Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Poetic Conviction

“A good work of fiction is one which convicts the reader of some important truth.”  But what does it mean to “convict” the reader?  Why not say “convince the reader” or “persuade the reader” or even “prove to the reader”?

Why not?  Because to persuade, convince, and prove is the work of rhetoricians, logicians, and philosophers.  Men of these occupations present reasonable arguments—yes, even the rhetorician, though he appeals to the emotions, and makes use of mere probability, and slips into fallacies from time to time, must have at least the appearance of reason.  But a work of fiction cannot be a reasonable argument, any more than a human life can.  Argument is by its very nature general, universal.  When an argument makes use of particular examples or makes appeals to personal experience, it is a sign either of the weakness of the conclusion being argued or of the intractability of at least one of the persons involved.  A philosopher must know of a great many men, and be quite unable to think of one instance of a man who has managed to evade death for any indefinite length of time, before he can commit the inductive step of saying “All men are mortal.”  Even then he will feel more secure in his assertion when he learns to see what it is in the nature of man—namely, his corporeality—that makes mortality essential to him.  For this, an understanding of bodies in general, and the nature of matter, and a great many more such things, with numerous observations and meditations and syllogisms are necessary.

Not so for the writer and reader of fiction.  The writer of fiction aims first not to make the reader think, but to make him feel the truth presented.  The reader does not close the book with new knowledge; often whatever concrete and universal knowledge he gains from a work of fiction is either present before he picks the work up or only becomes explicit in his rational mind long after he has put it down.  No, the reader closes the book with a new conviction of some bit of knowledge, the sort of conviction that does not come from reasoning and normally can only be gained by experience.  Men we know are mortal; but it is one thing to say that with the unshakeable firmness of rational conviction, and another to see a man die.  It is a third thing altogether to read of the death of King Arthur or Mr. Blue or Count Andrei Bolkonsky—but it is a thing closer to experience than to intellectual comprehension.  Hence, fiction “convicts” its reader of a truth; that is, presents a truth affectively.  In humbler language, fiction brings the truth home, home almost as we say a man brings home the bacon.  A man can hear a philosophical argument for mortality without being moved to sadness or stirred to action.  It takes a personal acquaintance with mortality—a near-death experience, real or feigned—to make him weep or take up the study of medicine.

This is one sense in which a good work of fiction convicts the reader of a truth.  There is another, more ominous sense in which the word holds its place in the definition, one that is allied to and perhaps derivative of the first sense.  It is a rare soul indeed that is moved emotionally by philosophical argument; it is far more common that he will not be moved even intellectually: that he will reject the argument out of hand, because its conclusion displeases him.  Thus, a man who does not wish to die will avoid contemplation of his mortality; and men even seek—quelle folie!—to prolong human life indefinitely, at one time by medicine and nutrition and exercise, at another by technology.  In the same way men reject other proven things which displease them: the existence of God, the difference between the sexes, and the humanity of the infant in the womb, to name but a few.

These men who are guilty of denying reason and dodging experience—they cannot be expected to change their minds when a work of fiction upsets their self-composed, self-concocted worldview.  But there is a sense in which a good work of fiction—and I mean here, obviously a moral but equally importantly a well-crafted work of fiction—such a work of fiction can do something to such men which reasonable words cannot do.  It can judge them.

The judgment is vicarious but no less real for that.  A philosophy, even a moral philosophy, does not offer judgment in any real sense.  It demands that those who adhere to it make judgments, but in itself it cannot judge, any more than the laws of thermodynamics can cool and heat.  To actually cool or heat requires not only a law governing the process of cooling or heating, but also an agent—such as the sun—that makes the process happen.  To actually judge a man requires not only a law governing his behavior, but also person or circumstance to reward or punish it.  In real life, such persons and circumstances are fewer and slower than we who think ourselves just sometimes wish: the mills of the gods grind slowly.  That they grind exceeding small is a pure and intellectual comfort, and hence a cold one.  But those of us who wish for the punishment of the guilty, and those of us who are guilty, find the conviction that the world is slow to deliver sooner and more swiftly in the pages of fiction.

I do not mean anything so simple as rewarding the good and punishing the bad—remember our friend Peter!  A man who remains unconvinced by philosophy will never be convinced by propaganda—that is, by authorially imposed coincidence.  But he may be—if not convinced, then perturbed, upset, thrown off kilter, taken aback—by an honest, psychologically thorough and accurate portrait of sin or grace or whatever it is that he would like to rid his conscience of.  Conversion there may not be, nor conviction either in that same sense of a change of heart; but the other kind of conviction will be present, inasmuch as the protagonist is judged and his fate meted out to him, and inasmuch as the reader stands, as all readers must, for time it takes him to turn the pages in both the protagonist’s shoes.  Whether they fit him or not, and whether he will stand in them for eternity—is his business.

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