Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bernard DeVoto

The Literary Fallacy Revisited

Ted’s wonderful addition to our knowledge about the provenance of the “crazed veteran” stereotype is also a welcome reminder to be skeptical — very, very skeptical — when listening to literary types like me. For we are prey to what Bernard DeVoto, the historian and twenty-year columnist for Harper’s, called the literary fallacy. That is: the shiftless and insular mistake of thinking that we can somehow (in DeVoto’s words) “judge our society by means of literature and nothing else.”

DeVoto published The Literary Fallacy in 1944. (Fred Siegel, writing in COMMENTARY two years ago, called it DeVoto’s most important book, despite a Pulitzer Prize in history for Across the Wide Missouri and a National Book Award for The Course of Empire.) To the literary way of thinking, DeVoto said,

the criterion of an idea is its rightness as idea, not the knowledge which it represents or its correspondence to reality. The method of literary thinking proceeds from idea to idea by way of idea, with no check or control outside idea. It deduces ideas from assumptions, general principles, and universal abstract truths. It requires facts to conform to logic and it ascertains facts by determining what logic implies.

A literary historian may succeed, then, in tracing the figure of the “crazed veteran” through the literature of the Vietnam vet from Joseph Hayes to Philip Roth without any awareness at all that the true source might exist outside the literature. The fallacy has a power not unlike that of psychosis: no facts can penetrate from without, because they are converted into literary facts at the door.

Some novelists make sport of the fallacy. They have a lot of fun trying to show that the game of fiction — what Philip Roth calls the “game of let’s pretend” — is indistinguishable from the many ordinary ways in which we construct and comprehend the physical world. (Paul Auster comes to mind. See my review of his novel Invisible.) I like to think of this as the Kafka strategy, in which objective reality can be altered by a single sentence. (Except that Kafka then remains faithful to the alteration, which became as inalterable for the length of his fiction as any reality.) The glorification of the literary fallacy is Derrida’s deconstructionist axiom (self-refuting, but never mind) that literary thinking must proceed from idea to idea by way of idea, because there is no getting “outside idea.”

There’s a better way for writers to come to terms with the literary fallacy. Not surprisingly, it is Philip Roth who says it best. In American Pastoral, defending his approach to telling another person’s story, Nathan Zuckerman reflects:

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations . . . and yet you never fail to get them wrong. . . . You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle out of ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.

And how we know we’re dead — intellectually, at least? When we give up on trying to get them right. Whatever lies outside literature and encourages some writers to struggle (and fail) to get it right, including the history of slandering Vietnam veterans that Ted so ably sketches below, is the only thing that gives literature any value. Otherwise it is a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, like so much contemporary American fiction.

Ted’s wonderful addition to our knowledge about the provenance of the “crazed veteran” stereotype is also a welcome reminder to be skeptical — very, very skeptical — when listening to literary types like me. For we are prey to what Bernard DeVoto, the historian and twenty-year columnist for Harper’s, called the literary fallacy. That is: the shiftless and insular mistake of thinking that we can somehow (in DeVoto’s words) “judge our society by means of literature and nothing else.”

DeVoto published The Literary Fallacy in 1944. (Fred Siegel, writing in COMMENTARY two years ago, called it DeVoto’s most important book, despite a Pulitzer Prize in history for Across the Wide Missouri and a National Book Award for The Course of Empire.) To the literary way of thinking, DeVoto said,

the criterion of an idea is its rightness as idea, not the knowledge which it represents or its correspondence to reality. The method of literary thinking proceeds from idea to idea by way of idea, with no check or control outside idea. It deduces ideas from assumptions, general principles, and universal abstract truths. It requires facts to conform to logic and it ascertains facts by determining what logic implies.

A literary historian may succeed, then, in tracing the figure of the “crazed veteran” through the literature of the Vietnam vet from Joseph Hayes to Philip Roth without any awareness at all that the true source might exist outside the literature. The fallacy has a power not unlike that of psychosis: no facts can penetrate from without, because they are converted into literary facts at the door.

Some novelists make sport of the fallacy. They have a lot of fun trying to show that the game of fiction — what Philip Roth calls the “game of let’s pretend” — is indistinguishable from the many ordinary ways in which we construct and comprehend the physical world. (Paul Auster comes to mind. See my review of his novel Invisible.) I like to think of this as the Kafka strategy, in which objective reality can be altered by a single sentence. (Except that Kafka then remains faithful to the alteration, which became as inalterable for the length of his fiction as any reality.) The glorification of the literary fallacy is Derrida’s deconstructionist axiom (self-refuting, but never mind) that literary thinking must proceed from idea to idea by way of idea, because there is no getting “outside idea.”

There’s a better way for writers to come to terms with the literary fallacy. Not surprisingly, it is Philip Roth who says it best. In American Pastoral, defending his approach to telling another person’s story, Nathan Zuckerman reflects:

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations . . . and yet you never fail to get them wrong. . . . You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle out of ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.

And how we know we’re dead — intellectually, at least? When we give up on trying to get them right. Whatever lies outside literature and encourages some writers to struggle (and fail) to get it right, including the history of slandering Vietnam veterans that Ted so ably sketches below, is the only thing that gives literature any value. Otherwise it is a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, like so much contemporary American fiction.

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