Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The fact of narrative - fiction is no lie (Books - Experiencing Narrative Worlds by Richard Gerrig)

I am nearly finished with Richard Gerrig's book about the cognitive psychology of the reading experience. He provides ideas about the experience of being transported and what constitutes absorption in a narrative, which I am finding both provocative and useful for my own work. The chapter I really loved most was one in which he muses on how authors and readers use language to accomplish fiction.

In "The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse," John Searle observed, "It is after all an odd, peculiar, and amazing fact about human language that it allows the possibility of fiction at all. Yet we all have no difficulty in recognizing and understanding works of fiction."

Gerrig examines this phenomenon not by dichotomizing fact and fiction and dissociating dissimilar techniques - one where fiction's is the creation of pretense and where non-fiction's is the assertion of facts - but rather by examining them both as narrative. In experiencing a narrative as valid and meaningful it does not necessarily equate with its truth in the sense of corresponding to external reality. If that were true, we would never be able to believe in a metaphor.

Gerrig gives the example of the sentence "It is raining in Singapore." Most readers would not believe as a result of reading it that it was indeed raining presently, nor would they interpret it as a lie. Gerrig builds his case in this chapter, by distinguishing between when the writing directly informs and when it is overhead, and variations upon those themes - such as when the overhearing is intended by the writer and when it is accidental. He also writes about what research suggests about how readers acquire the ability to negotiate multiple layers of meaning and multiple voices.

The chapter made me think even further about this almost natural dichotomy we have established between fact and fiction - very similar to the one we use about 'mind' and 'body' - and what is both convenient and presumptuous about them. I have always bridled at being told that what I do as an actor or a director is to create a 'lie.' I have always considered it my duty as an artist to tell the truth, lack of correspondence in the theater with what is happening outside its walls is no more a lie than it is to consider my next door neighbor's laughing a lie when I am in a bad mood. In fact, in some ways all language is a lie - the word 'apple' cannot be eaten. It is a symbol, a convenience we use to both refer to something whose shared meaning must start out as superficial - we might place it in the same category of fruit, or an object we can both see in the bowl on the table. But our associations for apple, the image that is first called to mind when we each hear that word could be radically different. To communicate, to warn, to share we must have a tool. It is not so peculiar really that language creates fiction - the individual narrative trapped inside our own minds is an unreal world to everyone else. A stream of words provides the starting point if those private intentions are to be first received, then believed, and finally experienced.

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