Print Edition



Mar 5, 2021

Where Do Imaginary Figures Come From?

Read Time

Eva Brann Small

Eva Brann

St. John's College

Eva Brann, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, is the longest serving tutor at St. John’s College.

More About this Author
Barnette Cropped

Sarah Barnette

Sarah Barnette is a scholar of English literature with an interest in Victorian literary ethics.

More About this Author

Where Do Imaginary Figures Come From?

A conversation on the origin of fictional beings and the notion of artistic creativity

Eva Brann, who studies classical philosophy and was dean of St. John’s College where she served as a tutor for sixty years, penned a fascinating essay titled “Myths versus Novels” comparing the two genres and explored whether the fictional beings that reside in these genres have essential natures. A central question she raised related to how we, as readers of imaginative works, understand the origin of such fictional characters. We asked another Renovatio writer, Sarah Barnette, whose interests include Victorian literary ethics and the outsize characters that populate modern novels, to engage in a conversation with Eva Brann about the characters and settings of myths and novels, and about questions regarding an author’s creativity itself.

Sarah Barnette: Thank you for agreeing to talk with me today about your most recent contribution to Renovatio, "Myths versus Novels." I have to say I enjoyed it very much. In general, it really impresses me when seemingly disparate texts or disparate genres are brought together purposefully, which is what I think you're doing. You discuss the origins of myths and the novel, and their statuses as antithetical genres. You gradually bring your readers to reflect on mythical figures, and on myth, as containing what you describe as strong outlines and definitive characterization. You pit this against the novel as a genre that's embedded in convention and society and which serves as a vehicle for what you call a "delicate pointillism" of its characters.

What I want to talk about today is the central question you pose concerning where characters originate. You write, "What is the origin of all artful human feigning? Whence comes it? Where did fictional figures 'live' before they were projected into our world in works of art?" Could you start by telling us more about your choice of this phrase, "artful human feigning," and what you mean by that? Why do you use the word feigning?

Three Young Woman Are Sitting At Table In A Garden Having Wellcome V0040193

Three young women having tea, Kate Greenaway, c. nineteenth century

Eva Brann: That's a very good question, because feigning is a very interesting word. The word it derives from originally is, believe it or not, dough. Etymology is a very complicated and expert science. I don't really understand the development of the sound. But etymological dictionaries, of which I have three, all agree that it originally referred to dough. The reason that makes sense is that dough can be used to shape figures. Feigning refers to the shaping of figures. You can tell that that's very much related to the question I'm so interested in. Does that seem to you to make sense?

SB: Yes. So you mean a kind of clay modeling of figurines, which is its original use?

EB: Exactly, yes. I used it because I'm fascinated by the question of where figures of the imagination come from. Some figures are images. Then the answer to the question is easy: they're memories. For instance, where does my image of my brother come from? He's been dead for a long time, but I have an image of him in my memory. I seem to have, as they say, a storage facility in which perceptions settle themselves and become memories. Memories are old perceptions that have been stored. That's one answer.

The more interesting question, which has no answer I've ever come across, is "Where do imaginary figures come from?" Images come from perceptions. What about imaginary figures? What about, for example, chimeras or other imaginary beasts? What about the really very vital and live figures of literature, like my great hero, Odysseus? Where does that figure come from? Where did Homer get the figure? That's the question I'm fascinated by.

I keep having the feeling that they've got to come from somewhere. One answer that you get, if people are interested in this question, is "Your brain produces them." That's no answer at all. The brain is, as they say, subservient. It subserves imagery; that is, it conveys it. How can the brain produce a picture? You've seen sliced brains, right? There are no pictures there. The brain is not capable of producing a vivid and three-dimensional image such as we have of fictive characters. The question is, Where does it come from?

I think not everybody is willing to entertain that question, but to me, it seems crucial. When I read literary works, before long, I know these people. I can have conversations with them outside the text. I can think of them on my own. I have a visualization of them, what they must look like. For instance, I'm absolutely certain that Odysseus, that great hero, was bandy-legged. I also think that he was practically bald. I have reasons for that. So I can live with these figures.

SB: It's interesting, these two versions of feigning that you've mentioned. With imitation from memory, there's an original that we can identify and say, "I know that I'm thinking of my brother when he was in the flesh and when he was with me."

EB: Sarah, I want to say that's not feigning. I was making a distinction, which seems defensible to me, between images that come from the memory store, from life experience, and other, imaginary, figures that are very close to me. Nothing is closer to me than my brother. But Odysseus is also very close to me. He's my hero, so to speak, for a variety of reasons. The question is where does he come from? He cannot come from memory, because I've never met him. So that's the question, and that's what I mean by feigning.

I feigned him; or rather, Homer feigned him and I picked him up! So one answer is he comes from Homer; but then the question is, Where did Homer get him from? Of course, he doesn't only occur in the Homeric epics, in the Iliad and the Odyssey. He also occurs in that huge book called Ulysses, James Joyce's great modern classic. And he occurs in several Greek plays. So there is something live about him. But he is feigned, in the sense that he's shaped out of some sort of original dough. My question is, Where does that dough come from? What does that shaping? To put it more simply, where did Homer get him from?

SB: Do you want to try to answer that now, Eva?

EB: None of the usual answers are very thoughtful. They simply push the question back and they say, "Well, they come from the brain of the poet or they come from the tradition that the poet was taught." Then the real question is, Where did that come from? Now, you want the answer. That is where I have to stop. I'm convinced that the question makes sense. But the answer is so strange that I almost hesitate to offer it. The answer is that there is a kind of storage place that does contain these characters. I get that answer from Homer himself.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus goes down into Hades. Hades is what in later Christian terms would be called Hell, that is, the underworld. Except it's not underneath anything. It's said to be up north somewhere. He goes there. Why? He goes there to be told by a priest called Tiresias what he has to do to get home. He goes into this world, or rather he sits outside it. He slaughters a sheep. He allows the spirits that come to talk to him to drink the blood. They begin to grow rosy and alive, and they tell him various myths, stories. Eventually all the women of Greek myth come and tell him their stories.

So Homer was asking the same question I'm asking, and his answer was, there is a place where the characters live. If you have the right access, they will come to you. You have to give them blood, and they will grow alive for you. That's his answer.

Now the interesting thing is that the Greek word Hades also has an etymology. (Our word etymology itself comes from a Greek word that means "an account of the truth of the word.") Hades is a word that begins with the Greek letter alpha, used as what is called an alpha privative—that is to say, a negation that begins with a-. We have the same structure in English. For instance, the word apolitical means not political. If we say that someone is "very apolitical," we mean that he or she is not interested in politics.

Hades begins in Greek with this A sound, this alpha privative. Then the second part of it is ides, which comes from the Greek word for looking, seeing, or being visible. So Hades is the place of in-visibility. Therefore, it is the place where there are characters that are not visible ordinarily; you've got to have special powers to see them. For Homer, this is an answer. Where do the characters come from? They come from Hades, the place of invisibility.

If you're not a believer in that particular hell, then the question is still open. I keep thinking that if Homer had that problem—Where do these characters that I'm talking about come from?—then of course I should have that problem too. Do I know how to answer it? Not really. It's an open problem. You know, just because you don't know the answer to a problem, that doesn't mean it's gone away, right?

SB: And it doesn't mean there's not a solution or an answer.

EB: Yes, exactly. That's what preoccupies me. It's a question of, Where do imaginary characters originate? Let me just repeat again: the usual answers are simply not satisfactory. One is that they originate from memory, which they can't because you've never experienced them. Another one is that they originated in the brain. Nothing originates in the brain. The brain serves to convey things—that is, to give them consciousness—but the brain is not itself conscious. It subserves consciousness.

Another answer is that the poet "makes it up." But how can he make it up? Where is he going to get it from? It seems to me a really interesting problem, which doesn’t go away. The more you think about it, the more urgent and pressing it becomes. It has to do with the vividness that literary characters can assume for people who are really devoted readers.

In my essay, which you were referring to, I was saying that it seems to me there are two very different types of literary character, and of literature. They could be called "ancient" and "modern." The ancients really had no genre called the novel. There were one or two famous novels in antiquity, but it was not a common thing. Whereas in modern times, novels are the most common fictional literature there is. There are more novels than there is poetry. There are probably more novels than there are essays, even. Novels are a huge genre, and they originated in modern times, in the sixteenth century. Cervantes's Don Quixote is a kind of very early novel. They flourished particularly in England. They're my favorites. Of all of them, Jane Austen is my very favorite. I gather she's your favorite too.

SB: Yes, she’s definitely one of my favorites, up there with George Eliot.

EB: George Eliot is perhaps in some way the greatest of all novelists. I can't think of a novel that is more novelistic than Middlemarch.

Now what do I mean by novelistic? That's what I was coming around to. The novelistic type of literature, which is characteristically modern, originated in early modern times, in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. And then there are the myths that come to us from antiquity. I've become very interested in seeing whether these can be distinguished as different types of feigning.

To me, perhaps the most telling characteristic of myths is that they don't have authors. They come from a tradition. No one can tell who invented that tradition. It goes back past written history. Whereas a novel always has an author. You always know who brought the characters of a novel on the scene—that is, to whom they came and revealed themselves, and who then wrote the books of which they are the heroes or heroines. That's a big distinction. Having been without an author, myth is coming out of the mists of time, as opposed to stories that have a definite author and were made.

That seems to me not only true for literature, but it's a kind of characterization of classical antiquity versus our modernity. In classical antiquity, things came to people. The emphasis was not so much on who made it up, on authors and their authority. In modernity, the emphasis is very much on who originated a story or a character. On authors.

The second, probably even more important, characteristic is that the ancient characters, in the myths, don't have a social setting. In fact, they are almost exclusively royal, which means they live in an atmosphere somehow divorced from ordinary social life. They have their own families, which are sometimes murderous. They may get murdered by their own family, the way Agamemnon gets murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. But there's no social setting, really. Whereas novels almost always describe a very detailed social setting. That is, you know what the house looked like that the characters live in. You read about the dishes they owned, the pictures that hung on the walls, the gardens they cultivated. None of that happens in ancient literature.

SB: Yes, you're right. It's clear from just thinking about the subgenres of the novel, like the domestic novel or the social reform novel. Obviously, these definitions are tied, as you say, to this emphasis on describing society in detail.

EB: Exactly. A novel's social setting could sometimes be public, with settings such as clubs and political associations, or it could sometimes just be the home. That's another thing that you don't find in antiquity. People's houses were not places where much life took place. It's true the women were largely at home, but that didn't hold much interest for the ancient writers of fiction. In antiquity, a "domestic tragedy" is always a contradiction in terms. Although the tragedies very often take place "at home," that home is usually a palace.

SB: Exactly, so it's still a political setting.

EB: Yes, exactly. Whereas when you speak of the domestic novel, you usually talk about a private home. Another way to think about it is that privacy is a great issue in the novel. Many novels depend on the fact that people aren't telling each other things. Tragedies occur because of that.

The other thing is that, especially in the English novels, the heroines tend to be governesses, as in the Brontës' novels, or, as in Jane Austen's, sisters, often the daughters of ministers who are not very rich and who have money troubles. You don't hear much about the money troubles—they're somewhere in the background—but there are all sorts of ordinary concerns that play into the modern novels that just don't show up in the ancient Greek fiction.

SB: It's very interesting to hear your comparison between these genres, the ancient and the modern, but I want to rewind a little bit to what you were saying earlier about feigning and about this idea of characters originating in the place of invisibility, or Hades.

I have collected a few quotations from nineteenth-century authors about their creative process, and I'd like to read them to you and ask you to comment. I think it would be interesting in light of what you just said, especially because you say in your essay that this question of the origin of characters is not really addressed in literary criticism. I think you're absolutely right, but I was thinking that that's actually quite strange, because there are so many modern—nineteenth and twentieth century—writers who talk about the creative process.

EB: Before you go on, let me say that I think again you've put your finger on the right issue. It will be part of my response that it's the very notion of creativity that prevents the question about the origin of characters from being asked. Go ahead and I'll respond more.

SB: Maybe creative isn't the right word. Maybe we can come up with a better term.

EB: Well, it is the right word. As you rightly say, it's exactly the word that people use.

SB: This is what I found: Robert Louis Stevenson, for instance, claimed that his fiction had nothing to do with his “conscious ego" but seemed to be "the singlehanded product of some brownie, some unfamiliar, some unseen collaborator whom I keep locked in a back garret."

EB: Wonderful!

SB: So he references that unseenness specifically. Then Charles Dickens: he wrote to a friend that when he sat down to write, "some beneficent power shows it all to me and tempts me to be interested. And I don't invent it, really do not, but see it and write it down."

EB: Sarah, I'm almost ashamed that I didn't know these quotations, because they express exactly what I was trying to say. Let me ask you, Does it seem to you, as it seems to me, that that way of speaking is exactly contrary to the notion of creativity?

SB: Yes, exactly. This idea of the brain, the mind, as the source, as gathering stimuli from the world around us and putting it together somehow, so that we can claim ownership of the product.

EB: Exactly. Let me put it more dramatically, though you're putting it perfectly accurately. The notion of artistic creativity is very arrogant, because in the tradition, only one being is creative, and that is God. God is the Creator. Creation is the ability to make something out of nothing. God creates the world. Some people say He creates it out of some stuff that was floating around. There's another tradition that says that He made it out of nothing. That's why He's called a creator. When critics say of artists, that they're being creative, they're attributing to them divine powers. I don't believe that human beings have divine powers. In fact, the Renaissance tradition begins with the claim that artists are gods of a sort—that they have the powers of a god and are literally creative. That is an old tradition, and it seems to me an exceedingly foolish one.

SB: Then there's the idea that the artist has genius, but genius itself means "a spirit."

EB: That goes with it. After all, a genius is someone who's born with exactly the powers of a god. To go back to the question of why my question about the origin of characters is not raised: if you say that art is not creative, you don't ask that question.

Homer would never have referred to himself as creative, because the answer to the question "Where did you learn what you put into your poetry?" was "The Muses came down." The epics begin with, "Tell me, O Muse." Homer invokes the Muse, and the Muse tells Homer. The Muse brings it down from heaven. One answer to the question of "Where do the originals live?" is "They live in heaven" or "They live in hell"—but they don't live on Earth!

The point I'm making is that if you believe in the theory of creativity, then the question I'm asking is no longer a question. Critics don't ask that question because they know the answer: each artist is a little god who knows how to make something out of nothing.

SB: It's interesting that the ancient creators or writers acknowledge that their inspiration—their characters and their story—was coming from outside of them, and that they were an instrument, as opposed to this modern sense of ownership of that process. Yet you have these very recent writers, like Dickens and Stevenson, and even Eliot, who say, "It didn't come from me. It came from somewhere else, and I can't even say where."

EB: You yourself gave two quotations that show that even modern writers don't always think of themselves as being creative. They may call it that, but in fact what they've said is "A little goblin told me." Well, Homer thinks a Muse told him. If you think there's a little goblin who told you, you're not being creative.

SB: You're being receptive.

EB: Exactly. You're being receptive. One way to put it is: the older version of being an artist is that you're receptive; the newer version is that you're being divine. For my part, it's clear that there are receptive human beings, but I don't think that human beings are gods.

SB: Eva, I want to go back to the quotation from your article I mentioned earlier: "What is the origin of all artful human feigning? Whence come artful feignings?" You use feigning as both a noun and a verb—to refer to the fictional character itself and to the process of bringing that character into being. In my mind I was connecting it back to your comparison between myths and the novel. You write about Virginia Woolf, for instance, who really takes ownership of herself as being an Abrahamic divinity, the creator. She claims that for herself. So do you think the way an author thinks about their characters—whether they think they're creating them or think they're receiving them from outside—do you think that changes the characters themselves?

EB: You know, I hadn't really thought about that. It's a very interesting question. The first answer that comes to me is that one difference between ancient and modern fictions is that the ancient dramas are not long—they take two, three hours to perform—whereas novels are often enormously long, like Middlemarch. Therefore the activity of the novel writers is very much a sustained, long doing, whereas the ancient writer received the feigned object from the Muse and then told its story, often briefly. Mrs. Dalloway isn't a very long novel, but it's fairly sizable. The character of Clarissa Dalloway occurs in a long-feigned tale. In contrast, Clytemnestra occurs in a fairly short play, the Agamemnon. That makes for a difference in that Clytemnestra is a given character who acts according to her way of being given, whereas Mrs. Dalloway displays a certain amount of development in her character. She's somewhat rigid, so she doesn't develop very much, but think of Dorothea in Middlemarch. She certainly develops. She develops from an enthusiastic and somewhat clumsy but impressive young woman into a dignified mother of a family. The developmental novel is also a type. Some novels deal with growing up.

SB: Yes, the Bildungsroman tradition.

EB: Yes, so one could say that novels are more often an activity, whereas dramas are not so much an activity as a presentation. I think that makes sense to me as a distinction that one can observe between the two types.

By the way, you must have noticed that I am not a great fan of Virginia Woolf. I think Mrs. Dalloway is a dreadful human being. I don't think Mrs. Woolf thought that, because she saw herself in Mrs. Dalloway. The reason is the deliberate and literarily important snobbery. Mrs. Dalloway is a book dominated by snobbishness.

SB: And that brings us back to what you were saying before about that middle-class set of social conventions, and that domestic sphere.

EB: Exactly. That induces snobbishness. I don't think snobbishness was a vice much known among the ancients, because they weren't striving after class distinction. They were settled in their classes, at least in the literature. You have the kings, and you have the soldiers, and you have the women, who are often much more prominent in the literature than they were in actual life. But everyone belonged to a pretty well-known, settled sphere.

But in the novel, you get, among other things, a mirror of the attempt to be successful, to be upwardly mobile, and of failure in these attempts. For instance, Lily Bart, in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, is a tragic character, but not in the ancient way—in the modern way. She dies of that failure, literally.

SB: You mentioned not liking the character or the novel Mrs. Dalloway. Does Virginia Woolf's attitude— her claim to actively creating her novel—somehow taint the creation itself?

The nineteenth-century novel offers many characters that are morally upstanding. In George Eliot's Middlemarch, for instance, Dorothea goes through a process of becoming both self-aware and other-aware. It's quite extraordinary to see her progress throughout the novel. There's a climactic scene between Dorothea and another woman, Rosamond Vincy, who was in many ways a threat to her. Dorothea nevertheless is compassionate towards her, reaches out towards her, tries to imagine herself in her position and to support her. When she was writing this scene, George Eliot tells us, she didn't plan it out or draft it beforehand, because she wanted it to be very true and real. She waited to hear Dorothea's and Rosamond's voices to know what to write. She gave herself up to this outer source in order to compose this morally climactic scene.

This contrasts with what you say about Virginia Woolf's claim to ownership and possession of the creative process as her own. So can we say that these different attitudes towards the creative process create different kinds of character? Mrs. Dalloway versus Dorothea, for instance—what a contrast there! I'm just wondering about the relationship between process and product, or feigning as an act and feigning as the clay figure that we end up with at the end of the day.

EB: I think there may enter another distinction that we haven't yet made: between really great works and simply interesting or good works. I think Middlemarch is, as a novel, unsurpassable. To me, it's the novel of novels. Jane Austen is perfection, but Middlemarch has a novelistic grandeur, a scope, an intelligence, a multiplicity of interesting characters. There are so many questions to ask about it! Jane Austen's novels are just more modest in scope.

By the way, the very name of the town, Middlemarch, encapsulates what I think is characteristic of a modern novel: it's a middle-class enterprise. Whereas ancient fiction was about kings and princes, the modern novel at its most typical has a middle-class setting. Middlemarch expresses that.

SB: So you're right. In terms of marital relations, we move from the scene with Clytemnestra and Agamemnon and that murderous household to the famous scene in Middlemarch when Dorothea and her husband, Casaubon, are sitting in the dark and having a disagreement. Neither understands the other. They're just sitting in the darkness of their room. There's this chasm between them. That's a very different kind of play, isn't it, that we're watching, compared to Clytemnestra’s righteous anger against her husband and her actions against him?

EB: Oddly enough, there is a similarity. Clytemnestra murders her husband. One can make an argument that Dorothea is responsible for Casaubon's death. But Casaubon, in turn, is so inhibited and so fearful of his inadequacy that he can't trust her. It doesn't seem quite right to call him a tragic character. He is a man of misery.

And there is one huge difference between ancient fiction, both drama and epic, and novels—the kinds of divinity that they live on. There's some resonance of Christianity in the fact that Casaubon is so miserable, so pitiful. The ancient heroes are never miserable or pitiful. They are bad, or mistaken, or something like that. That, I think, has to do with their relation to the twelve Olympian gods. Not only are there twelve of them, but they are visible, or become visible from time to time. They have human looks. Whereas the Christian God is invisible. The invisible hand that later on turns out to govern economics—that's a Christian notion, I think. I think one could approach this whole question from the point of view of the different divinities that played a role. I didn't explore that very much, but it seems to be a very interesting point of view to take.

SB: I think it's true that an individual’s or a society's concept of God impacts their understanding of their own selves and their own communities, so that it impacts your behavior towards others and towards yourself. I think there is something interesting there to see play itself out in literature and in the great books that we have.

EB: I was in particular thinking about what you just mentioned as obviously also a way to approach it. I was thinking about the fact that one way to describe the difference between ancient and modern literature is that in antiquity, the serious thing is tragedy. In the modern novel, the serious thing is misery. Does that ring a bell?

SB: I wonder if that has something to do more with a movement towards nihilism in the modern age—that void, the horror vacui.

EB: Yes, exactly. Whereas a tragedy is a highly specific sort of thing—that is to say, each character has his or her own tragedy, usually ending in death—in contrast, the misery has a kind of social flavor. There's something spreading about the misery. I know of novels that are just suffused with a kind of...

SB: Melancholy.

EB: Yes, melancholy.

SB: So you mean it's almost that melancholy or misery is contagious in a way that it's not for the [Greek] tragedy. Tragedy is in a way confined. What happens in the house of Agamemnon stays in the house of Agamemnon.

EB: That's exactly what I mean. One way to put it is, strictly speaking, there's no society in Greek drama. Strictly speaking, society is everything in the modern novel. One could say that in antiquity, the hero comes first and then the setting. In the modern novel, the setting comes first and then the not-so-heroic main character.

SB: Yes, on that note—about the distinction between the ancient and the modern in mind—I think we can close our conversation. Dr. Brann, it has been a distinct pleasure to speak with you, and thank you for sharing your keen insights and your expertise.

EB: And thank you, Sarah.