English 7800 – Orlemanski’s “Who Has Fiction” and Irish Reason

Here is sample presentation. Note that I quickly summarize Orlemanski’s argument, provide a key quote, and then connect her work to my own research interests, and some of the texts I’m writing about. I’ll do something like this as well in my sample presentation on Jameson. Including the quotations, this is about 1000 words.

One of the chief targets of Julie Orlemanski’s “Who Has Fiction: Modernity, Fictionality, and the Middle Ages” is Catherine Gallagher’s paired argument that fiction emerged as a category in early eighteenth-century England — specifically, between 1720 and 1742 — and that fiction’s emergence has to do with secularization: the emergence of fictionality is either a product of secularization, its enabler, or concomitant with it. Gallagher’s seemingly outrageous claim rests on the category of “plausible fictions”: of course, narratives abound prior to the eighteenth century that were understood as make-believe, and narratives abound, too, that didn’t seem like make-believe, and that we now would recognize as fictions. But, in Gallagher’s framing, Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowles is evidently implausible (talking birds!) while something like Homer’s Odyssey , because of its plausibility during an age of myth, would have struck its premodern readers as at least quasi-historical. Only with the emergence of fictionality do we get stories about people like us, doing things that we ourselves might do, in contexts where the stories would not be received as either truth or lies. Or so Gallagher claims. It’s easy enough to “trapdoor” Gallagher: medievalists delight in doing this, namely, in proving that a scholar’s claim that some process began in the modern era actually began in the Middle Ages. Open the trapdoor of time and down the errant scholar falls through the centuries! And Orlemanski is able to do this to Gallagher, easily: not only classical writers like Cicero, but also medieval writers produced literary theory that distinguished between fantastic, plausible, and actually true narratives. Orlemanski extends her trapdooring by complicating the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, and that’s all to the good too. But the larger issue, the one that interests me more here, is Orlemanski’s opposition to Gallagher’s claims about fictionality, secularism, and free thinking.

Orlemanski writes:

Among the chief dissatisfactions of Gallagher’s and others’ accounts, I suggest, is their repetition of ideologies of secularism and disenchantment, those widespread narratives of historical difference that recount modernity’s emergence from a credulous past. The entanglements between fictionality and disenchantment are neither superficial nor accidental because both notions have historically involved judgments about the organization of belief and its proper limits. In the framework of the secularization thesis, possessing fiction–which is to say, having the literary infrastructure for a “willing suspension of disbelief”–becomes the mark of an achieved secular modernity.

She has in mind this sentiments like these from Gallagher:

Indeed almost all of the developments we associate with modernity—from greater religious toleration to scientific discovery—required the kind of cognitive provisionality one practices in reading fiction.

Orlemanski might have cited this passage as well:

In England, between the time when Defoe insisted that Robinson Crusoe was a real individual (1720) and the time when Henry Fielding urged just as strenuously that his characters were not representations of actual specific people (1742), a discourse of fictionality appeared in and around the novel, specifying new rules for its identification and new modes of nonreference.

Gallagher’s examples of works that actually engage in fiction, here as elsewhere, are all novels, as Orlemanski observes, and all English novels. Per Gallagher, Cervantes (Iberian) and the Madame de Lafayette (French) failed to produce fiction; even some eighteenth-century writing produced in North America, in the English language, does not appeal to a public sufficiently accustomed to “cognitive provisionality” to recognize certain kinds of writing as fiction. No: England itself is the leader of what counts as fiction, and therefore of modernity itself, with its paired qualities of “religious toleration” and “scientific discovery.”

Another particular feature of England, certainly relevant to Gallagher’s claims, is its militant Protestantism. By 1742, England had produced centuries of religious polemic against the Roman Catholic Church. Opposition to Roman Catholicism led to the public executions of heretics, civil war, the toppling of kings, and massacres in Ireland. The rhetoric of opposition to Roman Catholicism often held that Catholics were unwittingly subordinate to ritual and the masters of ritual; that they could not read scripture analytically; that they were, in short, superstitious and unreasonable. To English Protestant polemicists, Catholics were irrational and therefore, effectively, premodern.

Although my work on this topic still remains in its beginning phase, I can still offer an example, John Richardson’s The Great Folly, Superstition, and Idolatry, of Pilgrimages in Ireland. Richardson was Irish-born dean of Kilmacduagh, serving the Anglican — and therefore Protestant — Church of Ireland. His 1727 book aims to discourage the Irish from going on pilgrimage to Lough Derg to visit the Purgatory of Saint Patrick. The problem with the practice, per Richardson, is that “the corruptions of Popery are greatly increased and upheld by Pilgrimages.” And what’s needed to combat such corruptions, among other techniques, is reason:

I am convinced not only from the Nature of Religion itself, but also from the little Experience that I have had in the World, that gentle Usage and Argument taken from Scripture and Reason, and propounded to those that are in Error in the Spirit of Love and Meekness, are the best and most effectual Means for Propagating true Religion.

English opposition to Catholicism, of course, has not been notable for its meekness. And English maltreatment of the Irish dates from at least the twelfth century, when the English too were Catholic. What’s on offer in Richardson is not, materially speaking, all that different from what we can find in Gerald of Wales’ History and Topography of Ireland, where this twelfth-century cleric assured his English king that the Irish were superstitious, irrational, unreliable, emotional, violent, and even, technologically, dwelling in the past.

That is, the English claim to be ahead of others in reasonable religion and skepticism about supernatural claims has to be recognized as bound up with the English devaluation of the customs of people they wanted to subjugate. The claim to have fictionality has to do with claiming freedom of thought; it has to do with claiming at least a slight distance from immediate material stimuli, to be able to reflect on them not in their mere presence, but rather in their “as such,” as categories that might be played with. I am terribly familiar with how medieval scholastic philosophers argued that nonhuman animals, being merely sensory creatures, could never think abstractly, and for this reason, that they were ethically insignificant creatures. In these scholastic arguments, because nonhuman animals lacked intellectual freedom, they were ours for the eating.

Am I saying that Gallagher’s arguments about secularity and fictionality are an argument that Irish babies should be sold on the open market as food? Not so far, not quite. But arguments about who has fiction and whose religious and philosophical commitments count as “secular” have to do with arguments about who has skepticism. Such arguments always end up entangled with claims of intellectual and spiritual superiority, and with that, claims to justifiably determine the fate of others, humans, or animals, or animalized humans alike.