Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Realism and Interiority

From the Renaissance onwards, there has been a movement in the West towards realism in many of the arts. Its intent is to depict life without embellishment or commentary. In the Twentieth Century realism was carried forward by photography, and in fiction the cinema has been a strong influence, with its idea that what you see on the screen is what you would have seen with your own eyes had you been there. Realism has been distinguished from Romanticism, and from the Abstract, but really, I wonder, might it not be better to contrast it with interiority? Realism as what one might see out there in the world can be compared with the thoughts, desires, and always-partial understandings of the interior mind: what goes on in the world compared with what we project onto it. We can think, perhaps, of art as balanced on this border between the exterior and the interior.

In the literary fiction of the West, new impetus was given to interiority with modernism, in Marcel Proust's close identification of the reader with the narrator, in Virginia Woolf's depictions of inner life and its streams of consciousness, in Hermann Hesse's themes derived from Jungian psychoanalysis. In Japan, a different kind of movement towards the interior took place in the theatre. It occurred by making the exterior deliberately non-realistic in the drama forms of Noh, Bunraku and Kabuki. In Noh the principal actor wears a mask. In Bunraku characters are played by puppets that are two-thirds life-size, each activated by three pupetteers who wear black cloaks—a strangely effective way to depict the imperfectly known forces that act upon us—while a man on one side of the stage reads the script, and on the other side of the stage musicians accompany the piece. In Kabuki, characters are played by actors who move infrequently and scarcely change their facial expressions. The effect of these drama forms, so far as I can see, is to invite a kind of reflection from the events on the stage into the interior of the minds of the audience.

What of novels? A famous Japanese novel, The Makioka sisters, concentrates on relationships and how to conduct them. Here a sense of inwardness is achieved from a metaphorical connection between the outer forms of nature and inner feelings. Sachiko (the second-oldest of four sisters, who is married, with a child, and who has living in her house her two younger sisters, Yukiko and Taeko) makes her annual pilgrimage to Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms at the Heian Shrine. She sees with relief that this year the cherries are in full bloom, but she sees them also as passing with the end of spring, and has "the thought that even if she herself stood here next year, Yukiko might be married and far away" (p. 89). The outward sense of the blossoms, soon to fall from the trees, prompts an inward sadness that perhaps next year Yukiko may be not be with her, but by this point in the novel we readers know she is deeply anxious that the time for the thirty-year-old Yukiko to make a successful marriage may be past.

Junichiro Tanizaki (1943-1948). The Makioka sisters (E. Seidensticker, Trans.). New York: Vintage (currrent edition 1957).

10 comments:

Dan Green said...

I really don't think interiority can be contrasted with realism. It's a continuation of realism, the contrast being only that with interiority, especially as practiced by the modernists, the "real" is what is perceived or processed by the mind, as opposed to the surface details provided by realism. Interiority becomes more real that realism because it's the way most people experience reality.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Dan, for this comment. I see what you mean. One contrast that I think is useful is between everything being on the outside—what you call surface details—and everything being on the inside. I am not sure whether most people's experience is of an interior kind. That's an interesting question. I think art can create a balance between exterior and interior, and that was what I was reflecting on.

Dan Green said...

"I am not sure whether most people's experience is of an interior kind."

I'm not either, especially absent a specific definition of "interiority" explaining how "deep" it must go, but I do think the idea that the subjective was more "real" than the objective was more or less the assumption behind modernist interiority.

the wordy gecko said...

Thank you for another stimulating post. I like the idea of art being balanced on the 'border between the exterior and the interior'.

Does realism attempt to show rather than tell the story of the interior through the exterior?

Keith Oatley said...

I am glad you enjoyed this post, Wordy Gecko. I think you are right, that the "show, don't tell" idea is part of realism. And I think, for writers, it is very much influenced by the cinema. The idea of art being balanced on a border between the exterior and the interior is something I am spending a fair amount of time thinking about.

allanmcdougall said...

I wonder if, as the genre of the novel has evolved, the effect on the audience has changed--for better or for worse. The same goes for theatre. Or is it the other way around, a changing audience has impacted the development of the novel.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you Allan for this comment. I think you are right that both theatre and fiction-for-reading have developed, and I think audiences and readers have changed too. My hypothesis is that there is a reciprocal relationship, so that audiences and readers become able to accept and assimilate innovations, so that writing affects how we think and feel, but also that the way we think and feel is reflected in fiction.

allanmcdougall said...

Thanks for your reply. Fiction certainly reflects the social consciousness of the author's 'horizon'. And some of it stays timeless.

blog nerd said...

I'm writing on interiority in my dissertation--and I actually take issue with interiority as a device of modernity as Shakespeare actually crystalizes this in dramatic format. Shakespeare creates the dramaturgy of interiority, perfecting it in HAMLET. This experience is a direct extension of the interiority of medieval philsophy (Augustine, Aquinas) which of course derives from Platonism and Aristotleanism.

So this idea that the autonomous interior subject is the invention of modernity becomes suspect if you examine its ancient roots, closely. That it only begins to be represented in art in the Renaissance may be a function of aesthetics and marks a shift in reception of the art work. But was Oedipus experienced as less interior than Hamlet? It's hard to tell for sure--as taste in fiction and theatre shifts radically.

I think the distinction made is valid though perhaps the nomenclature is misleading--I agree with Dan Green who thinks that interiority is an extension of realism.

If by realism you mean photographic realism then yes, it can be contrasted with interiority. But I think what you are getting at is more phenomenolgic realism vs. material realism, the first being a realistic depiction of the experience of being, the second a realistic depiction of circumstances.

In drama, I think the latter could be matched to Naturalism and the former to Realism--though the former could also be connected to Expressionism.

Expressionism=reality as it FEELS
Realism=reality as it is.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much, Blog Nerd, for this comment. I agree with you, that expressions of interiority go far back in Western literature, for instance to Augustine, and Shakespeare certainly expressed the interior world eloquently. I think the difficulty, at which you hint, is that we do not have a particularly adequate language for expressing these matters. The contrast I was making with Japanese theatre forms, such as Bun Raku and Kabuki, is that there the reminders that we, the audience, are making the construction in our minds, are many and pointed. This seems to me to contrast with the sense that in many movies the audience is presented on the screen with what we would have seen if we had been at the scene that is being portrayed. This is what you call "photographic realism," which seems to me to be a good term. These are interesting matters; I appreciate your comment.

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