Friday, February 19, 2010

Creative Nonfiction

Terry has asked for a definition of creative nonfiction--and I'm sure a tie-in to Barfield would also be appreciated. "Creative nonfiction" is the latest name for what was called "literary journalism" in the 40s and beyond, when Norman Mailer and Truman Capote used novelistic techniques to report on true crime, with the effect of entertaining as well as exposing "the facts," such as they were seen to be. "Creative nonfiction" is prose whose narrative motive comes from things that have really happened, as opposed to fiction, where the narrative is imagined. An intriguing tie-in to Barfield and Lewis's "Great War" manifests itself here, since for Barfield (as for Coleridge), Imagination is as much "reality" as the materially validated, sensorially perceived world. In contrast, for Lewis (according to Barfield in "Lewis, Truth, and Imagination"), Imagination and "truth" were to be kept separate. The exquisite blurring of the line separating "literary/fictional truth" from "fact" has always fascinated me. Without pointing to a specific Barfield text, I will venture to claim that this blurred line--a function of formal techniques which developed with the novel and were superimposed over "historical fact," and which at one point were actually the source of a sort of shame (novels were bad, they sent people off to tilt at windmills)--represents a complex stage in the evolution of human consciousness whose development can be as profitably traced through literary history as Barfield says it can through etymology. Questions?


Ken McClure said...

So we've taken "Creative nonfiction" in the direction of "literary journalism," or what I am familiar with as "new journalism." Capote's In Cold Blood was labeled "a nonfiction novel," which provoked much discussion at its publication. Mailer's efforts were, I think, even more interesting, as a "blocked" novelist did some of his finest work within the freedom of this new genre.

In a sense, what the genre did was to question the division of journalism into "just-the-facts" reportage and the opinions sequestered on the editorial page. To so narrowly limit the reporter's range of cognition is to cheat the truth; the knower cannot meaningfully be so separated from the known. Put in other words, to aspire to report only the outside of the event misses its actuality, which must include the imaginative life to which it gives rise on the inside of the reporter.

A less-remarked-upon work in this genre is James Agee's Let us Now Praise Famous Men, which sank unread after mostly excoriating reviews when first published in 1941, only to be acknowledged as a masterpiece when it was reissued after the posthumous publication of his Pulitzer-Prize-winning A Death in the Family. Perhaps on point, it was reissued in the sixties and embraced by a counterculture that was summoned to unite the knower with the known. It was that same counterculture which found the thought of Owen Barfield quite congenial to its aspirations.

TerryH said...

As Julie remarks, this new genre also posits a milestone in the 'evolution of consciousness', which most of these authors were unaware of and probably would not have applauded, just as Barfield was either ignorant of or had almost no use for the nonficition novel which Capote made so much of.

There are in other words some strange gaps and overlaps in all of this. The entire concept of nonfiction, based almost certainly on empirical science, shows us in a sense where we are with this. Thucydides is pretty generally, at least until modernism, considered to be 'empirical' but of course indulged in creative nonfiction at every turn.

I would suggest that the terms nonfiction followed by creative nonfiction illustrate a fragment of Barfield's evolutionary vision. Each propounds a new 'common sense' in Vico's use of the term. Nonfiction simply became visible as a common sense category around 1750 or 1800. Creative nonfiction emerged fifty years or so ago, as this conversation suggests.

Barfield would have been interested I feel sure in tracing such cognitive phenomena.

k.n. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kasper said...

(Something seem to have gone wrong with my previous post)

Interesting thread. I certainly agree that the evolution of consciousnes “can be as profitably traced through literary history as Barfield says it can through etymology”, although the two often intertwine and are hardly separable.

There also seem to be a number of parallels between Barfield’s repeated emphasis on the need to bridge the Cartesion gap between mind and matter on the one hand, and New Journalism’s assertion that “the knower cannot be separated from the known”, as Ken has put, on the other. Yet while I have long admired some of the writings in this genre, I am not quite sure whether I would agree that New Journalism consitutes a milestone in the evolution of consciousness.

The main reason for this is that the imaginative reality, which New Journalists add to the factual one, exists only in the imagination of the reporter. As a result, the gap remains: material reality is still conceived of as existing only ‘out there’, and non-material, imaginative reality exists only ‘in here’. A real step forward on the path towards final participation would, I think, be a literature which uses imaginative thinking to ascend from the facts to the inner reality ‘underlying’ not only a writer’s inner life, but also the facts themselves.

The fundamental issue at hand is, or so I think, whether we conceive of mind, or consciousness, as existing only within ourselves, or also as the ‘inside’ of material reality.

Ken McClure said...

I think, on the whole, I agree with Kasper. But consider this.

Terry's assertion (or Julie's; its immediate pedigree is anyway before our eyes) that the new genre "posits a milestone in the 'evolution of consciousness'" is nuanced and invites us to consider the genre in the context of the emergence of creative nonfiction around 1750 or 1800. I hadn't thought of that, and it is striking and worth pondering. It is coincident with a certain hardening of the reductivist materialistic scientific paradigm. The emergence of creative nonfiction some fifty years ago may be regarded as an attempt (at least) to modify that paradigm.

In any case, literary Romanticism, I submit, was a step in the evolution of human consciousness (see the intro to Romanticism Comes of Age). And creative nonfiction may be seen as a step along its path, quite different from French Symbolism, which (following Edmund Wilson in Axel's Castle) we may see as a significant earlier step.

Wilson invokes Whitehead to speak for the point I have submitted:

"There is no real dualism, says Whitehead, between external lakes and hills, on the one hand, and personal feelings on the other: Human feelings and inanimate objects are interdependent and developing together in some fashion of which our traditional laws and cause and effect, of dualities of mind and matter or of body and soul, can give us no true idea. The Romantic poet, then, with his turbid and opalescent language, his sympathies and passions which cause him to seem to merge with his surroundings, is the prophet of a new insight into nature. He is describing things as they really are; and a revolution in the imagery in poetry is in reality a revolution in metaphysics" (Axel's Castle, pp. 5-6).

We should probably substitute "paradigm" for "metaphysics" or else we are in danger of missing the point and distracting ourselves with a discussion that we'll still be having when everyone else has entered upon final participation.

I take Kasper's point with respect to the failing of New Journalism. However, let's frankly grant that the criterion for success that he applies -- a penetration to mind at the heart of material reality -- is met by very few imaginative works. James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which has gone from being compared to being ranked with Leaves of Grass and Moby Dick, comes as close to meeting it as anything I have ever read.

Kasper said...

I did not mean to imply that there is a single criterion for ‘great’ literature: there are many different types of succesful writing, and there is much to appreciate in a genre like New Journalism, though my knowledge of it is sadly limited to a few works by Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailor. Nor have I read Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Man, although I certainly mean to do so.

The decription of the Romantic artist as a “prophet of a new insight into nature” is I think a very apt one, and it is difficult to over-estimate the importance of the Romantic Movement in Barfield’s idea of the evolution of consciousness. As to the subsequent history of literature and art, I have been re-reading the wonderful chapter on ‘Symptoms of Iconoclasm’ in Saving the Appearances, which ties in with this discussion. Is is here that Barfield laments the fact that “the Romantic movement has never grown into maturity; and after adolescence, the alternative to maturity is puerility”. The tragedy is that the new view of Nature as a representation of Man has lapsed into a kind of subjectivism, because Man himself has increasingly been viewed as coinciding wholly with his temporal personality (and more recently even with his physical body).

What Barfield advocates is a literature that views Nature as representing not my personal feelings or ideas, but “the Divine name in the unfathomable depth behind it.” It is thus essential that the new view of Nature is supplemented by a new view of Man’s inner life as somehow participating in the ‘Divine name’ which stands behind both. It is only then that “the rejection of original participation may mean, not the destruction but the liberation of images”, because the images represent an objective spiritual reality rather than a purely subjective one.

Caged Fury said...

The original poster wrote:

"for Barfield (as for Coleridge), Imagination is as much 'reality' as the materially validated, sensorially perceived world."

That's not exactly true, and the reasons are exactly the meat of Barfield's work.

First, reality is the interpenetration of cognition and perception. Cognition is directed by imagination, or we can say cognition is of an imaginative quality. But on this 'side' of things, we are, via our own subjectivity, bringing concepts to the raw percepts. When - and ONLY when - we do this do we have the real thing.

I think it's important to stress this, because it's a correction of the received, un-critical view, and because the consequences, logically and practically, are profound. Namely, the correction is the beginning step on the path of final participation.

In this regard, then, we have a fairly neat preliminary definition of creative non-fiction. It is the bringing to bear of cognition - of concepts - to the raw historical data. In its turn, we can then distinguish between first-person historical data, and third-person data (i.e., the first-person reportage). This is a helpful distinction because it probably makes more clear the distinction between cognition and perception: the first-person account is more clearly perceptual, compared to the third-person account which will more clearly and necessarily involve the cognitive/conceptual element.

Of course, in neither the first- or third-person accounts is there pure perception v. pure cognition.

As an added consideration, when the distinction between cognition and perception is given prominence in this discussion - and the FACT that reality is NOT the pure percept but the marriage of concept with percept - then we can go on to discuss, e.g., Herodotus, and Plato, and the pseudo-Dionysius, as well as Chaucer and the 18th c. novel, in terms of THEIR concepts married to THEIR percepts; as well as bringing OUR concepts to bear on THEIR percepts.

For example, consider Mary Renault's novel "The King Must Die", which is a retelling of the story of Theseus (another worthwhile text is CS Lewis' "Till We Have Faces"). From one viewpoint, this is entirely fiction: the author takes Greek legends and makes them into a single narrative. There is, seemingly, NO perceptual element - no first-person account - to which Renault is applying her concepts.

From MY viewpoint, there is a first-person account, though it may not be available in a 'pure' form in any extant text of the legend in question. To demonstrate this then begs the question of both "Poetic Diction" and "Saving the Appearances", so I won't go into it here, but assume the correctness of Barfield's view in this regard. But there is a first-person account - which is most importantly perceptual; and the legend itself is sufficiently close to that account for our purposes.

Btw, the notion that reality is the bringing together of concepts and percepts is central to Rudolf Steiner's philosophy, upon which he developed the esoteric practices and body of knowledge that he called Anthroposophy. Further, it is upon those practices and body of knowledge that Barfield presumably based much of his own investigations.

Caged Fury said...


kasper said...

That's a point well-made, and it reminds me of Barfield's essay on the 'History of Ideas' in 'History Guilt and Habit'. I must say I find Steiner often hard to follow when he discusses the relation between concepts and percepts, but your explanation makes a lot of sense.

Returning to the question at hand then, we might say that it is impossible to strictly divide cognition from perception (although we may distinguish between them), and that hence all creative works are to some extent an interpenetration of fact and fiction. Lewis's treatment of the Eros and Cupid legend is a good case in point, and I suspect he may have been influenced by Barfield's ideas when writing 'Till We Have Faces'.

The fault, I guess, that is often made, is to ignore the element of cognition in perception, which leads to the erroneous view that the world has always been perceived the way we perceive it today.

Caged Fury said...

"hence all creative works are to some extent an interpenetration of fact and fiction."

That's exactly right. It's very simple, too. The real kicker for me is when I say next, "the world, as it appears to my vague awareness of it, is a creative work."

So now we have an argument:

1. The world, as it appears to my vague unconsidering awareness of it, is a creative work

2. All creative works are to some extent an interpenetration of fact and fiction

3. The world as it appears to my vague unconsidering awareness of it is to some extent an interpenetration of fact and fiction

I don't remember Barfield himself using the terms fact and fiction in the way we're using them, but I think that this argument is close to the kernel of Barfield's worldview. Certainly the first few chapters of Saving the Appearances are spent presenting this very argument, in great detail and elaboration. The following chapters are exercises in drawing out the consequences of this simple argument into various directions.

Caged Fury said...

Yes, I think that the blurring of the line between fact and fiction is the result of shifting human consciousness. Idolatry represents the extreme sharpening and hardening of that line. The blurring of the line definitely registers a shift, in my opinion. I just remembered, though, that the blurring can come by heading in two very different directions: toward an expanded range of consciousness, or a constricted range.

Actually, as an aside, I'm only taking Barfield's (and Steiner's) word for it that the other direction is a reversion or constriction. Steiner discusses in many places, and mentions it everywhere in his work, that modern European individuals can't beneficially pursue the practices and beliefs described in ancient religious texts, like the yoga aphorisms and the Upanishads. But that's going to be an empirical matter for me, and I've yet to perceive that for myself. What I've studied of those stories are pretty opaque to me, so there does seem to be an almost inherent resistance to going in that direction mentally. Nevertheless, I am regularly getting flashes of the future of the universe when I look into the glass of those ancient texts.

kasper said...

Yes, that's an interesting aspect of Steiner's work, which I think is shared by Barfield. Can't remember where exactly, but he repeatedly commented that the way forward for the West is not reached by turning 'back' to the wisdom of the ancient East, but instead by following up its own traditions to their logical conclusion (which I guess he found in anthroposophy). The allegory of 'The Rose on the Ash-Heap' shows this theme quite distinctly.

I'm not sure though, whether I would describe the way out of idolatry advocated by Barfield/Steiner as a 'blurring of the line' between cognition-perception/mind-matter/object-subject/etc. Perhaps bridging the gap would be a more suitable metaphor. Barfield asks us not to deny the distinction altogether, since we owe our freedom to it, but to overcome it through our own inner activity, our imagination. As I understand him, yhe other way around, i.e. negating the distinction altogether, would lead to a loss of self-consciousness and a form of original, rather than final, participation.

Caged Fury said...

Granted - I was trying to make a too easy analogy with the blurring of the line and final participation.

The way forward, for Barfield, as for Steiner, is through active, conscious thinking. The more I study Rudolf Steiner's work, the more I feel that his entire spiritual science can be captured in one word: meditation.