In the previous Chronicle I referred to the insufficiently appreciated privilege granted to most of us of dying in bed at what used to be called a ripe old age. When I was young, 70 was considered such an age; today, if you don’t reach 80, your death is “premature.” Of course there are many areas of the world where life expectancy is far less, and quite a few where a natural death at any age cannot be taken for granted. But what about explorers, intelligence agents, test pilots, commandos, tightrope walkers, mountain climbers, suicide bombers, adventurers of all kinds who throw life expectancy to the winds?

One way to deal with our inevitable mortality is to challenge it. Instead of waiting for the body’s decay, some prefer to make even their temporary survival a triumph. If one false move means certain death, then life’s continuation is not mere passive postponement of the end but skilled victory over it. And if one does make that false move, one dies of one’s own failure rather than universal entropy. Death, and its deferral, have become cultural experiences.

Narratives of all kinds, which by their very nature grant their characters’ lives cultural significance, thrive on risk to these lives, whether deliberate or accidental. The life-or-death significance of the narrative content to the characters justifies a posteriori the life-or-death significance attributed to the story by the very fact of telling it. In real life, risking your life makes life imitate art; your life itself, rather than its products, becomes a source of significance, a model for others.

Since I began studying literature, I have tried out many definitions of the term realism, none of them really adequate. Realism makes claims like Balzac’s “All is true!” or Zola’s assimilation of the novel to scientific experimentation. It is tempting to dismiss these objective claims in favor of Roland Barthes’ subjective effet de réel [reality effect]. But mere effect does not do justice to the realia in realist novels, which often contain lengthy, technically accurate descriptions of complex activities ranging from mining in Germinal to whaling in Moby Dick. When Dickens describes London or Balzac Paris, we assume the streets are on the map.

The basis for the “reality effect” is contingency; one finds things in the text that have no obvious necessity for being there other than–one is supposed to believe–correspondence with historical reality. The notion is useful in reminding us that a novel isn’t really, as Stendhal ironically claimed it to be, “a mirror carried along a road,” but it doesn’t provide a very sharp historical criterion. All literature situates itself in relation to human reality, even when it takes place in some other galaxy. Does Don Quixote produce an effet de réel? How about La Chanson de Roland? The reality effect is in fact a narrative universal that varies with era and genre according to what contingencies are required in order to produce it. Barthes’ own example of a gratuitous reality effect, a barometer in Flaubert’s “Un coeur simple” [A Simple Heart] that has no apparent function in the narrative, is unconvincing; the barometer nicely connotes that just slightly futile bourgeois rationality the contrast of which with the peasant’s care and faith is the heart of the story. But the real point is why the barometer should lead us to speak of reality effect and realism when the Chanson de Roland’s Halt sont li pui e li val tenebros [High are the hills and dark the valleys] does not. Aren’t these hills and valleys narrative props intended to give the impression, however conventional, of a contingent landscape, in the same way that Snoopy’s “dark and stormy night,” however symbolic, is in the first place a contingent weather pattern? Even when the formula is always the same, its function is not to satisfy ritual necessity but to depict worldly contingency; what varies is how much such depiction is needed. The specificity of “realism” must be found elsewhere.

A characterization I find tempting is that realism deliberately deals with subjects that the reader would rather not know about. (Why do I have to read about this? – Because it’s real!) This is certainly the thrust of the Goncourt brothers’ preface to Germinie Lacerteux, their most famous novel, which explains that although the reader would rather not hear about the protagonist’s sordid life, in a democratic society all deserve access to narrative. Balzac had expressed a desire to disturb his complacent reader in the introductory passage of Le père Goriot that includes (in English) “All is true!” To claim that the criterion of the reality effect is unpleasant surprise not only reflects a rhetorical tendency of realism, but by shifting the focus from an ill-defined “effect” to the fundamental interaction between writer and reader, brings us closer to its anthropological core. Yet the transformation of the contingent into the irritating remains within the sphere of individual subjective reaction.

The problem of defining realism may be restated as that of deciding what to oppose it to: Romanticism? Classicism? fantasy? Let us begin by defining the standard narrative model (SNM) as a story in which the protagonist and perhaps other characters risk their lives. (We may define “risking one’s life” as engaging in some activity that involves an explicit and substantial risk–at least to the reader/spectator–of leading by a fairly short causal chain to death.) The SNM encompasses epic narrative as well as adventure tales of all kinds; it also allows for a mock-heroic version in which, like Don Q, the character thinks he is engaging in life-threatening activity when he really isn’t. We then define a realist narrative as one that does not obey the SNM.

Realism is focused on “ordinary people” who hope to die of old age. Like all cultural modes, that of realism should be understood as at the same time a historical contingency and an anthropological type. Historically, realism is a bourgeois mode, one appropriate to what Alexandre Kojève called the “freed slave,” referring to the master-slave dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, where the slave is one who accepts to live under another’s mastery rather than risk his life to defend his own. The bourgeois is a slave in refusing to risk his life, but he has been freed by the exchange-system from the ordeal of face-to-face rivalry. He neither fights the Other nor recognizes his mastery; they engage in exchange-relations, mediated by contracts for goods and services. If such a person can become a narrative protagonist, then everyday life may be said to have significance. I shall return to Hegel’s master and slave below.

The bourgeois doesn’t risk his life, but he invests it, and any investment is something of a gamble. He may not be likely to fall from a cliff or be eaten by wild animals, but he runs the risk of financial loss, ultimately of bankruptcy. Bankruptcy is a sign for death throughout Balzac’s novels and in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary as well, where Emma commits suicide only when she runs out of money. (In contrast, Flaubert’s mature masterpiece, Sentimental education, turns narrative itself into a defense against bankruptcy.) The equation of bankruptcy with death is the sign of a realism still in thrall to the SNM, since the key institution of bourgeois economy, the “limited risk” corporation / Société À Risque Limité, is designed precisely to prevent loss of a given investment from destroying all one’s wealth, let alone one’s life. A novel that follows the realist ethos does not end with violent death; it recounts a “slice of life.” And because everyone, every day, risks his life in the sense of spending irretrievable time, the realist denial of the SNM aspires to a temporality so stretched out as to appear infinite. Proust’s “infinite” narrative and Joyce’s 600-page Dublin day mark the limits of European realism.

A few lesser novels adhere to the realist ethos, but most compromise with the SNM by portraying their characters’ lives as inadvertently fortune- and life-destroying. The reason that most readers find Zola’s few working-class novels not only better but more typical than the numerous others dealing with the bourgeoisie is that limited lives are more easily assimilated to the SNM: economic fatality substitutes for tragic fatality. If, in Hegelian terms, the bourgeois is a freed slave, the worker is a partially reenslaved bourgeois who, in the nineteenth century at least, is forced to accept life-threatening conditions as a price of survival. The worker-protagonists of L’assommoir and Germinal risk their lives not to give them meaning but simply in order to preserve them. It would be interesting to examine in this light the socio-historical implications of other high and popular syntheses of realism and the SNM, such as detective stories and thrillers that depict policemen, detectives, spies, military personnel, and so on performing acts that are ambivalently bourgeois-professional duties and life-risking affirmations of mastery.

Hegel’s master-slave dialectic may be read as his originary scene of human self-consciousness. Kojève’s focus on this scene and its implicit theory of desire inspired the neo-Hegelianism that flourished in France in the 1930s and 40s. Hegel’s combat between masters is analogous to that in pre-human society between the alpha animal and his potential challenger. In both cases, real or threatened violence settles the question without the “absolute” deferral provided by the sign. (The value of this process for animal societies is that the violence is restricted to a few individuals and usually not fatal.) Although Hegel’s master fights to be “recognized” by his adversary, his desire cannot be met; only one master will survive combat, and the slave’s recognition is inadequate. The master wants to be recognized by another master, unafraid to risk his life in combat, who freely renounces his own mastery. Such a person is inconceivable in Hegelian terms. But in our originary model, recognition is given not to a human master but to the sacred, the desired, mediating element not in competition with the participants. It is the recognition given the sacred that provides the originary model for the Hegelian dream of mastery; the master wants to be recognized as the equivalent of a god. By restricting the conflict to the interaction of two signless egos, Hegel excludes the possibility that both candidates for mastery might renounce their conflict and in that gesture of deferral become self-consciously human, capable of thematizing the mastery that they had previously contested.

Despite its inadequacy as an originary model, Hegel’s dialectic sheds light on the distinction between realism and the SNM: risking one’s life for mastery is not simply affirming superiority over others but seeking to usurp the place of the sacred that is the birthplace of meaning. To risk one’s life is to act as though sacred deferral of violence were not a necessity of human existence. The consequence of such action may be portrayed either as the tragic reiteration of this founding necessity or as its comic transcendence; in either case, the SNM situates its protagonists in the sacred center of the social order. Realism, in its refusal to take for granted this rapprochement of the human to the divine, tells the story of Hegel’s slave who, unlike his master, is aware of the real-world human value of deferral. What makes realism realistic is its acceptance of human limitation. We may extract from the Hegel-Kojève model the sociological insight that the advent of the modern exchange system makes it possible both to extend and to challenge the SNM by depicting a praxis that incarnates human deferral rather than divine violence.