One thing above all is genuinely unknowable and it is the supreme matter of fiction. That is, what is going on in anyone else’s mind?
Unknowable to others because they are outside and the thoughts are inside the shell of the other person’s head. To the outsider thinking looks like this:
Writers of fiction overcome the problem of unknowable thinking by either telling the reader what a character is thinking:
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach. (Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway)
or demonstrating the character thinking:
no thats no way for him has he no manners nor no refinement nor no nothing in his nature slapping us behind like that on my bottom because I didnt call him Hugh the ignoramus that doesnt know poetry from a cabbage thats what you get for not keeping them in their proper place pulling off his shoes and trousers there on the chair before me so barefaced without even asking permission and standing out that vulgar way in the half of a shirt they wear to be admired like a priest or a butcher . . . (James Joyce, Ulysses)
In the theater thinking is externalized by the playwright’s having his character speak his thoughts out loud—the soliloquy:
“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.” (Richard III)
“To be, or not to be: that is the question . . .” (Hamlet)
Art is a wonder. These “artistic conventions” allow us to do what can’t be done in real life. “Here I present you the thoughts of another,” says the novelist or playwright. And the audience accepts the unnatural for the sake of enlightenment and enjoyment—but only after the conventions are learned. Young Bernard Shaw did not walk into the musical theater knowing where the singers were (and weren’t)*. Likewise, when my grandson Tomás, playing the Beast in his school’s production of Beauty and the Beast, was “killed,” his young sister, Emma, was frightened because she didn’t understand that art is sometimes better than life—because everybody takes the curtain call; nobody has been killed.**
But if art is conventional, so is life. Consider the spectrum of human societies; how vast are the possibilities of human behavior: from cannibalism to veganism, from polygyny to polyandry or—to be mundane—driving on the left side of the road versus driving on the right. Each society uses only a small part of the spectrum. Looked at that way, one can say that “real life” is as artificially constructed as art itself.
“Real life” is as much of a theater as the theater itself.*** It is not only Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock who has “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”; what woman has never said at one time or another before leaving home that she has to put her face on? Make-up for the stage or for life—needed in preparing a theatrical character (art) or our “real life" character to face an audience. And costuming ourselves as well: swim suit for swimming, and suit for being a suit. We follow the (artificial) codes for dressing in “real life” or suffer real consequences. Is your shirt tucked in? Is your slip showing? (And why are you wearing a shirt, anyway?)
And your actions must align with your costume. A real life Yossarian, who recognized that real bullets cause real injury, would be a disgrace to his costume (i.e., uniform) and suffer real consequences for violating the artificial norms of his society.
Ultimately it all comes down to the contest of the artifice of art versus the artifice of life.
Art is a critique of the artifice of life; life is a critique of the artifice of art.
And all is philosophical—until blood flows.
*See the previous post, “A Night at the Opera.”
**Except in certain murder mystery novels in which the author diabolically has an actor-character done in during the course of a play. (Cf. Simon Brett and Caroline Graham)
***The vital text on this is Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.