[…] no one could be blamed for thinking that Anton Reiser was a dissolute, depraved young person who sold his school books, and instead of increasing his knowledge and taking advantage of the lessons of his teachers, read nothing but novels and comedies. Meanwhile, he completely neglected his appearance; since no one in the world liked him, it was only natural that Reiser could have no pleasure in his body. And so all the money that should have been spent on the laundress and the tailor went to the second-hand bookseller, because he put his need for reading above food, drink, and clothes.
Karl Philipp Moritz, Anton Reiser: Ein psychologischer Roman (Frankfurt a. M. 1979, p. 174) (my transl.)
It is easy to think of this young person, described in 1786, as our contemporary. Except that in the year 2021 he would more likely be playing computer games or watching streamed television serials. A youth who spends his little money on books might gain more appreciation from his teachers nowadays.
Why is there such a voracious consumption of fiction? It is easy enough to come up with some informal answers. Fiction may give us experiences that as such are as real as any we have. Reading a novel or watching a few episodes of television drama often leaves a stronger impression and more lasting memories than many hours of daily routine.
Indulging in fiction is a way of being alive at low cost. Anton Reiser suffers the traumas of an oppressive upbringing, of incomprehension and exploitation, a history of “shame and contempt, which had pushed him out of reality into an ideal world since early childhood” (p. 207). It traps him in a vicious circle of withdrawal, contempt, and sense of failure.
Fiction may paint an enhanced world in which events are free of irrelevancies, human relations more profound, antagonisms simpler and ethics clearer, conversations wittier and language used with greater skill. Above all, fiction may contain plot structures which show a coherence, significance and purposefulness that in real life is lacking. It may also do the contrary: follow the whims of irrational fantasy, celebrate the endless particularity and inexhaustible detail of everything, or reflect upon its own nature ironically (This is an untrue story. The events never took place).
But more often fiction obeys laws of coherence and relevance, for besides offering the comfort of a structured, if illusory world view, these make the most effective story plots. Aristotle placed plot (μυθος, myth) central in his theory of fiction (Poetics), which is particularly about drama. He praised its ‘philosophical’ virtues: unlike history, drama may show us events in their ‘universality’, without the messiness of chance circumstances. Fiction is history stripped of coincidence. The implication is that history can be stripped of coincidence, and that it will reveal a good plot.
Aristotle’s brief and somewhat cryptic remarks point out an important aspect of our common human irrationality. It is always tempting to refashion history along story lines. But also: stories (plot, myth) may be a stronger basis for belief than theories.
Religions and ideologies are based on plots of liberation, betrayal, sacrifice and salvation.
“God liberates his enslaved people and allows them to conquer a land inhabited by others.”
“The 40th president of the United States defeats the Soviet Union and causes wealth to trickle down upon the working classes.”
“Nr. 45 saves the nation from socialism but is betrayed by conspiring elites.”
Conspiracy theories are stories rather than theories. Call a story a theory, and it gains respect. Call a theory a story, and it looses credibility. Every child learns that stories can’t be believed.
But who’s addicted to theories?
This is an aside to my recent Fiction, Truth and Lies: The Nonassertion Theory, Quotation, and Music as Fiction.
Or, if you prefer the story version: How the Nonassertion Theory Stood up against Make-Belief, and Proved That Music Can Be Fiction after All..