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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Fictional Characters 1: A. C. Bradley

Posted by Bill Benzon on 07/18/06 at 12:39 PM

That the characters in literary narratives are fiction is, of course, obvious. That we must, in some measure, treat them as real so that we may properly enter into their stories, this too is obvious. Though just what that entails is not so obvious. At least, so I take it, we must give these characters some purchase on our emotions. We must be concerned about their lives so that we are, by turns, pleased and distressed, saddened and filled with pleasure as we follow their stories.

How then, do we understand and explain the feelings and actions of these creatures of fiction? It has always seemed to me the one entirely appropriate answer to such questions is: That’s what the author requires of them. That answer, alas, is not terribly revealing; it reiterates the fictional nature of characters while tying it to a mysterious origin within an author - all of whom, we now know, are dead in the very nature of things.

Unsatisfactory though that assertion of authority may be, it somehow indicates something that, I fear, all too easily falls by the way when we attempt to explain characters’ actions in the same terms as we use to explain the actions of real people. While this is something that has bugged me for a long time, I have recently been prompted to think about these matters while reading evolutionary psychological and neural accounts which discuss literary characters in the same terms one would use to discuss real people. This seems odd to me, odd beyond my misgivings about evolutionary psychology in general. This sense of oddness has even prompted me to reconsider my use of psychoanalytic terms when discussing characters - though not when discussing (idealized) readers, which is altogether a different matter.

In an effort to begin sorting these things out I have decided to do a bit of “thinking out loud” right here, in public, on The Valve. Rather than tackle the big questions head on, however, I have decided to ease in by looking at some passages from A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy, a much fabled book first printed in 1905. Bradley talks about Shakespeare’s characters in much the same way one would talk about historical figures and so he is often cited in discussions as an example of how they did it in the old days, before the New Criticism.

I want to look at two passages from his discussion of Othello. Why that particular discussion? I’d prefer a discussion of Much Ado About Nothing, which is the play the most interests me, but Bradley does not discuss it. The Claudio-Hero plot, however, is like Othello in that it involves a man who is deceived about the woman he loves. The particular passages I’ve chosen from Bradley’s discussion have not been chosen randomly. But they haven’t been chosen with great deliberation either. They seem typical of Bradley’s style and method.

Of Othello, Bradley says:

Othello is, in one sense of the word, by far the most romantic figure among Shakespeare’s heroes; and he is so partly from the strange life of war and adventure which he has lived from childhood. He does not belong to our world, and he seems to enter it we know not whence--almost as if from wonderland. There is something mysterious in his descent from men of royal siege; in his wanderings in vast deserts and among marvellous peoples; in his tales of magic handkerchiefs and prophetic Sibyls; in the sudden vague glimpses we get of numberless battles and sieges in which he has played the hero and has borne a charmed life; even in chance references to his baptism, his being sold to slavery, his sojourn in Aleppo.

A bit later, after telling us that “Othello is the greatest poet of them all” (that is, of all Shakespeare’s heroes) and quoting some lines, Bradley says of Othello:

He has watched with a poet’s eye the Arabian trees dropping their med’cinable gum, and the Indian throwing away his chance-found pearl; and has gazed in a fascinated dream at the Pontic sea rushing, never to return, to the Propontic and the Hellespont; and has felt as no other man ever felt (for he speaks of it as none other ever did) the poetry of the pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war.

So he comes before us, dark and grand, with a light upon him from the sun where he was born; but no longer young, and now grave, self-controlled, steeled by the experience of countless perils, hardships and vicissitudes, at once simple and stately in bearing and in speech, a great man naturally modest but fully conscious of his worth, proud of his services to the state, unawed by dignitaries and unelated by honours, secure, it would seem, against all dangers from without and all rebellion from within. And he comes to have his life crowned with the final glory of love, a love as strange, adventurous and romantic as any passage of his eventful history, filling his heart with tenderness and his imagination with ecstasy. For there is no love, not that of Romeo in his youth, more steeped in imagination than Othello’s.

Critics don’t write that way anymore. It’s not so much that what Bradley asserts of Othello seems wrong or made-up, but that it seems irrelevant to our various critical purposes.

That remark, however, does not get at the oddness of Bradley’s prose, which is in its mode of address. It is as though, in writing of Othello as a historical person, Bradley is trying to get close to his subject, to participate in his life. In a post earlier this year I quoted Geoffrey Hartman’s complaint that the newer forms of criticism (by which he meant structuralism and semiotics) do not bring us closer to the text. On the contrary, they put even more distance between critic and text. Yet I cannot imagine Hartman, nor any of his contemporaries, writing like Bradley.

What’s going on?


I think we’re all tempted to make some sort of sneering aside about Harold Bloom, aren’t we?

By on 07/18/06 at 02:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I read this description of Othello very differently, not as an account of Othello as a historical person, but as a kind of poetic evocation of the impression Othello makes through his own words, in poetically conjuring up his own “back story.” I also don’t quite understand why you see Bradley’s description as irrelevant to our critical purposes.  Wouldn’t that depend on what these purposes were, more specifically? 

He makes Othello seem, not more historical or real, but more a creature of fantasy, of the poetic imagination.

By on 07/18/06 at 02:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“That we must, in some measure, treat them as real so that we may properly enter in their stories, this too is obvious.”

Is it at all obvious? Or is it merely and wholly assumed that a character must be treated as real? It seems to me that that little phrase “in some measure” is covering up a legion of evils.

The idea of treating a character in any measure as real pre-assumes the notion that characters are, in fact, in some measure real. How else could it be that you can “treat” the character as such to begin with except for that you have assigned the quality of “characterhood” to the ideational event before the “treating” begins? Any notion of reality assigned to a character brings with it divorce papers removing the ‘character’ from the idea-of-the-character as it exists within the cosmos of the text. Admittedly, that’s a clumsily complex phrasing: I mean the character-as-an-idea. Unfortunately I can’t find the quote on my little laptop, one I believe by Genette, saying, essentially, there are no images in literature, there are only ideas – and it’s about time we started talking that way. (Unfortunately I’m currently a few hundred miles from my books.)

The greatest moment in U.S. Realist literature has to be in Norris’s The Octopus, in those very un-realist chapters where the wheat appears in all its otherworldly, small-cap glory. Norris, in the midst off his tale of “characters” in the “real world” (characters he would wish us to take as real to “some measure” or more), is demonstrating that magnificient and broadly critical restating of the old saw “show don’t tell”: Eliot’s objective correlative. (Which brings us momentarily back into Shakespeare.)

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. <a href=”http://www.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/web%20publishing/Eiliot_Hamlet.htm”>”Hamlet and his Problems”</a>

A character in a text can not, technically, ‘have a feeling’ (or a quality for that matter). They are words on a page – and, when read, ideas in our heads. But the words on the page can generate a feeling or quality. They can develop (in Eliot’s too limiting words) “a skillful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions,” which can then by those same and other words be associated with the idea of the character, creating a greater complex of ideas: the state of mind of Lady Macbeth. Or, in the case of Norris, the whole of the ‘realist’ narrative acts as the complex of imagined sensory impressions which, when put into energetic apposition with the notion of eternal wheat, creates the complex experience of a vast, endless and mysterious universe, an abstracted cosmos that ironizes the previously ‘realist’ tale. Or, another example, with Bradley as quoted above – and I agree with Jonathan: (I remember) Bradley’s descriptions as themselves meant to create the ideational complex which can be called the ‘character’ of Othello. (Does Jonathan here agree with me? that is the question.)

“Show” vs. “Tell.” The opposition is that between plain language and evocative language. (As someone once said to me, evocative is the word god gave us to politely respond to bad poetry.) The opposition of “show” vs. “tell” is one of modality: that between Creation and Reportage. In the latter the name of a character is meant to be understood as the name of an assumably real person, of which we read in the text a dictation of fragments of the events of their lives, which singularly and as a whole are to be understood within the limiting and defining context of “this is real; they are real; it must be perceived as real.” In Tell, in Reportage, everything – character, object, place or event – is to be set within the context of the real, understood not by what experience is created (ideationally) by words, but understood as they are ‘supposed to be,’ as if the character, object, place, event existed in the real world.

“Supposed to be” is the key idea: a limiting idea; an idea that defines before the text is read (and, from the other side, an idea that shows the text asking to be defined). A perfect example, the word surprise. In an amateur (naïve) text, the most common way the word is used, the word is used to cue surprise in the reader: “The evening was as every other until a howling surprised the campers.” The word cannot on its own create the surprise it labels: though amateur writers write as though it does, thinking that the reader will see the word and experience surprise. In fact, it’s rather difficult to use the word in any way outside of labeling of a passed event (i.e., blunt description), as in “Pete nodded agreement: ‘It really surprised me.’”

In Creation, no such limit exists – including that of any limit on the ideational complex that can be called a “character.” The ‘character’ of Othello, e.g., is inseparable from the ‘object’ of the fateful handkercheif when they are recognized as ideas, as complexes within the greater cosmos of the play. They can only be discerned as individual (quantifiable) – and I here glance quickly off the ideas referenced in Hartmann – when they are “treated” as “real.”

The difference explored here is that difference between the clerkly and the naïve in Kermode’s Sense of an Ending.

And in dropping that book I must accordingly make the too-long-belayed correction. The question can not in the end be “is a character real” but “what is happening when a reader treats a character as real.” I tell the story of a grad student trying to make sense of the ending of Ironweed, struggling helplessly against his inability to get the work to jive to a wholly real reading where the ‘ghosts’—and, even, Francis (the main character) – won’t collapse into ‘characters,’ but maintain an increasingly ideational abstraction up to the end. The book could not be made to make sense to him, because the work was resisting the realist – i.e., the characters-are-real-ist – reading. The scene demonstrated the two sides of the of the central equation of literature: the reader’s ability to read creatively, and the texts permissibility and contribution to creative reading.

To begin the question as Bill did assumes much:

. . . properly enter in their stories.

The stories belong to the characters? The characters are the defining factor of the stories in the text? But are not the characters also part of the text? Can they be separated, ideationally, from the ‘story’?


How then, do we understand and explain the feelings and actions of these creatures of fiction?

The sentence establishes its own answer in the asking. And I must immediately cut short: why are we treating these “creatures” as having feelings and actions? Why are we assuming they are “creatures” to begin with? I admit, it is difficult to ask questions about the idea of “character” without making such assumptions: the word itself is already irrepably laced with assumption after assumption. So why not start elsewise: speak not of realities, but of ideas.

The exploration of character should start there:

Assumption (or should I say recognition): characters do not exist. There is nothing ‘real’ about a text (other than the material print on page).
Observance: Nonetheless, characters are read as real, by some people in some situations (or, by all people, to variying degrees, depending on the situation). And some texts prompt the reading of characters as real, in varying ways and to varying degrees.
Question: What do the words read and prompt mean in those last sentences? and how do those words mean different things when speaking of a creative reader and the fertile text?

Final word: The distinction I am making – thread cross-over here – is that that I hope also to make in comment on Adam’s “Internalization of Genius” post: contemporary angels are not Greek daemons. Only the latter are creative.

By on 07/18/06 at 11:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I read this description of Othello very differently, not as an account of Othello as a historical person, but as a kind of poetic evocation of the impression Othello makes through his own words, in poetically conjuring up his own “back story.”

What I think is going on is that Bradley is embroidering on Othello’s back story and is doing so as a way of participating in the story. He wants to bring (Shakespeare’s) Othello to life in his (Bradley’s) commmentary. Whether this implies that Bradley is appropriating Othello to the historical world in which Bradley himself lives, or is inserting himself into Shakespeare’s fantasy world, or both and neither is, I suppose, a tricky question.

I also don’t quite understand why you see Bradley’s description as irrelevant to our critical purposes.  Wouldn’t that depend on what these purposes were, more specifically? 

Yes, it would. But it does seem that by the 1930s Bradley’s mode was being rejected, at least within the academy, and I don’t see any major attempts to resurrect it. Perhaps it should be tried, though not by me. To what end?

By Bill Benzon on 07/19/06 at 03:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Assumption (or should I say recognition): characters do not exist.”

I know a whole lot more about Othello than I do about Bill Benzon, and whatever relation I have to Bill Benzon is based on a fiction, my imaginary Benzon. Othello may be fixed on the page and static but I am not. Does Bill Benzon exist? How do I know, maybe he is Holbo or Kaufmann in disguise. Never met Holbo or Kaufmann, if I were to shake the hand of someone tomorrow who called himself Benzon I would still not be certain.

Are you looking for a psychological or neurological difference between reading and perceiving? You only see two legs of a chair, are you sure the back isn’t supported with a cardboard box? You imagine it is not.

I am not sure the qualitative differences you seem to be looking for exist. I am not sure I exist, I only have a construct of impressions.

By on 07/19/06 at 04:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a lot going on in your comment, Andrew, and I don’t how to parse it all. But I’ll make an observation or two.

There are lots of texts in the world. Some are presented as being about real things and places and events and people in the real world and some are presented as being about imaginary things and places and events and people in a fictional world. (In the latter case, the people are often referred to as characters.) But, in the manner of your closing assumption (observation), the only thing that’s “real” about any of these texts is the print on the page.

In either case, one can ask how it is that a reader comes to apprehend a story about an apple falling from a tree, hitting someone on the head, and moving that person to some numinous insight. All of it, the apple, the tree, the falling, the impact, the person, and the insight, somehow was evoked by mere marks on the page. It is not at all clear to me that one type of text—real or fictional—is any more problematic on this account than the other. Extracting a person from Bradley’s text about Othello is no more or less problematic than extracting a person from Shakespeare’s texts.

Somewhere in that tangle of things we don’t yet understand we can isolate the problem of using language to specify people. Whether or not the text is fictional or real, the same devices seem available for this purpose. The person can be named and described. Their actions can be enumerated at varying levels of detail. Statements, even thoughts and feelings, can be attributed to them. In either case it would be nice to know how these various “cues” are assembled into the sense of a person. This problem exists whether or not the person is real or a character in a fiction.

But that’s not the problem I was posing in this item. It’s an important problem and one I’m going to have to deal with. But not just yet, and certainly not in any comprehensive way—that seems a bit beyond the current state of our knowledge of language, perception, and cognition.

As a practical matter, literary critics—no matter how canny—often make statements about why characters do things. What kinds of statements are sensible? That’s where I hope eventually to end up, but I’m not there yet. In particular, if critics must treat characters as nothing more than a complex network of “prompts” in the text, can the critic offer any explanation whatever for characters? That question is a long way from Bradley, who seems quite confident in his understanding of Shakespeare’s characters and their natures and motives.

By Bill Benzon on 07/19/06 at 04:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

”...often make statements about why characters do things. What kinds of statements are sensible?”

Oh. Whatever you can get away with?

Wide Sargasso Sea

By on 07/19/06 at 07:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I am not sure the qualitative differences you seem to be looking for exist.

My response would be that the differences can’t be understood as qualitative: to state them as qualitative would be to collapse them both to one side: that of reportage. It’s an act similar to the ‘Rip van Winkle effect’ described the the Badiou post (assuming I’m applying the label to the right thing). Collapse the two sides to one, and the now ‘virtual’ side has no need of being addressed.

(More cross-post thinking:) I wonder now if the family of these Rip van Winkle fallacies might describe a large part of the agonisms between schools of thought?

By on 07/20/06 at 09:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ok—walked away from posting that and two minutes later realized how daft the thought is. I flat misthought the phrase.

Ignore that last post.

By on 07/20/06 at 09:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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