Answering the criticism that his characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray were not drawn from life, Oscar Wilde wrote: “Quite so. If they existed they would not be worth writing about. The function of the artist is to invent, not to chronicle. There are no such people. If there were, I would not write about them. Life by its realism is always spoiling the subject-matter of art. The supreme pleasure in literature is to realise the non-existent.” (Letter to the editor of The St James’s Gazette, 20 June 1890).
Aristotle had talked about “imitative processes” in his Poetics, suggesting not simply that the artist represented reality by creating an imitation of it — that is, by shaping a basic form of realism — but that the artist was engaged in the far more complex exercise of mimesis. Long before Wilde, the idea had developed that a faithful imitation of nature was insufficient to create art unless the artist could make that representation in a form so shaped by his individual style that it exuded a glow, which was a hidden aspect of mimesis, one that originated with the artist’s attempt to present that image which was a projection of the soul’s perception, a vision that sometimes revealed itself in a disturbingly surprising or even a shocking form.
Anyone could hold up a mirror to nature, but before the artist did so he invariably crafted a distorting mirror to produce his version of reality to convince the viewer that the image that appeared shockingly perverse was indeed a credible reality — as was literally demonstrated by Anish Kapoor’s installations in his 2009 exhibition at the Royal Academy where the variously curving mirror surfaces of polished stainless steel showed the viewers their bodies in twisted unflattering forms that had the effect of ridiculing one’s conceited idea of the self. In poetry, reality as an image in a distorting mirror was brilliantly presented in John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975), in which the poet asserts that when we gaze at the reflection in the mirror “We see only postures of our dream,” hitting it just right with “postures”. We make figures of ourselves and imagine we see our self.
That no serious artist draws directly from life ought to be undisputed: certainly in the visual arts, when looking at the remarkably far from life-like portraits of the human face by Modigliani or Emil Nolde or Picasso we experience an inexplicable attraction, which plucks from our interior self a recognition that is both emotional and intellectual. It is the formal digression crafted by the artist’s unique style, not the ordinary mirror reality of the human face, that makes us accept the extraordinary deviation as the character’s true likeness. One would need to believe in what Pound dismissively called “the hurried realism of ignorance” to reject such portraits and to demand the facile realism of street artists who do a customer’s quick flattering sketch for a few euros; in fact, we scorn portraits that present a photographic likeness of the sitter and value as high art the distortions of Expressionism or Cubism or any other style that takes an object and converts it to a startling, but in the end believable, vision. In writing novels, however, what is amazing is not only that Oscar Wilde should have been criticised for not drawing from life but also that 120 years later novelists are still expected to present the street artist’s version of superficial realism.
In photography, where the captured image is presumed to resemble closely the reality of the scene at which the lens had been pointed, we reject as ordinary and banal even a striking picture of a scene that appears exactly as it is ordinarily perceived, but we are always awestruck when an Ansel Adams or a Sebastião Salgado captures an image in his unique style and transforms the scene so that it takes on a metaphysical sheen. In the work of the great photographers, we are still looking at mountains and valleys and the spectacle of the human race, but their images show us a world we had never seen before, which, once seen, becomes a truer perception than the one we had previously held; indeed, our very way of seeing undergoes evolutionary change when an artist’s variant form makes us impose his style on the scene before us, instilling in us the habit of seeing inchoate shapes through his lens.
What we see is not what our eyes show us but what our eyes have been taught to see by the visionaries we call artists, scientists, philosophers, and the revealers of sacred texts: subtract any one of them from the sum of your knowledge and you will see a very different world.
Some readers are drawn to novels and plays in which they can identify with the characters and observe how the fictional figures survive the trials and tribulations and the drama with which they themselves are familiar, only the experience of the characters is more intense and so heightened as to provide the readers with an absorbing narrative, with perhaps an encouraging moral.
This, however, is a primitive level of reading favoured by the ill educated. Nabokov states that “the worst thing a reader can do” is to identify with a character and brands such a reader as belonging to a “lowly variety” of the human species. Wilde would have applauded him. From both Wilde’s and Nabokov’s aesthetic point of view, and indeed that of any serious novelist, readers ought to be fascinated by characters who are so remarkably extraordinary as to be unbelievable and yet, once encountered, continue to have a credible presence in their imagination; such extraordinary characters are the immortal inhabitants of literature while the so-called believable characters are no more than the transient glitterati in the anonymous community of the mass-market whose fate is to end up in an unmarked mass grave.
It has been true throughout literature that the major novelists were always interested in subverting commonly experienced reality in order to advance the alternative universe invented by their imagination; indeed, all the writers whom we continue to re-read with wonder and awe — Rabelais, Cervantes, Gogol, Kafka, Beckett, etc. — are creators of a reality so unbelievable that we laugh at it and yet end up accepting it as a valid and not at all funny insight into the essential nature of existence. Their characters, who are afflicted with some obsessive mania, such as Beckett’s Molloy who has worked out a complicated mathematical order for sucking the sixteen stones placed four each in the four pockets of his trousers and greatcoat (which, incidentally, is one of the most hilarious passages in all literature), become our secret companions. No one who has read Cervantes can travel across Spain and not have a smile light up his face on seeing a windmill in the distance. And after reading Kafka, who, waking up at night and seeing a cockroach in the bathroom, has not thought of Gregor Samsa and felt a sudden shiver?