- Why Do We Still Want To Believe? The Case of Annie Proulx
Reading for Realism 1: An Act of Faith
"I Want to Believe" declares the slogan beneath a UFO on the poster behind Fox Mulder's desk in the television series, The X-Files. This expression of the character's desire for faith in an alien world beyond our own underlines his mission throughout the series to find evidence that "the truth is out there," the show's motto. It is Mulder's desire ("I want to believe"), stopping short of belief even, that sustains him on his quest for truth. I begin with this example as a conceit for seeking realism in the late twentieth to early twenty-first century. For the persistence of the desire for "the truth" in the face of obstacles to it shadows the no less incongruous desire for realist fictions in our contemporary theoretical climate.
In his chapter "The Path to Postmodernism," in After Theory, Terry Eagleton expresses the conundrum of the endurance of realism with characteristic humor:
Modernism, like the culture of the 1960s and 70s, could take it for granted that when it came to the cultural establishment, realism was still dominant. Indeed, it has proved perhaps the most resilient cultural form in Western history, beating off all contenders. And this suggests that it has at least some of its roots deep in the Western psyche. What [End Page 86] was valuable was the kind of art which mirrored a world in which you could recognize yourself. Quite why this is thought valuable is extremely hard to say. The answer probably has more to do with magic than aesthetics. It is not easy to say why we take such an infantile pleasure in gazing at an image of a banana which looks for all the world like a banana.(66–67)
The aspect of realism that depends upon mimesis, put simply for the moment as the representation of the real (bananas or otherwise), would appear thwarted by poststructuralist revelations that what was previously thought of as truth is more accurately a narrative of truths in the plural (this is one perspective of one banana, for example). Concomitant with the pluralization and narrativization trajectories in theory, those worlds/ truths/reals acquire the necessity to be flagged within cautionary quotation marks, indicating their partiality in terms of political and ideological perspectives, perspectives with a power to shape material conditions. One of the reverberating lessons of poststructuralist approaches, if we concur with them, is that we may well create those worlds that we once apparently thought we were representing. Such questionings of certainties provide major stumbling blocks for realist fiction. As Mark Currie has put it in relation to postmodernist fiction, for contemporary authors there have been developments in the "theory of language and literature which make it more difficult to write a novel that does not reflect on its own role in the construction of reality" (54). This point might be extended to include the self-consciousness of readers as well as writers, as it can be argued that, for a theoretically-aware reader, it is difficult to read a novel without an awareness of one's role in the formation of discursive practices through the enactment of reading. For instance, reading a contemporary realist novel requires a simultaneous recognition of the supposed futility of its propositions alongside a suspension of this awareness in order to continue to "want" to read. This article will demonstrate that such reading is a performance which constitutes not so much a suspension of disbelief, but a (willful) entry into belief. Why we are not content with postmodernist narratives remains something of an "x-file" itself.
Paradoxes, then, envelop contemporary academic readers' desire for, and even, dare I say it, enjoyment of, escape through realist linear stories [End Page 87] that depict worlds which are self-contained, those stories that allow one to lose oneself in the pleasure of being elsewhere in an old-fashioned, uncritical, untrendy, naïve, and even embarrassing way. This pleasure, it seems, belongs in the past in two senses. Firstly, it belongs in the past of individual, carefree, youthful reading experiences...