The Forging of Unreality And the Powers of Literature

2 February, 2012 - 17:15 - 18:45

Conference at the Department of German & Romance Languages & Literatures, The Johns Hopkins University, Gilman 479.



French literature, as well as the culture it embodies, keeps on teetering under the attacks of those who, condemning either its formalism or its self-centeredness, whether from inside the boundaries or from outside, are nonetheless generally unanimous in criticizing its withdrawal. Facing a widespread doubt within the contemporary French literary field over the role literature can hold in a society so preoccupied with seemingly more pressing needs, virtually all key stakeholders respond the same way: they consistently favor realistic fiction at the expense of the rest. They seek to reaffirm, in various ways, the idea that literature is a shaping of the world, and as such ought to be considered an instrument of knowledge. One may recognize here the old cognitive argument that, since Aristotle, has always been used against the opponents of fiction, regardless of their battle cry.
I want to talk today about some contemporary writers who provide another kind of response to the question “What can literature do?”. Because their claim is to distort rather than to shape the world, and because they choose to experiment with impossible rather than possible worlds, their work demonstrates that the power of literature rests not only in its ability to recreate reality in order to help us better understand it, but also in its ability to redesign our conception of reality, in order to help us, eventually, to change reality itself.