Critical Inquiry 11 (1):141-162 (1984)

If we try to arrive at the simplest and most universally valid definition of the representation of reality in literature, we may dispense with grammatical features such as verisimilitude or with genres such as realism, since these are not universal categories. Their applicability depends on historical circumstances or authorial intent. The most economic and general definition, however, must at least include the following two features. First, any representation presupposes the existence of its object outside of the text and preexistent to it. Readers feel, and critics pronounce, that the text’s significance depends on this objective exteriority, even though this significance may entail destroying the commonplace acceptance of the object; indeed, negating something still presupposes that something. Second, the reader’s response to the mimesis consists in a rationalization tending to verify and complete the mimesis and to expand on it sensory terms . The metalanguage of criticism accordingly prolongs and continues the text’s mimetic discourse, and critics evaluate representation in terms of its precision and suggestive power. Both processes—presupposition and rationalization alike—assume that referentiality is the basic semantic mechanism of the literary mimesis.There are, however, literary representations almost devoid of descriptive content, or so vague and so skimpy that their object cannot be analyzed or rationalized in sensory terms. Criticism is hard put to explain why readers feel compelled to evaluate them. And yet these texts not only lend themselves to interpretation but they are especially apt to trigger and control the reader’s hermeneutic behavior. In short, the represented object eschews referentiality yet refuses to vanish altogether, becoming instead the verbal vehicle of an interpretive activity that ends up by making the object subservient to the subject.1 1. See Roland Barthes et al., Littérature et réalité , esp. my paper, pp. 81-118, on the referential fallacy. Michael Riffaterre, University Professor at Columbia University, is the editor of Romantic Review. He is presently working on a book about Anthony Trollope . His previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, “Syllepsis,” appeared in the Summer 1980 issue
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DOI 10.1086/448279
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