Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Fiction Stronger than Truth: An Interview with Richard Kearney on Imagination

This is an excerpt of an interview conducted by Rebekah Smick, Associate Professor of Philosophy of Arts & Culture at the Institute for Christian Studies, with Richard Kearney on October 13, 2012 in conjunction with the event titled "Imagination's Truths: Re-envisioning Imagination in Philosophy, Religion & the Arts" held in Toronto, on October 13, 2012.
The full text of this interview is available for download from  the institutional repository of the Institute for Christian Studies. Additionally, the video of this interview as well as Kearney's lecture and the conference panel session are available via this playlist on Youtube.

Rebekah Smick: What does it mean to you to speak in terms of "imagination’s truths"?

Richard Kearney: Well on the face of it, it would seem that imagination is about unreality, therefore, if you define truth as reality imagination is but an untruth. But there are certain truths proper to fiction, and certain truths that one can only access as complete through fiction. Aristotle in the Poetics, which is probably our first philosophical account of the relationship of truth and fiction, makes the point that it’s not a story that recounts the facts and gives you a chronicle of events that gets to the truth of what happens. It’s the poets who prescind from the facts but aim at an essence, what he calls an “essence of events.” And they do this through a process of mimesis, creative imitation or representation, and mythos, that’s our word “myth,” but in the Greek it’s “plot.” So there’s a restructuring and a reconfiguring of the facts such that we are able to see what is universal in human actions and human sufferings, and that for Aristotle is something that is only accessible through art.

Other philosophers have said interesting things [related to] that. To leap into the modern era, David Hume maintained that all men are liars and poets are liars by profession, so that poets actually take the ways in which we use imagination in our lives to construct meanings and then bring them to a higher level so that we become aware that we’re actually constructing meanings. Nietzsche goes for this too, when he says there are no facts; there are only interpretations of facts; and interpretations of facts involve imagination, the constructive, productive, constitutive role of imagination. And he ultimately concludes that there are two kinds of liars, there are those who tell lies and don’t know they’re telling lies—because our imaginations are always at work even when we’re dreaming and perceiving and eating, imagination is always at work symbolizing and giving meaning to things. So the distinction he makes is between the liars who don’t know they’re telling lies and authentic liars who know that they’re lying—and they’re the poets, or those who avail themselves of the poets and the artist’s work and so realize how the lie is performed. So there are the liars who deny they’re lying, and they’re the inauthentic ones, and the liars who acknowledge that they’re lying, and they’re the authentic ones. And of course in the latter sense, the lie is, as Samuel Beckett says “lyingly exposed,” and when it’s exposed and performed, then we have a freedom around it and it’s easy to be a lie; it actually becomes a truth. So I would claim there is a truth proper to fiction in this way.

If I might just give an example, a practical example: a number of years ago I was giving a talk in Montreal on different cinematic portrayals of the Holocaust, so I was talking about Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful and Shoah by Claude Lanzmann. And going through the various pros and cons, you know, of doing a fictional dramatic recount of the event, Schindler’s List, versus Shoah, which is two-camera, face to face, testimonials of survivors, first generation survivors. And after it, this little woman came up to me after question and answer, and she said, “You know, I was one of the survivors. I was on Schindler’s list.” And she said, “I was never able to return to the experience, never able to revisit it, never able to talk about it, never able to think about it, remember it, until I saw the film. And when I saw the fictional account played by fictional characters, I was then and only then able to identify with myself as a real victim.” But it was only by going through it in imagination, by the detour of fiction, by a certain vicarious journey that she was able to come back to what was in effect an inexperienced experience. So it took fiction for her to be able to experience it for the first time. And that to me is a case in which fiction can actually serve to bring out a truth that otherwise remains concealed. Why? It’s because it’s just unbearable.

So fiction can say it in another way and make the unbearable bearable, which is one of the main points Aristotle makes in the Poetics. He says that when we go to the theatre, and we see tragedies, we witness events—Agamemnon slitting the throat of poor Iphigenia, Oedipus committing murder and incest, the most hideous things. And these are things we could never contemplate, or never accept or tolerate or experience or regard in real life; but through the detour of fiction, we can look at the most hideous things, the most difficult things, the most painful things, the most tragic things, and see them in a new way. So for Aristotle that was a very liberating thing because two of the most powerful and very often unacknowledged (we might say today unconscious) emotions in Greek society, in all societies, were pity and fear, which were pathomata, they were passions. And too much fear, too much pity could destroy a society. Over-identification with people, too much pathos, too much eleos or pity, or too much fear could lead to violence or distance or cruelty. So what you needed was an imaginary synthesis of these two emotions so as to de-pathologize them, civilize them, and then the citizens, who would go and have their unconscious passions purged and distilled and refined and refigured, would then go back into society more human and humanized citizens.

RS: Can works of the poetic imagination cause change?

RK: Well, I think they can but not directly. Seamus Heaney makes the point that no poem ever stopped an attack. And I think that’s right. But at the same time, we know that works of art have indirectly and culturally prepared a space and a place and a time for change. In Ireland, for example, there were many poets—Patrick Pearse and Yeats and so on—who prepared people, arguably, for change. Yeats even made this statement after the 1916 uprising against the British: “Did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?” This play was Countess Cathleen (Cathleen ni Houlihan), and Mother Ireland comes back and calls her sons to sacrifice themselves for the free nation. Now, that was Yeats being a bit presumptuous; I think about 10 people saw the play, and none of them who were there got shot; but at the same time, the consciousness of 1916 and the way it radically changed people’s opinion about independence was in many respects a part of a cultural revolution, which preceded a political revolution—I wouldn’t say caused it, but it meant that people interpreted the events in a different way. They saw the rebels as martyrs in a symbolism and a mythology of martyrdom that was part of a certain poetics, a national poetics.

And I would say that in Northern Ireland (I’m talking about Ireland because I’m Irish) the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998 was, in my mind, also facilitated by the fact that so many Irish writers, poets, novelists, and dramatists were writing about their adversary. So you had Catholic writers writing from the point of view of Protestants, and Protestant writers writing from the point of view of Catholics—you know nationalists, unionists (I’m using “Protestant” and “Catholic” as stand-ins for the two communities). And I think that this exchange of narratives, of narrative imaginations, also had a big impact in allowing people eventually to say, as it was written in the Good Friday agreement, you can be British or Irish or both. You could be both! I mean you don’t have to kill each other for a United Ireland or a United Kingdom, which are constitutionally incompatible because sovereignty is one and indivisible. So: United Ireland or United Kingdom, but you can’t have both. Well, in imagination you can. Constitutionally you can’t, but in imagination you can. So I think that this symbolic excess, over factual incompatibility, had something to do with the Good Friday peace agreement’s affirmation that you can be British or Irish or both.

And then you can look at works like Picasso’s Guernica, or Sartre’s political plays, or the roles of poets like Sorescu and Donescu in the rising Romania, Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, I mean countless examples where distant writers have created a space of contestation, but also of utopia, of thinking otherwise, which is all poets and artists can do. They can try to fill this space in, and when they do it’s usually a disaster. To quote Seamus Heaney again it’s a question of “opening up a landing site” for things to come; it’s creating “landing sites” and then helping people to observe what is coming and interpreting what is coming. But art works in the realm of symbolism, not in the realm of ideology, and when the two conflate or become too confused or fused, I think that’s dangerous.

RS: I agree. It would take a certain refining of one’s ontology of art, for example, to make sure that your poetry doesn’t become propaganda.

RK: Yes, and it can be a very thin line.

Richard Kearney holds the Charles B. Seelig Chair of Philosophy at Boston College. He has written several books on the important but neglected role that imagination plays in encouraging ethical sensitivity to issues of social justice, including The Wake of Imagination.

13 comments:

  1. For Aristotle, the point of poesis is catharsis, the representation unto the resolution of some deeply human i.e., socially embedded emotional conundrum. The point was not to persuade the audience to think or do something they were not minded to think or do before being addressed; that is the role of another art, the art of rhetoric. We can see then that Seamus Heaney and Richard Kearney concur with Aristotle as if from afar: poetic invention does not and really should not have an immediate effect on socio-political developments. At any rate, that is what I take the thin line separating art and propaganda to mean. Rhetoric by contrast is constitutively political; it is to use Aristotle's language an efficient cause within the world of political bodies in motion. Poetic is as said different; it is oriented differently toward different ends and so on. But poetic and indeed art of any kind can affect political bodies in motion obliquely when for example the deep-felt anger of a victimized group comes to artistic expression whereby persons are given words and images to express in emotionally precise ways their suffering, their rage, or their hope for the future. Such representations can provide not only catharsis but the communal self-knowledge requisite for social or political transformation. Cal Seerveld has discussed the difference between art that occasions political behaviour and art that subsumes its artistry within political behaviour in "On Identity and Aesthetic Voice of the Culturally Dispossessed" published in Towards an Ethics of Community: Negotiations of Difference in a Pluralist Society ed. James H. Olthuis Waterloo, ON, Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2000.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the reference to Cal's work, Bob! I haven't read that essay yet, and I'll have to have a look at it.

      I think that this view of fiction (and the implied view of truth) is a very helpful one, none the worse for having been made more than 2,000 years ago. I do also think, though, that some fiction today flirts with those borders perhaps a bit more than Aristotle would have been comfortable with (though who's to say?) and yet still can avoid the label of propaganda. I'm thinking of the genre of utopias and even more so of dystopias, some of which I'd say do have as one of their goals a form of persuading the audience to think or do something they were not minded to think or do before, (as you helpfully put it) and are more directly political. Works like Orwell's 1984 are a classic example of this, but even novels like The Grapes of Wrath can function partly in that way, I think--I'm remembering specifically the character Tom Joad's "I'll be there..." speech to his mother near the end of the book. You can't help (and probably shouldn't help) but read books like these and see that there is a political and social commentary that leaps off the pages, and that it is fairly directed at making a very particular point, usually one of critique. I think it would be hard to argue, for example, that Orwell thought that having a government like the Party in charge wouldn`t be so bad; to miss the critique of totalitarian States and Orwell`s fear that that was where we were all headed would be to misread the book. And yet that`s not all that`s going on in that book. Perhaps what keeps works like these powerful fiction in their own right and not just narratively presented bits of persuasive propaganda is that they are not solely intended to persuade on a particular point.

      But I think there`s more than just that keeping them from the category of propaganda. I`d be willing to make the argument too that in books like 1984 there is no real catharsis, contra Aristotle--no representation unto the resolution of some deeply human, socially embedded emotional conundrum, as you put it, Bob. Does that make them rhetoric, and possibly also propaganda? I would argue no. Perhaps the difference with such dystopic works is that you are left, even goaded, to attempt that catharsis on your own outside the confines of the text and the immediate story. And perhaps the fact that such works also don`t give us a specific narrative of how to effect that lacking catharsis is another thing that delineates them from being propaganda.

      Thanks for the comment, Bob! It got me thinking.

      Delete
  2. I do not see Orwell's 1984 as a political novel. It is representing; it is a mimesis of the things that human beings think and do. It is an exploration via mimesis of the totalitarian tendency in the political culture of Orwell's day, a tendency that he was terribly worried by as you say. He observes the horror of it; structures that horror into his representation not first and foremost as a manifesto, a call to arms, but as a literary exploration of a fearful reality of his and our world. I would say that what goes for 1984 goes for Grapes of Wrath a fortiori. Both can become historical actors in the political sphere via political appropriation. This is so because a cultural making has the potential to be transformed being the intent of its creator. If the author's intended mimesis is received in such a way that it in fact sets people in motion politically the work becomes a political event, but that is not the literary author's intent qua literary author or so I would argue. One can tell stories with political intent. Your thesis makes a compelling case for such storytelling, but to the degree that political intent marks the central motive for the storytelling, to that degree the storytelling however artful is either engaged in something other than literary creation altogether, or is engaged in something in addition to literary creation (an encapsis of aesthetic and political intent say). In other words, if a political work is also artful all the way down it can be thought of as an artistic form that is also at the same time a political event. I do not read Orwell as engaged in the latter type of literature in 1984. Rather I do see the point as catharsis, not a neat and happy resolution that puts an end to the anxiety evoked by its representations (only one and the least profound sort of catharsis I would say), but an emotional climax that we the community of readers undergo leaving us trembling and unsettled (also a legitimate response to emotional catharsis). Anyway, that would be my reading of the two works you cite.

    ReplyDelete
  3. A brief edit--"being the intent of its creator"-- should read "beyond the intent of its creator".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That was a helpful correction Bob! I have to wonder, though, how true the distinction can be between something like 1984 as "political novel" and a (mere?) "exploration". Perhaps 1984 was not offered or written with specific political intent but surely there is a general political intent embodied in it: the intent to enrich culture with insights it needs to plot a wiser course for itself. If it looks like a hammer its creator likely intended it to be used to drive nails. Its creator may not have cared to endorse the building of churches or jails, but his creation of a hammer is at least an endorsement of using nails...no?

      -dz

      Delete
  4. Thanks, Bob and dz! I think we are actually in more agreement than it may seem at first glance. I was not saying that 1984 has as its central motive a political aim--only that Orwell has as part of his narrative an underlying political and social commentary/critique. But such commentary is woven into the story, is in fact dependant on the story existing as a whole--not the other way around. Orwell is writing a novel, not a treatise, and the book stands as a novel with its broad engagement with the story of a particular character as he lives his life in the world in which he inhabits. I agree that the story as a whole is mimetic, and a literary exploration, as you say, of a fearful reality of his and our world. That, in fact, is the enduring strength of that particular novel.

    Dz, you ask how true the distinction between a "political novel" and an "literary exploration" can be. For that, I think I'd go back to what is the central moment/core of any given work, and also on what other things it touches. I would not dispute that 1984 is a story and a work of art at its core. But I would also argue that it has a strong political strand or connection, which helps develop the story without dominating it. (That is what you are also saying, I believe?) These things can exist alongside each other, and can even make the work more full.

    As for catharsis, our disagreement may come down to how we understand the term "resolution," which you used at the opening of your initial post, Bob. I understand resolution as something that "settles" us on a particular conundrum which we face. It may be a sad or difficult or tragic resolution (i.e., I wouldn't always expect a "happy ending" to be part of the resolution you named) but a resolution is something "settled," yes? A process that has come to its "end" (even if that end is only a new place to begin again from.) To leave us truly "unsettled" would, for me, to still be in the process of catharsis at the close of the text--which is not necessarily a bad thing. But perhaps I have misunderstood you, and you meant something like "disturbed" as unsettled? Perhaps precisely due to its disturbing climax 1984 offers us catharsis?

    ReplyDelete
  5. I guess I mean by catharsis the authentic encounter with a socio-culturally embedded conundrum. There is something purgative that happens in an authentic encounter of that kind that exists whether or not anything is settled. If we think of the exemplars that Aristotle would have been thinking of--the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes--the conundra remain at the end of the play but one has modeled the possibilities of excellence even within the impossible choices thrown up by the conundra themselves. One is left deeply disturbed by the catharsis one participates in via Euripedes' Bacchiae; nothing is settled in the sense of done, but there is the possibility of human excellence even so.

    As for the political character of 1984 I would be foolish to deny the political implications of such a representation of the totalitarian tendency within modern Western political arrangements. What I was trying to do was to account for the oblique angle that art moves to approach the political--an obliqueness that Kearney called attention to in the interview that constituted the original post. A novel's political meaning if there is to be any results as a kind of serendipitous excess from the artistry of the novel. The novel by its artistic exploration of political matters is politically appropriable, but it is not created to produce political effects even if there is an authorial hope that his artistic exploration will be appropriated to political effect.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Bob. That last sentence seems a distinction finer than a razor's edge to me. I can't see how "authorial hope" can be separated from authorial intent.

    Allyson, it's really hard for me to separate the "work of art" from the "political strand" in 1984. I can see it as one or the other by deliberately looking at it that way, but it's not obvious to me that the political strand only "helps develop the story", or, rather, it's equally obvious to me that the story helps carry the political strand.

    Would we call Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" a political novel or say that it's a novel first and a work of politics second?

    Sorry for kind of being in random thought mode, but Kearney's last statement in the transcript above -- "it can be a very thin line" -- makes me think, and I think I'm leaning to the way the Earl of Oxford sees it in the movie "Anonymous".

    "All art is political, Jonson, otherwise it would just be decoration. And all artists have something to say, otherwise they'd make shoes. And you are not a cobbler, are you Jonson."

    -dz

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi dz. I haven't seen the movie "Anonymous," but that's a good line. I wouldn't say I agree with it in every instance, but it makes a good point, albeit in an amplified way.

      As for separating the "work of art" from the "political strand" in 1984, I'm not sure that you could, and still have a coherent whole--so I think I'm with you on that. The story does help carry the political strand, just as the political strand helps develop the story. I don't know if a weaving metaphor would be helpful, but thinking in terms of weaving, if we start taking out strands--particularly central ones--the woven artistry falls apart. What we're talking about here is more complex than warp and weft, but for the purposes of our discussion, and to make the analogy, would there be any weaving without the "warp" of the story? You'd be left with the thread of political and social commentary sitting in a ball off to the side--interesting even on its own, but it does not a woven artwork make. Likewise, in the case of 1984, take out the "weft" of political and social commentary, and the woven material is gone--all you'd have is the warp, a structure of events that make up a narration, but without the artistry of the commentary Orwell weaves between them. Of course, there's much more going on in 1984 than just "story" structure and political/social commentary, (whole sub-plots of issues surrounding trust, human emotions, sexuality, and ethics, just to name a few) so the analogy only goes so far. In any case, I wouldn't want to make a distinction between the "work of art" and "political strands" in it, as if they were separate and separatable... does that answer your question? Thanks for raising it!

      Delete
  7. I take a slightly different tack though I do not view it as contradicting anything you said Allyson. I am willing to say that 1984 is a political novel if we mean something like what an Aristotelian would mean. What 1984 is is a novel. To be a novel is its fundamental reason for being. As such it is (remember this is an Aristotelian way of thinking) a mimesis, an imitation of the things human beings do and think. However, the "material" it forms is political. That is, it is an artistic mimesis of political states of affairs that have caught the novelist's eyes, that worry him terribly. Because the human doings and thinkings that are being represented are political, the resulting piece of art is political in the sense that it bears a political quality within its novelistic being. Such a way of speaking acknowledges that the distinction between authorial hope and intention was not helpful as you "dz" pointed out. Maybe this Aristotelian riffing makes clearer what I wanted to say. Orwell wants his reader to confront the terror of totalitarian political tendencies rife within his day and age (and ours sadly). So he creates a dystopia in which those tendencies are spotlighted because they have become imaginatively the political context of social life per se. We are to confront the terror, and to acknowledge it by taking it into ourselves and so letting it have its way with us. All of that is the catharsis his novel makes possible by its artistry. That certain political sensibilities might be changed in the process may well be a reasonable outcome of such catharsis (indeed hoped for) but it is not necessary to the catharsis itself, to the novel's success as a piece of poetic artistry. So yes it is a political NOVEL, though it can become something other by appropriation. Once published it takes on symbolic importance if it is successful enough (as it in fact was and is). As symbol it can become operative in political discourse per se, as part and parcel of a political movement aimed at the defense of whistleblowers, say. At that moment its symbolic meaning in the culture becomes political with political (justice oriented) transformation as its primary meaning. As symbol it can become something other than a work of art, in addition to its being a work of art, but at bottom it is a work of art representing political deeds and thoughts with a view to a kind of emotional catharsis. Hopefully this makes it clear what I was driving at.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes! And I think that does make things more clear, thank you.

      Delete
    2. Hi again Allyson. Yes, that does answer my question. I'm still having trouble with Bob's "at bottom it is a work of art" though. (Hi Bob!) I think we'd all agree that it (1984) is a work of art through and through but can it not be a political act through and through at the same time? Must these categories be considered separately and ranked with one being the first or most fundamental, and what compels that if so? This why I tried to introduce an infamously political novel, The Fountainhead, as a possible second example. I'd have no trouble saying that The Fountainhead is a political screed at bottom, and a work of art second, but if push came to shove I'd fight for its right to be considered a work of art in any context that such an identification was of much consequence. Somehow my sense of fairness is objecting to such ranking, and I am worrying that even the declaration that a thing is art, which in our culture gives it certain privileges, is itself a political act.

      -dz

      Delete
  8. Hey 'dz' when I was just finishing grad school I had stumbled on to Caroline Bynum, Elizabeth Petroff and a whole generation of wonderful women and feminist historians of medieval religious culture. I was so grateful to them for teaching me how to view our shared subject in new and exciting ways. When I sat down to start writing my first articles for publication I tried to write as they wrote, to use their vocabulary, to see what they saw but then in areas they had yet to explore. My screen remained empty or rather filled up only to be trashed as worthless and stilted time and again. I was trying to write in a political mode, to forge my scholarship as a political tool in the emancipation of women. I couldn't do it. Feminist writers of great talent could help me see things I wouldn't otherwise be able to see, but I couldn't seem to see those things without their having seen them first. I could recount what they had seen, but not generate new sightings of that same kind. And as a result I couldn't write like them without it sounding sepulchral. I take this as a distant analogy in the present context. To be engaged in literary invention is not the same thing as to be engaged in political activity; something different is going on and intended. If one decides to engage in politics via the mechanism of a literary artifact like a novel the result is likely to be that every place political expediency and literary tendency come into conflict one will privilege political need, for that is what moves one to act at one's deepest. Ayn Rand's novels may indeed be a good case in point. Lots of social realist art from the 30s-50s has a similar reputation. So I am suggesting that as a rule, primacy of political intent will make for bad art. I am willing to say that in rare cases artistic and political intent can be balanced in such a way that a work while being art all the way down is political as well and again all the way down. I am willing to say that 1984 is one such rare case. You might be willing to argue for The Fountainhead, though I would not. My philosophical justification is utterly dependent upon what I have had the wit to appropriate from emeritus colleague Cal Seerveld. Art is aesthetically qualified; it is that quality that constitutes an artistic practice as artistic. Political quality moves one differently. It leads to different products if I may put it that way, at least it does as a general rule. When one has that rare artistic product like 1984 that is artistically structured all the way down but which is at the same time political all the way down, qua art product one must say that it is artistic first and foremost. I mean by that that 1984 is not artistically brilliant because it is political but rather it becomes an effective political artifact by virtue of its artistic merit. What I mean by the first clause is that it is its playfulness, its eye for the imaginative connections that can be made with words that give it its artistic quality not its intentions toward justice and its opposite. Its intention toward justice may go all the way down; let's say it does. The effectiveness of that intention is somehow invested in the artistry of its representation. Anyway, such is the train of my thought. It would be better if Cal or one of his students were working with his ideas here; they could no doubt take things further. But there you have it my latest attempt at amateur aesthetic philosophizing.

    ReplyDelete

— IMPORTANT —
SELECT THE ACCOUNT YOU WANT TO USE, OR ANONYMOUS, BEFORE CLICKING "PUBLISH".

Replies and comments made under articles that are more than three weeks old may take a few days to appear.

 
α ω