Make Believe

The Joint Faculties of Humanities and Theology | Lund University

Ira Newman

Destabilizing Reality: Postmodernist Narrative and the Logic of Make-Believe

In Mimesis as Make-Believe Walton reminds us that however valid the Reality and Mutual Belief Principles are for many cases (144), conjointly they do not exhaust the entire range of authoritative inference patterns that may be used to determine what is fictionally-true in a fictional world (161–69).[1]   Unfortunately for these other—noncompliant—cases there is no systematic set of principles covering them (169).  Instead, “sharply divergent principles, answering to different needs, are at work in different cases” (169). 

                      My objective in this paper is to answer Walton’s (implied) challenge and to try formulating a procedure for determining an authoritative inference pattern for some of these noncompliant cases.  The stimuli for my thinking are some troubling cases in postmodernist fictional narrative where not only logical consistency is undermined, but also narrative, character and plot consistency.  For example the text in Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy reads at one point: “The chief character—one learns—is dishonest.  He is honest, he is trying to re-establish a situation compromised by his predecessor.”  A patent contradiction, and in the real world we would say it cannot be that both sentences are true. 

But what about in the fiction: can both be simultaneously true?  Walton would say, yes, because fictional worlds do not require logical consistency (witness Walton’s accommodation of contradictory propositions in the example of Hogarth’s False Perspective [64–65]).  But to say two contradictory sentences can both be true in a particular fictional world does not entail we are required to say they both ought to be held true in that fictional world.  My claim would be it is still logically possible (and perhaps obligatory) in some cases to suspend judgment (as we would in real-world encounters), since prima facie it is logically impermissible to hold contradictory beliefs at the same time.  And there is no reason why we cannot do the same when encountering Robbe-Grillet’s troubling sentences in the world of his fiction. 

                      When might there be a reason to accept these contradictory sentences as both true in the fictional world?  When there is compliance with a principle which I shall call (and explicate as) the Principle of Iconographic Interpretation.  This says that if we can find some significance or symbolism in the representational rendition of two contradictory sentences, then we have a reason for accepting the conjunction as true.  The rationale for this logical maneuver is that since representational works (of art, in particular) are primarily vehicles of  meaning, then when meaning can be applied to some presumed paradox in the represented fictional world, then that should be a reason to grant it truth-status in that fictional world . 

Two examples I will explore to support this view are the following:  A) Walton’s analysis of “Joan’s dream” (176–77), esp. n. 46.  There Walton claims that there is a paradox in Joan’s dreaming that the same man she meets is sometimes her father, and sometimes her boss; but if provided a “meaning” (I am speculating, by means of psychoanalytical inquiry) these two propositions can be grasped as simultaneously true.   B)  Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, in the fictional world of Metamorphosis, waking up in the body of a giant bug: this is an empirical if not ontological impossibility.  Yet when provided a metaphorical meaning (Gregor is the alienated, repulsive, abandoned member of a family—the bug likewise appeals to our attitudes of disgust and alienation) the contradictory sentences: “I am human”, “I am not human” are both reasonably accepted as true in the world of the fiction. 

                      So what might be the meaning in these postmodernist examples of logical, narrative and character inconsistency?  Here we enter the controversial waters of critical analysis, and I will explore briefly the interpretation of writers like Roland Barthes, who propose that the meaning behind much postmodernist “paradoxes” of this sort is simply to exemplify instances of destabilization—of comfortable presumptions we make about narrative cohesion and character identity.  Works such as those by Robbe-Grillet, Borges, et al. are therefore subversive of conceptual patterns about historical development, personal identity and human psychology that we have received from our intellectual tradition.  When seen from this iconographic perspective, we can return to the fictional world of Jealousy and then have a principled way to infer that in that fictional world the unstable pair “He is dishonest / He is honest…” can be held to be true simultaneously (however counterintuitive that would be in the real world).  Interestingly, Walton might find reason to be sympathetic to this line of analysis, since he claims that what is fictionally true in a work’s world may benefit from “feedback” from a critical consideration of overall themes and meanings in the work (184). 


[1]  Mimesis as Make-Believe (Harvard University Press, 1990): all in-text page references are to this edition.   Under the Reality Principle, our inferences in determining what is true in a fictional world should be modeled as far as conditions permit on real-world inference patterns.  If natural laws allow us in the real world to infer Hamlet has physical lungs, and is experiencing loss for his dead father, then similar inference patterns should prevail in fiction.  Under the Mutual Belief Principle, our inferences should be modeled, as conditions permit, on the belief system prevailing in the author’s society of origin—even if noncompliant with reality.  Thus we can infer the ghost does not have to be reduced to a hallucination in Hamlet’s mind and that he can walk “through” walls.  (The reason why inferences are crucial in determining what is true in a fictional world is because the explicit sentences of a fictive text are insufficient for determining what is true in a fictional world.  As in nonfictional contexts, we always determine truth by what can be, in addition, authoritatively inferred from the explicitly stated sentences.  Hence there is a need for some principles of fictional inference—which the Reality and Mutual Belief Principles respectively serve.)


About Ira Newman:

My work is primarily in philosophy of literature.  I have presented numerous papers at meetings of the American Society for Aesthetics and the Canadian Society for Aesthetics extending back more than two decades on topics such as learning from literature, the logic of fictional worlds and texts, sentimentality, narrative coherence, and moral psychology in literary analysis.  Two recent publications are: “Virtual People: Fictional Characters through the Frames of Reality” (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67, 1: 73–82 [Wint 2009]) (Special Issue: The Aesthetics, Poetics and Philosophy of Narrative; Noël Carroll, Editor.); and “Learning  from Tolstoy: Forgetfulness and Recognition in Literary Edification,” Philosophia: Philosophical Quarterly of Israel 36: 43–54. (March 2008).   I am presently completing a book-length manuscript titled Imagining Fiction: Mind and Meaning in Narrative Literature, which presents a theory of fictional worlds, narration, and character construction in literary texts, with implications for the cognitive, emotional and moral responses of audiences.  In this work philosophical texts, both classical (e.g., by Plato and Aristotle) and contemporary (e.g., by Nelson Goodman, Kendall Walton, Gregory Currie, Arthur Danto, John Searle, Peter Lamarque, David Lewis et al.) are discussed.