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Plato's Atlantis Story and the Birth of Fiction

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 1979
pp. 64-78 | 10.1353/phl.1979.0005

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Christopher Gill PLATO'S ATLANTIS STORY AND THE BIRTH OF FICTION There is a sense in which Plato's Atlantis story is the earliest example of narrative fiction in Greek literature; which is also to say it is the earliest example in Western literature. This may seem a surprising claim. Plato's story is introduced in the Timaeus as the record of a factual event and as one which is "absolutely true." If the story is conceded, nonetheless, to be an invention, one might suppose that earlier works of literature, such as Homer's epics, have an equal claim to be considered fictional. On the other hand, it might be objected that the genre of narrative fiction (what we call the romance or novel) did not emerge in Greece until considerably later, in or around the first century B.C. A better understanding both of fiction and of the Atlantis story will, however, show my claim to be justified. If we describe a narrative as a fiction, we usually mean that it is an account of events which did not actually take place as they are described but which have been invented by the author. This, however, does not distinguish between falsehood and fiction. And, indeed, fiction is distinguishable from falsehood only by the presumptions of author and audience: the author of fiction does not intend to deceive (nor is the audience generally deceived) about the status of the narrative. It is also true (though in a different sense) that it is the presumptions of author and audience that distinguish fictional from factual accounts. For a fictional narrative in the past tense is not formally distinguishable from a narrative of past factual events; and it is only certain conventional and extrinsic signals (like the title of a book) which denote the class of the narrative. Moreover, an audience follows a fictional narrative with much the same kind of mental attention and emotional involvement as it does a factual narrative: fictional events may seem, in a sense, as real as, or more real than, factual events. Yet, at some level, the audience is aware that the fictional events are not real in the ordinary sense of the word but invented by the author; this awareness underlies 64 Christopher Gill65 and characterizes the kind of attention, and involvement, elicited by fictional narrative. Fiction, one may say, is a kind of game, in which both participants share in a willed pretense, treating what is unreal as real, and what is invented as actual. The rules of the game of fiction are not intuitively obvious, but presuppose a degree of cultural sophistication in a society or individual: in particular, the capacity to draw a clear distinction between fact and fiction. This capacity cannot be reasonably attributed to the composers of Homeric epic, nor can the poems (which are a chemical fusion of legends about the past and creative invention) accurately be classified by either term. The genre of deliberately fictional narrative (that is, the romance) did not emerge until historiography, factual recording of the past, was an established technique. Indeed, the romance seems to have grown up as an imitation of history, in which the author played the game of recounting a sequence of past events. Xenophon's Education of Cyrus (c. 360 b.c.), the first self-consciously semi-fictional history, served as a suggestive prototype for later, more completely fictional narratives. It is perhaps not accidental that Thucydides' attempt in the fifth century to lay down criteria for wholly factual historiography (with none of the romantic elaborations of the Homeric epics, 1.3, 1.10, 1.22) was succeeded in the fourth century by the first philosophical accounts ofthe truth-status of literature; Aristotle, in fact, defines literary truth through a contrast with historical truth (Poetics, 9). The clearer delineation of fact promoted the desire to define fiction (or, at least, literary invention), as well as creating the preconditions for the self-conscious production of fiction. Plato may seem to be an enemy rather than an analyst of literature; and his discussions undeniably have a polemical tone. But, closely examined, his treatment of literature in the Republic, and of the kinds of...