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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  1. alan rossi

      This is close to my own mind space concerning categorizing stuff.  The realistic vs experimental is a dead thing.  

      I don’t know if we “have no ‘experience’ with reality” or if we “can’t experience” dreams, but we are both. 

      At the beginning of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Jung says about that book, “The background of this unusual book is not the niggardly European ‘either-or’, but a magnificently affirmative ‘both-and’.  This statement may appear objectionable to the Western philosopher, for the West loves clarity and unambiguity; consequently, one philosopher clings to the position, ‘God is’, while another clings equally fervently to the negation, ‘God is not’.”

      Better to be in that both-and space, which is no space at all, all space, which we’re all in anyway even when we’re not. 

      Thanks for the good read. 

  2. Mike Young


  3. Matthew Simmons


  4. Nathan Goldman


  5. Anonymous

      Claiming not to know what counts as a “realistic novel” seems to me like willful ignorance of an obvious interpretation: that “realistic novels” are those which concern themselves only with events/objects/content that could plausibly happen/exist in the real world (or, if you’d prefer, “consensus reality”). Where’s the ambiguity here?

      Are you arguing that fantasy novels could be considered “realistic” because imagination is as real to us as our perception of the world? This may be theoretically true, but I think comprehending the layman’s idea of “realistic novel” doesn’t require such nuanced formulations.

  6. Anonymous
  7. A D Jameson

      I think I tend to hear people say “realist” more than “realistic.” And
      while they may think such writing more accurately records “real life”
      (whatever that is), I tend to think of “realist fiction” as referring
      more to a particular style of writing. Some aspects of which is mimetic, and other aspects of which are not.

      Meanwhile, I think there are many other ways of writing mimetically and about the world and life, and which have little or nothing to do with the conventions of realism.

      There are also ways of making art that are not purportedly mimetic.

      Whether something is experimental or not has nothing to do with any of
      this. That’s a separate issue altogether (although people often think,
      for whatever reason, that the experimental is at odds with realism, and
      vice versa; I can’t really figure out why they think this, but they seem

      … I was watching a Hayao Miyazaki film the other day, My
      Neighbor Totoro
      , and reflected that a great pleasure of his
      filmmaking is his mimetic skill. He really captures a lot of things in
      his animation, makes you think—”Yes, that’s really how it is.” But his
      work is just as fantastical as it is “realistic.” And even when it gets
      reality “right,” it’s still easy to see that it’s a cartoon, with lots
      of artificial conventions in place.

  8. Anonymous

       Also Hilarious that I tried, Rather Aggressively, as is my Style, to pitch it to Blake Butler via FB and he was All ” I’m going to ignore you, Andrea, because you’re a Crazy Bitch ” ( I imagine ). ” Realism vs. Absurdism ” is a More Comprehensive Essay, SO WHAT DOES THIS SAY ABOUT YOU, BLAKE?

  9. Anonymous

      I agree that people usually look like idiots when they toss “realism” (and other categories) around as lazy shorthand, but your post oversimplifies the historical context of the term, as well as the relationship between Realism and Modernism. 

      First of all, Modernism is not a clean break from 19th C Realism, and 19th C Realism is incredibly experimental and wild.  Victorian Realists regularly employed fragmentation, non-linear narrative, streams, meta-layers, layers, etc. In fact, all of these so-called Modernist techniques can be traced back to Chaucer and/or various oral traditions. Modernists and Post-Modernists–much like writers today, who often look inward before looking outward–tend/ed to be self-absorbed and deluded into thinking they woke up one day and invented everything, but they’re mostly FOS. Virginia Woolf, for instance, pretended like her cohort made a radical departure from its predecessor and regularly trashed the Victorians, but this departure is greatly overstated and exaggerated. Modernism is less a departure from Realism than a natural growth; if you examine the entire period, you’ll notice how the Victorians evolved and how the late Victorians like Wilde and Stevenson are, in many ways, indistinguishable from Modernists.It’s also important to remember that the novel (since we’re discussing Realism here) is a relatively new genre, and that “Realism” is tied up in the novel’s rise to legitimacy in the 19th C, which wasn’t long ago. “Realism” is basically a term that originally argued for the veracity of verisimilitude at a time when verisimilitude wasn’t to be trusted; it doesn’t get much more experimental than that. Realism  was never intended  to be taken literally, as a term that connotes the simple-minded transposition of “everyday life” onto the page. The “Realist” work of Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, the Brontes, etc. clearly previews Modernism and employs many of the same techniques. 

      So, when (lazy) writers use “Realistic” as a pejorative shorthand, you can be certain that they aren’t well read beyond contemporary literature, or, less likely but still prevalent, are purposely creating a binary to rebel against. The reality, though, is that most of these categories overlap and are more alike than different.

  10. Nathan Goldman

      “There are also ways of making art that are not purportedly mimetic.”

      This may be obvious, but: could you expand on that a little?

  11. Bobby Dixon

      Sometimes when a word like ‘realistic’ gets used  out of laziness/a lack of being better at describing something, it really does begin to signify nothing. 

      Other words or phrases that have had meaning rung out of them:good w/ computers
      game changer
      love it
      any permutation of ‘get yo’
      fundamentally flawed 
      the thing is
      some ______ say 
      bold plan

  12. marshall mallicoat

      “New Orleans, La., and Portland, Ore., are small cities…”

      new orleans and portland are small cites???

  13. Richard Grayson

      It depends.  Everything is relative.

      New Orleans’ population was 343,829 at the 2010 census.  At the 1840 census, it was the third largest city in the U.S., but now it’s not even in the top 50 in population, quite a lot smaller than Colorado Springs, Mesa or Virginia Beach and even Arlington, TX, cities that I’d assume the author would say don’t “get a lot of attention.”  The N.O.-Kenner-Metairie metro area, however, is 46th largest.

      Portland, OR, had at the 2010 census a population of 583,776, and it ranks 29th among cities, and the metro area is 23rd largest.

      Compare the population of these cities with Tianjin (11,090,314) or Kinshasa (8,754,00) or Karachi (13,052,000) and they’re pretty small.

  14. Richard Grayson
  15. marshall mallicoat

       realistic = hard sci fi set in contemporary period

  16. A D Jameson

      Sure thing! I was using mimesis really literally there: copying real life. And I think that any artwork can be mimetic or anti-mimetic; it can exist somewhere on the spectrum that is mimesis.

      But there exists also other artwork that is indifferent to doing mimesis. A lot of abstract art, for instance, is not interested in representation or in copying real life things. It is concerned, rather, with exploring abstract formal issues that arise within the medium itself. A good literary example, I think, is Donald Barthelme’s short story “Bone Bubbles.” If I remember correctly, Barthelme wrote it by collaging together different bits of language without much regard to what sense they conveyed; he was interested rather in how the words and phrases looked and read next to one another. In other words, he was not concerned with representation or with anti-representation; he was concerned with other (non-representative) aspects of the language: purely sonic and visual aspects.


  17. Taylor Napolsky

      That blog post you linked to was awfully interesting. 

  18. mimi

      yeah, and the best line in it is:

      ” … having written Some Thing … I think will be considered a Literary Classic ( in Canada, au moins ) … ”  
      ha ha ha ha ha ha

  19. Nathan Goldman

       Cool, thank you!

  20. Taylor Napolsky

      Yeah it is clearly written by someone unbalanced. I think I was too hasty to call it interesting.

  21. Taylor Napolsky

      you have a cool blog

  22. mimi

      actually i think you were correct in calling it ‘interesting’ … ‘_awfully_ interesting’  

      don’t be too hard on yourself

      : )

  23. mimi

      why thank you  

      drop by anytime

  24. A D Jameson

      My pleasure!