restricted access Introduction: The Three Regimes of the Novel
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Introduction: The Three Regimes of the Novel One peculiarity of novels when they first arrived in the eighteenth century was that they told new stories rather than recomposing old ones. Their characters were singular; each novel had to introduce its readers to a new world. This has not changed. —John Mullan, How Novels Work Gottlob Frege’s essay “On Sense and Reference,” published in 1892, stands at the beginning of modern philosophical interest in fictionality—that is, in the truth status of fictional propositions. Poetry—roughly, what we now call literature— had of course long been seen as a special kind of deceit that, at least for poetry’s many defenders, led mysteriously back to the truth. “The truest poetry is the most feigning,” says Shakespeare’s Touchstone; “The novel establishes its birthright as a lie that is the foundation of truth,” writes Carlos Fuentes much more recently; and indeed, the literary ground since the Greeks is strewn with chestnuts such as these.1 “The history of Western literary theory,” as one noted theorist puts it, “can be summed up as a continuous debate on the classical dictum that poets are liars.”2 Frege’s interest was nonetheless distinct, for he was interested in semantic questions regarding language’s capacity to refer to the world; literary language was a curious subspecies that did not, he argued, refer at all. If we read, in Homer, that “Odysseus was set ashore at Ithaca while he was sound asleep,” we understand the proposition as having a sense even though the proper name Odysseus has no reference in the real world, and thus no truth-value. “In hearing an epic poem . . . apart from the euphony of language we are interested only in the sense of sentences and the images and feelings thereby aroused. . . . Hence it is a matter of no concern to us whether the name ‘Odysseus,’ for instance , has a reference, so long as we accept the poem as a work of art.”3 2 introduction “A matter of no concern to us,” perhaps, but would the ancient Greeks have felt the same way? To be fair, Frege’s essay is only tangentially concerned with literary reference; it focuses on the way signs in general refer, and Frege, like many early theorists, felt that sharply separating out literature from “natural ” forms of discourse clarified the issues.4 It is therefore not surprising that, as a theory of fiction, Frege’s treatment of Homer leaves much to be desired. But one of its shortcomings in particular is shared by more modern and elaborate theories of fiction. That shortcoming is historical. We are welcome to our doubts about Odysseus’s reality, or for that matter about Athena’s—as were, presumably, the Greeks—but Homer certainly didn’t “invent” them in the manner that Balzac invented Old Goriot or Dickens invented Little Dorrit. Epic heroes and the gods were quite simply attested: they were authorized by tradition. They may or may not have had reference in Frege’s empirical sense, but they didn’t need any: they possessed a type of extratextual existence that the protagonists of the typical nineteenth-century novel did not.5 Which is to say that along with asking what fiction “is,” we might also ask if fiction always is, in the same way: mightn’t calling Odysseus fictional be to mischaracterize Greek practices of poetic invention, and to read the Odyssey as if it were a modern novel? We might offer sympathetic support for Frege’s contention that literary protagonists have no reference by limiting it to the nineteenth-century novel—a likely source of the philosopher’s conviction in the first place. The difficulty, however, is that substituting a sentence from Balzac or Dickens for Homer’s verses leads to new complications: Old Goriot or Little Dorrit may have no reference, but their inventors refer rather insistently to the Paris and London of their day—not only to places, but also to the workings of money and class and institutions. Such reference obviously falls outside Frege’s understanding of the term, predicated as it is on the proper name. We could, then, refine Frege’s proposal, perhaps noting with John Searle and others that certain fictional genres contain “nonfictional commitments,” which is to say, references to known people and places.6 This type of accommodation does not, however, solve the problem, which I repeat is at bottom historical: unlike ancient epic, the nineteenth-century...