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Fictional Points of View.

Fictional Points of View. By PETER LAMARQUE. Cornell U.P. 1996. pp. xi + 224. $35.00.

PETER LAMARQUE'S Fictional Points of View is largely based on essays that have been published before, many of which will be familiar to readers of this journal--indeed, three of the essays which comprise the book's chapters were originally published here. Despite that, the book is more than the standard `Collected Papers' volume. For one thing, all of the essays reprinted here have been revised since their original publication, some fairly extensively. Furthermore, Lamarque has included some new material: in addition to the introduction, there are previously unpublished chapters on `Tragedy and Skepticism' and `The Literary Point of View'. He has also added substantial appendices to a couple of the chapters that have been published before: one to his essay on `Truth and Art in Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince' (here called simply `Truth and Art'), which discusses the ways in which the question of artistic truth is explored in some of Murdoch's other writings; another to what is probably the best-known of the essays included here, `How Can We Fear and Pity Fictions?' (now re-titled `Fear and Pity'), about which more in a moment.

More importantly, there is a coherence and clear theoretical movement to the volume not usually found in an author's collected papers. This coherence stems from the fact that Lamarque's underlying concern throughout is with what he calls a `humanistic' approach to literature: with the idea `that works of literature, through the medium of fiction, can serve the end of advancing, helping to develop and understand, exhibiting through their themes and vision, matters of general, perhaps universal, human interest' (p. 3). Lamarque does not pretend to offer a fully worked-out characterization of this conception of literature in these essays; rather, he sets out to show that a number of concepts central to it--including those of fiction itself, character, truth, knowledge, value, authorship, and autonomy, among others--are not so easily dispensed with as anti-humanist literary theories have sometimes supposed. The targets of such theories, he argues, have often been made of straw, caricatures which bear little resemblance to anything to which literary humanism is actually committed.

In the opening chapters Lamarque focuses on aspects of the logic of fiction, and in particular on the ontological status of fictional characters, the different ways in which the worlds of fictional works connect with the actual world, and truth in fiction. A distinctive feature of this part of the book, in particular, is that the point of view taken by Lamarque is not only that of a logician and philosopher of language; he is also concerned with the differences and connections between the ways in which these issues matter to logicians and the ways in which they matter to critics. This concern is especially apparent in Chapter 5, `Expression and the Mask', where his account of the nature of fictional characters is in effect put to the test in a discussion of character in Japanese Noh theatre.

A second major theme of the book concerns the values, and in particular cognitive values, of literary fictions. This theme is most apparent in the chapter on `Truth and Art', and in two chapters on tragedy. In the second of these, the previously unpublished `Tragedy and Skepticism', Lamarque suggests that Stanley Cavell's thoughts about the failure of `acknowledgement' which he takes to lie at the heart of both tragedy and scepticism may be illuminated by reflection on the pathological condition known as Capgras' syndrome. Sufferers from this condition, as John McCrone describes it, `see someone who looks and acts just like a loved one, but don't feel any sense of familiarity for them.... They start to believe they are surrounded by wax models or robots, for example' (quoted by Lamarque, p. 154). What makes reflection on this syndrome illuminating, Lamarque suggests, is that here we have something that looks very like a failure of acknowledgement--a `denial' of the humanity of another--for which there is an empirical explanation: sufferers from Capgras' syndrome have damage within the `dorsal route' to facial recognition, which means that `the intellectual element of recognition is not confirmed or backed up by the emotional element, that twinge of familiarity, which makes recognition complete' (p. 156). Thus scientific study of Capgras' syndrome provides empirical evidence of the existence and significance of an affective element--something like Cavell's `empathetic projection'--in our understanding of others. As Lamarque shows, reflection on Capgras' syndrome bears on Cavell's thought about scepticism and tragedy in fascinating and suggestive ways. However, on the face of it there is an important difference between sufferers from this terrible condition and those in the grip of tragic or philosophical scepticism. For unlike the former, the latter (at least as Cavell has it) have in one sense or another chosen their scepticism--that is (partly) what makes their fate not merely terrible but tragic. Lamarque notes in passing that the fact that Capgras' syndrome is a pathological condition `should not discount it as a mode of scepticism', since `philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Cavell have made a powerful case for supposing that ultimately all radical skepticism is pathological in origin' (p. 156). Perhaps so, but is philosophical scepticism pathological in the same sense as that in which Capgras' syndrome is pathological? I wish Lamarque had said more about this, for the differences between those suffering from Capgras' syndrome and the protagonists of Shakespearean tragedy and Cavell's `skeptical recitals' seem likely to be just as illuminating as the similarities between them.

Chapter 7, `Fear and Pity', is grouped with those whose primary concern is with the cognitive values of literary fiction. In the new appendix to this chapter, Lamarque sets out to defend his account of our emotional responses to fiction from criticisms that have been levelled against it by Kendall Walton and Bijoy Boruah. In the main body of the chapter, he argues that when we are frightened of a fictional slime (say), what we are frightened by (the cause of our response) is the thought of suffering whatever it is that slimes do to people. What we are afraid of (what he calls the `proper object' of our emotion) in such a case is the content of our thought of the slime, which content is `identifiable through descriptions derived in suitable ways from the propositional content of an original fictional presentation' (p. 124). The objection to this account levelled by Boruah is that it makes the object of our emotional response to a fiction too general: `the character is reduced to the illustration of the possibility of a certain kind of life' (quoted by Lamarque, p. 128). Lamarque has little difficulty in seeing this complaint off, for on the account of fictional objects that he has offered here, fictional characters may have `all the particularity of any real human'. He has more trouble, I think, with Walton's objection, which is, in short, that to describe the terrified spectator of a horror movie as afraid of the content of a thought is to misdescribe him. Lamarque sticks to his guns: what the spectator is afraid of, he insists, `is the imagined slime, which is ... a kind of imagining' (p. 126). But--and I take this to be Walton's point--we are afraid of things that we take to threaten or endanger us, and (typically, at any rate) we do not take the contents of thoughts (even those of thoughts that frighten us) to threaten or endanger us. In short, while Lamarque is clearly right in holding that the thought or imagining of a fictional entity may frighten us (something that Walton, as I read him, also holds), it is far less clear that in being so frightened we are properly to be characterized as being afraid of the content of our thought or imagining.

The final three chapters of the book all bear on the question of the `autonomy' of literary fictions and of literary criticism; here Lamarque considers a variety of attempts to dispense with the idea of `the literary' as a distinctive mode of writing calling for and constraining distinctive modes of reading and appreciation. Thus in `The Death of the Author' he takes on Barthes and Foucault on authorship and on the reduction of literary `works' to authorless `texts' lacking determinate meaning and free of any interpretative constraint; in `Psychoanalysis and Criticism' he considers critically the relevance of the methods of psychoanalysis to the practice of criticism. In the final and previously unpublished chapter he argues that the autonomy of critical practice consists in the fact that there is a distinctively `literary point of view' that we may appropriately adopt in reading and evaluating certain works. His main foil here is Rorty, against whom he argues that the autonomy of criticism and the distinctiveness of works of literature neither depends on essentialism about the latter nor implies an exclusive concentration on their formal or `literary qualities', but rather rests on an appeal to `a web of relations involving the author, readers and other works which are ... constitutively "internal" to the institution that makes the work what it is' (p. 217). The position that Lamarque defends in this chapter is, hardly surprisingly, a condensed version of one developed in his and Stein Haugom Olsen's Truth, Fiction, and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective (Oxford, 1994).

While this volume brings together material most of which has already been in print, then, it does so in a way that usefully makes explicit themes and concerns which run through most if not all of Lamarque's work in aesthetics and the philosophy of literature, and in doing so it demonstrates the cohesion and unity of purpose of that work. Cornell U.P. have, as is their way, done a very nice job in producing the book.


University of St Andrews
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Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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