Gabriel Josipovici recently had an article in the TLS on the Brothers Grimm. Aside from being generally fascinating and throwing fairy tales, the Midrash, Kleist, Benjamin, and others into the mix, it has this particular striking passage:

What happened to the Grimm Tales in the course of fifty years of “revision” was that they were transformed from tales told by speakers who were deeply convinced that they were true (whatever meaning one assigns to the term) into tales told by writers (Wilhelm Grimm, in effect) who did not believe in them and therefore added scene-setting, morality and psychology to make them both attractive and meaningful. It also gives us a hint as to why a novelist like Dickens had (and still has) the effect he had on his readers: he was one who knew “how to be a child”. However, it was perhaps Kleist alone among the writers of the century who really grasped what was at issue here. His great novella, Michael Kohlhaas, takes many of the elements that go to make up the Grimm Tales and stands them on their head, bidding an anguished farewell as it does so both to community values and to the power of wishful thinking. But Kleist had no successors, and, by and large, nineteenth-century novelists and storytellers took the path of Midrash and romance, still the staple diet of readers of twentieth-century fiction, with neither writers nor readers quite believing what they are doing, but under a strange compulsion to pretend that they do.

[Just now I notice that Steve Mitchelmore at This Space quoted the exact same passage.]

As a lover of Kleist and his iconoclastic position in literary history, I will certainly defend the uniqueness of “Michael Kohlhaas,” a tale of brutal revenge interrupted about two-thirds of the way through by several fairy tale devices. Why is it that Josipovici calls this out as designating an abandoned road of fiction?

First there is the matter of what road was taken. What is the nature of this pantomime compact between writers and readers which Josipovici only mentions briefly? Modern day American fiction has evolved into a sort of psychological shorthand, in which physically descriptive details and moody variations on images have come to point to a shortlist of mutually agreed upon emotions. By definition, none of them are particularly original. A look through Raymond Carver will isolate the basic vocabulary of jealousy, love, sex, family, etc., etc., but the vocabulary has been with us back through Updike and Cheever all the way to the malaise of Sinclair Lewis, the schemata of John Dos Passos, the tough guy tactics of Hemingway, and the decadence of Fitzgerald. (I don’t especially care for any of these authors.) There is an aspect of the fairy tale and the fable to tales that share this vocabulary, because they tell us what we already know–or rather, reiterate what we’ve already heard. The pretense lies in perpetuating the myth that these stock emotions have an emotional veracity transcending their unoriginal artifice.

Robert Musil called a writer embracing this sort of falsity “a consequence of the fact that he had not learned how to think based on the experience of his own imagination, but rather, with the aid of borrowed terms” (“Black Magic”). Josipovici introduces fairy tales and exposition on them (the “Midrash” he speaks of) as a model for this unfortunate state of affairs, where writers are not only complicit with but actively collaborate in the deferral of reality as they write their books, producing not works of their own imagination but simply justificatory annotations to a helpful lie, removing their integrity in the process.

None of this is found in Kleist, certainly, whose particular psychosis drove him well off any conventional use of borrowed terms. Nor do you find it in Hofmannsthal or Alexander Kluge, who both question these things in their own ways. Josipovici implies that it is the willful perpetuation of myth after its collective falsification that makes for bad art, and I think this is a useful, new abstraction.

Update: Lars Spurious and The Mumpsimus have offered extremely thoughtful responses on the issues Josipovici raises. Lars elegantly asks, “How can we be told of what we don’t know?” Matt Cheney says of “Michael Kohlhaas” (in the midst of a detailed examination of the story), “The text becomes a kind of indifferent god, an object that requires neither worship nor doubt, and is impervious to both.”

I agree on both counts. “Michael Kohlhaas” was such a strikingly individual story that I once sought to rework it in a modern context, as it seemed a story beyond its time and beyond reduction, to assign a sense of unknowing awe to what had grown stale and quotidian. I was not able to do so, but the project still holds an appeal to me, for some future time.