Totalizing Claims

01Mar12

Are you worried that your secondary-world fantasy seems too modern, enlightened, and progressive?

Are your characters overly aware and critical of the ideology of their setting, creating a frame-breaking Mary Sue effect by which they act as mouthpieces for your contemporary opinions about race, class, and gender?

Do you sometimes struggle to write characters who, like all of us, are in some way compromised and limited by their social & political circumstances?

In short, do you want some good old-fashioned ideology in your fantasy world?

With the rise of the 20th century and modern progressive politics, it became unfashionable for literary novels to make totalizing claims about identity, society or ethics. Today, writers usually have a vague the sense that all points of view are legitimate — especially when it comes to personal identity — but that no single point-of-view has the right to make a claim to absolute truth. Thanks to literary critics, we’ve also got a decent shot at being aware of how often “the omniscient narrator” has been responsible for writing the experiences of women, people of color, the QUILTBAG crew, the proletariat, etc, out of literature.

It might even be said that today, the omniscient POV can only be written with a guilty conscience.

What I’m talking about is a way for progressive writers to prevent their historically grounded work from feeling too contemporary.

One of the fastest and most elegant techniques is to throw a few totalizing claims into your tale. This is a way of achieving a premodern feel economically. This way you convey an effect of a socially repressive & reactionary setting simply by suggesting a totalizing way of thinking about things.

Check out how it works.


Check out these examples from Honoré de Balzac’s Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, usually Englished as A Harlot High and Low. (Trans: Rayner Heppelstahl, Penguin Classics ed.)

“An artist’s physiognomy is always abnormal, always above or below the conventional lines of what fools call ideal beauty.”

“In Paris, extremes meet by way of the passions.  Vice indissolubly welds the rich to the poor, the great to the small.”

“All passion in Paris is resolved into two terms: gold and pleasure.”

Don’t think for a second that these are the opinions of characters in Balzac’s Paris. These are the opinions of Balzac’s omniscient narrator himself. (Yes, it would be a he.) And, although they’re somewhat ridiculous, isn’t the philosophical sureness, the completely un-modern confidence with which these aphorisms are dealt out, kind of, well…

….refreshing?

This device also works in POV, where it serves above all to characterize the voice.

(I would even hazard an equation: the number of totalizing claims made by a narrator scales in relation to his/her level of cluelessness, since the most clueless characters are those who feel the most confident that they posess eternal truths.)

Let’s take a look at Poe’s use of this device in his wonderful short story “The Assignation.”

Here the totalizing claims take the form of a gaze; they tend to be more aesthetic than social, and contribute to the development (at least from our perspective) of a truly self-deluded POV character. Emphasis is mine:

‘There is one painting,’ said he, […] –‘there is still one painting which you have not seen.’ And throwing aside a drapery, he discovered a full-length portrait of the Marchesa Aphrodite.

Human art could have done no more in the delineation of her superhuman beauty. The same ethereal figure which stood before me the preceding night upon the steps of the Ducal Palace, stood before me once again. But in the expression of the countenance, which was beaming all over with smiles, there still lurked (incomprehensible anomaly!) that fitful stain of melancholy which will ever be found inseparable from the perfection of the beautiful.

If you want to find out just how self-deluded this narrator is, read the story. (Bonus points for spotting the shoutouts to Otway’s bromantic Restoration drama, Venice Preserv’d.)

Judiciously used, the well-timed totalizing claim can help the contemporary writer achieve an antique, unmodern feel. Riffing on Joris-Karl Huysmans and the Comte de Lautréamont, K.J. Bishop put this technique to good use in The Etched City.

At an elegant salon, a character has just died randomly; here Marcon, a brooding walk-on character, reacts:

“Time is the only predator not ultimately on the side of life, don’t you think?” said Marcon, in a serious and cold voice.

Similarly, check out Severian’s crypto-Catholic reflections throughout Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. (detail from Japanese cover art by Yoshitaka Amano)

My favorite comes at the end of The Claw of the Conciliator:

In the final reckoning there is only love, only that divinity. That we are capable only of being what we are remains our unforgivable sin.

If you want to create a premodern feel in your fantasy, try this technique yourself!

And be sure to check back with SpecTechnique tomorrow, when we cover “Unexpected Explanations.”

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