What a Story Does Part 2: Response to Umberto Eco’s Richard Ellman Lecture Series 2008

In his lecture, “Advantages of Fiction for Life and Death”, Eco compares the ontological truth-value of fictional truth and historical truth.  He concludes that fiction holds both interior and exterior truths, and is at least as valid as historical truth.

Furthermore, he suggests that fictional truth may be more substantial than historical truth.  As an example, he says that we know it to be true that Superman is Clark Kent.  This is a fictional truth of which there is no doubt.  He compares Superman’s identity to the historical truth that Hitler died in a bunker in Germany, of which there is some possible doubt.

Although he doesn’t discuss other forms of truth I think it is important to include the truth of experience in the comparison.  Unlike historical truth, which is a statement about the past, truth of experience would be determined by what we experience in the present moment.  I believe that what makes fictional truth more substantial than either of these other truths is that it shares qualities of both.

Eco says that because of the substantial value of fictional truth it can be the benchmark with which we compare historical truths.  How true is it that Hitler died in a bunker in Germany?  Is it at least as true as Superman’s identity?   How true is it that Barak Obama was elected President of the United States?

Fictional truth can also be used as a benchmark for truth of experience.  I interpret my experiences through narrative frameworks developed from reading and writing fiction and poetry.  I have a personal mythology that has been enriched by many writers including: Ferlinghetti, Walker, Hughes, Joyce, Dostoyevsky, and Diaz.  This mythology affords me emotional and spiritual experiences that would otherwise be unavailable to me.  I am not talking about fictional truth as a map of experience, which, Eco points out, would trivialize the value and advantages of fiction.  I am saying that our truth of experience arises out of a framework of fictional truth.  To the extent that we limit our understanding of fictional truths, we also limit our understanding of truth of experience.

In Buddhist circles, I’ve heard denigrating talk about what is called story .  This is an extension, and I believe a misapplication, of the concept of suffering.  The suggestion is that our story or belief causes suffering not the event.  But this suggestion assumes that story is something external to actual experience, which is not the case.

Indeed, our stories and personal mythologies are part of what causes suffering to arise, but that is because story is inseparable from event.  The way out of suffering is not to free one’s self from story, because this is impossible and attempts to do so will create suffering that begins to look like fascism or fundamentalism.  Instead of limiting the stories available to us, we can find freedom from suffering by developing a deeper understanding of how stories work within our lives.

Eco dismissed much of fictions advantages for life as a topic for psychologists to consider.  He was more interested in the ontological truths of fiction and the ethical function of fiction.  His central question during this lecture was how fictional worlds that do not exist are able to teach us about life and death in this world that does exist.  He concluded that fictional truths teach us how to deal with immutable truths in the real world, namely our inevitable deaths.

Fictional truths also teach us important lessons about the truth of experience.  Fictional truths are necessarily arrived at via a narrator and therefore have a perspective.  Likewise, lived experience necessarily has a perspective.  Fiction has the potential to reveal the mask of our face in the world because the truth of fictional experience is more solid than the truth of experience in this world.

Lived experience is immediately subject to memory, a time of twilight when conflicting states of being alternate between on another.  Subject to memory, abuse becomes love and love may become abuse.  The play between experience, interpretation, and memory wreak havoc on truth in the real world.  But a fictional truth, like a practiced lie, is fixed.

In her course, The American Novel Since 1945 , Professor Amy Hungerford describes the effect Nabokov’s intricate language has on revealing the artifice of the narrator.  No matter how Humbert Humbert might explicate, his mask is rigid, and we are certain that it is indeed a mask.  With that certainty, we may perhaps notice our own masks, as well.  I do not mean that we could get rid of our masks.  We can’t.  But we can notice, and perhaps that is enough to be free.

1 comment to What a Story Does Part 2: Response to Umberto Eco’s Richard Ellman Lecture Series 2008

  • […] Umberto Eco argues that the existence of fictional characters as cognitive objects is (epistemologically) completely determined: …I know Leopold Bloom better than I know my own father. Who can say how many episodes of my father’s life are unknown to me…In contrast, I know everything about Leopold Bloom that I need to know-and each time I reread Ulysses I discover something more about him.  […]