February 29, 2004

Beauty Is Truth, Truth Beauty

This came up in a conversation at the IWSPC with David Dick, John Beer, and I think Heather Mills and maybe Adam Potthast--is aesthetics a division of value theory or a division of philosophy of language? Is the question what makes for good art or how art represents content?

I think you can't separate the two. In particular, you can't ask what separate truth in fiction from aesthetics, because sometimes aesthetics determines truth in fiction. The reason that p must hold in a story is because the story would be bad if p did not hold.

An example comes in Alice Munro's story "Bardon Bus." The story (mild spoiler here, but it's not the point) is about the narrator's obsession with a man she calls X--it's a letter in his name--with whom she had a brief fling in Australia. At the very end a friend of the narrator's mentions meeting a man called Alex something [I don't have the book here].

Now, X is Alex (though it took me at least three readings to twig). But the facts stated in the story would be the flimsiest evidence in real life that X is Alex. The odds are low that the narrator's lover is the man her friend meets, given only that the one man has an X in his name and the other is named Alex. Why, then, am I so sure that X is Alex? Because it gives a point to these details of the story. It provides a satisfying conclusion that isn't obvious otherwise. In short, it makes the story better.

What's at work here, I think, is something like a Gricean maxim--but instead of "Make your contribution relevant," it's "Make your story good." If, given the facts baldly stated in the story, there's some glaring aesthetic flaw, the reader should see whether a reading is possible that remedies this flaw. Truth in the story can be determined by the implicatures that this maxim generates, as well as what's explcitly stated.

I don't think that this maxim--call it Beauty--is just the same as that of relevance. Beauty often requires us to account for seeming loose ends and irrelevancies, but not always. Sometimes a reading that ties up loose ends is less Beautiful than one that doesn't. Thurber's Macbeth Murder Mystery is a good case here--the characters try to figure out who the real murderer was, since there are all sorts of flaws with the idea that Macbeth did it. Sometimes an adjustment of our aesthetic expectations will allow us to stop looking for a reading that makes some detail Relevant, by letting us see how the surface reading is more Beautiful. Arguably that's what goes on when Thurber's characters mix up their genres. (BTW, that story is really funny. Don't let me put you off it.)

An objection that John (or maybe David) raised was that the maxim of Beauty makes it impossible for a story to be bad. If the story is bad, you're obliged to provide a reading so that it's good. I don't think this is a problem. In ordinary conversation, when a maxim seems to be broken, the listener is obliged to interpret it so that the maxims are observed, if possible. But it's not always possible. Anyone who talks to me a lot will tell you that there are some utterances that aren't relevant to the conversation, no matter what theory you construct. Same for the maxim of Beauty--there may be no reading of the story that makes it Beautiful without violating the other maxims too much ("mean what you say" or something like that).

One thing that I like about the maxim of Beauty is that it solves the Problem of Crappy Sequels. Robertson Davies' Fifth Business is a rollicking yarn with a mystery at its heart; at the end a perfectly satisfying solution is suggested. But in the sequels, The Manticore and World of Wonders, that solution is explicitly undercut. The sequels also aren't half as good (they tend toward the preachy or psycholanalytic, one each as I recall). I understand similar things apply to the last two Matrix movies--I didn't see them. And Tove Jansson's Exploits of Moominpapa contains a bunch of revisions about the characters that completely undercut later and better Moominbooks. (No way are Snufkin and the Mymble brother and sister.)

Well, according to the maxim of Beauty we're obliged to come up with the most aesthetically possible reading of these corpuses. In this case, I think that that reading requires jettisoning the weak book. Things true in Exploits of Moominpapa simply don't carry over to the world of Moominvalley in November.

Note that this makes truth in fiction no more determinate than aesthetics. I think this is a point in favor of the theory. Arguments about what's true in a work of fiction--how deluded is Kinbote?--will be arguments about what the best reading of the fiction is. And that best is aesthetic. We won't be able to come up for a method to determine the truth in a fictional world, and then evaluate the world aesthetically--those two processes go together.

Posted by Matt Weiner at February 29, 2004 01:42 PM