Writing Machines

Tom McCarthy on realism and the real

In the introduction to the 1995 reissue of his 1973 masterpiece Crash, J.G. Ballard discusses ‘the balance between fiction and reality’. ‘We live,’ he writes,

in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.

The paragraphs that follow are a little disappointing, as Ballard unquestioningly endorses some rather conservative beliefs about writing: first, a psychologism (the writer ‘offers the reader the contents of his own head’), then a positivism (he must ‘devise hypotheses and test them against the facts’), then a moralism (his novel’s main purpose is cautionary, a warning against a brutal technological future). But there’s still something important here, hinging on that word ‘invent’. Ballard doesn’t tell us that novelists should ‘discover’ or ‘intuit’ or ‘reveal’ reality: they must invent it. Reality isn’t there yet; it has to be brought forth or produced; and this is the duty and stake of writing.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about reality in fiction, or reality versus fiction. Take the many articles about the ‘true’ writings of Karl Ove Knausgaard, or the huge amount of attention paid to David Shields’s polemic Reality Hunger. Time and again we hear about a new desire for the real, about a realism which is realistic set against an avant-garde which isn’t, and so on. It’s disheartening that such simplistic oppositions are still being put forward half a century after Foucault examined the constructedness of all social contexts and knowledge categories; or, indeed, a century and a half after Nietzsche unmasked truth itself as no more than ‘a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms … a sum of human relations … poetically and rhetorically intensified … illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions’ (and that’s not to mention Marx, Lyotard, Deleuze-Guattari, Derrida etc). It seems to me meaningless, or at least unproductive, to discuss such things unless, to borrow a formulation from the ‘realist’ writer Raymond Carver, we first ask what we talk about when we talk about the real. Perhaps we should have another look at the terms ‘the real’, ‘reality’ and ‘realism’.

Let’s start with ‘realism’, since it’s the easiest target of the lot. Realism is a literary convention – no more, no less – and is therefore as laden with artifice as any other literary convention. Ford Madox Ford, in a passage from Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, brilliantly skewers the claim that a certain prose style – that of realism – faithfully and objectively captures historical events and mental activity:

Life does not say to you: in 1914 my next-door neighbour, Mr Slack, erected a greenhouse and painted it with Cox’s green aluminium paint … If you think about the matter you will remember, in various unordered pictures, how one day Mr Slack appeared in his garden and contemplated the wall of his house. You will then try to remember the year of that occurrence and you will fix it as August 1914 because having had the foresight to bear the municipal stock of the City of Liège you were able to afford a first-class season ticket for the first time in your life. You will remember Mr Slack – then much thinner because it was before he found out where to buy that cheap Burgundy of which he has since drunk an inordinate quantity though whisky you think would be much better for him! Mr Slack again came into his garden, this time with a pale, weaselly-faced fellow, who touched his cap from time to time. Mr Slack will point to his house-wall several times at different points, the weaselly fellow touching his cap at each pointing. Some days after, coming back from business you will have observed against Mr Slack’s wall … At this point you will remember that you were then the manager of the fresh-fish branch of Messrs Catlin and Clovis in Fenchurch Street … What a change since then! Millicent had not yet put her hair up … You will remember how Millicent’s hair looked, rather pale and burnished in plaits. You will remember how it now looks, henna’d: and you will see in one corner of your mind’s eye a little picture of Mr Mills the vicar talking – oh, very kindly – to Millicent after she has come back from Brighton … But perhaps you had better not risk that. You remember some of the things said by means of which Millicent has made you cringe – and her expression! … Cox’s Aluminium Paint! … You remember the half empty tin that Mr Slack showed you – he had a most undignified cold – with the name in a horseshoe over a blue circle that contained a red lion asleep in front of a real-gold sun …

Once we’ve stopped snickering at the conjunction of the words ‘Slack’, ‘erect’ and ‘Cox’ (which, given the coy erotics of the passage, the way Millicent moves and stirs beneath its link-ups, strikes me as far from accidental), we have little choice, whatever our aesthetic disposition, but to surrender to Ford’s argument. This is, of course, exactly how events and memory both proceed: associatively, digressing, jolting, looping.

William Burroughs makes the same point when discussing his cut-up technique: ‘Take a walk down a city street … You have seen a person cut in two by a car, bits and pieces of street signs and advertisements, reflections from shop windows – a montage of fragments … Consciousness is a cut-up; life is a cut-up.’ He’s right as well. We don’t walk down the street saying to ourselves: ‘As I walk down the street, comma, I contemplate the question of faith, or adultery, or x or y or z.’ It turns out that the 20th-century avant-garde often paints a far more realistic picture of experience than 19th-century realists ever did. But it’s also the case that realism’s founders – if not their descendants – fully appreciate the scaffolding of artifice holding their carefully wrought edifices up, and take delight, from time to time, in shoving poles and ladders through the parlour windows. Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary, often held up as one of 19th-century realism’s triumphs, but he also wrote Bouvard et Pécuchet, in which two semi-educated men try to translate a series of cultural paradigms (‘being’ a gentleman gardener, ‘being’ an aesthete or a lover) into experiences that they might live (or re-live) in an ‘authentic’ manner, even re-enacting the postures from book illustrations in their bid for this imagined authenticity – with effects as farcical as those produced by their 16th-century predecessor Don Quixote. Balzac generated all the counts and countesses of his Comédie humaine – rounded characters who are so often admired for the way they seem to live and breathe – but his novella Sarrasine is a ruthless laying bare of the very mechanism through which the fantasy of the ‘natural’ operates. In mistaking a castrato – a simulacrum that has no original – for the most genuine and unadulterated embodiment of woman, the sculptor Sarrasine enacts the error at the source of realism itself. When his error is revealed, both he and Balzac’s readers are confronted with the fact that, as Barthes put it in 1970, ‘realism (badly named, at any rate often badly interpreted) consists not in copying the real but in copying a (depicted) copy of the real’; it ‘copies what is already a copy’. It is no coincidence that Bouvard and Pécuchet are trained, like Melville’s Bartleby, as copy-clerks.

It’s an interesting paradox that the 19th-century realists took the counter-realist impulse much further than the 20th-century anti-realists. Ford and Burroughs put forward a claim to have helped pioneer new and radical ways of depicting lived life accurately. But Balzac and Flaubert whip the rug out from under the very possibility of doing this. What opens up beneath the place where we wrongly thought a solid floor lay is an abyss, endlessly regressive, of convention on convention, code on code, reading of reading of reading. (It’s telling that Flaubert’s last text, the end-point to which this trajectory carries him, is a dictionary: the Dictionary of Received Ideas into which Bouvard et Pécuchet tapers off.) That such blatant and splendid take-downs of naturalism are written into the core of the realist tradition makes the naive and uncritical realism dominating contemporary middlebrow fiction, and the doctrine of authenticity peddled by creative writing classes the world over, all the more simple-minded.


So much for realism. What about the real? In a short scene in Nabokov’s incest-filled novel Ada, the young hero, Van, visits the shop of Mrs Tapirov, another copyist: people bring her objets d’art and antique furniture and she makes faithful reproductions of them. Van has brought something for Mrs Tapirov to copy; significantly, he doesn’t remember, as he recounts the story years later, what the object was: Nabokov has deliberately elided or left blank the spot, actual or conceptual, in which the original should stand. As Van waits to collect his goods, he idly strokes the flowers sitting in a vase on the counter – imitation ones, like everything else in the shop – and suddenly finds himself ‘cheated of the sterile texture his fingertips had expected when cool life kissed them with pouting lips. “My daughter,” said Mrs Tapirov, who saw his surprise, “always puts a bunch of real ones among the fake pour attraper le client. You drew the joker.”’ This extraordinary scene is intensely, and regressively, allegorical. It matters, perhaps, that the term mimesis has an ancient connection to a type of flower (the mimosa’s contortions when touched were said in Aristotle’s time to mimic the grimaces of mime): Mrs Tapirov’s artificial bloom-bunches not only imitate real ones but also stand for imitation itself, for all artifice. The real one hidden among them is pretending to be a fake that is pretending to be real. But what is the significance of this hidden real, the joker lurking in the pack, ready to jump out and surprise? In a novel as full of Russian childhoods as Ada is, full also of linguistic transpositions, and variants on Nabokov’s own name, it’s tempting to ascribe to this real the contours of some personal family secret; to ascribe by extension to the novel, and perhaps to all Nabokov’s work, the status of Mrs Tapirov’s shop: an emporium of simulations and reflections in which the real remains hidden by being disguised as the copy of what it actually is.


But sometimes the real is more than just hidden: sometimes its significance lies in its absence. Perec’s La Disparition famously contains no letter e – not only the letter most used in French (as in English) prose, but also the core of the words père and mère. Both of Perec’s parents having fallen victim to the Nazis (father in battle, mother in Auschwitz), several critics have heard in the French e its homophone eux, ‘them’. The real that lurks beneath the playfulness thus becomes, in this instance, both personal and historical, the joker-card a marker for the 20th century’s least funny moment. The same real – the Holocaust in particular – impinges on all of Beckett’s work, whose unnameables and catastrophes convey the horror and unspeakability of this event to which they never refer far more profoundly than the directly representational writing of, say, Primo Levi. The idea that a work’s unspoken real can reside in exterior historical fact is most lucidly stated, ironically enough, by one of Nazism’s intellectual architects, Carl Schmitt, who, writing on Hamlet, sees in the murder of James I’s father a true north that, although absent in the text itself, orients all its compasses, making England – or, rather, Scotland – the real of Denmark, and the real of medieval Danish politics the modern Elizabethan court.

This line of thinking is both appealing and risky: appealing because it sees fiction as haunted, like Elsinore, by the ghost of what it has excluded; risky because it sails close to the rocks of biographical or historical reductionism – find the real, ‘solve’ the work. It’s not the fact that James I’s father was murdered that makes Hamlet monumental, and it’s not some putative incestuous episode in Nabokov’s past that makes Ada rich and captivating. But it’s worth thinking about what the real in this sense means structurally – why it can be so necessary. In ‘Literature Considered as a Bullfight’, Michel Leiris compares the writer to a toreador. Imagine a bullfight without the bull: it would be a set of aesthetic manoeuvres, pretty twirls and pirouettes and so on – but there’d be no danger. The bull, crucially, brings danger to the party, and for Leiris, that’s what the real is: the tip of the bull’s horn. He, too, disappoints by offering candid confession and exposure of personal peccadillos as examples of dalliances with the bull-horn – i.e. Oprah literature. But Leiris’s conceit is rich in ways that even he seems not to realise. Think about it: if a matador is gored, the bullfight, the entire spectacle, suddenly comes to an appalled halt; what the bull’s horn brings to the party is not just danger but also the possibility that the party itself could be catastrophically interrupted. If the bullfight is an analogue for literature, and if the bull’s horn is a vision of the real, then what the real represents is an event, something that would involve the violent rupture of the form and procedure of the work itself. The real, here, is no longer anything like a fact or a secret. It doesn’t depend on any putative correspondence between the writer’s work and the empirically understood world. And it certainly has nothing to do with authenticity.

To go back to Ballard: I’d suggest that Crash enacts, in its finale, something close to this sudden intercession of the catastrophic real. The novel’s hero, Vaughan, a compulsive simulator of other people’s car crashes (Jayne Mansfield’s, Albert Camus’s, James Dean’s etc), which he repeatedly restages with consummate skill and style (making him a proxy for the figure of the artist or writer, much as Leiris’s toreador is), plots a ‘perfect’ car crash in which his own vehicle will collide with Elizabeth Taylor’s (not a stand-in this time, but the actual actress – that is, the genuine stand-in) at the precise moment of his orgasm: a supremely wrought marriage of techne, spectacle, sex, death and all the rest. He finds out when her car will pass such and such a spot, and plots the angles and trajectories and speed at which his own must meet it – but, disastrously, gets it fractionally wrong, misses her by inches and drowns in his own blood. So Vaughan, who has been in thousands of car crashes, meets with his first – and final – accident. The matador is gored, the real jumps out and punctures the screen or strip of film, destroying it. This is a real that happens, or forever threatens to happen, not as a result of the artist ‘getting it right’ or being authentic, but rather as a radical and disastrous eruption inside the always and irremediably inauthentic; a traumatic real; a real that is psychoanalytic as much as literary: the real that Lacan defines as ‘that which always returns to the same place’ and as ‘that which is unassimilable by any system of representation’. The challenge isn’t to depict this real realistically, or even ‘well’, but to approach it in the full knowledge that, like some roving black hole, it represents (though that’s not the right word anymore) the point at which the writing’s entire project crumples and implodes.

But this doesn’t quite answer the question of what the real is – what it’s made of. In the Critical Dictionary (to which Leiris also contributed), Georges Bataille (whose short novel Story of the Eye contains the most stunning matador-goring episode in all literature – forget Hemingway) addresses the idea of ‘formlessness’: they imagine a philosophy and aesthetics, or counter-aesthetics, in which existence is a relentless and ongoing process of ‘deformation’ that releases objects, and the world, the entire universe, from all categories of the knowable and denotable until they ‘resemble nothing’. Viewed from this position, a thing’s real would consist in its materiality: a sticky, messy and above all base materiality that overflows all boundaries defining the thing’s – and everything’s – identity. It thus threatens ontology itself. ‘Matter,’ Bataille writes elsewhere, ‘represents in relation to the economy of the universe what crime represents in relation to the law.’

Van’s flowers, by this measure, wouldn’t be a portal through which the real enters: rather, their smelly, pouting, wet-lipped, finger-smudging physicality would themselves constitute the real – an overwhelming realness that neither Mrs Tapirov’s craft emporium nor the entire architecture of Ada could contain. Bataille’s real is the material real that Francis Ponge spent his life trying and failing to manage, the failure itself being what the work is about. What happens when something as simple as an orange undergoes ‘the ordeal of expression’, Ponge asks, his phrasing giving equal weight to two senses of ‘expression’: ‘representation’ and ‘squeezing’. Unlike a sponge, he tells us (éponge in French, a play on his own name), which gathers its form back again, the orange loses its form when pressed. Its cells are crushed, its tissue ripped; there is spillage, but a husk remains and, on the squeezer’s part, a bitter sense of seeds ejaculated too soon. The orange’s realness imposes itself on the expressor, yet can’t be mastered or possessed by him. Despite its debasing – indeed, in its very baseness – the orange, like Wallace Stevens’s plum, ‘survives its poems’. Stevens turns to oranges too, and in a surprisingly similar way: in ‘The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade’ the fruit is the pithy counterpoint to the regimented order of the ideology in whose name the soldiers march, an interruption that in turn allows the intercession, as the poem’s final couplet puts it, ‘Of the real that wrenches,/Of the quick that’s wry.’


In one sense, then, the real is connected to trauma, and in another sense to matter. But these aren’t really two separate categories. For Freud, psychic trauma is a material phenomenon, since all mental existence is material: in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he defines the organism – human or otherwise – as being, at root, ‘an undifferentiated vesicle of a substance that is susceptible to stimulation’. The central nervous system is an ‘ectoderm’ or outside skin that serves as ‘an organ for receiving stimuli’ or ‘excitatory traces’. He also writes about embryology, and the earliest marine life, germ-plasms and protozoa, ciliates and infusoria, which store and replay ‘the history of the earth we live in and of its relation to the sun’. Five years later, in ‘A Note upon the “Mystic Writing-Pad”’, he describes the ways, jellyfish-like, ‘the unconscious stretches out feelers, through the medium of the system Pcpt.-Cs., towards the external world and hastily withdraws them as soon as they have sampled the excitations coming from it.’ These thoughts, full of medusozoan imagery, are prompted by his having come across a new invention, what’s now usually called a ‘magic slate’: a ‘writing tablet from which notes can be erased by an easy movement of the hand’. This solidly material object – it consists of a ‘slab of dark brown resin or wax’ over which a layer of translucent waxed paper is placed, on top of which lies a transparent piece of celluloid (the arrangement allows for the removal of inscriptions from the upper, outward-facing layer, but not the deeper, inner one, which retains all marks) – becomes his decisive model for consciousness and, ultimately, for life. We are all writing machines, jellyfish included.

The significance of this idea can perhaps best be expressed by a short sequence from what may be the most overlooked great British novel of the 20th century. Early on in Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book, the junky narrator embarks on a strangely Proustian sequence of perception and recall in which, watching a man urinating in a New York alley, he becomes

like a piece of sensitive photographic paper, waiting passively to feel the shock of impression. And then I was quivering like a leaf, more precisely like a mute hunk of appetitional plasm, a kind of sponge in which the business of being excited was going on, run through by a series of external stimuli: the lane, the man, the pale light, the lash of silver – at the ecstatic edge of something to be known.

Here they all are: sponges, plasm, stimuli, the shock of impression, consciousness as photosynthesis plus the re-enactment of that primal trauma – all brought into alignment by the obsessive subject of Trocchi’s book, the act of writing. The sequence kicks off a second recall loop, an analepsis to an Edinburgh pub into which the narrator once followed another man whom he’d seen slipping something glinting back into his pocket as he emerged from another alley, which prompts the image of the narrator’s fingers following the outline of a woman’s body carved by a blade in rough wood (‘I hadn’t known wood so intimately before’). These memories, eventually folding back into the present, compel the narrator to take the urinating man back to the barge on which he lives and sleep with him. Just before the seduction, he tells us of the first man pulsing through the second: ‘I experienced a sly female lust to be impregnated by, beyond words and in a mystical way to confound myself with, not the man necessarily, though that was part of the possibility, but the secrecy of his gesture.’ In confounding himself with the secrecy of the original gesture, he isn’t trying to understand it or decode it: he is performing an ‘act of remembrance’ that is also ‘a making of significance’. Each ‘fact’, he writes, is ‘a selected fiction, and I am the agent also of what is unremembered.’ The barge on which they make love floats on the ‘black ink’ of the Atlantic. Inside it there is virtually nothing: a single bed, a coal stove, a cupboard, dresser, chair and table – and a typewriter.