. Zola drew his blueprints either from some specific location he knew of or from a composite of several different locations. This description is full of physical detail, but also full of sensation and judgement. Once Zola has presented a description of the general location, he moves to a more specific account of the shops in the passage:

“To the left open out dark, low, shallow shops from which come whiffs of cold, vault-like air. Here there are booksellers, vendors of toys, cardboard dealers, whose window displays are grey with dust and slumber dimly in the shadows; the small window-panes cast strange greenish mottlings on the goods for sale. The murky shops behind are just so many black holes in which weird shapes move and have their being.” The weird shapes are people, the owners of the murky shops, but they as they are described they could be ghouls and monsters. The real as seen by this most realist of realists crosses the line into the fantastic.

This description continues for about four pages, gradually coming to focus on the shop owned by the principal characters in the story; there is too much to quote here, but these paragraphs give you some sense of the world Zola is building, how he goes about building it, and what it means.

How is this world constructed? Zola gives the reader lots of specific detail about physical objects. He picks his details, however, by the effect he wants to create. He also moves gradually from a general view of the location to a more focused view of the principal characters in the story. Many novels begin with this kind of gradual tracking from a wide view to a close-up.

What does it represent? A location, and more: it represents the physical world in specific  detail, but it also represents sensations and attitudes. The dismal light, the gloom, the damp, pungent smell, the grime—these sensations are not attached to any particular observer; they are presented as if they were simply facts, like the length and width of the street. If there is a subject of these perceptions, it must be the reader.

What does it mean? At this point in the story, meaning is just beginning to accumulate. We can make a few preliminary comments, however. First, this writer seems to like a well-furnished world—in contrast to Jane Austen, for instance, whose worlds include only those objects directly necessary to the development of the plot. Zola likes vividness—what a classical rhetorician would call energeia. One of the goals of naturalism is to put the reader directly into the story, as much as possible. In addition, Zola wants his readers to have certain feeling about this world—this is a world of dismal, evil gloom; the shops are black holes, and the shop owners are weird shapes. This is the world in which the story takes place, and this atmosphere colors the reader’s judgment of the crime at the center of the plot.

Zola’s naturalism is one kind of realism, but there are many others, and there are many forms of non-realism as well. In my next post I will look at another example of the mimesis of things.

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