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TOWARD A GENERAL THEORY OF FICTION by James D. Parsons When nelson Goodman writes, "All fiction is literal, literary falsehood," he seems to be disregarding at least one noteworthy tradition.1 The tradition I have in mind includes works by Jeremy Bendiam, Hans Vaihinger, Tobias Dantzig, Wallace Stevens, and a host ofother writers in many fields who have been laboring for more man two centuries to clear the ground for a general theory of fiction. Such a general dieory would, if its exponents are right about its relevemce, be situated at the very heart of die law, literature, religion, science, mathematics — in fact, of humem life itself. Fiction dien would be no neirrow litereiry falsehood, but a kind of pressure, eis Wedlace Stevens said, which die imagination exerts "against die pressure of reality," and which "helps us to live our lives,"2 or, in Hans Vaihingens metaphor, "a scaffolding afterwards to be demolished" 3 — that is, elfter it heis served its constructive purpose. A fiction is a vitally useful creation of die mind corresponding to nothing in the real world. Most people eire aware of some of these fictions, from the perfect geometric figures of Euclid to the black box of contemporary axiomatics. There are many odiers. The notion diat all human beings are equal before die law is a fiction that can serve opposing purposes: it can work as an instrument for securing greater justice in the courts and in society, or it can function as ceimouflage, helping to perpetuate em unjust legal system and em oppressive social order — emd probably in any actual situation it serves both purposes at once. In die science of mechanics the idea of a pure vacuum, in which moving objects meet with no resistance, was for some centuries a useful fiction diat made possible the exact mathematiced analysis of motion in memy forms — another useful fiction. The notion of normality in psychology — mat diere is a universal standard of reference for human behavior — is stdl utilized by clinical and laboratory workers in the field, in spite of the metssive sociological emd ethnographic criticisms that have been leveled against it. In science generally, the idea that 92 James D. Parsons93 diere is a community of experts who by dieir combined influence decide what the trudi is in every field is a fiction diat seems to have come to the end of its usefulness, diough some philosophers have written about it as if it were a reality and not a fiction at edl. The fictions I have cited so far are none of them literary, nor être diey fedse in the ordinetry meaning of the word. They are simply not true; they describe nothing mat exists, except in die mind, emd cem be considered false only if one forgets what they eire emd tries, illegitimately, to apply tests of trudi to them in a direct way. Among the fictions mat might be called literary are the fictions derived from mydis. Now, a myth is a story told in answer to a question or a series of questions that has never been asked, eidier about the real world or (most likely) about the perennial performance of a ritual. The mydi is designed to forestall the questioning, because the questions that might be raised would be too embarrassing or because questions about some aspects of reality ceuinot be formulated without distorting our relation to them. These are the aspects of reedity that can be viewed only out of die corner of the eye, that disappear when we focus our gaze upon diem, and mat can be identified only indirectly.4 The more explicitly fictional devices, too, of poetry, drama, and the novel develop out of the attempt to achieve some sort of cognizeuice of the seune aspects of reality that are related in mydis. I do not meetn to imply that literature, of which mydi is a part, is concerned only with such disconcerting or evanescent aspects of reality. Literature, like all the great realms of culture, is concerned with the whole of reality. It has to be, omerwise its more passionate, its more ediereed concerns would have no lodging place, no environment in which to maintain...


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pp. 92-94
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