We, as language-users, constantly name ourselves, others, settings, actions, and events in an order that makes sense to us. We may not always use Don Quixote’s romantic language nor share his chivalric plot line, but he is only doing what all of us do: trying to make sense of the noise and confusion of life through narrative language. (Actually, you may think that you do not participate in the world of the chivalric romance, but I know you as you are: a furtive romantic, a closet hero.)
All names are fictions, including the one that is closest to myself, that intimate name of names, my name for myself. For even the precious word “I” – which rises like a monolith above my head, promising singularity and unity – is an invented word, not a natural concept.
“I” is not a person. “I” is a letter. “I” is a word. Letters and words carry with them traces of their history, tracks that lead back in time, in the shapes of the letters and the derivations of the words. Our letter comes from the Egyptian pictogram of an arm, representing the long-”A” sound, later incorporated into the proto-Semitic language because their word for arm started with that sound (as ours does). Perhaps we can read a connection here between self and action. A derivation of the letter can be found in most Semitic alphabets. The letter Yud – Yodh, Yod, Ye or Jodh – is the tenth letter in Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Persian and Arabic. In Hebrew, two Yud in a row represent Adonai, a name of God. Mystical significance is attached to this divine name because it is formed from the smallest letter.
The Name of the Book
“What is it called?” and “Who wrote it?” are the first questions we as readers ask when deciding to read a book. Easy. The answers are printed on the fat novel to my right: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Just a title and a name. We can almost pass by without a thought. How much significance could there be in so few words?
Actually, the title is fraught with meaning. The name invokes an image: a gaunt knight on a skinny white horse charging windmills. Most readers are familiar with the idiom “tilting at windmills,” which means fighting an imaginary enemy or engaging in a hopeless battle. Many will also know the adjective “quixotic,” defined by The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “naively idealistic; unrealistic, impracticable.” So when I say I am engaged in the quixotic quest for reality, I admit I am tilting at windmills, battling an imaginary enemy: namely, reality.
Does Pynchon’s novel mean something or am I crazy?
The heroine, Oedipa Maas, has a similar question. A former lover, Pierce Inverarity named her the executor of his considerable estate. Rather than bequeathing her money or property, he has saddled her with a long, legal process that she does not understand. As she is not a lawyer and has had little contact with Inverarity for many years, the naming of her Executor is puzzling. Was Inverarity trying to tell her something, or was it just one of his bizarre whims? Was he playing a practical joke on her, or was he hinting at a secret society?
In the metafictional novel The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, Oedipa Maas escapes from a shootout and hostage situation. Among the crowds, journalists, police and searchlights, she spots the mobile unit of her husband’s radio station, KCUF. Wendell “Mucho” Maas, whom she hasn’t seen for some time, is reporting on the event. She walks up to the van, sticks her head through the window, and says, “Hi.” He presses the cough button and smiles, which she thinks is strange since the listeners can’t hear a smile. Her reaction shows that she expects him to consider his audience before her, which he does.
We are flooded with narrative, drowning in astronomical numbers of stories from paperbacks, movies, newspapers, television, magazines, fan fictions, computer games, and, most of all, the Internet. How can we cope with these stories? What do we do with them?
Meta-awareness is more important more than ever, if we are to understand our storied universe. Yet how can we know what is real with reality TV on every channel? Most of us are smart enough to know that the presence of a camera always causes people to act differently than they would otherwise. Although reality TV is realer than a sit com, we recognize that it is not as real as a news broadcast.
It might seem that I am trying to demonstrate the unreality of reality. Many others have done so, including Taoists, Hindus and Buddhists. Jews, Christians and Muslims, following Plato’s lead, think God’s ideal realm is realer than this world. Religious people are not the only ones to call reality an illusion. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” and Jacques Derrida suggested, “There is nothing outside the text.”
Instead, my purpose is to show that the distinction between fiction and reality is artificial, created by language. Fiction and reality both exist as concepts within the same linguistic structure; symbols and stories are essential parts of our reality system. Everything we talk and write about is fiction, yet fiction has material existence, therefore it is real. Separating fiction from reality only drives us, like Don Quixote, to narrative madness.
Yet even fiction is a fiction, a word which developed out of the Latin fingere, “to fashion or form.” In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of “fiction,” now obsolete, is “the action of fashioning or imitating,” and is related to the verb “to feign.” The word first referred to all kinds of art, “The . . . Art of Painting . . . surpassing by so many Degrees . . . all other Human Fiction, or imitative Art” (Lord Shaftesbury in his Characteristicks).
Like language, narrative refers to concept rather than reality. The structuralist description of the sign can be extended to narrative, since both words and stories are symbols played out across time. A word occurs as a sequence, as when we say or read “T – U – N – D – R – A.” Similarly, a narrative may be defined as signs in a series. The story then can be considered a sign itself, an arbitrary signifier, referring not to events in the real world, but to a subjective concept of what happened, is happening and will happen.
(Diagrams of the plot from Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy)
At the beginning of the last century, Ferdinand de Saussure severed language from reality. In his Course in General Linguistics, he explained that a sign is made up of two parts: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is a word, a set of sounds, sometimes represented by letters. The signified is what the signifier arbitrarily refers to. Unfortunately for those who want language to be a transparent window on the world, the signified is not an external object, but a subjective concept.