March 02, 2004

Unsilly Questions

Kai von Fintel blogged a month ago about the semantics of fiction, pointing out that fictional stories do not determine the answers to "silly questions" such as "In the Holmes stories, what is Inspector Lestrade's blood type?" I don't know all the literature, but one of the things that I was getting at in this post was that truth in fiction may leave serious questions unsettled, or at least settle them in an unusual way.

Debates over normative questions in fiction aren't surprising--we can sit around arguing over whether Hamlet is a hero or a misguided fool. We can have the same sort of debates over whether, say, Lyndon Johnson was a good or bad president. In both cases, we start with the material facts, of the fictional or real world, and argue over what normative judgments those facts justify.

But we can have debates over important material facts in fiction that are more like the normative judgments in the real world than the non-normative ones. If we want to know whether FDR knew about Pearl Harbor before it happened, we need to look for an evaluate the evidence. Suppose, though, we want to know whether the children see the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw, or whether they are strictly in the governess's imagination; or on whether the cat that appears at the end of Hemingway's "Cat in the Rain" is the same cat that the woman sees in the rain.* The answer to this question is determined, if it is determined by anything, by the sentences of the story. (Yes, I'm rejecting authorial intent.) But the way we answer the question may be to argue over which answer makes more sense; and making sense here is an aesthetic concept rather than an epistemic one.

I think that unsilly questions like this may even be indeterminate. Sometimes there is simply nothing to settle whether the story is a better story if p holds or if ~p does. In fact, part of the appeal of the story may be a deliberate ambiguity on the question of whether p. Some have said that this is true of Turn of the Screw, and I think it's a commonplace of literary theory--stories of the uncanny are systematically ambiguous about whether the ghosts really exist.

(Bernard Capes' "An Eddy on the Floor" makes nice use of this--after the narrator dismisses the supernatural as impossible, he adds, "Yet, there is also the little matter of my personal experience.")

If truth in fiction can depend on aesthetic judgments, then it won't be any more determinate than the aesthetic judgments; and if amibiguity can contribute to the value of a story, important facts about some stories will be ambiguous. Some might take this as a reductio either of fictional realism or of the idea that fictional truth can depend on aesthetics--not me, though.

*IIRC, David Lodge thinks not, because the cat at the end is too big for the woman to call her a "kitty." This is ridiculous--no cat is too big to be called a kitty. FWIW, the woman does call the cat "she," and the cat at the end is a tortoiseshell, who can thus be seen to be female.

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 2, 2004 06:17 PM