Through a glass darkly
I said something in a comment on Fiction and Unreality yesterday that came back into my head this morning (hours and hours ago, and I’ve done many things and been many places since then; it seems like a lifetime ago) and suggested part of an answer to the original question (why we get so involved in stories and with the characters in them).
…of course the thing that makes (good) novels so engrossing is that in fact we know far more about the point of view characters than we do about real people. That’s the magic of the omniscient narrator. Austen can just tell us what Lizzy is thinking, and because it’s a novel, what she tells us is true. We know what’s in Lizzy’s head in a way we can’t ever know what’s in anyone else’s head in reality – we know it as beyond a doubt, as plain fact.
That’s it you see – if we are told what Gilgamesh or Achilles or Murasaki or Lizzy was thinking, then it is so, which is never ever true of real people. We know what is in their heads in a way we never know what is in anyone’s head except our own. That means we know fictional characters the way we know ourselves, and not the way we know other people; we are intimate with and close to fictional characters in a way that we can’t be with real people. We may or may not like them, but we know them.
That’s only part of it, because we know only one or a few central characters that way, and because in some fiction we don’t know any that way, and because it doesn’t apply to dramatic characters (unless we accept the convention that soliloquizers never lie, but then not all dramas have soliloquies), and because there are other reasons anyway. But I think it is part of it, and it’s interesting to keep in mind when reading fiction.
Getting back to Peter Cave’s linkage with erotic love, that could be one reason that works – one feature of being in love is having at least the feeling of knowing the other as well as one knows oneself, or almost as well. Parents of small children probably know their children’s minds as well as their own, because small children mostly don’t conceal or lie about what’s in their minds. Of course this means their minds aren’t worth knowing all that well (except to their parents) – it’s either sad or inevitable or both that as our boringness decreases our urge to conceal what’s interesting increases. The less we’re able to know, the more there is to know. The more transparent we are, the less there is to see through the glass. I could go on this way all night.
Could if I didn’t have other things to do, that is.