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This article appeared in Volume 2 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
Fictional Truth . By Michael Riffaterre. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. xix, 137p. ISBN 0-8018-3933-5 / 0-801S3934-3 (Pap.)
In his foreword to Fictional Truth, Stephen G. Nichols claims that Michael Riffaterre's book, in arguing the primacy of semiosis over mimesis, is directed against "the reigning critical orthodoxy" that- sees in the simple referential function of realist fiction its primary, indeed at times its sole, purpose. In discarding the accepted view that binds realism to the "shackles of referentiality", Riffaterre has demonstrated, he argues, that so-called fictional truth derives from the text's "rhetorical power" and its"linguistic patterns of verisimilitude". In truth, this orthodoxy is, at least in academic circles, If not fictional itself, certainly less pervasive than is here implied. As Christopher Prendergast reminds us (in The Order of Mimesis ), the mimetic view of fiction has taken a thorough battering since the onset of structuralism and semiology. Of the four "relations" of the literary text that M.H. Abrams defined in 1953 (in The Mirror and the Lamp ) - the "expressive" relation to the author, the "mimetic" relation to the world, the "pragmatic" relation to the audience, and the "objective" relation of the autonomous text to itself - the two former functions have been widely discredited as the"author" has been pronounced "dead" and representation has been exposed as illusory; the latter two functions have largely held sway. Attention to the one has led to an emphasis on the cultural codes that are actualized in the reading of the text. The focus on the other has led to an emphasis on the autonomy of the literary word, on its textuality and its intertextuality, a tendency to which, of course, Riffaterre has made a famous and a lasting contribution. As for the "literariness" of mimetic fiction, already in 1953 Barthes was arguing (in Le degré zéro de le l'écriture ) that "l'ecritureréaliste est lion d'être neutre, elle est au contraire chargée des signes les plus spectaculaires de la fabrication" (p.49). Since then the view that mimetic verisimilitude Is a matter of generic convention has been supported by numerous studies of the stratagems and devices of realist fiction. In time, as Barthes observed, all radical doctrines end up by becoming an orthodoxy. A sure sign of the widespread critical acceptance of anti-referential theorizing is that It has become the butt of the debunkers. In his Fraud: Literary Theory and the End of English, Peter Washington has recently written: "Given the view still popular in sillier RLT (Radical Literary Theory) Quarters--that all is fiction, that there is no reference to a world outside language, that reality is only a rhetorical construct--it is not surprising that RLT should be so successful at promoting its own rhetorical scheme, and so dependent on Its acceptance for credibility" (p. 39).
Though the general argument of Fictional Truth ("All literary genres are artifacts, but none more blatantly so than fiction", p.xii) does not by any means qualify as "radical literary theory", nor appear to be radically new, at least for the readers of a journal of semiotic enquiry, there can be few, if any, more lucid and engaging statements of the view. Mercifully Riffaterre spares the less specialized reader elaborate philosophical speculations on the problem of referentiality and complex narratological schemas. He is more concerned, as he puts it, with "the diegetic implementation of narrative models" (p. xiii). Referentiality is presented as a purely discursive phenomenon, truth in fiction as simply a question of verisimilitude, and reality as merely a consensus about the real that is already encoded in language, issuing from the conventions of a society that are inscribed into "ideologically motivated semiotic codes" (p. xv). The originality of this book consists therefore less in the statement of such familiar positions than, partly, in their application to readings of a number of texts, "chosen at random", from the works of Austen, Balzac, Dickens, Hugo, Henry James, Meredith, Proust and Trollope, but also in its emphatic exploration of the seemingly paradoxical view that fiction reinforces its verisimilitude by highlighting the signs of its fictionality.
The first chapter deals pointedly with the intricate interrelatedness of narrative motivation and dieretic verisimilitude. The fictional text derives "verbal presuppositions" from the sociolect, which develop as models for narrative sequences, generating what the author calls a "descriptive system", formed by lexical actualizations and organized by a narrative syntax. Arguing that, in Genette's well-known example, no one of the marquise's actions (See Figures II. Paris: Seuil, 1969 Pp. 98-99) is any more arbitrary than the others, he sees verisimilitude as a tautological process of reinforcement, elaborating upon descriptive systems elicited, not by reference to external reality, but within the text. The verisimilar narrative is one that is consistent (and insistent) with its own self-verifiable determinants and not with the "vagaries of reference" (p.10).Its "truth" derives from unchanging iterations saturating the text with "repetitive modifiers", producing derivative subtexts that mirror the text, thereby-paradoxically again--confirming its verisimilitude in the process of flaunting its fictionality. The reader, one assumes, is at one time or another either dupe or accomplice in the process, as is presumably the writer, who either believes in the simple referentiality of the text or, more likely, engineers its fabrications.
Enumerating the usual signs of fictionality in fiction in chapter 2, Riffaterre argues that, even as they evince the fictionality of a story, they reassert its truth (always assuming that the reader believes in the posited truth of the story and is not relishing this fictionality). He dwells upon a number of tropes such as emblematic names, which have a programmatic function, or mocking humour, which works in a similar way, presupposing the real existence of the object of the satire. Such fictional indicators both reveal the artifice of the narrative and provide ample motivation like the "variations on Mrs. Merdie's bosom" in the amusing illustration from Little Dorrit (pp. 41-45). Other truth-creating devices, notably involving symbolism and metalinguistic commentary -- here again conventionally considered to be departures from the veracity of the realist text--are taken up in chapter 3. The sustained metaphor, for example, though separate from the narrative, creates a framework of referentiality that authenticates it. Then verbal over determination is shown to bring together narrative truth (founded on verisimilitude) and metalinguistic truth (founded on symbolism) either by substitution through the mediation of tropes belonging to the verisimilitude system or directly through syllepsis, with brilliant analyses from The Golden Bowl and A la recherche du temps perdu to illustrate the points.
In his final chapter, linking up with his study of symbolizing processes, with their displacements and repressions, Riffaterre seeks to establish a natural link with the workings of the unconscious. But the murky waters of the unconscious do not threaten the impermeable textual autonomy of his demonstration, for he emphatically reaffirms the view that "truth is a modality of text generation" (p. 84) and argues that the unconscious of the text cannot be "floating in limbo in the sociolect or in the reader's mind", but "has to be intertextual" (p. 86). Thus clues to the textual unconscious lie in the perception of constant features in the subtexts of the narrative and in the perception of Its ungrammaticalities, a process for which passages from works by Hugo and Proust are effectively used for illustration. Paradoxically, in this process of"analysis", Riffaterre concludes, fictional truth derives for the reader from a double suppression: the suspension of verisimilitude and of time or duration, as a pattern of truth, generated by the initial model, achieves its total(izing) development. "Fictional truth", he writes, "obtains when the mode of the diegesis shifts from the narrative to the poetic. This Is the ultimate avatar of the referential illusion that replaces in literature the reference to reality with a reference to language" (p. 111).
In a recent collection of studies on the question of reference in literature, Anna Whiteside observes that an overall theory is needed to account for both the specificity of literary reference and for its "apparently divergent facets and functions" (On Referring in Literature, p. 179). The refined exploration in Fictional Truth of intertextual over determination and of the workings of an intertextual unconscious are an important contribution to such a project, one which, however, needs to be located, no more exclusively in sophisticated formalism than In naive mimeticism, but rather in what Whiteside calls "the reader's interpretational strategies" and the "parallel complex coreferential systems, which constitute both a tentative interpretation and a means to interpretation" (1987:201).Indeed, as Linda Hutcheon argues in the same volume, in a kind of obverse demonstration to Riffatterre's, where she establishes the importance of referentiality even in self-reflexive modern metafiction, all fiction retains a representation orientation in the reader's imaginative creation of a fictional universe. "Criticism today accepts that the novel is not a copy of the real world", she writes, but "the novel is, in fact, related to life experience in a very real way for the reader that is, the novel is a continuation of that ordering, decoding, naming, fiction making process that is part of the reader's normal coming-to-terms with experience in the real world. And it is this fact that theories of novelistic reference ultimately have to take into account ..."(1987:5n). Even though, no doubt, such truthful fictions would, to a considerable degree, bring us back into the "vagaries of reference" expunged by Fictional Truth.
Barthes, Roland (1953). Le degré zéro de l'écriture. Paris: Seuil.
On Referring in Literature (1987). Edited by Anna Whiteside and Michael Issacharoff. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Prendergast, Christopher (1986). The Order of Mimesis. Balzac, Stendhal, Nerval, Flaubert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Washinton, Peter (1989). Fraud. Literary Theory and the End of English. London: Fontana.