Ophelia, I'm Only Dancing: Lies, Damned Lies, and Metafiction

So Noah persuades us there’s nothing wrong with metafiction per se. I’m inclined to agree with everyone. But Noah’s examples — Hamlet, Don Quixote, and the Alice stories — show us precisely what’s wrong in the particulars.

(1) Is Hamlet playing? Is Hamlet magical and wonderful? Or is Hamlet the tale of a college dropout with a crisis of disbelief in the sacred and the profane alike? A crisis so profound that he rots the world, and those around him, with metafictions that make Polonian politics look positively naive? Hamlet’s metafiction is entirely without innocence; what is rotten in the state of Denmark is Hamlet’s corruption, and Hamlet’s corruption bears rotten metafictions. Unable to obey the authority of his real father, Hamlet conjures a ghost. Unable to bear the reality of his mother’s virtuoso coping strategies, he cruelly destroys Ophelia with metafictions, pulling her so far into his play of self-contradictions that she really does lose the difference between a hawk and a hacksaw. Unable to really kill Claudius, Hamlet kills his metafictional proxy, Polonius. Hamlet’s refusal to acknowledge reality is actually his horror at being trapped by reality into being held inescapably accountable for his actions. So his wicked strategy of evasion is impossible: his not-doings turn constantly into doings — into undoings, that is. He undoes everything and everyone around him, including himself.

You can tell Hamlet is great art because Horatio survives, something that would never happen in real life and which is Shakespeare’s fictional insistence upon the permanent possibility of innocence. But what about that ghost? Horatio, a ‘fellow student’ who has learned full well that ghosts are metafictions (“So I have heard and do in part believe it”[I.1.165]) sees the thing before Hamlet. This is Shakespeare’s subversive recognition of the risk to our innocent faith in reality which always resides within us. But where Hamlet sees the void and follows, Horatio recoils in sacred fear of metafictions:

What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? Think of it.
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath. [I.4.69-78]

“Be ruled,” Horatio implores literally. “You shall not go.” But Hamlet insists, warning, more literally than he cares to admit, “I’ll make a ghost of him” that blocks his way to that rendezvous with the Nothing. Hamlet’s metafictions, ghost included, are toys of desperation, playthings with no creative inspiration aside from despair at the void that gazes back into him.

(2) Don Quixote is of a different order, although here, too, metafiction is the product of an incompletely mad mind. But unlike Hamlet, Don Quixote is only sane out of the south southwest, and sometimes not even then. Still, he seems to acknowledge his fool’s errands, fleetingly, for what they are — and to redouble his efforts accordingly. Quixote’s efforts are metafictional performances of the authority of the dead, whereas Hamlet’s aim, unsuccessfully, to deny and destroy it. So Don Quixote needed updating for moderns. Franz Kafka’s metafictional remake is appropriately enough called “The Truth about Sancho Panza.” The playing around in that story is less evil than Hamlet’s, but no less serious. Sancho’s stakes are higher than ours. We may delight at an intimate distance in the wonder of Quixote’s knowing and non-knowing. Kafka’s Sancho is secretly creating the object of our appreciation. His marvels and wonders are not ours. His truth and fiction are too closely interchangeable for comfort, and bonded by guilt. Our spectator’s levity cannot persist in a relationship with his creator’s gravity. To share in Sancho’s wonder we must share in his guilt at creating Quixote’s living metafictions. The innocent separation of knowledge and knowingness collapses in the intimacy.

This is the risk run in playing the dangerous game of constructing realities that are fictions and fictions that are realities. Kafka’s Sancho makes good on that risk because he has so tightly circumscribed his paradox: with Quixote and himself, he is constructing one single relationship. Adding layerings of metafiction, as Hamlet does, adds illusory escape hatches and fire exits. Kafka’s Sancho develops his metafiction so as to bring on a reckoning for which he hasn’t the courage. Hamlet develops his own so as to indefinitely postpone a reckoning which works its vengeance out on him anyway. Our contemporary play seeks to have it neither way — by lowering the stakes and multiplying the layers, we can, we hope, hop endlessly among shifting perspectives, never trapped in the responsibility that follows on performance in reality. But this move raises the stakes of the dangerous game. Becoming less conscious of the risk involved increases it. Suddenly becoming conscious of it, under the pressure of both believing and unbelieving, may trigger a shattering disillusionment — and a disgust for all fictions.

(3) The Alice stories press us into a reckoning with disgusting fiction. For Alice, metafiction is clearly vertiginous, and at its worst is punishment for the sin of boredom, which is the loss of delight and wonder in reality. We all know what a bad idea it is to consume hallucinogenic drugs that take effect in time for the Tweedledee and Tweedledum sequence of the animated Alice. A reckoning with the horror of the situation were T. and T. real leaves one with a permanent residue of skepticism in the innocence of any fiction. At its best, metafiction teaches us what it teaches Alice. Tweedledee and Tweedledum are, in their very origins, fictional proofs of the truth about metafiction. Reference to Wikipedia reveals the birth of T. and T. as onomatopoetic melodic flourishes and their transformation into ‘real’ characters:

The words Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee make their first appearance in print in an epigram by John Byrom (1692-1763) where they are clearly nothing more than onomatopoeic representations of similar musical phrases:

Some say, compar’d to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
Strange all this Difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!

Byrom mockingly asserts the triumph of bare reality over the ‘deep’ metareality of creating critics in their criticism of creation. Byrom wants to humble us in the frenzy of our social construction. Perhaps unfortunately he mostly managed to further it: what he attempted to banalize ended up being personified and so un-banalized.

Starting in the early nineteenth century, collections of nursery rhymes began to include:

Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Agreed to have a battle;
For Tweedledum said Tweedledee
Had spoiled his nice new rattle.

Just then flew down a monstrous crow,
As black as a tar-barrel;
Which frightened both the heroes so,
They quite forgot their quarrel.

As ‘real’ boys, T. and T. confront the same problem that plagued them as not terribly different musical sequences: the arrogance — or the transgressive triviality — of fictive meaning. Freud repressed the true meaning of transgressive triviality, calling it the narcissism of small differences. The nursery rhyme above, like most, conveys dangerous realities obliquely, through fiction. To teach children horrible truths about the true world without truly horrifying them, we give them the consolation of the fictional contrivance by which the lessons are presented. Children quickly understand the importance of knowing yet not knowing in this way.

So can metafiction become our prime technique in the art of learning how to believe our own lies. What it should do is keep us appropriately humble before the awesome inescapability of reality — cf. The Picture of Dorian Gray, another metafiction to be gainfully compared with the teaching of Alice, and no child’s play.

Wilde (like Bowie) knew all about how metafiction could be a feast with panthers, in a way Shakespeare and Kafka also knew. And on this point, as well as those concerning Hamlet and Quixote, I have very closely followed Philip Rieff’s remarks in The Crisis of the Officer Class.