I think I’ve mentioned two works of fiction on this blog so far more prominently than any others: David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System, and Tim O’Brian’s The Things They Carried. Both deal with an odd notion that philosophers have been playing with for the last few decades—how is it that things that don’t exist in the ordinary sense can nevertheless be true?
“Everyone knows” what a unicorn is. It’s a horse-like being with a horn. Easy enough, right? Okay, so pick the unicorns:
Teddy the Burro over there on the right’s the odd man out, right? The other four—Twilight Sparkle, the fuscha and green monstrosity I used as an avatar once, the unicorn tapestry, and the statue at Kew Gardens—are most definitely unicorns.* If anyone were to claim Teddy was a unicorn, they’d be wrong. Even though no unicorn actually exists—indeed, never has, will, or could possibly actually exist in the world**—we can still make true or false judgements about what isn’t a unicorn.*** The same goes for other fictitious entities, like Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson. The claim “John H. Watson was a soldier in the British Army” would be true, while saying the same about Sherlock Holmes would be false. Never mind, of course, that John Hamish Watson**** has never actually existed, much less served in the British Army, still less in Afghanistan, to say nothing about getting shot in an ambiguous location.*****
So how is it that unicorns, Dr. John Watson, and Leonore Beadsman are real? We certainly treat them in many of the same ways we do real things—only a pedant would claim Watson wasn’t a doctor, since he was fictitious—but there’s still something very strange going on here. Where does the truth of these statements come from, and what makes it true?
One answer is just that it’s accepted as true by social convention; we get caught up in the narrative, our common language and conceptual scheme includes the ability to work within states of affairs that aren’t directly ours (the world as it seems from the other’s point of view, the worlds of fictions), and so we set truth and falsehood based on the viewpoint of the person or entity narrating the situation to us. We can make truth statements about Sherlock Holmes because we can enter the world of the story and see Conan Doyle’s fictional world as if through his mind’s eye. This doesn’t answer the question, though—it may give us the mechanism and the phenomenology of how we come to understand fictional worlds and objects, but it doesn’t tell us what they are. Social convention, entrainment, becoming caught up in the narrative, and all the rest are mechanisms to how we come to understand and talk about fictional entities—but they aren’t the grounds of truth or falsehood themselves.
However, the above account does point to at least one place one could ground truth: in the narrative itself. Now, there are a lot of problems metaphysicians love to point out in trying to do this—narratives can be unstable, after all (think of fanfiction), inconsistent, and won’t specify every single detail of the world they create—but, for telling stories and discussing them, it works well. Worlds are created by the narrative; we judge truth and falsehood against what the storyline says, and employ interpretation to extrapolate beyond the text when necessary.****** Works of fiction don’t just describe true worlds; they create them.
Some authors exploit this, and do it well. In The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace creates a protagonist, Leonore Beadsman, who is obsessed with stories. According to her, they’re what gives her being—without stories and storytelling, she’d slip into the existential muck and cease to be an individual, as opposed to part of undifferentiated mucky nothingness. On the one hand, it’s a subtle commentary on the nature of self-creation, of using concrete incidents and episodes in time to form the notion of oneself as a unique individual. On the other, it’s taking a bulldozer to the fourth wall—if Wallace wasn’t telling a story about Leonore, she wouldn’t exist at all! The notion of construction through narrative works both within the universe Wallace has created (and, by analogy, within ours), and directly and literally in our world. A character that he has created is engaged in self-creation; if the narrative ever ceases, so too does she.
Tim O’Brian, in The Things They Carried, plays with this idea of narrative truth, but in a different way. What makes a (war) story true isn’t that it actually happened. Actually, if you stick to the facts, and nothing but the facts, you’ll miss out on the truth. Elaboration, exaggeration, adding in details, filling out the world—all these are necessary parts of telling a story, reaching the essential kernel of truth in the narrative. Does it matter that the characters and incidents were created by the author? Perhaps. It doesn’t keep it from being true. All sorts of details get filled in after the fact, details that reveal something about the one telling the story and his or her perception of the world as it is/could be/should be. Sometimes, these bits are added just to increase the force of the story, to make you feel it as keenly as the teller did; other times, it’s to create this new, true world, one more true than the “actual” mundane one.
This is the function of stories: not only to describe the world as it is, but to create worlds in which the truth can be found. It might be a moral or philosophical truth, or even just a matter of fact, but, nevertheless, the truth depends on the narrative for its existence, not the narrative on truth.