Textual Reality and the Phenomenological World

Although my friend’s daughter asked me one time if the story I had just told her was a “true story,” most people acknowledge—however reluctantly in the case of Harry Potter fans—that the characters in the stories they read are fictional. This in no way informs their interactions with the story, however. When my friend’s daughter asked the question, I asked her to listen to her question: a real story? She immediately recognized the oxymoron she’d inadvertently built, and for someone steeped in the Christian tradition, where real and unreal are blended with an avid and disingenuous spoon, she did well to understand the question contained its answer.

The sad humour of it is that for many, and we can include the religious in this mix, those characters from their television shows and novels are more real than those in their lives. This verisimilitude has its uses, of course. In religious discourse it can help to keep the people believing despite phenomenological evidence to the contrary, but more importantly for our purposes, in the literary world it draws the reader, encourages rapport with the audience, and when the characters begin to intrude on their reader’s life, it gives them the experience that three dimensional immersion—and I reluctantly include the phenomenological world in these representations—promises but has not yet offered.

My friend’s girlfriend became obsessed with the story of the Twilight series like many young people, although she didn’t have youth to commend her interest. In her case, after she’d read the books dozens of times, dragged her boyfriend to the movie over and over, some image on the screen and in the books spoke to her in a resoundingly profound way. This image does exist in the phenomenological world, although the two dimensional film attempted to enact the imaginary reality by casting certain actors to portray the disturbing love affair between the immature teenager and a man over a hundred years old. The books are much more compelling, however, and that is because they draw upon at least some writerly interactions with their reader. In some ways the girlfriend realized that, for she was drawn to fan fiction websites after the well of the novels and films began to run dry. She realized, on at least some level, that her thirst for the imaginary romance of nibbling and stalking needed the unformed, the partially enacted text which allowed her to flood the gaps with her fantasies and cultural bric-a-brac.

The huge benefit of the writerly text[1]—in the sense that the reader supplies the information that is missing—is that the story more closely matches what the reader desires. Iser’s model of the reading process defines how writerly construction leads to reader invention and interpretation: “the very fact that it is he [she] who produces and destroys the illusions makes it impossible for him [her] to stand aside and view ‘reality’ from a distance—the only reality for him [her] to view is the one he [she] is creating. . . . interpretation is a form of refuge seeking—an effort to reclaim the ground which has been cut from under their feet” (Iser, The Implied Reader 233). In the Twilight film series the girlfriend was supplied with ready images which supplied, presumably, a fallow field for her fertile imagination and desire.

Although this example might seem trivial, it is important to remember that the power of this collision of textual gaps and the reader’s imagined characters is significant enough that readers are irate when the screen image does not match their fantasy.

This problem arose when the reader’s interpretation of the book The Hunger Games did not match the film. The film grossed a hundred and fifty-five million on its opening weekend in the United States, but it started a Twitter storm about the casting choice that gave the character Rue dark skin. In the book Rue is “a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that’s she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor” (Collins 45). She is explicitly dark brown in the book, but that information was overlooked by those who had imagined the story populated by the whites of their imagination. When that happened, their image of the textual girl and the movie casting decision collided: “Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad.” There has been much written about the implicit racism with which we read books and watch movies,[2] but here we can see the emotional investment we have in the stories that we tell ourselves about the stories we are told.

For the readers of The Hunger Games, Rue needs to be the way they have imagined her, but this takes on more ominous overtones when such racist notions inform a person’s notion of reality, on at least religious reality. Because Jesus is called a Jew, and therefore is believed to be Semitic, the reader of the bible needs to similarly contort the text they are given. From the flimsy clues from the bible, we can see that Jesus is believed to have been Semitic. But those with a blond blue-eyed Jesus hanging on their church wall ignore the bible’s claims that his “feet were like burnished bronze” (Revelation 1:15) and that the “hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow” (Revelation 1:14). In the later translations, his hair becomes as “white as wool”[3] thus neatly evading the question of whether Jesus had curly hair. For many, their notion of Jesus is more important than what the story demands.

Lest we think these interpretations are harmless buffoonery by misguided fanatics, these tellings are by times ominously overloaded with narratives of power and control. In the British colonial system in Nigeria—if we use the example of my student who is a Nigerian Christian—blacks are taught to bow before a white Jesus. To this day, even after British rule has been routed, millions of black men and women teach their black children to bow before the white man left behind by the former regime.

As readers we do not just construct an alternative story, or build in information where the story leaves gaps, as we see in the case of the bible and The Hunger Games, in some cases we also actively fight with the story to create their own characters. This speaks much more strongly to our investment in character than it does our love of literature. We have an image in our head and reality needs to conform to it.

I would feel narratively irresponsible if I didn’t “round my tale” by a return to the Twilight obsessed girlfriend momentarily. We cannot just leave her avidly watching movie after movie, reading fan fiction into the wee hours until she requires spectacles and her boyfriend leaves her in disgust. After writing about the power of our imagination to demand that narrative our lives, it would only be appropriate to consider the fallout of the woman’s interest in the series made for teenagers.

After spending her nights on the fan fiction sites, she eventually became dissatisfied with her relationship. She told her boyfriend that she felt they weren’t romantic enough, and when he asked, rather indignantly, whether she were comparing their real relationship with a fantasy from a book, the answer wasn’t to their liking. The image the woman found in the books and movies—as well as the fan fiction which were more poorly realized versions of the same story (and thus fueled her fevered imagination even more)—was more compelling than the intimacy she’d felt for four years with her current boyfriend.

This collusion with the reader and the text is powerful. It has the potential to disrupt and change lives, and should not be taken lightly. “The face that launch’d a thousand ships” is both a literary description of Helen of Troy, and in subsequent times the image of beauty tied to jealousy that has informed many a boyfriend’s justifications about their jealous rage.

The hot medium, in McLuhan’s terms,[4] which is film supplies much more information and thus allows for less writerly engagement. The characters already occupy two dimensional space, while the written text leaves enough gaps that the readers’ imagination hastily fills with their own story, which is more in line with their own expectations, and as we see above, prejudices.

Reader investment in character can be pedagogically useful. It becomes easier to explain the way the literary subject position works if the readers have already experienced being the characters in the stories they read. My close friend read the Harry Potter series when she was a child. That textual experience was so real to her that she imagined that any day a letter would arrive from Hogwarts inviting her to join the other magic school children, and perhaps more importantly to her, to escape from her life.

Very often I will say to my students, when we finish with the story or novel for the day, that we are leaving the characters where they are until we take them up again. I emphasize the characters’ situation as if we should pay attention to them in our absence. If the characters are in dire circumstances—as they sometimes are because I teach end of the world literature—then I tell my students that we are morally obligated to see them to safe ground before we exit the classroom.  If we do not do so, then we leave desperate people facing imminent collapse over a weekend until class on Monday when we recover the story enough to send them to their fate.

The students find my conceit comical, but also begin to collude rather naturally in the idea that the characters have a kind of life outside of their readers, but one that is tied to the story so that they are frozen in place until the reader allows them to move. In this way, the characters resemble what people think about their household pets. Rather than imagine the life of their dog abandoned in the house for the day, the pet owner would rather think of them as in hibernation until the attention of the absent caregiver once again enlivens them by their presence. In this interpretation, the characters in stories both have a life independent from the reader, in the sense that they always occupy the story, but are also dependent on reader attention. Without the reader’s gaze they are fixed in the tableau where they were last seen, forever caught just before a contrived denouement.

The story I tell my students about the characters in the texts are rather like the cliff-hangers of the detective and adventure television genre. In the heady days of episodic television—long before Netflix binge-watching—the viewer had no choice but wait a week before they were privy to their favourite characters’ fate. No doubt they pondered the narrative possibilities of the story, but for the most part they saw their favourite characters as transfixed, waiting for the next episode to carry on with their lives.

In this version, the girlfriend’s vampire is in the wings waiting to bite, the letter to my friend about entrance to Hogwarts was misplaced by an unwary owl, a white Jesus merely awaits the day of judgement to see all his old friends, another film will be made featuring a lighter Rue that more closely suits the fans’ prejudice, and the characters in the stories I teach my students require our attention to fulfill their artificially attenuated lives. Virtual reality technology may never match the phenomenological world, but neither are a match for the fever dreams of our imagination, as stoked by the flimsiest pieces of tinder, they burn with all the passion of our desire and visionary selves.

[1] This “fictive corporeality” that the reader creates from the writerly narrative operates on an entirely different level of discourse than historical “abstractions” (Hutcheon, “Postmodern Problematizing” 368).

[2] Greenwald, Anthony G. and Mahzarin R.Banaji. “Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes” Psychological Review. 102:1 (1995), 4-27. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.102.1.4

[3]  Aramaic Bible in Plain English. http://biblehub.com/aramaic-plain-english/revelation/1.htm

[4] McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964.

About Barry Pomeroy

I had an English teacher in high school many years ago who talked about writing as something that people do, rather than something that died with Shakespeare. I began writing soon after, maudlin poetry followed by short prose pieces, but finally, after years of academic training, I learned something about the magic of the manipulated word.
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