Significance [Bedeutsamkeit] can exceed what is aesthetically permissiblre. The Dane Oehlenschlaeger was a nonparticipant observer at the battle of Jena. He tends toward ironical distance and he knows that he can also presuppose this as Goethe’s private attitude. He writes to Goethe on September 4, 1808, from Tuebingen, about the plan of a novel and his fear that the result would unintentionally be a description of his own life; and one would not be permitted to make that even as good as it was in reality. There is no feeling, he says, more peculiar than the feeling that one must place what occurs in real life above poetry, even though the role of poetry is to represent “the ideal concentrated beauty and meaningful content of life.” This particular feeling has never been stronger for him “than when I read Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle in Weimar while the French were winning the battle at Jena and capturing the town.” It is the problem of aesthetic probability: Fiction cannot allow itself the significance that reality portrays without losing credibility.
Work on Myth, Ch. 3
“Significance” here is used in the sense coined by Dilthey: a human- and/or historically-given importance over and above anything that can be gleaned from the baseline reality of the natural world. I get more from this passage than from all the heat currently being spilled over Reality Hunger (really now, did it need such marquee reviews?). For someone like me who’s always bothered by the problem of what’s effective and what’s not in creative writing, this passage doesn’t quite give a heuristic, but it does concisely point out one crucial problem: the artist’s struggle to break free of the mundane details of the world in order to isolate what is important, while not going too far and making the work contrived and overblown. In other words, too much meaningfulness, too much significance, breeds artificiality, further from an ideal of beauty than the raw material composing it. But in times of (mutually agreed-upon) massive human change, significance smacks us in the face and the intensity of it is beyond what a writer can conjure up except by indirection (the Romantic’s technique, evoking abstract greatness out of sensory particulars). We may not know the immediate significance of a war or a crisis, but we know that it is significant and must be addressed and understood post-haste. Creativity suddenly seems secondary, while people are absorbed in the seemingly prima facie meaning of the present. (It’s not actually prima facie, but the collective delusion is very strong.) Historical fiction is one compromise used to get around this problem; another is to create really large works of art, in order to smooth over the seams of contrivance with added lesser detail. Or you can go the route of Borges and admit to the contrivance and claim to dwell in the realm of imagination rather than reality. All of these are mitigating techniques, however, not solutions.
There is something to the reality-focus idea, however. With the advent of the internet, the strangest and rarest circumstances can float to notice far more easily than in the past, when newspapers had to resort to making up stories to keep people’s interest. (What’s FML other than a vehicle for condensing and aggregating significance?) It doesn’t make imagination redundant (quite the opposite), but it does seem to be challenging a lot of fiction writers to come up with increasingly grandiose or grotesque scenarios in order to keep pace with the constant stream of significant moments now being shoved in our faces. Significance and meaning randomize rather than orient, and they do so with ultimately trivial mechanisms: crazy stories and inspiring tales, rather than wars and crises. The balance of significance in art and the world has been thrown off. Imagination gives way to mere imitation.
Blumenberg spends a lot of time in this chapter on Joyce, and though I think he’s off-base on his interpretation of Ulysses (more on this later), he does correctly point it out as a case where significance and mundanity are made to collide in constant and violent ways. I think Joyce’s ability to occupy these tensions and contradictions and produce something worth out of them is unmatched. Finnegans Wake achieves the same thing at the historical level rather than the personal, and Blumenberg is dead on there. Again, this will be dealt with in the next post.