Book Review :: Fiction and the Weave of Life :: John Gibson

John Gibson, Fiction and the Weave of Life, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 9780199299522.

Reviewed by Frank B. Farrell, Purchase College, State University of New York

Analytic philosophy of literature and deconstructionist thought make strange bedfellows, but they join in making matters difficult for the literary humanist. The analytic philosopher, using investigations regarding truth, reference, meaning, knowledge, justification, and the like will press toward a conclusion that literary fiction cannot be about the world and cannot give us knowledge of it. From quite different considerations, in emphasizing textuality and in supposedly undermining notions of representation and truth, the postmodern thinker concludes that literary fictions do not gain their significance through the ways they link up with a non-textual world beyond them. In contrast, the literary humanist wishes to argue that literature involves a cognitive engagement with the world, in ways that matter to our living out our lives as humans. John Gibson wants to give a strong defense of that claim, while at the same time granting considerable strength to the views of the humanist’s opponents.

Gibson is a philosopher of admirable clarity whose discussions contrast favorably with so much work in literary and cultural studies that seems to have little sense of what an argument is. At each point in his presentation, the reader knows just what move is being made in the debate. Gibson requires of his account that it satisfy two conditions at once. First, it should demonstrate that fiction has worldly import and illuminates reality, in a robust sense. Second, it should allow that the fictive stance we take toward literature is different in kind from the kind of stances we take toward linguistic sequences that purport to be assertions about how matters stand in the world. That is, the admirable effect produced by literature must be internal to what makes it function as the special kind of thing it is. One approach might be to challenge the analytic philosopher on what is meant by knowledge; perhaps there are models of what it is to grasp what the world is like that will apply better to fiction than the models now typically imported from philosophy. Gibson, while allowing that possibility, importantly decides to pursue a different strategy. He will grant the skeptic his claim that if fiction is somehow to be about the world, it will not be so in a manner that can be explained through the idea of knowledge. But then how can one prevent the text from becoming an isolationist realm, without tie lines to reality?

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Glimmer of a myriad lost sensations

It was a fine day, I felt well rested, not at all weak. I was happy, or rather in high spirits. The air was calm and warm, but I took my shawl anyway, so that I might ask someone to carry it and thereby strike up a new acquaintance. I have mentioned that the park adjoins our terrace, so I got there in no time. I walked into its shade with a sense of rapture. The air was luminous. The cassias, which flower long before they come into leaf, gave off a sweet scent — or perhaps it emanated from everywhere, that light, unfamiliar smell which seemed to enter into me by all my senses and filled me with a feeling of exaltation. I was breathing more easily, walking with a lighter step. I did have to sit down on the first bench, but I was more intoxicated, more dazzled than tired. I looked around. The shadows were light and fleeting; they didn’t fall on the ground, they barely skimmed it. O light! I listened. What could I hear? Nothing, everything; every sound amused me. I remember a shrub whose bark, from a distance, seemed to have such a strange texture that I had to get up to go over and feel it. My touch was a caress, it filled me with rapture. I remember . . . was this finally the morning when I was to be reborn?

I had forgotten I was alone; I sat there, waiting for nothing, oblivious of the time. Until that day, it seemed to me, I had felt so little and thought so much, and I was astonished to find that my sensations were becoming as strong as my thoughts. I say ‘it seemed to me’, for from the depths of my early childhood the glimmer of a myriad lost sensations was re-emerging. With my new-found awareness of my own senses I was able to recognize them, albeit tentatively. Yes, as my senses awoke, they rediscovered a whole history, reconstructed a whole past life. They were alive! Alive! They had never ceased to live but throughout my years of study had led a secret, latent existence.

I met no one that day, and I was glad of it. I took out of my pocket a small edition of Homer which I hadn’t opened since I had left Marseille, reread three lines of the Odyssey, learned them by heart, then, finding enough to nourish me in their rhythm, savoured them at my leisure. I shut the book and sat there trembling, more alive than I thought possible, my spirit drowsy with happiness . . .

– André Gide, The Immoralist

Alas, I had started to love life

I came back, bent over, found the clot, picked it up with a piece of straw and placed it in my handkerchief. I looked at it. It was a nasty dark colour, almost black, sticky and horrible . . . I thought of Bachir’s beautiful, glistening blood . . . And suddenly I felt a wish, a desire, more pressing and imperious than anything I had ever felt before, to live! I want to live. I want to live. I clenched my teeth, my fists, concentrated my whole being into this wild, desperate drive towards existence.

– André Gide, The Immoralist

Body Over Mind

I am going to talk at some length about my body. I am going to talk about it so much that you will think at first that I am neglecting the mind entirely. The omission is quite intentional; it is how it was. I don’t have the strength the lead a dual life, I said to myself. I’ll think about the life of the mind later, when I’m feeling better.

— André Gide, The Immoralist

“All the delights of the earth” :: A Lover’s Discourse

“All the delights of the earth”

comblement / fulfillment

The subject insistently posits the desire and the possibility of a complete satisfaction of the desire implicated in the amorous relation and of a perfect and virtually eternal success of this relation: paradisiac image of the Sovereign Good, to given and to be received.

  1. “Now, take all the delights of the earth, melt them into one single delight, and cast it entire into a single man — all this will be as nothing to the delight of which I speak” <Ruysbroeck>. Thus fulfillment is a precipitation: something is condensed, streams over me, strikes me like a lightning bolt. What is it which fills me in this fashion? A totality? No. Something that, starting from totality, actually exceeds it: a totality without remainder, a summa without exception, a site with nothing adjacent (“my soul is not only filled, but runs over” <Ruysbroeck>). I fulfill (I am fulfilled), I accumulate, but I do not abide by the level of lack; I produce an excess, and it is in this excess that the fulfillment occurs (the excessive is the realm, the system of the Image-repertoire: once I am no longer within the excessive, I feel frustrated; for me, enough means not enough): at last I know that state in which “delight exceeds the possibilities envisioned by desire.” A miracle: leaving all “satisfaction” behind, neither satiated nor drunk (saoul, in French), I pass beyond the limits of satiety <ETYMOLOGY: Satis (enough), in both “satisfaction” and “saoul” (satullus).>, and instead of finding disgust, nausea or even drunkenness, I discover . . . Coincedence. Excess has led me to proportion; I adhere to the image, our proportions are the same: exactitude, accuracy, music: I am through with not enough. Henceforth I live in the definitive assumption of the Image-repertoire, its triumph.
    Fulfillments: they are not spoken — so that, eroneously, the amorous relation seems reduced to a long complaint. This is because, if it is inconsistent to express suffering badly, on the other hand, with regard to happiness, it would seem culpable to spoil its expression: the ego discourses only when it is hurt; when I am fulfilled or remember having been so, language seems pusillanimous: I am transported, beyond language, i.e., beyond the mediocre, beyond the general: “There occurs an encounter which is intolerable, on account of the joy within it, and sometimes man is thereby reduced to nothing; this is what I call the transport. The transport is the joy of which one cannot speak” <Ruysbroeck>.
  2. In reality, it is unimportant that I have no likelihood of being really fulfilled (I am quite willing for this to be the case). Only the will to fulfillment shines, indestructible, before me. By this will, I well up: I form within myself the utopia of a subject free from repression: I am this subject already. This subject is libertarian: to believe in the Sovereign Good is as insane as to believe in the Sovereign Evil <Novalis>: Heinrich von Ofterdingen is of the same philosophical stuff as Sade’s Juliette.(Fulfillment means an abolition of inheritances:  “. . . Joy has no need of heirs or of children — Joy wants itself, wants eternity, the repetition of the same things, wants everything to remain eternally the same” <Nietzsche>. The fulfilled lover has no need to write, to transmit, to reproduce.)

[From A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard]

I had to fight against everything: my salvation depended on myself

I didn’t believe I had tuberculosis. I preferred to attribute my first haemorrhage to a different cause. To tell the truth, I didn’t attribute it to anything at all, I avoided having to think about it, did not, in fact, think about it much, and considered myself, if not cured, then at least well on the road to recovery . . . I read the letter, I devoured the books and the pamphlets. Suddenly it became frighteningly obvious to me that I had not been looking after myself as I should. Until then I had been drifting along, trusting in the vaguest hopes. Suddenly I saw my life under attack, vilely assaulted at its very heart. An active enemy was living and breeding inside me. I could hear it, observe it, feel it. I wouldn’t beat it without a fight . . . and I added out loud, as if to convince myself more fully: it’s a matter of willpower.

I placed myself on a war footing.

Dusk was falling. I planned my strategy. For the time being, my studies would concentrate solely on my cure, my only duty was to my health. I would identify as good only those things that were salutary to me, forget, reject anything that did not contribute to my cure. By supper-time I had made resolutions concerning breathing, exercise and diet. [. . . .]

I couldn’t sleep that night, so stimulated was I by the thought of my new-found virtues. I think I had a touch of fever. I had a bottle of mineral water by the bed. I drank a glass, then another; on the third occasion, I drank straight from the bottle, emptying it on one go. I went over my new resolve in my head, as if learning a lesson: I honed my hostility, directed it at all and sundry. I had to fight against everything: my salvation depended on myself.

Finally, I saw the sky lighten; the day dawned.

It had been my vigil before the battle.

The next day was Sunday. I must confess that, prior to that, I had taken no interest in Marceline’s religious beliefs. Whether out of indifference or embarrassment, I had thought that it was none of my business; besides, I didn’t attach any importance to the matter. That day Marceline went to mass. I learned when she came back that she had prayed for me. I looked her in the eye, then, as gently as I could, said:

‘There’s no need to pray for me, Marceline.’

‘Why not?’ she asked, a little troubled.

‘I don’t like special favors.’

‘You would reject God’s help?’

‘I would have to be grateful to him. It creates obligations, and I don’t want any.’

Though we made light of it, neither of us was in any doubt about the seriousness of what we said.

‘You won’t get better on your own, my poor darling,’ she sighed.

‘Then so be it . . .’ Then, noticing her sad expression, I added, less abruptly, ‘You will help me.’

— André Gide, The Immoralist

Knowing how to free oneself is nothing; the difficult thing is knowing how to live with that freedom

My dear friends, I knew I could rely on your loyalty. You came running to my call as I would have done to yours. Yet we have not seen each other for three years. I hope that our friendship, which has survived this absence so well, will also survive the tale I am about to tell you. For if my call seemed an urgent one, if I made you travel so far to find me, it was purely so that I might see you, and that you might listen to me. That is all I require: the chance to speak to you. For I have reached a point in my life where I can’t go on. It is not a question of weariness — I no longer understand anything. I need . . . I need to talk, as I say. Knowing how to free oneself is nothing; the difficult thing is knowing how to live with that freedom. Bear with me as I speak about myself; I am going to tell you the story of my life. I will talk plainly, with neither modesty nor pride, more plainly than if I were talking to myself. Listen to what I have to say.

— André Gide, The Immoralist