Six Walks in the Fictional Woods

Umberto Eco is one of the leading scholars in the field of “Semiotics”, a term which I barely understand but which in my dummy’s terms is about systems of signs. In my sub-specialist field of literary endeavour, these would be better known as “clues”, hence my interest.

In part 1 of Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, Eco begins to elaborate his approach to novels as systems of signs, and to do this, he posits the existence of a mediating entity between the words on the page and the reader called the “model reader”. A flesh-and-blood individual would be an “empirical” reader, and the analogy is roughly that the model reader is any reader who can navigate the system of signs inherent in the work. You might think of this as a kind of Platonic Form for the reader; whether that’s a helpful analogy to draw is unclear to me.

Eco further posits the existence of a “model author” as a structural analog to the “empirical author”. A particular author exists, but what is important to the reader is really the system of signs that this empirical being imbues into the work. Thus you have a chain of interpretation which is, roughly

Empiracal Author -> Model Author -> Narrative Voice -> Model Reader -> Empirical Reader

Inherent in this argument is that the distance between the narrative voice and the flesh-and-blood author is formed by this “model author”, and by implication, that in the presence of a comprehensive and complete “model author”, no reference is needed or useful to the flesh-and-blood author. Moreover, the implication is that the Empirical author consciously shields themselves from inspection by interpretation of their work via the construction of the “model author”.

So far, so good. But what this reminds me of is my usual all-purpose analytical tool, the coming-of-age gift from my old drinking pal Baudrillard: hyperreality. Because what is essentially happening here is that the system of signs is dislocated from their origin, so that they refer only to the self-contained system of the work itself, not to anything else.

What this would seem to imply is that works of writing in Eco’s analytic stance can’t have an external referrant – i.e. cannot connect to the outside world, or meaning, or what-have-you, but exist only as a kind of theoretical construct.

What this would seem to imply is that works of writing in Eco’s analytic stance can’t have an external referrant – i.e. cannot connect to the outside world, or meaning, or what-have-you, but exist only as a kind of theoretical construct. Which would make it fairly useless. I’m only about half way through the book, so this may be a logical problem that he resolves at some later time.

However, what this brought to mind too, was Tolkien’s idea of “sub Creation”, which was, broadly, that a creative work of art needed to be internally consistent and hence “realistic” within the constructed internal logic of the work. Very much a hard fantasy approach to writing. When connected to Baudrillard via Eco, that makes Tolkien unwittingly post-modern. Poor chap.

More usefully for me, it establishes one (of many) possible paradigms for evaluating the “Golden Age” detective novels. Rather than reduce them, as Chandler does, to inadequately “minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions”, it positions them as sub-creations working to create and use a system of signs; a perfectly valid and worthwhile creative effort, fundamentally the same as any other creative work.

How exactly this relates to Dashiell Hammett is somewhat less clear just at the moment, because he never fully assimilated the methodology of the classic crime authors. One possible argument is that in his story constructions he variously critiqued and inverted a lot of those conventions, essentially rejecting the whole system to bring our attention back to the real world. This would certainly cement Chandler’s claim for him as a realist, despite the patent un-reality of most of what he wrote. It’s not that it’s realist in the sense of being like life, but realist in the sense of rejecting a closed system of signs.

More, I’m sure, to follow when I’ve read the rest of the book.

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One Response to Six Walks in the Fictional Woods

  1. Pingback: Must-Reads | My One Contribution To The Internet

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