Monday 7 February 2011

The Search for Meaning

My vote for best book of 2010 on the psychology of fiction goes to Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk's The naive and the sentimental novelist. The title is derived from Pamuk's readings and re-readings of Friedrich Schiller's (1795-1796) "On naive and sentimental poetry." The naive writer, say both Schiller and Pamuk, writes about what he or she knows and sees, almost without thinking. By contrast, the sentimental writer is troubled, thoughtful, imaginative, exceedingly aware of what he or she is writing, but unsure whether the written words will encompass what he or she wants them to.

In this fascinating book on both novel writing in general and the writing of his own novels in particular, Pamuk devotes his second chapter entirely to how fiction can be both real and imaginary. From the reader's point of view, Pamuk takes the idea of the naive to stand for what has been been perceived, in an autobiographical way. And so, says Pamuk, people sometimes ask him: "Mr Pamuk, did all this actually happen to you?" (p. 33). If there were such a thing as a wholly naive reader, this person would assume any novel is really an autobiography. If there were such a thing as wholly sentimental reader, this person would think that even an autobiography was wholly constructed. But really, says, Pamuk, the idea of the novel is to hold both these ideas in tension with each other. Talking about his recent novel The museum of innocence, he says:
I intended my novel to be perceived as a work of the imagination—yet I also wanted readers to assume that the main characters and the story were true … I have learned that the art of writing is to feel these contradictory desires deeply (p. 34).
Pamuk describes how essential it is for the writer of fiction to hold onto both of these ideas at once.
At every detail, the writer thinks that the reader will think that this detail was experienced. And the reader thinks that the writer wrote with the thought that the reader will think it has been experienced. The writer, in turn, thinks that he wrote that detail thinking that the reader will have thought of this, too. This play of mirrors is valid for the writer’s imagination as well (p. 53).
Although the counterpoint between the naive and the sentimental is Pamuk's starting point, the motivating idea of his book is to head towards what he calls the novel's "secret center" (p. 24) for which, when we are reading, we search with utmost attention. It's a view of the world, an insight, a place at which the naive reality of our lives and of our sentimental imagination meet. As Pamuk started to read novels in his youth, he realized that the center for which he was searching was "knowledge about what kind of place the world was, and about the nature of life" (p. 28). Towards the end of his book he says that a novel's center is: "A profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined" (p. 153). The coherence of a novel is that each image, object, and event in it has been placed there to point to this secret center.
The experienced novelist goes along knowing that the center will gradually emerge as he writes, and that the most challenging and rewarding aspect of his work will be the finding of this center (p. 157).
At the same time:
The power of a novel's center ultimately resides not in what it is, but in our search for it as readers. Reading a novel of fine balance and detail, we never discover a center in any definite sense—yet we never abandon the hope of finding it. Both the center and the meaning of the novel change from one reader to the next (p. 176).
Orhan Pamuk. (2010). The naive and the sentimental novelist. Trans. Nazim Dikbas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Friedrich Schiller. (1795-1796). On naive and sentimental poetry. In D. Simpson (Ed.), The origins of modern critical thought: German aesthetic and literary criticism from Lessing to Hegel (pp. 148-173). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (current edition 1988).

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Barbara Maleckar said...

Beautiful the notion of the secret center, thank you for pointing it to us! 'We never discover the center in any definite sense'... may this be the reason why you feel that some work of fiction have a profound meaning yet you can't really describe it? Ana Karenina with its unspokable message springs to my mind. Also, is this the reason that works with a clear message like the Coelho's ones are regarded as having a lower literary value?

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Barbara, very much for this comment. I agree that the idea of the secret center of a novel is a very good one. I had not read it put like this before, and I think Pamuk has it right. Anna Karenina is one of the books he discusses.

I think the question you ask about whether books with a message are of less literary value is a good one. Pamuk says something about this, but perhaps not enough. I think the reason is as you imply: for a novel to have the greatest literary value, the reader must not be told what to think, but to be engaged in the search, and in thinking and feeling, on his or her own account.

Zazie said...

This is really fascinating! Thank you for drawing my attention to it. I love this idea of a 'secret center'. It ties in with my own paper on how people talk about books, where I was surprised by the extent to which different readers find different meanings (I can think of them as secret centers now). So I wonder if a great novel needs to have several secret centers? In other words, it might not just be the extent to which the center is obvious to the reader (I agree it's better if the reader has to do some work to discover it), but also whether there are several centers that will resonate on a different level to different readers? That way, the secret center is not just central to the book, but also personal to the reader? Anyway, great posting, thank you!

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you Zazie, very much, for this. I totally agree that reading groups are very much about finding meanings, and that the sharing of such meanings with others in an intimate way is very precious. The reading group I've been in for 20 years had a fascinating time, yesterday evening, trying to find the centre of David Grossman's To the end of the land. So Pamuk's idea that the centre is discoverable, but at the same time secret, is very thought provoking.

I don't know whether great novels have several centres. Perhaps they do. It's an interesting thought. I suppose I like to think of it in the way that Chekhov said: that the fiction writer's job is not to answer a question [that is the job of writers in science and history] but to put a question exactly, in a way that the reader is then in a position to draw closer to answering it, for himself or herself. It isn't, of course, irrelevant what the writer thinks the centre is, but it's as if the writer is really another searching reader.

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