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A Rationale for Fiction
Jan 1, 2005

In one of the most comprehensive and intense novels ever written, Jorge Luis Borges launches his story with a scene where a friend is discussing a great idea: “. . .to write a novel in the first person, using a narrator who omits or corrupts what has happened and who runs into various contradictions, so that a handful of readers, a very small handful, would be able to decipher the horrible or banal reality behind the novel.”

This notion, in fact, could hold true for any work of fiction. It is an interesting question then why fiction has been used in literature for thousands of years, given that the message it indirectly contains in its text will be understood by only a small number of people. Would it not be a more rational method for the authors to simply relate the message they would like to give without adding people, events, and all those tedious details of fiction? Apart from making a philosophical point, there is yet another reason for writing fiction; the understandable urge for mortal humans to try to remember how some significant events unfolded in their lives. Through stories and poetry we are able to listen to episodes, fictional or semi-fictional, of people’s lives. However, the same question arises: If for example, the author writes to prevent the following generations from forgetting a crucial battle, then why are they not content with simply giving the actual locations and components of the army, the strategies employed, the weather, etc.? Rather, the author embellishes the story and characters through which we follow the incident. This article attempts to answer this question and concludes that as there is a psychological element in human learning, fiction has the potential of describing ideas that are not possible to relate by any other means.

First, we need to make a definition of the two different categories of knowledge: transferable and nontransferable knowledge. Transferable knowledge is the type that can be easily explained or taught to another person and which will be widely accepted if understood by the listener. For example, multiplying 2 by 2 is easy and transferable; how to use a computer is less easy, but still transferable; the theory of relativity is extremely hard, but it is still transferable. Nontransferable knowledge, on the other hand, contains elements of human cognition and feelings, and it is possible that it can never be transferred to another person fully. A mother’s love to her child is only transferable to a certain extent: However well it can be defined and in whatever detail its feelings can be explained, it can never be felt by anybody other than a mother. Knowledge of the beauty of a childhood memory can never be transferred to anyone else, not at least to the extent which the person who experienced the memory is aware of it.

Obviously, these categories are not as clear-cut as one would like to imagine; in fact, we can easily accept that there is no knowledge that is totally transferable or nontransferable. When we describe a journey that we have made, the names of the streets are transferable, but at the same time there may be quite subtle, unconscious things that these names remind us of, things that are nontransferable. The type of tree and its color are transferable, but the idea of the magnificence of the tree that elevated our belief in God is not, even though the imaging event is the same. However, all knowledge in this world can be understood as being a mixture of transferable and nontransferable elements.

It is one of the great tragedies of humanity that we carry an incredible amount of knowledge that cannot be transferred to anybody else in our lives. We can never make another person understand why we believe, why we love, how we feel. Even when we try to put these things into words, we fail miserably. If we try to explain our reasons, we even fail to explain them to ourselves. You have probably experienced such a moment: Upon trying to express the reasons for your faith, love, or feelings, you become aware that these were not the real reasons, you understand that it was not these reasons that were the cause of everything. It was an experience in time and space. You are what you are only because you have experienced your past. At this point, let us leave the layman in awe or ignorance, and let us turn to the artist.

The fiction writer or artist in general, consciously or not, has the only tool in the world that can be used to transfer nontransferable knowledge. This unique tool uses the simple idea of constructing a past for some people in the reader’s mind. Generally, a fiction work has one intended protagonist and events shape around this character. As a result, we learn a great deal of the experience that the protagonist has gone through. We have discussed above how the only real way to acquire nontransferable knowledge in the first place is by living through experiences. These experiences have molded us into what we have become. By reading fiction, by reading about the experiences of the protagonist, by relating to them, we start to feel like them. By reading the complex descriptions of how they felt and what they did, and what happened to the protagonist, we almost become them. In the end, the process has succeeded: for a certain span of time; we have felt the way the writer wanted us to. This process is bound to change our viewpoint since we have now had different experiences than before.

Another power of fiction is that it does not try to persuade you. We do not like to be persuaded and when someone tries to do so, we get defensive. Reading an ethics book that tells you to do this and that is one of the worst reading experiences. However, when you read a good work of fiction where the protagonist lives what resembles a real life and behaves well to people, in many aspects, and is liked by others, then you will feel as if you also want to be like him. I wonder if there was anybody who has not decided to be a better person after reading “The Idiot.” We learn from his letters that it was Dostoevsky’s intention to relay the above message to us when he wrote “The Idiot.” In this way, another example of nontransferable knowledge (i.e., that being good to others is a good thing) has been transferred to the reader; in fact, I cannot imagine any other way of doing this.

It is very interesting to observe how some great minds that normally do not use fiction resort to it at times when their message becomes more belief-like, more cognition-related: i.e., more nontransferable. None of Nietzsche’s books are fiction except for “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” But again, all his other books criticize the Christian religion, posing alternative explanations for morality and interpreting Greek Philosophy. Zarathustra was a different type of book: Nietzsche knew that it had an element of belief, that it was not an analytical flow of ideas; it introduced two still controversial components of his philosophy: Eternal recurrence and the Superman. Nietzsche well knew that he would be able to transfer these ideas to his readers via fiction, as the reader would feel and live and walk with Zarathustra, and approve of his strength and relate to him, and maybe accept him.

Said Nursi, when he was writing “Ayet-ul Kubra” (The Supreme Sign) knew that if he used fiction, i.e. if he caused us to walk with the explorer in the story and find evidence of the Unity of God, then we would be able to relate to him and accept his findings. He knew that the dictation of this evidence in a didactic manner would not be as effective; belief has a psychological element. Hume, when writing “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” knew fiction was the best way to show the contradictions of the medieval Christian philosophical belief in God, because he knew that disbelief has a psychological element and that it can be transferred in its extent only via fiction.

Obviously, not all fiction works have a conscious intended message, but it is easy to see that every good work of fiction will have some evolving influence on the reader’s mind. In fact, leaping one step ahead, I want to suggest that abstract fiction (in particular, poetry) has an even deeper potential to transfer “more nontransferable” knowledge. The Modern and Post-Modern eras have given us fiction that speaks of our inner fears and our deepest secrets. These are ideas that even the authors cannot explain explicitly, however, by supplying a rich medium they are somehow able to remind us of these things; they are able to transfer some knowledge that is essentially non-transferable.

In summary, the fiction writer tricks us into believing that we have assumed a neutral position from where we can observe the events and people of the story. However, this position is not neutral: As we watch the story unfold, as more details become apparent, the characters become more real and the incidents become more lifelike. The teaching power of fiction is twofold: First, since we assume that our position is neutral, we do not take the defensive. Even if we read that the protagonist chants a new system of belief, even when we chant with him, we do not feel that we are being taught; it is just an event that happens in a story. Secondly, when we read about the experiences of the protagonist, and since we relate with him or her, we are also able to experience the same events. These are the experiences that make the protagonist what they are now. To an extent, depending on our prior predispositions and the power of the narrative, we have also by now lived these experiences. Again, to an extent, we have now changed in a way that would never have been achieved by listening to a lecture of ideas.

The argument above can readily be extended to other forms of art as well. The seventh art, cinema, is the one that most closely resembles literary fiction and it also incorporates components of other arts. Although there are some disadvantages concerning the narration of the thought process, these are compensated for by visual cues, and we again can learn things concerning human cognition that would otherwise not be able to be transferred.

Paintings are crystallized forms of visual cues and they can have the same influence. If I simply told you that this life is a bridge between birth and death and that there is a terrible lack of meaning, as well as there being a great ignorance on the part of most people of this vacuum, an ignorance which is maddening, you may well agree, but you would not experience the emotion I was trying to convey, and again an attempt to transfer nontransferable knowledge would fail miserably. But if you were to come across the painting known as “The Scream” by Edvard Munch (see picture), which even in the first instance seems frightening and repellent, you would wonder what this might mean, why is this man apparently screaming, of what is he afraid? Later you might notice the other people in the background, who are happy and walking on their way, apparently not noticing or maybe ignoring whatever the man in the foreground has been frightened by. Then, you might notice that the man is standing on a bridge. Maybe you would walk away from this picture without finding any meaning in it. However later, when the time is ready for you to understand, you will be able to perceive what the painter was trying to convey. Munch is trying to convey to us what we described above, but in a most delicate and cunning way. He used paint as a medium to tell this, because he knew that this is nontransferable knowledge and in order to convey this information, he had to use art.

Music might very well be the ultimate form of transferring nontransferable knowledge. Love, rage, sorrow, joy, and things that cannot be put into words can be expressed by music and can be immediately perceived, at least to some extent, by the listener. How else are we to understand the grief and wrath that Beethoven felt when he was slowly but certainly going deaf if it were not for his music? In his 3rd piano concerto, while submersed in the music, we feel the helplessness and anger of the great composer. Even if we did not know that Beethoven had composed this concert during the latter stages of his life, we would still share and feel his feelings. One high note on the flute can influence our feelings more than hundreds of words.

If we return to fiction, if we accept that this argument has some truth in it and that fiction is a way to convey nontransferable knowledge by making us live through experiences, then we should observe that the fiction which has the greatest influence on us is that which is rich in content; it is evocative. Such literature mimics human experiences as closely as possible, making us feel like we have experienced the same. In fact, we are aware of both these elements in good fiction.

Another point to note is that if this argument contains some truth, then one can consciously counteract fiction by choosing not to read the works of fiction known to have a view of the world that one does not want to accept. If we want to learn about communism, but not have our feelings on communism affected, we could read “Das Capital” with no fear. However, if we read some works of Gorky, if we see from inside the difficulties of the lives of the people and the hopes they have invested in the idea of equality and the ideal of communism, then we are almost bound to find ourselves transformed to approving of communism somewhat in the end.

Naturally, I am not pretending to explain the reason for the existence of art in this article. However, it seems that one of the reasons for art and fiction is to be able to relate things that concern human cognition, things that cannot be related or conveyed by any other means. These things cannot even be put into words. This is the power of fiction and art. Ironically though, to relay this idea to you I have used nonfiction. In fact, I know I would have been more convincing if I had made up a character who wanted to tell others about his ideas but could not achieve this via an analytical description. He might then decide to write a story and explain his experiences that led to his ideas. To his surprise, he might see that his ideas have been truly understood by his readers. If I had written such a meta-fiction, I know that the idea presented would be perceived more clearly and persuasively. I did not choose a work of fiction only because good fiction takes great time, work, and talent. This is the difficulty of art.