Utopia and fiction

When we focus on the literary aspect of utopia, the fictional nature of utopian texts often appears as a problem in their interpretation (for the other aspects read here). The feature of fictionality makes some historians and social scientist ignore such texts when they look at fact and fiction being in a binary opposition. Literary scholars, relying on the results of the philosophy of possible worlds (cf. Ronen 1994 and Dolezel 2000) emphasize the interrelatedness of fiction and factual reality, looking at fictionality as a matter of spectrum rather than an alternative to empirical reality. But fictionality has been an epistemological problem at least since Plato banned poets from the ideal republic. Ever since then it has been a significant train of thought that fiction has no truth value.

If we accept this view, fictive works may only serve some entertaining purpose and there is no point in taking them seriously, in drawing political or social conclusions. But if we look at fiction as non-existent, we run into several problems. Particularly, if we consider fiction as a feature of literary texts only, we cannot explain a number of phenomena in our everyday lives. Ruth Ronen in her Possible Worlds in Literary Theory draws our attention to the fictive elements outside literature: our dreams, our plans, our memories. She argues that every conditional sentence, every utterance reflecting on the future or on the past includes an element of fictionality and departs from the actual, tangible world. Without fictionality we could not live our lives, we could not even plan what dinner we would like to have, as the dinner does not exist until we finished preparing it.

Ronen also argues that the fictional status of certain phenomena or persons is culture dependent. Today we consider the gods of the Greek pantheon fictional – 2500 years ago in Athens they were considered real by most. The quasi-real status of some fictional literary characters can be experienced in our culture as well. In Verona, one can visit the balcony and the tomb of Juliet, even though she never existed outside the page (and Shakespeare’s text does not even mention a balcony, but a window).

Giulietta’s house in Verona – photo from Wikimedia Commons, Claconvr

Under 221b Baker Street in London one can visit the Sherlock Holmes museum dedicated to the great fictive detective whose cult survived the turn of the millennium. In the streets of Budapest one may find plaques dedicated to the venues and fictive characters of Ferenc Molnár’s popular novel, The Paul Street Boys (Pál utcai fiúk, 1906), including the birthplace of one of the main (fictive) characters. Some of these venues have become significant tourist magnets, places of secular pilgrimage, and it shows not only the marketing value of literary characters, but also their impact and importance in the reality outside the page – in other words, the interrelatedness of fact and fiction.

George Steiner reflects on the issue of fictionality in an even broader context when he calls it one of the cornerstones of human culture: “We endure, we endure creatively due to our imperative ability to say ‘No’ to reality, to build fictions of alterity, of dreamt or willed or awaited ‘otherness’ for our consciousness to inhabit. It is in this precise sense that the utopian and messianic are figures of syntax.” When we bear in mind the important relationship between fact and fiction, fictive texts (and other cultural artefacts) become a source for the understanding of historical phenomena, and utopian texts may help us understand the workings of human societies.

Zsolt Czigányik, Gerda Henkel fellow at DI

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