I’d like to share a passage that strikes me as very interesting, owing perhaps to its synchronicity. It came to me (or I to it) at exactly the right moment, as I’ve been thinking lately about the nature of literary representation, the relationship between writing and reading, on the one hand, and living one’s life, on the other, as well as the observer-relative ontology of fictional characters like Felicite in A Simple Soul. You know, the typical stuff that dudes in their early 40s think about. In his wonderfully engaging but occasionally repetitious Proust’s Way, Roger Shattuck does an exemplary job helping readers grasp the structure, shape, and unity of the Search. Shattuck, a deep and probing thinker, is also eager to bring his aesthetic vision to bear on philosophical issues in criticism and literary experience in general.
We know now how inadequately we have been served by the traditional metaphor for the novel, dear to Stendhal: that it “holds a mirror up to nature.” The metaphor does not fail because there is no nature, no reality out there to mirror. It fails because the novel offers us words, not the direct visual images that a mirror reflects. The reality those words reveal is both there and not there. On the basis of widely shared cues and conventions, each reader’s mind must to a large extent project and create that imaginary reality.
At one level of description, then, a novel contains marks, letters, words. But at another level, it’s a kind of libretto that, when translated by the active participation of a sympathetic mind, blueprints the creation of a lush, fictional world, whose “reality…is both there and not there” on the pages of the book. If words were particular visual images, the imagination would be hamstrung, prompting Shattuck to share this delicious complaint by Flaubert, which amuses my inner Postman to death — and I hope yours, too.
Never, as long as I live, shall I allow anyone to illustrate me, because: the most beautiful literary description is eaten up by the most wretched drawing. As soon as a figure [type] is fixed by the pencil, it loses that character of generality, that harmony with a thousand known objects which make the reader say: “I’ve seen that” or “That must be so.” A woman in a drawing looks like one woman, that’s all. The idea is closed, complete, and every sentence becomes useless, whereas a written woman makes one dream of a thousand women.
Shattuck (and Flaubert) have spoken.