Iser’s book argues that “the special character of literature is its production through a fusion” (p. xiii) of the fictive (“an act of boundary-crossing which, nonetheless, keeps in view what has been overstepped”) (pp. xiv-xv) and the imaginary (“a featureless and inactive potential”) (p. xvii). As a consequence, he anchors his “different form of heuristics” (p. xiii) in two dense meditations on the history of these terms. The first, chapter 3, teases out the way “fiction” has been “thematized” in philosophical writings—with detailed explications, in particular, of the works of Bacon (who views fiction as an idol), Bentham (“who stands for a paradigm switch” [p. 112] in which fiction becomes “a mode of bridge-building” [p. 123]), Vaihinger (“fiction as a transparent posit” [p. 130]), and Nelson Goodman (who sees fictions in terms of worldmaking). The second, chapter 4, deliberates on the nature of the imaginary, with particular attention to Coleridge (who made “the last significant attempt” to treat imagination as a faculty [p. 186]), Sartre (for whom the imaginary is an act), and Cornelius Castoriadis (who has developed the notion of the “radical imaginary”).
But while the book deals exhaustively with the twin terms of its main title, its relation to its subtitle is more vexed. Certainly, this book is not about anthropology in any conventional sense. Although Iser pays lip service to “culture-bound patternings” (p. 297), in fact his inquiry almost entirely ignores the pressures of particular cultural contexts; and to the extent that he deals with “the human condition,” he does so by universalizing from a narrow slice of the Western intellectual tradition. Nor, more surprisingly, is the book really very much concerned with literature. True, the second chapter—the most compelling—offers revealing insights into the literary fictionality of some specific instances of Renaissance pastoral; but it is significant that this analysis precedes, rather than follows from, Iser’s philosophical explorations. And while he returns, in his last chapters, to literature—specifically, to a notion of literature as play—this discussion is almost completely divorced from any engagement with actual literary texts. Glancing references to Tristram Shandy and Finnegans Wake, a slightly longer mention of Beckett’s Imaginary Dead Imagine: these serve as the springboards from which Iser makes sweeping transhistorical, crosscultural pronouncements about “the” text.
The Fictive and the Imaginary makes heavy demands on its readers. Although Iser lashes out against “unwieldy structuralist terminology” (p. x), his own style is dense and abstract, and his basic terminology is muddled. For instance, he insists on the term “imaginary,” in contrast to such familiar terms as “imagination,” because it is “comparatively neutral” and “has not yet been permeated by [End Page 188] traditional associations” (p. 305)—yet his analysis often depends pivotally on treating “the imaginary” and “the imagination” as equivalents. Matters are made more difficult yet by Iser’s tendency to conflate two different tasks: elucidating the history of the discourse around the terms and finding the “true” nature of the fictive and the imaginary themselves.
Then, too, as the summary above may suggest, the book has organizational quirks. Iser begins by insisting vigorously on a triad, replacing the distinction between fiction and reality with the three-pronged distinction of “the real, the fictive, and . . . the imaginary” (p. 1). But the definition of the real, oddly exiled to a footnote, is internally inconsistent (it refers simultaneously to “the empirical world” and to “the variety of discourses relevant to the author’s approach to the world”) (p. 305), and in any case, it is soon demoted to a minor character in the argument. Indeed, in the “Epilogue”—on mimesis and literary staging—the notions of the fictive and imaginary have vanished as well. One is left, then, with a clump of chapters that do not cohere into a single book, much less a unified argument. For all its scattered insights, The Fictive and the Imaginary does not meet the high standards set by Iser’s previous, and distinguished, output.