George Walford: How to Make a Whale

Herman Melville opened Moby Dick with quotations. He did not get them all quite right, and in 1979 Thomas G.Tanselle published an essay entitled ‘External Fact as an Editorial Problem,’ advocating that they be brought into agreement with their sources, even though some of Melville’s alterations seem to have been deliberate. John Worthen has taken alarm at finding other editors following Tanselle’s prescription. Matthew J. Bruccoli, after editing The Great Gatsby for Cambridge, has published an article, referring to Tanselle’s essay and complaining that his own publishers did not allow him to make all the corrections he thought advisable. In the novel Daisy gives her daughter’s age as three and Bruccoli, pointing out that this conflicts with other information in the text, wanted to alter this to two, even though Fitzgerald presents Daisy as a fantasiser. Jeffrey Meyer’s edition of Tender is the Night also presumes to make corrections, taking it for granted that all errors are the author’s, none of them the character’s.

A new would-be orthodoxy has entered, one demanding that even though novels rank as creative literature, yet (in Worthen’s words of protest) ‘their connections with the real world must be sustained, and their text made to conform with the events and language of the real world.’ Although Worthen does not put it in quite this way, he effectively takes his stand on the creative privilege enjoyed by novelists, holding them entitled to take as much, or as little, notice of the real world as they may choose.

The issue looks well calculated to produce quantities of enjoyable argument, and lots of occupation for literary critics, but beyond it there yawns a deeper gulf. What, exactly, is this ‘real world’ that both Worthen and his targets take for granted?

Tanselle, opening the ball, speaks of ‘external fact.’ Although it seems as though we respond to a solid and single world out there, all our knowledge of it (or what we accept as such) comes through our senses, and a few simple experiments show these to be unreliable. The sun rises, moves across the sky, and sets; you can see it doing so. Place one finger in hot water for a few seconds, another in cold; then plunge both into warm water; one finger will report it hot, the other, cold. The ‘external’ world and the ‘facts’ composing it (a solar-centric system, a warm glass of water), turn out to derive from mental activity rather than direct observation. To a considerable extent we build our external worlds for ourselves, [1] and to the question how it comes about that they all correspond, the answer is twofold. First, that they correspond in their main structure because our mentalities correspond in their main features. Second, that they do not correspond in fine detail. We do not all see exactly the same external world; we cannot, if only because, each of us looking from a different position, parallax affects our observations. We all construct our own intelligible worlds, manipulating sense-impressions as our assumptions indicate, and (returning to our muttons) novelists have at least as good warrant as anybody else for constructing worlds that suit them. (Based on an article ‘Check the Fact-Checkers’ by John Worthen, in TLS January 7,12).

[1]. If you would prefer a more academic version, how about this: ‘Sense data are ambiguous, and have to be interpreted by immensely complicated brain processes, often depending on dubious unconscious assumptions, for generating the perceptual hypotheses that are our immediate reality.’ (Richard Gregory, Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Bristol, TLS Jan 14,6.

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LEAVING Angel Tube Station used to mean ascending a dozen steps then walking a few yards to a lift which opened on to the street. Rebuilt in supermarket-palatial, it now imposes a walk to an escalator, another walk to the next, and yet another walk to the street. As one reader puts it: A tube station that thinks it’s an airport.

from Ideological Commentary 63, February 1994.