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June 26th, 2012 / 1:54 pm
Power Quote

Stop Saying Realistic

I’ve devoted some time to determining whether a sound is rain, wind, or traffic. Maybe old people, or at least old monks, can accept a sound without an apparent source. Because the source does not change the sound itself. A reality check is a more serious thing than a wake-up call.

Nor, as it pertains to the arts, is “realistic” an at-all useful descriptor of a work. There was a period of art and letters called Realism, but the Modernists and Post-Modernists who rejected the Realistic mode were not rejecting the attempt to record reality; they rejected the way the Realists thought they were doing it. They thought the Realists didn’t get the representation of reality right. Hence fragments, streams, layers and meta-layers, lists, cuts.

When people say, “I don’t like realistic novels,” I can’t figure out what they mean. What kind of novels are they talking about? I would put it to you that they don’t know, either.

The fundamental error in the thought and literature of the West is the conception of dreaming as the opposite of reality. Dreams are not metaphors, wishes, or fantasies. They do not contain symbols or hidden truths. More to the point, reality is not accessible to us; our senses filter and ferment it, and organize it so that we may survive. Dreams, we experience in total. What we perceive in a dream is the dream itself. 

Opposites lie at either end of an axis. They belong to the same sub-sub-category of things. Hard and soft are degrees of textures; New Orleans, La., and Portland, Ore., are small cities that get a lot of a certain kind of attention. But not every category of things can be mapped onto a spectrum, and reality and dreams belong to no category and certainly not the same one. Let’s not be vague: neither is a kind of experience. We have no “experience” with reality. As for dreams, we can’t experience something we author, even unconsciously. Neither are places. The expressions “living in reality” and “out of touch with reality” are not truths but heuristics — occasionally useful but unproved, unexhausted shorthands. Same with “dreamscape” or “lost in dreams.”

I’ve been at the beach, reading Jung. Every time I start to bristle (which is usually when he uses the word “causal,” which is both ugly and unattractive), he outsmarts me but justly, softly, sweetly. Plus, he has a much better way of categorizing kinds of art than realistic and whatever cool word like irreal or experimental somebody has chosen to represent its supposed better/opposite. His categories are psychological and visionary. In the passage I’m about to cite, he is talking about the first part of Faust (psychological) and the second (visionary), but earlier he mentions Moby Dick as visionary, which is a great example because it has many of the hallmarks of what some would call “realistic,” but if you’ve read it you know how feeble that label would be for that book. Same goes for Michael Kimball’s Us.

Here’s Jung in Modern Man in Search of a Soul on the second part of Faust:

The experience that furnishes the material for artistic expression is no longer familiar. It is a strange something that derives its existence from the hinterland of man’s mind–that suggests the abyss of time separating us from pre-human ages, or evokes a super-human world of contrasting light and darkness. It is a primordial experience which surpasses man’s understanding, and to which he is therefore in danger of succumbing. The value and the force of the experience are given by its enormity. It arises from timeless depths; it is foreign and cold, many-sided, demonic and grotesque. A grimly ridiculous sample of the eternal chaos–a crimen laesae majestatis humanae, to use Nietzsche’s words–it bursts asunder our human standards of value and of aesthetic form. The disturbing vision of monstrous and meaningless happenings that in every way exceed the grasp of human feeling and comprehension makes quite other demands upon the powers of the artist than do the experiences of the foreground of life. These never rend the curtain that veils the cosmos; they never transcend the bounds of the humanly possible, and for this reason are readily shaped to the demands of art, no matter how great a shock to the individual they may be. But the primodial experiences rend from top to bottom the curtain upon which is painted the picture of an ordered world, and allow a glimpse into the unfathomed abyss of what has not yet become. Is it a vision of other worlds, or of the obscuration of the spirit, or of the beginning of things before the age of man, or of the unborn generations of the future? We cannot say that it is any or none of these.

Shaping, or re-shaping–The eternal spirit’s eternal pastime.

Mind, don’t sniff at the achievement of a first-rate example of the psychological novel/play/verse/essay. Mrs. Dalloway is psychological and by no means lesser than Woolf’s visionary novels, like To the Lighthouse and The Waves. Huckleberry Finn, too. James Baldwin, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Milton, and Shakespeare–all masters of the psychological mode. Chaucer, Anne Carson, and Toni Morrison veer from one to the other, as do many writers who work in multiple genres, like Beckett. I have terrifying nightmares and waking visions of my own and thus, given that I prefer to function rather than not, I adhere to a pretty strict reading diet of roughly one part visionary to three or four parts psychological.

“Psychological” is an outmoded-sounding term and is more useful to Jung than to any of us (in that he says that psychological novels leave nothing for the psychologist to analyze), but it’s better than realistic or domestic or mainstream. Jung also uses the word familiar for the first part of Faust; I like that word for it.

Just stop saying “realistic,” especially as a shorthand for uninteresting. The visionary, as Jung describes it, is the kind of art that lifts the veil, bringing us closer to something real but forever hidden, obscured. Something can look “experimental” and be derivative, obvious. You know that. Something else can stay entirely within the realm of the familiar and be immediately interpretable and still turn you over and wring you out. Familiar or psychological art usually has a better sense of humor, though not always, and the visionary mode is less suited to stories and poems about love and war. It might take more for some of you to want to read something that doesn’t “rend the curtain,” as Jung says, than it does for me. Your curtain might be in more frequent need of rending. Let’s just be clear on what we’re really talking about.

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