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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, June 01, 2007

the science of fiction

I've been meaning to talk about an intriguing passage I read in Toynbee's A Study of History (volume 1). Here it is:

There are three different methods of viewing and presenting the objects of our thought, and, among them, the phenomena of human life. The first is the ascertainment and recording of "facts"; the second is the elucidation, through a comparative study of the facts ascertained, of general "laws"; the third is the artistic re-creation of the facts in the form of "fiction."

I'm finding that Toynbee is full of startling assertions, but I found this one perhaps the most startling so far (I'm about 160 pages into volume 1). Toynbee is placing history, science, and fiction on a continuum--they're all, in some sense, the same thing! (Actually, Toynbee goes on to say that this categorization is originally due to Aristotle--almost more startling!) He goes on:

History, like the drama and the novel, grew out of mythology, a primitive form of apprehension and expression in which the line between fact and fiction is left undrawn. All histories resemble the Iliad to this extent, that they cannot entirely dispense with the fictional element. The mere selection, arrangement and presentation of facts is a technique belonging to the field of fiction; no historian can be "great" if he is not also a great artist. It is hardly possible to write two consecutive lines of historical narrative without introducing such fictitious personifications as "England," "France," "the Conservative Party," "the Church," "the Press," or "public opinion."

Fascinating. I seem to recall my late brother-in-law Freddie dismissing history because of its inescapable bias or "point of view"--but here Toynbee is asserting that this "bias" is of its essence, not something that negates its worth but something that makes it worthy.

Let's take another bite:

So science and fiction by no means confine themselves to what are supposed to be their own techniques. All sciences pass through a stage in which the ascertainment and recording of facts is the only activity open to them. Lastly, the drama and the novel do not present fictions, complete fictions, and nothing but fictions regarding personal relationships. If they did, the product would consist of nonsensical and intolerable fantasies. When we call a piece of literature a work of fiction we mean that the characters could not be identified with any persons who have lived in the flesh, nor the incidents with any particular events that have actually taken place. In fact, we mean that the work has a fictitious personal foreground; the background is composed of authentic social facts. The highest praise we can give to a good work of fiction is to say that it is "true to life."

Toynbee is saying that every novelist is a historian and a social scientist recording authentic observations about the world, but peopling his document with invented characters. The "inventedness" of the characters makes the document both possible and effective. I'm assuming that he is implying that the better the novelist is, the better a historian and social scientist he is. I would add to that the better a psychologist, since, although the characters are fictitious, in order for them to ring true at the level of individual motivation and behavior, they must obey the "laws" of the inner life--as opposed to the social life--of all people.

As a psychologist the novelist must be subtle and genuine, a good observer. Interestingly, real psychologists are not necessarily good observers or understanders of people. I recall when I lived with Brad and Keith in our upstairs duplex on 12th Avenue back in 1980: as young intellectuals we had lots of books. Keith in particular was omnivorous, even indiscriminate in his buying of used books on impulse. Some of these were real lemons. After a while, we came to store the worst of these on top of the toilet-tank in the bathroom, with a sign on the wall that said "emergency wipe". Here went things like poetry by Rod McKuen and philosophical tracts by Ayn Rand.

One of the books that wound up on the "emergency wipe" pile was Walden Two, a Utopian novel by B. F. Skinner, the famous behaviorist. I only ever read the first few pages, but they were pretty dire. The writing was at the level of a low-grade science-fiction novel of the 1940s or 50s, but instead of having the redeeming interest of imaginative views of future technology and alien life-forms, it was offering a portrait of an "ideal" society as conceived by a behaviorist--a pretty poor substitute. I just remember descriptions of characters in the opening pages: the confident, assertive demeanor of the university grad, and the nervous deference of the guy who had not graduated from university. The rats running in Skinner's mazes had more complex motivations than these guys. Having such caricatures walking around in something so pretentiously titled as this book earned it a spot on our "emergency wipe" pile.

Anyway, all that by way of saying that "real" psychologists (I actually don't regard behaviorists as true psychologists at all) are not as good at psychology, in a certain sense, as a decent novelist. I'm a scientist, after all!

I think back to another memory: my friend and classmate Don in grade 5 told me his way of keeping the meanings of fiction and nonfiction straight: "bull" and "non-bull". Well, I'm happy that Toynbee has shown that the distinction is not so clear-cut. The two are mixed, no matter what hat we're wearing.

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  • Behaviorists may not be real psychologists (as that discipline is filled with charlatans and fakers anyway) but they are definitely real scientists, and that was the point of behaviorism after all. Making a science of psychology is something that "real psychologists" gave up on. So much the worse for psychology.

    As for Walden Two, it's not a great novel as novels go. However, as far as ideas go, it's 'novel' enough. And in that vein I'd place it with PK Dick's idea rich work.

    By Blogger Mike Ray, at June 02, 2007 4:08 AM  

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