While I have been writing about David Foster Wallace, and how his work has helped to define a new brand or genre or philosophical take on thinking or writing or creation, I realize that I haven’t codified specifically what radical literalism is. That is to say that I haven’t provided a succinct definition. I should state for honesty’s sake (since honesty seems to be a component of radical literalism) that I am not entirely sure that I can state succinctly what radical literalism is, but I will try, and then, with the help of any kindly readers who wish to post in the comments section (which I highly encourage), we can come to a consensus about how to talk about this new ‘ism’.
Radical literalism is at once defined in part by the concept of the ‘single entendre”, as well as the idea that there are truths that lie beyond simple empirical understanding. So, for instance, thoughts, feelings, ideas, concepts, emotions, et al are now on the table for consideration as capital R “Real” and can be treated as such. This then suggests that writers are free to write about these emotions, ideas, and the general stuff of the mind and heart at face value, or, if that doesn’t lend itself to the discussion the creator whishes to have, s/he is then able create an analogue that literalizes an amorphous, tough-to-express, or otherwise un-codified real or reality (or unreality or irreality for that matter).
Okay, there. That is a good first attempt. Now, let’s unpack it a bit. It might first be a good idea to put out there briefly that there is currently debate surrounding the idea that all non-fiction has to include elements of fiction as it is always and at all times filtered through the mind and voice of a singular writer. For now, I will pause in my discussion of non-fiction as it is better suited for another posting of its own, but in order to get at what radical literalism is, it might be best to keep the fact that non-fiction is problematic as a genre in mind.
I do indeed see radical literalism as lending itself to what is now referred to as ‘non-fiction’, which is of course filled with fabrication, in that it opens the possibility of creative constructions of a metaphoric nature in order to discuss what is intangible, which would lend itself greatly to the understanding of creative non-fiction by allowing metaphor to operate freely and still be considered real or non-fiction. Also, the title of ‘radical literalizations’ suggests that these creations be a ‘literal’ representation – that these constructions be treated as real within the writing. So, no longer would a piece of writing talk about concentric rings on water after a stone has been thrown upon a placid pool as standing in for the ripple-effect of life’s choices, but life’s choices would be the stone, the ripples are the affects. In a radical literalist work, a man doesn’t take an inner journey, he would literally take a journey inside of himself (much like the plot of The Windup Bird Chronicle or Being John Malkovich); it is by doing this that we truly acknowledge the reality behind our human emotions, thoughts, ideas and more, which, for now, are thought of as nothing but aether and fluff and the stuff of intellectual property lawyers.
I recently read Jenny Boully’s The Book of Beginnings and Endings and I think that some of what she has to offer will help to clarify radical literalism. The book consists of the first page of various articles or essays as well as the last. The book calls attention through recontextualization to the importance, or lack thereof, of beginnings and endings as well as what might be the arbitrariness of middles. At any rate, the book deals with ideas surrounding what we, as readers and humans, tend to not only believe, but believe in, including the ways in which ‘truth’ is framed and what and how we frame ‘reality’ or the ‘real’.
Much like Wallace, Boully writes with an earnestness that is at once insistent and clear, but also works hard to ensure that the reader is aware of her desire to get at what is honest, real, and true. Throughout the book she says things like, “Believe me” (5). She is concerned with ‘belief’. Her book also seems to question how one goes about writing the ‘truth’, or one goes about writing in way that is emotionally honest and will be perceived by readers as such. Boully’s book does some of the work through its very form, not only the first and last pages, but the writing style itself, which is often comprised of short and succinct sentences or statements that are hard to deny or complicate, “The publishing houses give dead authors contemporary book covers and jackets, making it seem as if these writers were still living” (7). By offering readers statement such as these, Boully seems to be suggesting that a good place to build trust or faith between reader and writer might be with information generally regarded as fact. It is from this foundation that she is then free to move outward to tougher to express truths.
Another theme of the book seems to be “faith” or belief. In a competition of empirical knowledge and that of faith Boully (seems to) suggests that there is no need to choose, that these things are inextricably tied together. She writes, “Children live in miracles, but for the adult a miracle becomes something unbelievable” (19). It seems that she sees adulthood as a place where the miraculous is non-belief or that what cannot be explained is interpreted through the idea of the ‘miracle’. The idea of the miracle is then up for question: if miracles are what we use to explain non-belief, what does it mean to then believe in the idea of the miraculous? So, we don’t believe in the event that sparked the label ‘miracle’, but we believe the miracle. How do we express this notion in our writing and creation?
Boully herself provides a succinct(ish) answer to this question, and a statement that might really help to get at the heart of radical literalism:
For those of you who have reservations about hope, who need more than what you may deem to be speculation, perhaps it will help if you think of possessing wings in terms of metaphor. In other words, the representation of wings in art represents the actual wings, which in turn represent something else. The difficulty rests in trying to convey the true meaning of metaphor. Rather than being a comparison, metaphor serves as a representation of an actuality twice (perhaps thrice or more?) removed (33).
It is tough to unpack this, I find that I want to provide an example, but Boully has already done that with the idea or concept of wings. I suppose, for me, the best example or way of explaining this, or the way that I have recently been thinking of how this idea of metaphor as put forth by Boully works, is to relate it to language itself. Words, even the words I am putting to digital code right now, are nothing but metaphorical or symbolic representations of objects, thoughts, ideas, processes, emotions or a million other ‘things’ already twice removed in that they are the familiar alphabetical representations we all know but now also a series of ones and zeros. But if I say (or type or encode) the word table, a different picture of a ‘table’ will enter your mind than the picture I develop in mine. I don’t want to get into Socrates and Plato and their “theory of forms”, but suffice it to say, words are symbolic in nature (a third removal?). Therefore, and I think that Boully would agree, it would be nice if we, as readers, writers, and thinkers, could then invest these symbols with some faith or belief in their ability to express something deep or profound or something that possibly lies outside of the world of words, which means that we must/can treat metaphor literally. This means, for me at least, means a wonderful, if not drastic, shift in thinking. What do words like “love” and “hate” mean in light of this thinking?
Again, Boully’s writing tries to convey this. She is constantly reaching for truth and understanding by treating ideas, whether written or otherwise, as true in a literal sense, “It was wrong of me to believe that you had invented your stories; even the alluded-to rocks were based on real rocks and so the girl whom you met in the rain, who slipped suddenly into your car to say that she had always loved you, she was true” (3). Here we have Boully writing about another written piece that may or may not be classified as fiction (the reader is never told), but whether it is or isn’t doesn’t matter, it is the truth behind the words, which are merely symbols for that truth anyways, that matter. In light of all of this, fiction and non-fiction can be read the same way with the same sorts of reading strategies. As a matter of fact (no pun intended), it might be a good idea as we start to grapple with these notions, to begin by reading fiction as fact and non-fiction as fabulosa. Boully, again, sums it up nicely and provides what might be a nice stopping point for this part of the discussion: “What a novel can accomplish that real life cannot is miraculous indeed” (21).