Based On A True Story?
By Manfred Weidhorn
One of the changes which movies have undergone in the past decades is the swelling of the credit listings, notably that of the producer class. There used to be one or two, but now we have Producers, Co-producers, Supervisory Producers, Co-executive Producers, Executive Producers, etc. Apparently if someone cleaned out the garbage pails in the Executive Office, he was a producer.
But a more intriguing change is the increase in the number of movies which state, "Based on a true story." This phenomenon raises some philosophical questions. What sort of protection is being sought – or reassurance being offered – by this claim? Does being based on a frankly fictional story make a movie less insightful or engaging? Is there loose in the culture some kind of distrust of the imagination, or do we feel guilty about indulging in what might seem to be escapism? And is Don Quixote therefore correct when he asserts, "Fictional tales are better and more enjoyable the nearer they approach the truth or the semblance of the truth, and as for true stories, the best are those that are most true"? Or does that go too far? The quest for total veracity reached its reductio ad absurdum in Andy Warhol's legendary five-hour film of someone sleeping; nothing could be more "real", ie. unadulterated by fictional adornment, than that. The trouble is, of course, that while what the film offers may indeed be "true", a man sleeping is not much of a "story".
One might respond to the spreading slogan by saying that, hey, it's only a movie – what can one expect from popular entertainment? But actually movies are a branch of literature, albeit in a different language. They are the product of the melding of the theatre, the novel and the photograph: from theatre come physically staged, acted-out dramatic scenes; from the novel come extended plots and multiple, rapidly shifting scene settings; from the photograph (when in motion) comes the sensuous appeal to the eye. The invention of the motion picture camera (which, along with television later, was originally thought to discourage reading) has in a way extended literacy, though an admittedly attenuated form of it. In pre-modern eras, when most people were illiterate, they had no access to literature other than through the communal storytellers (as still can be seen in the town centre of old Marrakesh). Epics, romances and novels were therefore "read" silently by very few individuals. But the motion picture, in substituting image and sound for written word, makes non-bookish or even illiterate people familiar with novels and enables them to speak intelligently – up to a point – about Achilles or Tom Jones or Anna Karenina.
If movies are, then, a new form of the novel, a more challenging question is: How does that phrase "based on a true story" apply to the rest of the traditionally written canon of Western Literature, in which such reassurance is apparently not normally sought or given? The authors of tall tales (pun intended) like Gargantua and Gulliver's Travels had no fears about the ontological status of their works. If they stipulated or implied "based on a true story," they were clearly being ironical. Gulliver's Travels, to be sure, began, like The Faerie Queene, as an allegory about contemporary political events, but both authors, carried away by the allure of pure fantasy, soon abandoned their original "true story". Allegory or fantasy, moreover, can be "real". The plot of Kafka's Metamorphosis is literally impossible yet is "based on a true story": The consequences of being turned into a beetle is a metaphor for what happens to one's most intimate family relationships when, as a result of a terrible accident or of terminal illness, one is uglified and becomes a burden on others. Such disasters occur every day somewhere in the world.
Actually, the concern for some sort of verisimilitude is not so rare in literature and not confined to modern times. In his Paradiso, Dante meets his ancestor, Cacciaguida, who charges him with telling the public the tale of his journey in the afterworld. Accepting the duty, Dante rules out being "a timid friend to truth"; his words may prove to be "harsh", but he is instructed to "put away every falsehood and to make plain" his vision of the "souls that are known to fame," meaning mainly historical figures. So the agenda of the Commedia is to offer true stories about real people.
If Dante is faithful to the truth with reference to the afterworld, Chaucer is the same in dealing with this world. In the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, he excuses his lapses into indecorous language by citing his obligation to not tamper with the reality which he is, allegedly, transcribing. Either he gives the precise words used by his characters, or he is guilty of fabrication. The inference is that he goes beyond even the "based on a true story" formulation to present a "true story", pure and simple. While the stories many of the pilgrims tell are clearly fictional, the framing narrative about the pilgrims telling the tales is apparently a direct transcription of what happened, without ornaments or other forms of poetic license. That he is indeed incapable of being an artist who invents material is "proved" when he turns out to be the only pilgrim whose (chivalric) tale is so awful that he has to be shut down by the others. One is of course free to surmise that Chaucer is using here some of his famous irony by pretending to be nothing more than a recording clerk. But the homage to "reality" is telling.
Dante and Chaucer make for a curious contrast on the question of verisimilitude. For Chaucer, the individual tales are imaginative constructs (often borrowed from other writers), but the framing narrative is offered as "real". For Dante, the autobiographical brief sketches by historical figures are, or feel, real enough, but the framing narrative is problematic. Chaucer can readily make the reader believe in the reality of his workaday world, with its characters setting off on a medieval version of a modern cruise, but Dante, by contrast, requires willing suspension of disbelief, for the truthfulness of his format is a problem. The Commedia has been regarded by millions of the faithful as a picture-perfect portrait of the universe under the aspect of eternity; the subject is allegedly historical and real, for the source is Scripture as well as the commentaries on it (and Aristotle's Ethics). But modern secularists (and, on Purgatory, even Protestants) would say that it is just a Christian mythology which has replaced Greek mythology. The Commedia is to them, metaphysically and psychologically, part of a delusion (about God, Jesus, Satan, the Afterworld) that grips an entire society and, aesthetically, a triumph of the creative imagination, achieved by the poet's participation in, and exalted celebration of, that illusion. To them, at least, the framework is definitely not a true story.
A few centuries later, Milton makes a similar claim to authenticity: He begins his Paradise Lost with the aspiration to "soar/Above the Aonian Mount." That locale is associated with the classical muses, with epic statement and inspiration. Does he actually hope to best Homer and Virgil in sheer narrative and poetic power? Perhaps so, but that would be audacious in someone using a vernacular language in an age which felt inferior to the masters who were blessed to have intimate acquaintance with the revered classical languages. A more likely interpretation of his assertion is that, whatever his poetic power may be, he has a better claim to superiority when it comes to subject matter. As he says in one of his prose polemics, "What the greatest and choicest wits of Athens [and] Rome… did for their country, I, in my proportion, with this over and above being a Christian, might do for mine" (italics added). Where Chaucer's understanding of the "truth" is to present in a realistic manner the people whom one might run into in an inn in 14th-century London (or, in different garb and vocation, in today's London), Milton claims fidelity to a more fantastic or miraculous story by proposing to write about the alleged First Man and Woman and a serpent. He might invent some material to flesh out what is in the original Bible text an abbreviated tale, but he feels confident that he is brought to these details, as did Dante probably, by traditional commentaries, as well as by his own divinely inspired intuitions. The resulting narrative is, for him as a Christian – if not for a modern reader – largely "based on a true story."
Addison a half century later spells out exactly what Milton implied. Unlike the provincial Homer and Virgil, Milton, according to Addison, wrote on a "subject" still greater than either of the former; "it does not determine the Fate of single Persons or Nations, but of a whole species," indeed of everything "in the whole Circle of Being." Hence the resulting "unquestionable Magnificence in every Part of Paradise Lost" is "much greater than could have been formed upon any Pagan system." What makes it greater has to do with veracity. Homer and Virgil could "dash the Truth with Fiction, as they were in no danger of offending the Religion of their Country by it. But Milton… was also obliged to proceed with the greatest Caution in every Thing that he added out of his own Invention." In other words, pagan epic writers took liberties with the truth, partly because their religion was false or imprecise, while Milton hewed closely to the Biblical tale, which, as the word of God, was completely true. (This analysis begs two questions:  Does that mean that any mediocre rendering of a Biblical tale is automatically aesthetically superior to even the most brilliant poem on a pagan "fictional" theme?  Was not the Greek lore as "true" for Homer and Virgil as the Christian one is for Milton?) But Addison is forced to concede that tampering with reality is part of the narrator's art because the Aristotelian requirement of a "Unity of the principal Action" ruled out Milton's relating events "in the same Order that they happened." That disruption of chronology means that we have not, after all, quite the true story of events as they happened but something "based on a true story."
One way of enhancing the reality of what is being presented in a work of fiction is to resort to metafiction or self-references, as the main character in a story becomes self-conscious about his ontological status. The normal tableau is of a protagonist in a play or novel who, like a person in "real life", is oblivious of being watched and analysed. A famous hypothetical fourth glass wall separates story and audience.
Sometimes a tiny breach is made in that wall, as when Aeneas in Carthage sees, in a large painting, a portrayal of the war he participated in and is fleeing from, including even an image of himself in combat. If he sees his own past through art, the opposite is true of the assassins in Julius Caesar, as Cassius sees art enacting in the future their present deed. He proclaims,
What the audience sees is supposedly a real event unmediated by a playwright because one of the characters in the scene gives his imprimatur to the reality of the action. There is a frisson in having someone in a work of historical fiction, especially onstage, briefly drop the pretence of being real and indicate awareness of his being, or becoming, a persona in a play – or vice versa!
Something similar happens in Cervantes's Don Quixote. The protagonist looks ahead to a writer who will record the facts.
Without that assertion, the reader might think that he is confronting a work of fiction, but to have a character within the work speak of being written up suggests that that person is in some way real and the book in question is biographical rather than fictional. Also vouching for the reality of the narrative is a character's remark (in the spirit of Chaucer) that the Don's behaviour is so bizarre that no one could make up a fictional story like that.
Further developments resulted in renewed self-assertion on the part of the Don. The success of the first book of Don Quixote caused, in an age without copyright laws, imitators to rush in and provide a sequel. Cervantes was thus prompted to write a sequel himself in order to defend the purity of his work. The result is a scene in Book II in which an attempt is made to have the Don and his squire appear to be real by contrasting them with their false counterparts in the pseudo-sequel. The Don announces that he "will let the world see how this new historian lies, by showing people that I am not the Don Quixote of whom he is speaking." So we have a presumed fictional character zealously insisting on his reality by commenting on the inaccuracy of a book allegedly about him, as well as expressing satisfaction over the success of the "real" book about him, which has sold 12,000 copies in many lands.
A character in a best-selling book aware of being in that book obviously must be real!
What in Cervantes are merely passing observations on the paradoxes of literature and life become the central theme of a play uniquely devoted to the ramifications of this topic. The relation of a "true story" to its retelling or portrayal is the central theme of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author.
A theatre company preparing to rehearse a typically inscrutable Pirandello play is interrupted by six characters who show up and demand that their collective experiences be dramatised. Their leader, "the Father", brings no book or script because the six characters embody the drama – they are the drama. When he insists that his own experience is more than just literature, we have, as in Don Quixote, the paradox of a character in a work of fiction claiming superiority to people in works of fiction, nay, even to the reader. After asserting that one may be born as either a living person or as a fictional character, the father pushes the metaphysical boundaries by asserting that fictional characters are more real than those "who breathe and wear clothes." (An alternative question also raised is whether the writer or his creation is immortal.) One must indeed concede to the Father the point that the world one meets, when emerging from a matinee in a movie theatre, does indeed not seem as literally colourful as was the movie.
These paradoxical assertions are explored as, later in the play, the director and the father argue about reality. On the one hand, the six characters are limited because they have "no reality outside of this illusion." On the other hand, "a [fictional] character really has a life of his own, marked with his special characteristics; for which reason, he is always a 'somebody'. But a [living] man may very well be a 'nobody'." The reality given birth by the staging is "truer" than are the role-playing actors. To prove this disturbing assertion, the Father contends that just as an individual's past experiences are unreal now, so his present experiences will be unreal in the future; when or where then, he implicitly queries, is reality in the living person? (One might inject here the similar question posed by Yeats about what stage in a person's life – which continually changes – represents the essence of the person: "Saw I an old man young/ Or a young man old?") The Father's claim of superiority for the six characters thus rests on the mutability of living persons and the stasis of fictional ones.
But how can a fictional character – someone who exists only in the form of curious black notations on a two dimensional page or who is performed for a brief while by an actor – be "real"? Could Don Quixote and Pirandello's "Father", in insisting on their reality, yet have some metaphysical ground to stand on? Let us perform a thought experiment. I go to the theatre to see Hamlet. When the performance is over, the lead actor returns into his life, as I do into mine, and Hamlet has disappeared. Obviously I am real, and Hamlet is a mere figment of the imagination who has strutted on the stage for barely three hours. But is that true? Only if "real" means flesh and blood and breathing presence, which I have and Hamlet lacks. But who says that this is the only definition of "real"? Suppose that endurance and fame constitute "real". Then indeed Hamlet – like his fellow fictions Oedipus, Quixote, Emma Bovary – is more real than I. At any moment, the play in which he appears is being read or taught or performed somewhere on this globe. He has been around for centuries and will long continue to be so, whereas I am known to an extremely limited circle of people and will vanish without a trace in a few years after my death. Why may not "real" just as well be defined in terms of endurance and fame rather than flesh and blood and drawing breath? So perhaps a fictional character, who never existed in flesh and blood, is indeed more real, thanks to the magic of art, than I. In the theatre, at the intersection of created personae and audience, the "real" Hamlet condescends to take time from a busy schedule in order to visit for a few hours with a roomful of unreal ghosts like me.
The discussion between the director and the pestiferous characters takes another turn when it results in a clash over the portrayal of what happened. The flashpoint is the fact that one of the female characters had undressed herself and now wishes, in the name of verisimilitude, to replicate the act onstage. The director, insisting on the claims made by the conventions of the theatre, refuses to allow such a breach of decorum. When the female character insists that the truth requires the undressing, the director dismisses that claim: "What does that matter? Acting is our business here. Truth up to a certain point, but no further." What the director proposes to do instead – a sentimental rendition of the undressing scene – outrages the character for its betrayal of reality.
The inference to be made is that insofar as every portrayal of reality is compromised by the limits imposed by form of expression, even the truest story is "based on a true story." As Arthur Miller says, "it is necessary to employ the artificial in order to arrive at the real… Stylistic strategies [are] employed by the playwright to trap reality on the stage." Or as Thoreau put it in another context, "Though you trade in messages from Heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business."
"Based" presents, of course, wiggle room. In light of the fact that famous autobiographies have been found to be somewhat distorted by the subjective ego of the writer, it can be stipulated that all books, or at least all works of literature, are at best "based on a true story." The question therefore becomes, does "based" mean a little or a lot of artifice? In the former case, the plotting hews close to actual events, which are slightly modified as dictated by narrative or theatrical necessity (as we saw in Pirandello's play). We all know about the small liberties which Shakespeare took – deliberately, not negligently – when, for dramatic effect, he collapsed Mark Antony's two speeches into one or made the historical elderly Hotspur the same age as young Prince Hal, even as Dante wilfully made Ugolino's children unhistorically very young. This mild poetic licence contrasts with the major liberties which Oliver Stone took in his Kennedy movie. It certainly is "based" on a "true" story, for the assassination of JFK and the ensuing investigation obviously occurred. But Stone's conspiracy theory has, to most knowledgeable observers, taken leave of reality. So the conclusion is that "based" can mean either being faithful to the bulk of the historical record (or to the novel being filmed) with only minor adjustments for the sake of optimal theatrical impact (as in the case of the colour of a sofa in the Pirandello play), or it can be an excuse for quickly taking leave of the bare minimum central events; in Stone's movie, once the director assumes the basic facts of the assassination, he feels free to invent as he wishes, without many scruples.
If the word "based" is ambiguous, even more so is the word "true". Beyond the question of whether the events in a tale ever occurred, there is the matter of what constitutes the stuff of reality. Turning life into narrative or drama is a complex process because of the elusiveness of the real. As Henry James put it, "The measure of reality is very difficult to fix… Reality has myriad forms… Experience is never limited and never complete." Hence what is selected for the recording of reality is inevitably subjective. The principles of selection vary throughout history and manifest themselves in three categories: texture of life, social class of the protagonist, and plot.
Texture: When one juxtaposes an early work like the Iliad or Beowulf with the latest novel, one sees vast differences in the minutiae of life. Primitive narratives contain highly limited notions of what is relevant or true. Many topics that consume the modern reader do not exist in early works: politics, love, sex, social classes, the internal life, especially its more unruly, immoral form. Beowulf's idealised, unwavering adherence to the warrior's code is central; it is also not quite believable, for he never confronts a moral choice, never runs into a dilemma. What he thought about premarital sex or monarchy or whether he had a normal moment of cowardice is immaterial to early poets and audiences. (Of course, the Homeric epics do deal with dilemmas and some politics but still lack many things considered important by modern readers.)
With the passage of time, the idea of what is relevant expands, and these diverse subjects, one by one, gradually enter the narrative canvas. As a result, in a modern story, the protagonist's life touches all areas of conduct and thought; his defecation, his possibly murderous or incestuous thoughts, his petty hatreds are as "true" about the whole man as is his success in one of the modern forms of combat – not fighting Grendel but eg. selling junk bonds to gullible clients. What is "true" is thus variable, socially conditioned, historically shaped.
In that evolution from the Beowulf to modern storytelling, a major phenomenon was the rise of the novel. Along with the development of capitalism, it greatly expanded the scope of literature to include the domestic sphere, middle-class life, mating rituals, the finding of a vocation, the disposition of money – all topics not much in evidence in earlier works (other than slightly in Greek New Comedy and its Latin derivatives). The 19th-century novel, furthermore, saw the rise of "realism" and then "naturalism", movements variously defined as shifting attention from middle-class milieu to working class, from decorous drawing room culture to sordid slum environment, from happy to grim endings. The theory was that, at long last, the story of the lower half or three quarters or nine tenths of the population was finally acknowledged as a part – perhaps an important part – of reality. A typical description of the change is by Guy de Maupassant, "After a succession of literary schools which have given us deformed, superhuman, poetical, pathetic, charming, or magnificent pictures of life [ie. the Romantic novel], a realistic or naturalistic school has arisen, which asserts that it shows us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Certainly that was the creed of the naturalist Zola, who went to the bizarre extreme of asserting that "the love of fiction is the most evil passion of the human heart."
To some, opening the world to those lower depths of society previously left out was to take a bad turn. That fastidious patrician, Henry James, for one, was not happy: "We are forever complaining, most of us, of the dreary realism, the hard, sordid, pretentious accuracy, of the typical novel of the period," which comes at the expense of "romance, poetry, and the ideal." He opposed an art that dwells on "the baser forms of suffering and the meaner forms of vice, to turn over and to turn again the thousand indecencies and impurities of life." More recently, Ayn Rand calls the "hard-core" realist a "vermin-eaten brute who sits motionless in a mud puddle, contemplating a pigsty and whines that 'such is life.' If that is realism, then I am an escapist. So was Aristotle. So was Christopher Columbus." These two dissenting writers believed that naturalism is actually a deviation from the "true story". In exhibiting, along with Nietzsche, contempt for or indifference to the common people, they cling to the exclusivist vision of life, seen in Iliad and Beowulf, held by the old monarchical-aristocratic ages.
Naturalism in fiction opened many doors. One item which is of special interest to modern people is sex. Whether Freud placed that topic on the front burner by making it the central human drive (by virtue of its being part of the Darwinian drive for self-preservation through replication) or whether, in the wake of the rise of Darwinism, sex became an unavoidable topic and Freud, swept up by the wave, merely provided a new rationale for the interest in it is a question best left to philosophers. What is undeniable is that most people think about sex a lot of the time, and this was an aspect of reality which the high literature of earlier ages ignored or suppressed. Under the new dispensation of psychological realism, the flaunting of the nude body (a phenomenon hitherto confined to painting and sculpture in museums) and the graphic description or depiction of sexual intercourse became (especially in film) increasingly obligatory during the 20th century. While some conservative thinkers and puritanical sensibilities might object – Henry James found Hardy's Tess "vile" because of "the presence of sexuality" in it – the modern mind holds that without such sex scenes the "true story" of man and his animal roots is being censored or twisted.
The quest to deliver the truth as far as is humanly possible also led to the invention of the stream of consciousness. Though minute versions of it can be found in a few of the secular poems of Donne and in Anna Karenina, this approach reached its apogee in Joyce, Woolf and Faulkner, and remains one of the tools that the modern narrator can resort to. The principle behind it is that the normal sentences that constitute narrative prose since time immemorial are artificial constructs. By cramming thoughts into the girdle of grammar, the tale bearer is not giving the whole story. So the stream of consciousness ignores syntax, punctuation, logic and coherence in order to convey the manner in which the mind actually works. One must admit, however, that the ways of the mind are so convoluted that, despite the new method's increased air of authenticity, the goal of duplicating the experience of thinking remains elusive.
The quest for conveying the truth runs into another obstacle. Human life involves not only bodies in a material universe but also minds in a mental one; every individual has around his or her head an invisible sphere known as consciousness. How is that duplex existence to be handled by writers? De Maupassant takes note of two approaches. On the one hand are the specialists in the "analytical novel", who, concentrating on motives, deal with the "smallest evolutions of a soul… and the most secret motives of our every action." (This was written before Proust.) On the other hand, the specialists in objectivity "carefully avoid all complicated explanations, all disquisitions on motive, and confine themselves to letting persons and events pass before our eyes." He himself prefers the latter method because people rarely "divulge the motives from which they act." But the question remains, which approach, if any, is truer?
Social Status: The rise of realism and naturalism has much to do not only with choice of details but also with social class or status. The student of literature may ask, to which social class do the main characters in a literary work belong – upper, middle, working, or people living on the fringes? At first, the answer was simple. The primitive writer's patrician outlook prevented any access to the variety of the human experience, especially to the everyday life of most people in his community. Of interest were only a few members of a ruling elite (of which the bard or writer was an important member). The rest of the populace – servants, fishermen, armour makers, cooks, washerwomen, carpenters, shepherds – is invisible and irrelevant. "Reality" in much ancient Greek (and Anglo-Saxon) imaginative literature is thus confined to the deeds and words of kings, tribal chieftains and warriors. 99% of the population is not considered important enough to be even glanced at. (The one exception, Thersites, functions as a loutish scapegoat.) Nor is that all. Even with the depicted elite, high selectivity was at work. The rulers and warriors portrayed were mythological ones (or those of long before). The actual rulers at the time of the poet's composition or recitation were as invisible as the fishermen. So "truth" or "reality" was then but a sliver of what we would now regard as the full human story.
That exclusivity lasted a long time. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, tales with literary pretensions also mainly concerned rulers and warriors. To be sure, the social barrier was becoming porous, and stories of people from other classes can occasionally be found. A few deviations from the norm – at least in tragedy – stand out: Dr Faustus, the first college professor to be a protagonist in a tragedy; Romeo and Juliet, a pair of upper-middle-class adolescent lovers; Don Quixote, a knight, yes, but someone elderly, retired, bookish and addled, rather than the typical warrior in the flush of youth.
With the passage of time, the sociology of literary protagonists expanded. The 18th century began to offer works like the trail blazing play The London Merchant (about a mere apprentice who becomes the centre of a bourgeois tragedy) or Defoe's two novels with morally dubious heroines.
In modern literature, of course, all social classes are represented. This change to inclusiveness has a philosophical basis. In the Renaissance, as in previous epochs, writing about the meaning of life or the human condition meant seeing things through the eyes of a high-placed man like King Lear; it also meant seeing the very best that mankind is capable of, as in the portrayal of those Renaissance Men, Henry V, Hamlet, Mark Antony (or, in earlier times and different locales, Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Oedipus, Moses, David, Beowulf). In a stratified society, the possibilities for spiritual exploration, for testing the boundaries of experience, for reaching the heights of human achievement, are limited to the few at the top. The answer thus given by literary works were thought to provide the ultimate truth about mankind, a truth at once noble and tragic.
But in modern times, to find out about the meaning of life, one often goes to the other extreme. The interest is not in the best human specimen but in the mediocre or sometimes the worst ones. So the only way moderns can approach the Hamlet story is from the vantage point of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are central in Stoppard's play, while Hamlet hovers on the fringe and remains sketchy. The focus has shifted from master to servant, reflecting the change in society from monarchy to democracy. Or the vantage point is of Beckett's Krapp (the name matters), or the same author's aged couples lodging in garbage pails or sandpiles, or O'Neill's lost souls trapped in Harry Hope's (the second name matters) bar. These burned-out people living in sordid conditions – all those left out of the Iliad and Hamlet – provide the only relevant truths about human existence. These characters are representative men, for a kind of majority rule trumps patrician exclusiveness. That is what life is like for most people, and they, rather than the exceptional few, are the ones who matter. Such classless (in both senses) persons could appear in Renaissance literature, if at all, only in a comic subplot, only speaking mainly in prose and clearly the object of derision. Mankind at this low level had nothing to tell the Renaissance audience about life, any more than does Thersites in the IIiad. In the modern setting, by contrast, larger than life protagonists like Oedipus, Beowulf, Hamlet – thanks to the corrosive effects of the findings of Darwin, Marx and Freud (even if, in the last two cases, dubious findings) – are seen as the products of fantasies, delusions. (In Arthur Miller's words, a tragic flaw is "not peculiar to grand or elevated characters… to the royal or the highborn," and the fear of falling short of one's ideal, as well as the "thrust for freedom", is "today" best known by the "common man".)
An interesting sub-category in the rise of the humble protagonist is the travelling salesman. While it would be false to say that he dominates modern literature, the fact that he appears at all, and in some classics of modern literature, at that, says something about modern culture. Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis, Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, Willy Loman in the Death of a Salesman make for an impressive gallery.
The explanation for this new type of protagonist is obvious. In a traditional society with a pyramidal social structure and with class stratification, unelected rulers monopolise human interest. In a democracy, the individual, however humble, is allegedly the ruler. The humbleness of the individual is even indicated in some of the names of the salesmen: Lo-man, Hick-man. And in a capitalist society, where, unlike in an agricultural or feudal one, mass production of goods and services reigns, selling is a central activity. Daily life, drowning in a sea of advertisements pitched to all the senses, revolves around the task of convincing people (a) that they need a given object or commodity, whether or not they realise it; (b) that the salesman's version of the product is superior to that of all rivals; (c) that the salesman, more trustworthy than his competitors, stands behind the product. That a Loman rather than an Achilles is the protagonist does not mean that we now have a better version of the "true story" than they did in antiquity; rather it means that the society has changed and, insofar as literature holds a mirror to it, literature changes as well. The Greek warrior was as true a version of life for that ancient audience as the travelling salesman is for us. We may, of course, continue to believe that ours, based on OTSOG, is a more rounded view of life.
Plot: The third determinant of "reality" is plot. What the author chooses as the source of his storyline is an implicit statement about what is essential. Does the story come from mythology (Greek or Judeo-Christian), history, autobiography, or entirely from the author's imagination?
Homer and the Greek tragedians did not, of course, have to post a "based on a true story" sign. They worked almost exclusively with Greek mythology (Aeschylus's Persians being one of the few exceptions). Tales and characters came from a world which, though (like the Bible) remote in time, connected directly with the audience. The myths indeed were their bible, their education. Athenians went to the theatre wondering not how the Oedipus story would turn out but what words would accompany the familiar denouement. The potential surprise lay not in the events but in the expressions. Suspense was also provided by the portrayal of character; while the Greek myth determined much of the story, room was left for some innovation. The characters in the House of Atreus story, though frozen in their roles, are very different in Euripides than in Sophocles. Neither author can claim possession of the "true" version of the tale. But the sequence of events is binding.
The conclusion is that the playwrights, by confining themselves to mythology, implied that, in being eternal, the myths are "true", while the everyday life of the people in the audience and in the city are ephemeral, less real and therefore not worth depicting.
The great exception was Aristophanes, who, despite his lambasting of contemporary Athenian society, could never have claimed his works to be "based on a true story." His plots and most of his characters sprang entirely from his own rich imagination. He was in fact the inventor of imaginative, original literature. Even a god like Dionysus or a familiar politician like Cleon is placed in anomalous situations and subjected to irreverent derision. Aristophanes also gives vent to many of the indecorous, obscene utterances and gestures that epic and tragedy leave out (even though these vulgarities must have been as much part of the texture of everyday street life then as they are now). Clearly his version of reality is subversive, and his notion of "truth" is on this matter, given his time and place, modern.
Aristophanes showed the way for later writers in antiquity – Menander, Petronius, Apuleius, Lucian, Longus – to invent story and character. In the Middle Ages, Greek mythology is replaced in good part by Christian lore (or mythology) and by the chivalric romance literature. The main body of the latter, forming a new mythology, centres on the Arthurian knights (besides the tales of the Charlemagne cycle or of barely recognisable classical figures). Here there is much room for inventiveness in plot and character. But some of the main characters (Gawain, Lancelot), like those in the Greek classics, remain ubiquitous. Then, during the Renaissance, writers like Pulci, Boiardo, Ariosto, Tasso and Spenser operate within the chivalric tradition but freely invent plots and characters. Or not invent: If T.S. Eliot said that minor poets borrow and great poets steal, the greats like Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton indeed stole their plots from history, chronicle, myth, biography, romances or other writers. As with the Greeks (always excepting comedy), originality in plotting is still not a major goal, though all these writers freely adapt the stolen material for their own purposes and times. Hence hybrids abound; Rabelais, for instance, clearly borrowed his basic fantasy from Lucian, but most of his material is original.
Only with the rise of the novel, beginning with Cervantes and Defoe, do plots and character come to have nothing to do with Greek mythology, Christian lore or chivalric romance. What is "true" shifts from Mt Olympus or Thebes or Jerusalem or Camelot to drawing room, country manors, inns, stage coaches and urban life. And what happens in these locales is shaped by the author's quest to contrive plots which no one ever thought of. Instead of being bound to the past, the author is as autonomous as God was in creating a new world.
Then in the 19th century, a new definition of what is real or true in plotting emerges – the self. Byron's Childe Harold was in many ways an early version of a thinly veiled piece of self-revelation. Dickens puts parts of himself into David Copperfield and Great Expectations. The next century sees a flood of major works of fiction that are autobiographical – Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (and, somewhat, Ulysses), Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, Proust's vast opus, Celine's Journey to the End of Night, Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. This is something definitely new. The major Greek writers offer nothing even close to being autobiographical. Dante's alleged autobiography is a generic Christian one, in the mould set by Augustine: I once was lost but now am found. It has far fewer personal details than the presumably non-fictional one of Augustine. And Shakespeare was not a Danish prince, a Moorish, Scottish or Roman general, or a primitive English king. He obviously drew on his own acquaintance with uncertainty, doubt, ambition, envy, parental misjudgement, sibling rivalry, jealousy, but neither the social status of his characters nor the narratives they are enmeshed in have anything to do with his life. Even the basic storyline is usually not of his own contrivance. As for Milton, one can see some autobiographical elements in his late Samson Agonistes, but they are well-hidden behind the overt Biblical tale.
The rise of autobiographical works of fiction, of plots shaped by personal experiences, suggests a pessimism about being able to grasp or convey the truth about the larger world. This subjectivity, or even solipsism, implies that the writer can vouch for his individual experience and not much else. No longer sharing in a communal narrative, each individual is in his own cocoon or cave. It also, in an age of egalitarianism and individualism, declares that any person's experience is as valid and representative as anyone else's. No need of Oedipus or Hamlet; John Doe will do just as well. Myth – Greek or Judeo-Christian – has become irrelevant; history appears vast and futile. Each author presumes to create a new myth out of himself, and indeed Stephen Dedalus and Marcel have staying power as points of reference, have ascended to the level of modern myths in the literary world.
Aristotle's Poetics contains a sentence that stands out for its simplicity and evocativeness: "Sophocles said that he himself created characters such as should exist, whereas Euripides created ones such as actually do exist." Raising the aesthetic question of whether the mission of the artist is to "imitate" the ideal or the real, the remark confronts us with one more difficulty in interpreting "based on a true story."
What is the truth about mankind? Is it the noble idealisation that man is prone to, or is it what the historical record shows (Voltaire's "collection of crimes, follies, and misfortunes")? Is it the world of Beowulf or that of Krapp? Is it, for example, the noble aspirations expressed by the sentence, "All men are created equal," or is it the society filled with slavery, racism, misogyny and social injustice in the midst of which that ringing assertion was uttered? Is that sentence to be taken as a statement of a goal which the community would or should strive to reach, or is it to be seen cynically as a sign of supreme hypocrisy? The 19th century naturalist novelists and the modern pessimists dwelled on the latter interpretation; the creators of Achilles, Beowulf and Hamlet thought the former. Or is there a third option, one which involves redefinition of (or a quibble about) the word "true", as Ayn Rand does when, citing Aristotle on poetry's superiority to mere history, she defines true realism as "not what men are but what men could be – or should be" and therefore calls herself an oxymoronic "Romantic Realist".
The irony is that both the idealists and the realists believe that their tales are "based on a true story" – and paradoxically both are right. The "true story" of mankind – the full story – includes both the "mud puddle" in which he dwells and the nobility of which he, however awkwardly, rarely, or incompetently, is capable. Human striving for an ideal is as much a part of the "true story" of mankind as is the sordid falling far short of the ideal – often within the same person. The "true story", then, encompasses both the ideal and the real, not either or.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 1 Jan 2018
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