Free Indirect Experience

Walter Benjamin, now regarded as one of the great literary critics of the twentieth century, the insightful explicator of Kafka and Proust, had this to say about the novel:

The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns. is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others. To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life.

This statement, from his essay "The Task of the Storyteller," places the novel squarely in the industrial age, when storytelling communities, with their store of shared experiences, were replaced by newspapers, which merely conveyed "information from afar," mere data disconnected from our daily lives. For Benjamin, novels can only provide the simulacrum of coherent meaning for readers, whose lives are deprived of it. Novels rely on utterly idiosyncratic and particularized psychological explanations instead of the inherent meaning of pre-modern societies. Homer’s audience would have immediately understood the motivations behind Odysseus’s actions, because they shared the same assumptions and world views. For Benjamin, authentic experience, Erfahrung, takes us out of ourselves, yet endows our lives with coherent meaning.

Can the novel ever be a vehicle for shared experience? Is there a post-industrial equivalent to the lost world of the communal storyteller? One possibility is free indirect style, which James Wood identifies with realism, but Roland Barthes claimed was characteristic of modernism. As Wood points out, Flaubert went to great lengths to hide his mighty efforts to create the reality effect. Barthes interpreted the exact same labor as post-realist, as modernist, precisely because all of the work of the author–the authoritative management of interpretation that so preoccupied Dickens and George Eliot–is completely effaced. The modernist text seems to spring from the depths of language itself rather than from the depths of the self, as in Romanticism.

Similarly, free indirect style hovers between subject and object, emerging from some indeterminate space between them. In this infamous passage from Madame Bovary, we’re not exactly sure who is speaking:

She repeated: "I have a lover! A lover! delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had so despaired! She was entering upon a marvelous world where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium.

This passage scandalized Flaubert’s nineteenth-century readers because they couldn’t decide who was responsible for such shocking sentiments: were they Emma’s shameless statements, or Flaubert’s indifferent paraphrases?

Never before had experience been related without an ego either bursting out through it, as in Romanticism, or scrupulously disciplined, as in realism. Such a passage is possible only in writing; no one would ever utter such a statement aloud when speaking to another person. And if we think of writing as something completely extrinsic to our interior selves, rendering inner experience through such an exclusively literary device is more audacious than commonplace realism, and yet we have good reason to distrust directly reproduced speech.

If the novel can ever be a fundamentally different experience than reading newspapers, from the brute accumulation of factoids, it is the ground at which we experience our own vanishing point before a world that makes no sense. In a culture that offers plenty of lures into a false sense of a whole self, what makes reading a novel so unique and so valuable is that we are nobody in particular and yet, through the "miraculous alchemy" of free indirect style, as Wood puts it, we can also become that particular nobody, Emma Bovary. She may be a rapacious idiot, but her life makes sense, and when we inhabit that same space between the fictive and the real as Flaubert himself did ("Emma, c’est moi."), our lives make sense, too.


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  1. Regarding ‘the space between the fictive and the real’, isn’t this ‘space’ the very one that is created by the person him/herself writing, and which enables him/her to address the self and to create the work of fiction in the process? The obligatory selfless empathy demands it, it seems. Indeed I’d suggest if I may that every piece of good writing was a second-generation creation, in that the writer first creates the persona of the writer, before being addressed by that persona. This happens quite openly in Dante, I think. Furthermore, it is always this persona that can get inside the skin of the other characters in a worthy novel, and never the writer. I hope I haven’t merely stated the obvious here. Would you say my way of describing the process of writing is the same as or close to your description of that of reading? Is this what perhaps lends a piece of work its quality of readability?


  2. I think you’re right: the first step in creating an empathetic character is creating an authorial persona that embraces characters while giving them a sense of autonomy. Iris Murdoch was actually rather bad at this empathy, which undermined the moral authority she wanted to convey–her characters seem wooden and allegorical. Just as free indirect writing requires a skillful management of authorial distance, reading literary fiction requires a balancing act between imaginative engagement and self-consciousness. A good reader reads himself or herself reading.


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