All writers create characters. Readers like to see them as real, people they recognise as walking in the world, people they maybe identify with. But, of course, we know that ‘really’ such characters are fictional, have a convincing personality in a ‘realistic’ world only in our imagination. Fictional characters have the same sort of status as ghosts.
But wait! Isn’t the way we see and relate to ‘fictional characters’ very similar to how we relate to each other? That is – to treat it starkly – are we not all fictional characters? Do not others perceive us as fictional? Don’t we as individuals construct our ‘being’ as fictional? This article explores this issue.
Maybe you or I relate to the people closest to us as ‘fictional characters’? Perhaps we never see an ‘essence’ either in our self or others, but rather we relate to our projected constructions, our narratives, our peculiarities of perception that ‘make’ the other person as they ‘are’.
Let’s start with a thought experiment. To make it nice and simple, we’ll focus upon a tree first before considering the more complex stuff of a human being.
Do you know what a tree is? Maybe you like trees? Many poets and artists have meditated upon trees. Can you describe a single tree? Is a tree ‘just a tree’? Are trees things you know exist but have never taken much notice of? Well, I invite you to consider one tree, the tree outside my kitchen window. If I want you to know it, perhaps I could add a photograph or a painting. Perhaps I could represent it in a poem. Maybe I love the tree, or maybe the tree stands for a celebration of all trees. Whatever. How do I represent it?
Suppose I want you to ‘know’ the tree in all its fullness. I could photograph it from every angle, every second of the day to try and catch how light falls on it, every moment as the seasons change. I could photograph its being in microscopic close-up from leaf to trunk, from this leaf to that. I could capture in representation the tree from every angle – from above, below, near or far, at so may settings of my camera, my means of representing. I could use specialist modes of representation such as microscopy to ‘capture’ bark, pith and cell – all at each infinite moment of a day. After much effort I may ask whether, even in simple terms, the tree is represented at each moment of the day, each second of its being.
I could go further and see the roots of the tree. I could see how they connect beneath the ground so that trees communicate with each other. I could see how a tree is a whole environment that supports birds ad insects, but how it is itself part of an environment.
If I follow such thinking I must ‘see’ that it is never possible to ‘realistically’ describe, represent a tree except in rather vague approximations. Approximations, yes, because we can never see either ourselves or another. We hallucinate our inability to see things complete, we make them into images and narratives that satisfy our need for stability, security, all-knowingness.
Martin Buber discusses the latter process, how we force the world, other people but also every element of the world, how we turn a living presence (such as a tree) into an abstract, solidified, objective ‘thing’ in his book, I and Thou. He distinguishes between an I-It relationship and an I-Thou relationship.
The good artists in every form have explored this conundrum. Though it’s most easily associated with Kant, the agony of being unable to perceive, let alone represent, reality as it is has haunted artistic endeavour. The idea of Plato’s cave through which we see only shadows of ‘reality’ persists today. We must recognise too that many artists work within the ‘fictional universe’, take is as ultimate reality, and produce works that confirm and balm our sense of security within that universe.
So, even if you have lived with your beloved for decades, is not your representation of them a fictional story made of bits and parts and wishes? And to what extent is your ‘reality’ any different from the ghostly realm of fictional characters?