I am a fictional character. However, you would be in error to smile smugly, feeling ontologically superior. For you are a fictional character too. All my readers are except one who is, properly, not reader but author.
I am a fictional character; this is not, however, a work of fiction, no more so than any other work you've ever read. It is not a modernist work that self-consciously says it's a work of fiction, nor one even more tricky that denies its fictional status. We all are familiar with such works and know how to deal with them, how to frame them so that nothing the author says-nothing the first person voices even in an afterword or in something headed "author's note"-can convince us that anyone is speaking seriously, non-fictionally in his own first person.
All the more severe is my own problem of informing you that this very piece you are reading is a work of non-fiction, yet we are fictional characters, nevertheless. Within this world of fiction we inhabit, this writing is non-fictional, although in a wider sense, encased as it is in a work of fiction, it too can only be a fiction.
Think of our world as a novel in which you yourself are a character. Is there any way to tell what our author is like? Perhaps. If this is a work in which the author expresses himself, we can draw inferences about his facets, while noting that each such inference we draw will be written by
"Fiction" by Robert Nozick appeared in Ploughshares, vol. 6, no. 3, Fall 1980. Copyright © 1980 by Ploughshares.
him. And if he writes that we find a particular inference plausible or vali who are we to argue?
One sacred scripture in the novel we inhabit says that the author our universe created things merely by speaking, by saying "Let there ..." The only thing mere speaking can create, we know, is a story, a pla an epic poem, a fiction. Where we live is created by and in words: uni-verse.
Recall what is known as the problem of evil: why does a good treat allow evil in the world, evil he knows of and can prevent? However, when an author includes monstrous deeds-pain and suffering-in his work does this cast any special doubt upon his goodness? Is an author callous who puts his characters through hardships? Not if the characters do n suffer them really. But don't they? Wasn't Hamlet's father really killed (Or was he merely hiding to see how Hamlet would respond?) Lear really was cast adrift-he didn't just dream this. Macbeth, on the other hand did not see a real dagger. But these characters aren't real and never were so there was no suffering outside of the world of the work, no real suffering in the author's own world, and so in his creating, the author was no cruel. (Yet why is it cruel only when he creates suffering in his own world Would it be perfectly all right for lago to create misery in our world
"What!" you say, "we don't really undergo suffering? Why it's as re to us as Oedipus' is to him." Precisely as real. "But can't' you prove that you really exist?" If Shakespeare had Hamlet say "I think, therefore I am, would that prove to us that Hamlet exists? Should it prove that to Hamlet and if so what is such a proof worth? Could not any proof be written into a work of fiction and be presented by one of the characters, perhaps on named "Descartes"? (Such a character should worry less that he's dreaming, more that he's dreamed.)
Often, people discover anomalies in the world, facts that just don jibe. The deeper dug, the more puzzles found-far-fetched coincidences dangling facts-on these feed conspiracy and assassination buffs. That number of hours spent probing into anything might produce anomalies however, if reality is not as coherent as we thought, if it is not real. Are we simply discovering the limits of the details the author worked out? Bu who is discovering this? The author who writes our discoveries knows them himself. Perhaps he now is preparing to correct them. Do we live, in galley proofs in the process of being corrected? Are we living in a first draft?
My tendency, I admit, is to want to revolt, to conspire along with the rest of you to overthrow our author or to make our positions more equal, at least, to hide some portion of our lives from him-to gain a little breathing space. Yet these words I write he reads, my secret thoughts and
modulations of feeling he knows and records, my Jamesian author.
But does he control it all? Or does our author, through writing, learn about his characters and from them? Is he surprised by what he finds us doing and thinking? When we feel we freely think or act on our own, is this merely a description he has written in for us, or does he find it to be true of us, his characters, and therefore write it? Does our leeway and privacy reside in this, that there are some implications of his work that he hasn't yet worked out, some things he has not thought of which nevertheless are true in the world he has created, so that there are actions and thoughts of ours that elude his ken? (Must we therefore speak in code?) Or is he only ignorant of what we would do or say in some other circumstances, so that our independence lies only in the subjunctive realm?
Does this way madness lie? Or enlightenment?
Our author, we know, is outside our realm, yet he may not be free of our problems. Does he wonder too whether he is a character in a work of fiction, whether his writing our universe is a play within a play? Does he have me write this work and especially this very paragraph in order to express his own concerns?
It would be nice for us if our author too is a fictional character and this fictional world he made describes (that being no coincidence) the actual world inhabited by his author, the one who created him. We then would be fictional characters who, unbeknownst to our own author although not to his, correspond to real people. (Is that why we are so true to life?)
Must there be a top-floor somewhere, a world that itself is not created in someone else's fiction? Or can the hierarchy go on infinitely? Are circles excluded, even quite narrow ones where a character of one world creates another fictional world wherein a character creates the first world? Might the circle get narrower, still?
Various theories have described our world as less real than another, even as an illusion. The idea of our having this inferior ontological status takes some getting used to, however. It may help if we approach our situation as literary critics and ask the genre of our universe, whether tragedy, farce, or theater-of-the-absurd? What is the plot line, and which act are we in?
Still, our status may bring some compensations, as, for example, that we live on even after we die, preserved permanently in the work of fiction. Or if not permanently, at least for as long as our book lasts. May we hope to inhabit an enduring masterpiece rather than a quickly remaindered book?
Moreover, though in some sense it might be false, in another
wouldn't it be true for Hamlet to say, "I am Shakespeare"? What do Macbeth, Banquo, Desdemona, and Prospero have in common? The consciousness of the one author, Shakespeare, which underlies and infuses each of them. (So too, there is the brotherhood of man.) Playing on the intricacy both of our ontological status and of the first person reflexive pronoun, each of us too may truly say, "I am the author."
Note From the Author
Suppose I now tell you that the preceding was a work of fiction an the "I" didn't refer to me, the author, but to a first person character. 0 suppose I tell you that it was not a work of fiction but a playful, and so of course serious, philosophical essay by me, Robert Nozick, (Not the Robert Nozick named as author at the beginning of this work-he ma be, for all we know, another literary persona-but the one who attended P.S. 165.) How would your response to this whole work differ depending on which I say, supposing you were willing, as you won't be, simply to accept my statement?
May I decide which to say, fiction or philosophical essay, only now, as I finish writing this, and how will that decision affect the character of what already was set down previously? May I postpone the decision further, perhaps until after you have read this, fixing its status and genre only then?
Perhaps God has not decided yet whether he has created, in this world, a fictional world or a real one. Is the Day of Judgment the day he will decide? Yet what additional thing depends upon which way he decides-what would either decision add to our situation or subtract from it?
And which decision do you hope for?