Earlier this week (or late last week; I forget when precisely) Terry Teachout said, and I paraphrase, "Tragedy is a drag, man. Comedy is hella better." And then he wrote a thousand more words that reveal the hidden truth: what Teachout really meant was, "I'm getting older and because tragedy points out that I'm going to die--because for all the points of the compass, there is in the end only one direction, etc--I prefer the comic perspective to life because I can still think about serious stuff but I don't have to consider the one absolute fact of my own death. You should, too." Or something like that. He attempted to illustrate his point with Shakespeare's plays, claiming that "Twelth Night" is superior to "Lear." At that point, I had to wonder about Teachout's mental state. Shakespeare never wrote a comedy that is more revealing and honest in portrayal of the existential problems than any of his tragedies are. I'm not sure about the construction of that last sentence but I move on. Besides, this is not a post about Terry Teachout hiding from his own mortality. This isn't a post about Terry Teachout at all. Forget I said any of this.
I just wanted to quickly rap out a list of the sorts of ideas that are going through my head these days in re the creation of new works of fiction. None of this adds up to anything in particular, because there is nothing towards which these ideas point except the unknown, which is just as it should be, right? Praivilnu.
In the introduction to the edition of Woolf's To The Lighthouse that I'm reading, Eudora Welty points out how the entire world of Woolf's novel is subjective. There are a million little details of scene and setting, and each of these details is presented through the point of view of a character. The narrator doesn't point out the scissors, the cups and saucers, the visitor's hateful necktie; the characters see them and we know these details through the effect they have on the characters, which means that through these details we know the characters. I am thinking that this way of describing the world--entirely through the characters even in a third-person narrative--is a powerful tool so I might play with that. Certainly the way Woolf's narratives close the distance between the reader and the characters is a good idea if that's what you want to do as a writer.
Teachout (remember him?) did make me think a bit more about comedy versus tragedy, but only to stiffen my resolve about it. I'd already been thinking a lot of late about the old saw where comedy is tragedy after all, and that what makes comedy comic is tone, not subject matter. "And if I laugh at any mortal thing, 'tis that I shall not weep," as Byron said unless that's just another of my paraphrases but it feels right and me, I don't Google to check my quotes. But I digress, you observe correctly. The point is, maybe, that writers who came well before me with names like Beckett, Chekhov, Burgess, Nabokov, Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare have already seen that life is a tragic comedy, a comic tragedy, that there's no difference, that there's no either/or at all. The comedy is how we attempt to ignore the tragedy. The tragedy is how we attempt to cling to the comedy. And other, more complex and insightful comments I don't pause to make. All of Shakespeare's tragedies include brilliant comic moments, which serve a greater dramatic function than merely lightening the mood, especially just before the bloodbaths in the fifth acts. And all of Shakespeare's comedies include death and violence and cruelty and not just because the Elizabethans liked to laugh at people in pain or under humiliation. Anyway, I am considering the uses of comedy in explorations of the existential questions.
It's also interesting to note that the more I bend my immense powers of concentration upon the creation of a realistic world within my fictions, the more I am struck by the absolute artifice of the whole project, which means, at least in part, that some of my attempts to get at the truth of experience (or whatever you want to call it) lead me to write passages that are far from "realist" narrative. The more I pursue feel, the less I am able to employ fact, which is an interesting thing. See also: the entire Modernist movement. I'm always hot on the heels of movements that have already begun to gather dust. Anyway, I observe that my narratives are becoming more and less real at the same time, and so Welty's comments about the nonstop subjectivity of Woolf's novel was a welcome sight.
The idea that all of our experiences are entirely subjective strikes me as pretty much true, despite my empiricist bent. It also means that the only proper response to things like Reality Hunger is, of course, mockery. A novelist who can't see the point of fiction, Mr Shields, is not someone who's stumbled onto a new truth about fiction. He is merely a failed novelist. I seem to be cranky.