By: Gabriel Brotzman
When the novel as it is known today was beginning to be formed in England at the beginning of the 17th century, its pioneers found that it allowed them a curious creative power. The creation of a piece of fiction — the life and times of an imaginary man or woman — was limited only by the expansive creativity of its author. Writers composed imaginary correspondences, interviews and worlds, all formed by the author’s moral landscape; they summoned people, creatures and characters for the sole purpose of demonstrating views on anything from how a virtuous man or woman should conduct him or herself in society to what the author considered beautiful. The creation of the novel was an explosion of self-exploration and self-expression, the likes of which had never before been seen in the world; authors found liberation in their creations, their expressions, in a way that mere theoretical discourse did not, and perhaps could not, allow. When an author places his or her theoretical ethical, or philosophical beliefs into a “realistic” realm, it can still produce an awe-inspiring effect. It is for this reason that readers have enthusiastically fawned over Fyodor Dostoevsky, V.S. Naipaul, Samuel Richardson, C.S. Lewis and countless others across time. And there is no doubt that we learn through reading, even in reading about the imaginations or beliefs of others. I say “even in reading” them because we must remember a key characteristic of the novel is its fictionality, the product of one person’s imagination. And yet it is this principle of fiction that is so often overlooked.
For any novel or work of fiction to be effective, there must be a something real with which we can relate; if a novel had no semblance of reality we would have no interest and no connection to the work. Imagination builds itself upon what is real, what is known and what is experienced and then proceeds to mix and match characteristics, personalities, perspectives and principles. Novelists employ imagination but towards an objective, aligning the components of reality in slightly different ways (or perhaps not so slightly) so that his or her views are manifested in the colors and trappings of reality. But then are these views true? Without dissolving into a discussion of the nature of truth, I will simply say I believe, in the most basic sense, these authors would say no — these novels are fictional and therefore not “true.” This is not a hard point at which to arrive. Novels are, by definition, fictional works; fiction is, by definition, an invention or fabrication as opposed to fact.
Here I want to interject a very simplistic definition of “reality” in order to continue the discussion: let us say that “reality” is that which has happened, or is happening, or will happen, and nothing else. According to this definition, novels are not true, that is they were only imagined to have happened. Frances Burney’s Evelina never actually lived; Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima never really walked on the Earth; the talking lion Aslan never literally breathed life into a stony fawn (neither do fawns actually exist). But, again, I don’t think I’m asserting something people don’t already understand. We accept that when an author writes a work labeled as fiction, he or she implies that the work should be received with less weight than, say, a court document or an eyewitness account.
I remember sitting in one of my classes this semester as we discussed Matthew Lewis’ novel, The Monk. The novel follows a series of events in which the protagonist, a seemingly devout, middle-aged monk, is led astray by a temptress and proceeds to commit a chain of heinous crimes which ultimately lead to his undoing and painful death. From the beginning, this “devout” monk, Ambrosio, is simultaneously the outward representation of goodness and chastity and the inward representation of pride, arrogance and selfishness. The novel is littered with “religious” characters like the Prioress, the head of the convent who seeks brutal, violent retribution for those who stray an inch outside the law. Needless to say, by the end there is not much good to be said of any religious character or the church establishment, and, in fact, the only truly “good” character in the novel has nothing to do with either the church or any religiosity. As we discussed the text in class, a student raised her hand and commented that the novel reaffirmed the rigidity and immorality of religion, citing the numerous examples of religious hypocrisy and brutality within the novel. I found this comment to be quite odd since, as we have discussed, the novel does not (or at least should not) affirm itself as a factual account of what has happened. If we suppose this girl understands that there never really was a person named Ambrosio who lived as a monk as depicted in this novel, then she must be saying that although the circumstances never in fact occurred, the implications of that imaginary circumstance are real or true. In other words, even though there is no prideful, arrogant, hypocritical monk named Ambrosio, the feelings created in her by imagining that fictional character are still true.
But what could an imagined reality possibly tell us about our extant reality? While it is theoretically possible that something or someone fictional could have existed, it is also impossible in the sense that it did not actually happen. There are infinitely many scenarios that one could play out by simply taking reality and reordering it. One such scenario very well could be that of Ambrosio and his hypocrisy. But in the end, there is only one line of reality that has happened, that is happening and that will happen.
In the world as we know it, there is only room for either “A” or “not A” in linear time. There is only one history of the world; multiple possible histories cannot logically exist. Likewise, in this moment, there are a few things that I could possibly be doing to fill the passing seconds but only one thing will inevitably fill it. I could continue typing or I could stop typing, but I cannot do both. And finally, as long as time continues, it will be filled with one progression of events. It would seem that there are many possible directions in which the future could be taken — and, since we do not know its characteristics, it is still “changeable” — but we must understand that time will trace only one of these conceivable paths.
So I say again, what can fiction add to our lives? How should we take an imagined story and apply it to our lives? I have already discussed how fiction creates the representation of an alternate reality or a parallel universe in which different people existed and acted on the earth. Yet, because of the nature of fiction — its manifest presence in realm of reality — we can lose that understanding more easily than you might think. Take for instance the movie The Grey with Liam Neeson: towards the end of the film Neeson is lying bruised, beaten and half-drowned on the side of a river; he is being pursued by a pack of savage wolves that have just killed all his companions and will soon surround him as well. As he sits on the rocks feeling that death is creeping ever closer, Neeson looks to heaven and yells to God to prove Himself by saving him. Anyone watching the scene would say that Neeson does a very convincing job displaying this desperation, yet as the camera pans upwards to the sky there is nothing to see, nothing to hear. God has abandoned Neeson’s character, reinforcing the overarching theme of the film, as put by Neeson’s character earlier in the film: “I don’t believe in that stuff [heaven/God]. I wish I could, but its all fantasy. This is real,” gesturing to the forest, “Those things out there are real.” Neeson was so compelling that I found myself angry with God as well. When Neeson’s character pulls himself up by his bootstraps and snidely remarks toward heaven “F*%& it, I’ll do it m’self,” I found myself thinking, “Yeah, you go, Liam. Thanks a lot, God.” Because these things were said by an actual person, because I had just seen these men torn apart by wolves and I knew that Liam was next, because I could feel the anticipation that now God MUST act, because it all seemed so real, for a second I accepted that it was. Yet could someone ever present this clip of this movie as evidence that God does not exist? Absolutely not.
Think for a second about the countless fictional books, movies and even songs that wash over a person in the course of a lifetime. We know this sort of filter will not allow their beliefs to change based on an individual stimulus. The first few times you may come away thinking, “That is an interesting point, but it is only an opinion.” The next time you encounter the same idea but in another work: “This is the same idea I’ve seen before,” you might say, “I wonder why it is a common element. It does feel right…” And by the hundredth time you see it you may think, “Ok, there must be truth in this idea. Why else would it keep popping up everywhere?” We see throughout history that the prevalence of an idea, a thought or an opinion can make it “fact,” yet when it is pushed, no real foundation of truth can be found. Eventually, things become so muddled between reality and fiction that we lose sight of where these ideas even came from, who started them, why they were allowed to penetrate so deep into our culture. But even more frighteningly, it can muddy the waters regarding the singularity and finality of time. Because we are imperfect beings and are not gifted with perfect discernment, we are easily distracted by the things that are altogether fictional. We can quickly forget that there is only one line of history that matters, that time marches on and we must pay close attention to the things that really have happened, are happening, and (possibly) will happen.
In all of this, I wouldn’t say then that all fiction is utterly wrong or immoral. Even Plato argued in his Republic that myths were an effective teaching tool if they embodied some great natural or philosophical truth: myths are fantastical, but they are not inherently irrational and they are not targeted at the irrational parts of the soul. But Plato also foresaw the danger in using myths as a means of persuasion. Everything must be questioned in regards to substance or we risk accepting a dream over our waking moments. And one might ask, “Would that be so bad?” If the dream is built upon something better, something greater, would we not wish to live in that dream, never returning to this painful existence?
I think most people who hold the assumption that reality and meaning are blurry concepts would point to the existence of pain. At face value, we see pain and assume it to be a horrifying, useless feeling reserved for only the most unreasonable and evil of universes. That is one popular theory. However, there is another possible interpretation of the existence of pain as evidence that existence is ordered and meaningful. If we are to arrive at a conclusion, we are forced to look deeper into the meaning in our own lives and our specific circumstances. This would only make sense for me to propose by reflecting upon my own life. After all, only I and God can look back on my own life and intimately understand the deep, personal, painful experiences—some of my own making, some which were inflicted by others—were the fullest blessings I have ever received. Additionally, I can only look at my own life. I do not have the privilege of overlapping completely with another perspective and I cannot, therefore, see the deeper meaning behind another’s pain or struggles. I have no authority to say someone found meaning in the midst of tragedy. But, I can still believe that it’s there, and I do.
So when I am presented with an account of a human life–whether in a book or a movie, perhaps expressly fictional, perhaps not–in which the problem of pain or suffering is presented, my gut response should be preceded by a discernment which separates reality from belief. When I am confronted with the example of Ambrosio the monk, other than for some highly theoretical discussion which has little realistic consequence, I find his experiences and actions about as true as Matthew Lewis’ personal opinions (who, I might add, was only 21 when he wrote the book). Is this to say then that this exact series of events, characters, actions, motives, and outcomes could never occur in the future and, thus, be of consequence? Theoretically, no. But at this point it can only be called fiction, and we should respond to it as such.
When we see the intricacies of human experience, the millions of interactions among people and the effect those interactions have upon even a single human life, it is easier to assume that complexity is the result of an arbitrary universe spiraling out of control. Indeed, the immeasurable task of mapping out the entire “human experience” would cause anyone to abandon any conceptions of order. But when we consider the smallest segment, the “self,” there is much more order, less confusion and more reason. It is here, in a moment of deepest honesty, we must begin to consider what is actually true, what has actually happened and what’s actually going on.
 “Nothing else” would include things that were imagined to have happened or things that were supposed to have happened.
 Of course there are multiple things occurring at any given second. However, these are not contradictory things like “blinking” and also “not blinking” to which I am referring.
 Unfortunately, this is a phenomenon most people would say describes religion.