Saturday, November 17, 2007

Formalist--Realist. What is the Real Question?

To return to James Tata's posts--and why I linked them: what are we attending to when we contrast realistic and formalist novels? To me, everything depends on that question--or how we answer it. Is our concern with the form, the formula, the formality--which at least is something we can identify, describe and analyze--or is the problem with the conventions of reality that the form represents? Are we dissatisfied with the form (the narrative of realism) because it has become old, too common a convention, or because, impossible as it is to speak of something as general as "reality," impossible to define or describe satisfactorily (if we are not to change ourselves into metaphysicians, philosophers)--because what is missing is precisely that indefinable reality that is, or we hope can become, the real subject of any narrative of substance? Is it the form we grow tired of, or grows tired itself--or is it that once the convention becomes Common Coin, it loses its power to represent the Unnamable? To lead us into the silence of the Real?

In my mind, the problem with realist narrative is not its weakness as art, but that it is in danger of being nothing else than art. Exactly the charge that is brought against "experimental" work, that it is only about itself, mere play for the sake of play, self-referential manipulation of forms--this is precisely my complaint, the fault I find with conventional realist narratives, that they are nothing but "art," weak art, dead art, a chattering the same tired mantra over the abyss, comforting us with the noise we have lulled ourselves into believing, protecting us from the silence of the Real.

I think a good critic, good criticism, can tell the difference, but I doubt if there will ever be a theory, a set of critical tools that will perform the job, on its own, as it were--by application of the rules. That will tell us how to tell the difference. At best, we can recognize those works that have at least refused us false comfort.

It's up to the writer to lay before us a work that shimmers with the silence of the Real, to fashion a form that can make us believe, for a time, that it has captured what cannot be captured, that it has almost succeeded in representing what cannot be represented.

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