With one lover already under the bed, one hears the husband’s knock at the door, and the second lover is crammed into the closet. Subsequently, and with the ease and speed of dreaming, the first glides to the bathroom, the second to the fire escape. Of course it’s nice to be so much better informed than the husband; but why these volleys of silvery laughter from the stalls?
This fictional situation is somewhat different from anything most of the laughers can ever have experienced. Some of the women have had lovers, and a few may have been surprised by their husbands; but few can have been disturbed under precisely these conditions. They are not laughing because they recognize the situation; which is why the fellow in the closet is so interesting. He is totally improbable; he is there “for the sake of argument.” That is to say, he is just the kind of invention we habitually make for heuristic purposes, even of a trivial sort. He reminds us of other aspects of our behavior, more familiar but equally fictive, which we have developed for our comfort, in so far as that depends on an intellectual grasp of the environment. If my wife and I are simultaneously killed in an auto accident, the appropriate court will “deem,” that is, pretend, that she died first; in fact they will do so, I gather, even if she survives me by several days. This is an equitable dodge or fiction which prevents the double payment of estate duties. There are many such fictions, and not only in law. Vaihinger explained the degree to which intellectual activity in general is penetrated by them. Nobody confuses them with fact, and they therefore escape any critique of probability. They may be the only way to avoid the tautologies inherent in logical thinking. Bentham, who disliked legal fictions, was nevertheless willing, on certain terms, to admit “the necessity of mixing falsehood with truth, on pain of being without ideas.” However, he excluded poetry as entirely dependent on falsehood. It was Nietzsche who pushed ahead and argued that the world, as it concerns us, is wholly a fiction, so that knowledge is fiction, a man-made dream which, the poet says, must be our final belief. The test of such a fiction as the man in the closet is not one of probability, but of human value and human use.
There seems no reason to think that literary and dramatic fictions are generically different from others, though it appears that even among themselves they can be in some measure differentiated by the kind of work in which they are used. The man in the closet is a device lacking verisimilitude; it works in farce, but if it occurred in a novel we should be tempted to say that this was not a novel at all, but something else. Of all living practitioners the one who has most concerned himself with questions of this kind, so far as I know, is…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.