Blumenberg on Significance and Fiction

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.

8 thoughts on “Blumenberg on Significance and Fiction

  1. I like the notion of invoking Finnegans Wake here – the Wake as the place where an endless, appalling, dense accumulation of obsessive, minute, detailed reference somehow bizarrely coincides always-everywhere (word-by-word) with the largest “thematic” content. It is as though only the orders of magnitude of 10-to-the-minus-tenth and 10-to-the-plus-tenth survive while the ordinary world (“medium sized dry goods” or “the here and now”)gets squeezed out, suffocated. We are made at once to see all of history and the speck of dust and nothing in between, which is another way of saying that getting a fix on time, place, story and character (the supposed elements of narrative) seems so difficult. Hence the Wake as the perfect hypertext “vehicle.” Happy Bloomsday!

  2. This debate has always struck me as missing the point. The issue is not the weighing of the quotidian vs the significant, as if only the right proportion of each will result in the souffle’s rise. Instead, it is the avoidance of the received that matters. An artwork does not read as artificial from too much significance; it reads as artificial when the significance is a bromide, Something We Know Already. Likewise, I can think of no artwork that suffers from too great a dedication to the quotidian, but I can think of many that fail because their presentation of the everyday is cliched.

    One example might be a comparison of Zola’s L’Assommoir with La Terre. Both are products of his famed method, so it should be apples-to-apples when we talk about significance and the quotidian. L’Assommoir flags in its second half because Gervaise’s becomes an overcommon degradation narrative. For me, its worst sin is the appearance of an impossibly self-sacrificing little paragon of a neighbor girl at the same moment Gervaise slips deepest into crudity and dereliction of domestic duty. Zola is off-base here because the portrait he is painting is sentimental and false, not because he aims for too much or too little significance. His significance is bad, not out-sized. The Earth, on the other hand, is far, far less sentimental, subscribes to fewer types, and gives us a less determined plot. Henry James thought L’Assommoir Zola’s best novel, but to me there is no comparison, and the reason is entirely in one’s avoidance of cliche and the other’s embrace of it.

    Dickens is another great demonstration. He is so immensely great and gifted, but he jams sentimental lies into his books in enraging ways. These insertions, such as Dombey’s learning to love at the end of Dombey and Son, do not sound different than their surrounding text. The amount of sensory detail and observation is the same, the proportion of significance and mundanity hold steady, but now everything is in the service of a false aim.

  3. These useful thoughts of Des Esseintes give us four categories. These categories offer leverage on both that which is quotidian and that which is significant in any work:

    Shopworn truths
    Striking new truths
    Shopworn lies
    Striking new lies

    Here are a few questions raised by this framework:

    Is there not an asymmetry between the impact on lies and truths of the condition of being “shopworn”? To be reminded in banal fashion of something we do not believe is not an experience we are likely to value. But to be reminded in artful fashion of Something We Know Already may be a core function of art as a tool. (The case-in-point of “Finnegans Wake” serves here as well: life consists of cycles of birth, death and new birth. Duh.) As Dr. Johnson famously said, “Mankind have a greater need to be reminded than to be taught.”

    Is there a sense in which invoking “truth” and “lies” (falseness) begs the question? Is not the esthetic failure of the work precisely the failure to create consensus (for a given audience) about significance? To what extent is the creation of consensus a matter of rhetoric? Can we adequately discuss rhetorical strategies without considering the ways in which they approach significance through the mundane? Can that inquiry avoid the question of the balance between the significant and the mundane?

    Is it possible for a work to depict untruths, whether shopworn or striking, in a manner so engaging, inventive, powerful or charming as to self-levitate from mere propaganda or kitsch to art? If so, is that not one way (as successful rhetoric) in which art has the potential to be dangerous?

    [Note to Moderator – David? Hi, David – this sort of “back and forth” may be outside the intended scope of the comments section. If so, don’t hesitate to quash the comment. Be assured, no offense would be taken on my part– the above has already served its function for me – I had to write it down to help me decide what I thought of DesEsseintes’s post.]

  4. I’m happy to see the conversation here continue, no need to worry.

    D.E.: I think Blumenberg’s sense of “significance” (pregnanz in German) encompasses some of your concerns already. Sentimentality of the sort you describe would have the effect of removing that significance in the first place and rendering it as mundane, as kitsch…rather, we are talking here about artworks that have been known to have a profound effect, like Guernica. I think Blumenberg’s point is that even a Ulysses or a Guernica or a Goethe can be obliterated in its significance by the sudden onslaught of a destabilizing change in reality itself.

    So it’s my fault not to make the jump more explicit: I don’t mean that any crazy story can have significance, but that there are so many floating around that enough of them are bound to. And this makes artists avoid the very possibility of finding significance in the quotidian (not the mundane) via imagination, and taking short cuts via the imitation of aberrations of circumstance. Kieslowski comes to mind….

    Steve: I sort of echo what you said in the above content, though I think you were more eloquent about it than I was. Shopwornness erodes at significance (though I suppose the comforting value of a piece of art has its place as well).

    On the question of truth and lies, I think I have to recuse myself again, since I’d also put them secondary to significant vs. shopworn. Nietzsche’s Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense is still, for me, near-definitive. It deserves its fame and I believe Blumenberg quotes from it (if not, he quotes enough similar stuff from Nietzsche for me to feel justified in the link!).

    Alternately, you could approach the question of consensus and normative aesthetic judgment from a Kantian perspective, but I’m afraid I lack the stamina for that….

  5. Thanks kindly for the clarification.

    Perhaps another direction from which to look at the same issue: in his interview collection, Shop Talk, Philip Roth interviewed a Polish author (I think) shortly after the fall of Communism. In several of these interviews with Eastern bloc writers, Roth kept pressing the same point that samizdat writers had an advantage–had it easy(!)–in the sense that they had something massive to write against. The Western writer, Roth complained, existed in a free society with nothing anywhere near as compelling to rail against. The interviewee responded that he and many fellow writers could not *wait* to write about something official oppression. He claimed they had felt constrained by the need to tackle the one overwhelming fact of their existence to that point.

    To get back to your previous point, though, I guess I remain suspicious that the internet or the general wash of information which we inhabit somehow frustrates our ability to generate art. I agree with you that few contemporary artists are persuasive in their responses to our moment, but isn’t that just because most artists are not very good? I mean, it’s true we have few artists who are persuasively finding significance in the quotidian, but we have precious few who are making much hay in the realm of the imagination either. Good art is rare.

    You mention in your original post mitigating techniques, but I still believe techniques are beside the point. Look at two writers as dissimilar as Platonov and Victor Serge. These are, for me, the best Russian writers of the Thirties and Forties. How do they respond to the terror and wild change of their moment? Platonov writes prose of which almost any sentence even in translation could removed from context and still diagnosed as his own. Simply, he sounds like no one else. Serge excels within the “confines” of the spy novel, of all things. Unforgiving Years was written as the macro events it describes were taking place, yet the spine of its construction is never broken. It remains taut and visionary and *a spy novel*, even as the world seemed to be in its death throes. Both men wrote under wretched conditions with embattled at best prospects for publication during a period of unparalleled upheaval, yet their art betrays no fear of failing to communicate the essential. More to Blumenberg’s contention, both writers include heightened levels of significance (especially so in Platonov’s case, but also there for Serge) in their work at a moment of great change, yet the work does not suffer. Our current moment cannot pose greater challenges than the ragnarok of 20th century Europe. We just need better artists, or, more accurately, we need the sieve of history to reveal the good ones that have been among us all along.

    Finally, “shopworn” means something whose condition has deteriorated from sitting unbought on the store shelf too long. So a shopworn truth is one that has been advertised forever, yet which no one is buying. Does that make it more or less likely to be true?

  6. Let’s distinguish two senses of the phrase “a matter of technique”:

    1)a judgment on the serviceability or adequacy of narrative modes (type “A” works; type “B” doesn’t)
    2 the question of even the possibility of a serviceable or adequate narrative mode.

    Along with DE, I’d say that we’re not addressing “a matter of technique” in the first sense. There is no royal road, no formula, for getting it right (“it” being fiction that tells us something we need to know about our moment). We can’t inventory and classify characteristics of different narratives strategies and then say, categorically, that this particular set works and this other set doesn’t. There isn’t a simple, technical “fix” or “work-around.”

    But I think that matters of technique in the second are sense worthy of discussion (the question of the every possibility of successful technique). If we go “in search of lost time” then does it matter – does it change the way we read – if our guidance system is a search engine? Answering “Yes” is now largely the default position, the received wisdom, about which DE is skeptical. But my guess is that the default position is correct and that the effect of the change indeed may be helping to undermine all narrative strategies. Minimalist strategies seem ungenerous, deceptive, next to the super-saturation of narrative elements offered online. Encyclopedic, world-constructing fictions seem somehow under-powered and fatally static next to riot of electronic words and images. Genre fictions seem like ever more exaggerated change-ringing on prescribed elements.

    Beyond these conventional concerns, I have a suspicion that there is a more powerful sense in which the possibility of adequate narrative is in jeopardy. We may be immersed in electronic media, but we are also legatees of an exhausted post-romanticism whose assumptions we are loathe to challenge. A short-hand summary of those assumptions: we still mock Alexander Pope for this definition of “true wit.” For us, wit is – contra Pope – “what ne’er was thought and (hence) ne’er so well expressed.” DE’s nice exploitation of “shopworn” as “unbought” as well as “much handled” highlights this point. Is the old “truth” unpurchased because we deem it untrue (or make it untrue by denying it justification)? Or does it sit in the shop because we are terrified of it, unwilling to take it onboard, desperate for something new, even as we obsessively pick it up only to put it down again?

    And what is this “truth” we fear to purchase and yet bruise with handling? Once again I turn to Joyce. Leave it to good old Jimmy to terrorize us with the possibility that the “conservative” view (yes, dreadful word choice – so many contradictory meanings, so much horrific political baggage) might be right in some sense – the view that it is our place to accept (celebrate?) that there is nothing new under the sun.

    After all, “Finnegans Wake” is not only the most conservative book ever written. It is the most conservative book that ever could be written. The three-second FW: Q: What will be said and done? A: What has been said and done. That is a brutal catechism. But after we unmask all spurious novelty(thanks, David, for the Musil quote above) is that the answer we are left with? We crave narratives that prove otherwise – but yet somehow our poor, disillusioned post-romantic souls, still yearning for a language of liberation, no longer trust them, and that distrust undermines their potential for adequacy. Perhaps it is the job of the “sieve of history” not to cull out works of merit, but unexamined assumptions.

  7. Steve,
    You raise a host of issues deserving of thought, but I wanted to respond to your discussion of the contemporary moment and narrative.

    You write:
    “Minimalist strategies seem ungenerous, deceptive, next to the super-saturation of narrative elements offered online. Encyclopedic, world-constructing fictions seem somehow under-powered and fatally static next to riot of electronic words and images. Genre fictions seem like ever more exaggerated change-ringing on prescribed elements.”

    1. I don’t know. Is there any evidence for this? There are good books that operate along the lines you describe. There are many more bad ones, but some good ones exist.

    2. More importantly, if these strategies are failing, why is that a problem? Literature has never rested. The 18th century novel is not like the 19th century novel. I for one would really effing welcome a turn in novels and stories away from narrative. The superabundance of narrative online need not be a source of anxiety. It can tell us where the novel no longer needs to dwell. When photos and then movies came along, books and the visual arts changed. Part of their territory was claimed by new technology and a corresponding cultural tide. But books and paintings did not get worse. I think everyone here digs Modernism.

  8. DE,

    A quick response to your further thoughts.

    I very much appreciate your bracing attitude. It is a corrective to my inborn (or too readily indulged?) tendency to be easily discouraged. I accept your “low inherent frequency” argument: some works (minimalist, maximalist, traditionalist, or genre) still succeed. Most do not, but then that has always been true: if we view making literature as giving birth, then we must say that the rate of live births is cruelly low.

    I also agree that as humanity invents tools, the effect on the arts can be additive. As you say, it is possible for the novel to move on, to leave certain tasks behind.

    But I am afraid of that move. My working assumption is that people need stories just as we need music (“need” in the sense that the activity of making these things is ubiquitous and therefore it seems reasonable to assume that they serve some important purpose). Stories do more than divert; they are tools for survival, means of filtering the welter of the world, for separating out from all the noise some signal that tells us “do it this way” or “watch out for this” or “this is the way it is with us.”

    Religions are built on stories; political movements are built on stories (e.g., the complete incapacity of the American center-left to tell the broad public a compelling story for the last thirty years explains our politics). Literature is one important place where the structures of power built on those stories can be placed in question. Literature need not “tell a story” to do that, but if it does not, then it does not engage power on the field of success of the powerful. In the eyes of most observers, it fights a side-engagement, and leaves the main battleground uncontested. Yes, others may in principle take up that fight – but then we must ask, “Who makes the movies most people see? Who will market the video games?” I understand that the current state of the publishing industry may be cited as a counter-argument – “Well, books have been co-opted as well.” True, but I see this as yet another way of making my point: we are at risk, and a skirmish on a far frontier won’t suffice. Perhaps the czars won’t even bother to jail the writers who challenge them there. Even Modernism is safe now – encapsulated in the university syllabus.

    To return to the retail analogy: we do indeed often handle and yet often spurn the stories we need to hear. Religious and political leaders are selective re-tellers of those stories. Their versions make it possible for many to believe that they have indeed “made the purchase”: in their re-told versions, things are always someone else’s fault (“those people”); people “in the know” can find an escape hatch, or sign up for a “get out of jail free card.” Who will call these powerful re-tellers to account?

    The above is, of course, a catalogue of my prejudices in the matter. I realize that every point can be contested. But I am explaining my own state of mind – why I am discouraged. Perhaps it’s only because I’m middle-aged and insufficiently imaginative, and I have latched on the above fairly conventional thoughts as an excuse. But these are ways in which I answer your important questions, which I thank you for posing.

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