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Summer 2004

On Realism

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Louise Glück


It is entirely possible that I have never had an accurate sense of what is called realism in that I do not, as a reader, discriminate between it and fantasy.

My earliest reading was Greek mythology. As with my prayers, nothing was ever deleted, but categories were added. First the Oz books. Then biography, the how-to books of my childhood. How to be Madame Curie. How to be Lou Gehrig. How to be Lady Jane Grey. And then, gradually, the great prose novels in English. And so on. All these made a kind of reading different from the reading of poetry, less call to orders, more vacation.

What strikes me now is that these quite disparate works, Middlemarch and The Magical Monarch of Mo, seemed to me about equal in their unreality.

Realism is by nature historical, confined to a period. The characters dress in certain ways, they eat certain things, society thwarts them in specific ways; therefore the real (or the theoretically real) acquires in time what the fantastic has always had, an air of vast improbability. There is this variation: the overtly fantastic represents, in imagination, that which has not yet happened (this is true even when it locates itself in a mythic past, a past beyond the reach of documented history). Realistic fiction corresponds roughly to the familiar and present reality of the reader; its strangeness is the strangeness of obsolescence or irrecoverability. For this obsolescence one is sometimes grateful, sometimes mournful. Though the characters in their passions and dilemmas resemble us, the world in which these passions are enacted is vanished and strange. In the degree to which we cannot inhabit that world, the formerly real becomes very like the deliberately unreal.

The fantastic exists as hypothesis and dream: if everything were different it might be different thus. Whereas the formerly real documents what cannot recur; we are fascinated by the historical record (which seems ours) and by the parallels.

That the moment or sequence represented by realism will never recur infuses the work with premonitions of ending. How will it end? Will they die? Will they fall in love? This shaping mechanism intensifies the sense of a discrepancy between realism and actual life. Less critical than the decisiveness of plot is the atmosphere conferred by the function of dying and falling in love. We read anticipating the end, foreseeing it, guessing it, trying to fend it off. In this regard, it is indeed realistic: the end is beyond our influence or control. The passionate, enthralled helplessness of the reader resembles the anxious helplessness of humankind. Once the end is itself submerged in time, in its impervious trajectory, we have moved from realism to philosophy.

The fantastic ends differently, since it never began, or began only once we concurred in its hypotheses. It ends provisionally, also with our cooperation. Then, perhaps, if we agree, it begins again. Perhaps with small revisions or alterations.

To the reader, these distinctions are dwarfed by immense similarities.

How did the child understand books? As an invitation to live in the head for a while. As the gift of furniture or trappings for that life. Life in the head became, for the book's duration, more focused, rich with alien detail. Whereas poetry was the way you thought when you were reading or being, independent of the finite freckled self. But that is another subject.



Louise Glück is the poet laureate of the United States. Her books include The Seven Ages and The Wild Iris.
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