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Otherness: The Prevalence of the Real

Maurizio Ferraris
p. 87-95


Indipendente, indifferente e inemendabile: la realtà ci si pone innanzi come irriducibile alterità, come “trascendenza”, secondo la definizione della fenomenologia e il motivo, precisamente, è che essa cade al di fuori della nostra coscienza. Tuttavia, i fenomenologi hanno comunque prestato attenzione all'intenzionalità, ossia al fatto che ogni coscienza è coscienza di qualcosa – qualcosa che è, appunto, trascendente in quanto realtà esterna alla coscienza e non riducibile a essa. Se penso a Pegaso, Pegaso non si limita a essere semplicemente un mio pensiero. Per non parlare di quando penso a cose che sono oggetti naturali oppure sociali, che in effetti esistono nel mondo e perciò anche al di fuori della mia mente. Da qui, una circostanza piuttosto ovvia: il radicale dipendere della fiction dalla realtà. Persino la più ermetica delle poesie trasuda realtà (oggetti, colori, profumi, nomi propri, storia) e questo poiché anche la più selvaggia delle fantasie è interamente fatta di realtà, foss'anche di soli colori. Per non allargare esageratamente la portata di questo saggio, mi limiterò ad analizzare tre usi della realtà in letteratura che testimoniano quel fenomeno che io definisco “prevalenza” del reale. In primo luogo, il modo in cui il reale si insinua nella fiction: l'ho definito “alimentazione”, in quanto la fiction trae dal reale nutrimento e, soprattutto, ne estrae dettagli e meraviglie difficilmente dispponibili alla sola immaginazione. In secondo luogo, il modo in cui viene utilizzato talvolta il pretesto della fiction , vale a dire quella che potremmo chiamare “licenza poetica”, impiegata per attenuare le conseguenze delle sue stesse affermazioni. Chiamo questa modalità “rifiuto”: il testo letterario asserisce che i fatti narrati sono immaginari e che le opinioni riportate sono letterarie in modo da evitare censure di varia natura. Tutto ciò è particolarmente interessante poiché prova di come – attraverso una negazione – la fiction sia immersa nella realtà. Infine, in terzo luogo, un fenomeno tipico del mondo postmoderno, nel quale la teoria è essa stessa resa letteratura: lo chiamo “derealizzazione” ed è il prolungamento naturale della modalità del “rifiuto”. Nel momento in cui si perde la capacità di distinguere fra realtà e finzione, così come fra teoria e letteratura, alcuni enunciati (falsi o moralmente solidi che siano) non saranno considerabili possibili esclusivamente in un contesto letterario – proprio perchè letterario – bensì risulteranno possibili anche in un contesto teoretico, che invece, tradizionalmente, dovrebbe essere attento alla verità. Questi tre modi di rappresentare la relazione fra realtà e letteratura sono scarsamente correlati fra loro poiché lo snodo che li unisce è il semplice fatto che tutti e tre sono rappresentati nel paesaggio letterario contemporaneo. La scarna morale che possiamo trarre da tutto ciò è che il realismo- così come l'anti-realismo – si esplicita in molte modalità non sempre trasparenti.

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Parole chiave:

reale, irriducibilità, finzione
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Testo integrale

1. Alimentation

  • 1 Siti 2013.

1The first use of the real, then, is that of the real as surprise, the real as alimentation. This is what constitutes the absolute advantage of reality in literature. What Kleist could have imagined the story of the African who goes around killing people in Milan with a pickaxe? It is a sort of more dramatic Michael Kohlhaas, because the demand for justice that turns into a crime is not even self-aware, and falls upon the innocent. On the whole prevails the precise stigma of the real, which is the surprise, the unpredictability, the “sticking out” – as Walter Siti rightly reminded1. In fact, the hallmark of realism lies in denying the Aristotelian principle that a plausible falsehood is better than an implausible truth. Those are laws that apply in rhetoric and in the administration of evidence in courts, not in literature. But reality overcomes fiction, if only because it is more neat, dry, unpredictable and poetic, and this circumstance is the origin of literary realism of all times, and therefore also of the “compositions that try to mix history and invention” that fill the contemporary cultural landscape. From the judicial materials used by Saviano in Gomorrah to the crowd of strictly historical characters (and of strictly philological recipes) that populates Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, up to the tacit withdrawals from Wikipedia made by Houellebecq in The Map and The Territory. Consumer literature is largely a child of Wikipedia, which, if nothing else, spares us intimism.

  • 2 It is not by chance that Parsons 1980 speaks of “imported objects”.
  • 3 For an interesting exposition of the debate in analytic philosophy, see Gendler and Hawthorne 2002.

2Fiction is made on the sofa. Reality hits us. Inside the most complicated of all possible worlds, most of the elements come from real worlds: in fact, from our own world2. Reality is often contrasted with possibility, and we see in reality something inherently negative, able only to resist and oppose us. Now, the real has undoubtedly got this feature. At the same time, however, it is also the source of the possible, because it is precisely from what there is that possibilities open up (and in fact possibility is distinguished from mere conceivability)3. After all, what I am saying is already written in Aesthetics by Baumgarten – i.e. a Leibnizian, and therefore a philosopher who was very fond of possibility – who recommended to the writers who had run out of topics to consult an “ontological handbook”, a book that contained a classification of objects. Inside those objects were hidden stories. Inside the real, inside what there is, possibility – what that there may be – is so to speak “embedded”. This is because each of us is what she is, with her history and nature, and certain possibilities open to her, rather than others. And, most importantly, it is because many things were realized that many others have simply remained possible.

3If things are in these terms, then, it becomes particularly difficult to establish what “realism” is in literature, or, better, to find a radically anti-realist literature. Of course, there is a trivial sense in which War and Peace is more realistic than Alice in Wonderland, but this distinction is incredibly vague – as you can tell by thinking about Acquainted with Grief or the Recherche, novels which undoubtedly speak, and very realistically, of their author, but do so in different settings from the geographical or historical reality (neither Maradagal nor Albertine ever existed). Even Abbott’s Flatland, which takes place in a world of only two dimensions, speaks of the Victorian society, just as Gulliver’s Travels tell us about the society of the early eighteenth century, and in a much more realistic way – as it is more raw and unscrupulous thanks to the fantastic setting – than the way in which Heart by De Amicis tells us about the late nineteenth century society (suffice it to say that it came out in 1886, the year in which Nietzsche published Beyond Good and Evil, when indeed the world of Enrico, De Rossi and Garrone was a pure crib). The game of literature consists precisely in this, and it is its specificity.

4But if at the news they said that the mad hatter exists, we would have every right to protest. At a closer look, we got quite close to that, and this not only for the natural human tendency to praise those in power, but also due to a confusion that is characteristic of postmodernism: namely the doctrine that, since there is as much construction and narrative in literature as in history, there is no difference between history and fiction – a thesis that is not only wrong, as Aristotle had rightly already seen, but also very dangerous because it constitutes de facto the justification of any revisionism. But more on this later, when we will be discussing “derealisation.”

5For the moment I would just like to clarify that, in my opinion, the appeal to realism does not lie in requiring that the contents of novels should be certified by a historical committee, but simply in not confusing literature with history, or medicine, or philosophy. Because there is an essential difference (and this is a consideration of common sense) between a novel on the one hand, and a history book, a medical record and a philosophical essay on the other.

2. Denial

6Let us come to denial. Here the appeal to the literary register is used as the justification of claims that would be inadmissible in a “serious” context. Denial is particularly interesting because it simultaneously affirms and denies its realistic character or, more accurately, according to Freud, it affirms it by denying it. It is, very simply, the classic disclaimer “any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental” but in some cases there are more interesting dynamics, involving, in addition to the author, the professional interpreter.

  • 4 Baudelaire 1951: 706.

7For example Baudelaire, in My Heart Laid Bare, writes as follows: «A pretty conspiracy to organize for the extermination of the Jewish Race./The Jews, Librarians and witnesses of Redemption»4. Had this been written by a politician, a scientist, a journalist, and maybe even a mediocre poet, he would probably not have been forgiven. Instead, as Derrida pointed out, Benjamin, commenting on the passage, calls it a “gauloiserie,” i.e. merely a bit heavy joke, while Claude Pichois, the curator of the works of Baudelaire by Gallimard, writes that the passage «is difficult to interpret,» but that «any anti-Semitism is to be excluded».

8It would be ironic to find in this gallimardian indulgence the origin of the idea by Richard Millet – the editor of Gallimard (the publishing house for which he had also edited a problematic book such as Littell’s The Kindly Ones) – to write a short Literary Praise for Anders Breivik, where (and in my opinion the crux of the matter lies in that “literary”) he recognizes aesthetic dignity and formal perfection to Breivik’s gesture. Only to be surprised by the following reactions. On a smaller scale, there is also the case of Paradies: Liebe, the work that the Austrian Ulrich Seidl presented in Venice, in which a religious maniac mistreats her Islamic husband in a wheelchair and at one point makes love with the house crucifix. Albeit in reference to a very different situation, Millet and Seidl were convinced that their representations were legitimate because they fell within the sphere of art.

9As in other cases, from Drieu Larochelle to great writers such as Céline or Ezra Pound (who, besides, all operated in very different cases), one wonders how it is possible that, in a circuit where everything is visible and in which everything acquires an immediate political relevance – even Clint Eastwood’s slams (thankfully only metaphorical) – it is thought that there is a particular franchise for a practice as visible and media-related as art. This very hypothesis of immunity lead Stockhausen – an author who only shares with Eastwood the fact of being an artist – to state that the attack on the Twin Towers was “the greatest work of art possible in the whole cosmos.”

10There is a first and simple explanation for this that concerns the inherently fictional nature of art. Everything that is represented, written or described in art, as realistic as its theme and reference may be, is fictional (at least in the intentions declared by the author), so it can be declassified as untrue or not serious. Obviously, problems arise when, as in the case of Millet or Stockhausen, the recipient of the literary praise has made a non-literary killing, or when, as in the Nitsch’s carnages, the animals killed are killed for real.

11But there is a second and a little longer explanation, in which a complicated matter in our culture is touched and which explains the use of denial. Unlike other civilizations, ours has developed a religion of art characterised by a sacral immunity. This religion is dear to the secular bourgeois, that found in it – in the nineteenth century, but even today (you can tell from the tortures that we are sometimes willing to endure in the name of art) – an acceptable surrogate for the absolute. These bourgeois grant the artist the extraterritoriality and the proximity to the delinquent that Freud saw in them, but not without envy. «These artists, you know what they are like,» says the audience leaving the theatre or the museum, convinced, however, that what they have seen has made them better by bringing them to another world, to the Sunday of Life.

  • 5 Original Italian: “non mettetemi alle strette | sono solo canzonette”.

12After all, it was a great philosopher and a dissatisfied petit bourgeois like Nietzsche that said «l’art pour l’art = to hell with morality». The poet is a seer visited by the gods, he is not responsible for what he says, precisely by the virtue of his inspiration, and on occasion he may be politically incorrect, as he enjoys the franchise of the court jester. In fact, there is another justification for irresponsibility in art that is symmetrical to this one: it regards the poet not as a prophet but as a divine trickster, from Palazzeschi’s «let me have fun» to Bennato’s «do not corner me | these are just songs»5.

13So far so good. But even here anti-realism can only go up to a certain point, and reality still claims its rights. The fact is, simply, that sometimes what should apparently upset and drag us out of the constraints of the ordinary, actually touches our deepest, very visceral and trivial chords, for example the xenophobic ones (as in the case of Breivik’s praise). In this case the literary anti-bourgeois franchise is nothing but the evocation of something removed that it would be better to keep that way. You can see it well in the futurist machismo, that celebrates the slap, the fist, the war, the disrespect for women and the burning of libraries, meeting very ordinary feelings. And this obviously does not end with futurism or with the storms of steel narrated by Jünger. It grows with the mass media and culminates in the web, which is full of poetic licenses, because it can happen that even the writer of a blog or a tweet would claim to have literary immunity – especially if it is a literate speaking of other literates, as in the case of the post mortem attacks by Bret Easton Ellis to David Foster Wallace.

14Now, this aesthetic immunity is not neutral. Benjamin had seen this very well in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: the seemingly unpolitical gesture of the aestheticisation of war and evil is actually hyper-political, and its message is “fiat ars – pereat mundus.” Better then to lay one’s cards on the table (Benjamin suggests) and, with a complementary gesture, politicise art. The fact that, however, Benjamin wrote this about Marinetti while being much more lenient towards a great poet as Baudelaire shows how many tough and complicated knots intertwine in the phenomenon of poetic license: should we no longer read The Flowers of Evil after what Baudelaire wrote My Heart Laid Bare?

  • 6 Gaut 2007.

15Some people – for example, the philosopher Berys Gaut6 – with an extreme moralism, argue that morally reprehensible works cannot be masterpieces, which would force us to give up quite a few essential works. More moderately, it could be argued that, in depicting evil, there may be different moral attitudes (Picasso’s Guernica and The Disasters of War by Goya are different from the Campaign in Russia by Léon Degrelle). That the licenses we grant Lolita do not apply to a soap opera. That when an artist, great or minor, speaks as a commentator, she does not enjoy any special immunity. And most importantly, that a massacre will never be a masterpiece as such. If anything, a novel about massacres will be a masterpiece. As we read in the preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray, «There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all».

16But there remains the point which, in conclusion, I would like to bring attention to. In the case of surprise reality asserts its rights by contradicting our expectations and our sense of plausibility. In the same way, in the case of denial, reality suggests how problematic it is, at times, to give poetic licenses, because maybe what we have under our eyes is reality pure and simple, without a veil of poetry, the only veil being that of convention and self-defence.

3. Derealisation

17Hence a third aspect, which concerns the postmodern period we have gone through. It consists in claiming for “theory” – that is, for something serious – a paraliterary statute, halfway between rhetoric and logic, reality and fiction, mythos and logos, as part of a project of deconstruction of the distinctions between reality and fiction, serious and non-serious, literature and philosophy.

18In order to focus this point, from 1979 (the year of publication of The Postmodern Condition) we should flash back a hundred years and return to the Birth of Tragedy, which is the true archetypal text of postmodernism. The Dionysian world is just a fictional universe in which Nietzsche transposes the problems of the present covering them up with an archaic and originary aura. Nietzsche is an opponent of Enlightenment and of the idea that reason and progress bring virtue and happiness; he considers this idea banal and false (and indeed it is, if we put it in the terms of the bourgeois morality of the late nineteenth century, the one that is indeed represented by Heart).

  • 7 Nietzsche 1872: 115 (1909).

19Against this idea he sets a telluric and tragic-artistic world, contrary to reason: the world of Wagner, essentially (but had he lived in the sixties and seventies he would have probably taken as an example the Rolling Stones or the Doors). Then, a little bit as when a furniture-maker makes a Louis XIV style armchair look older by adding woodworm holes and the signs of centuries, Nietzsche transposes this opposition to the past, the Greek past, and creates a contrast between the pre-Socratics as tragic thinkers and Socrates as a rationalist (and therefore we should read: as a bourgeois and optimistic professor of the nineteenth century), who argues that knowledge and virtue go hand in hand. This is why the central point of the Birth of Tragedy, even more than the dialectic between Dionysian and Apollonian, is the contrast between the theoretical kind – happy to lift the veil and face the truth – and the artistic kind, who instead would pass all his time endlessly revealing and exposing, and enjoying the re-veiling even more than the unveiling: «for if the artist in every unveiling of truth always cleaves with raptured eyes only to that which still remains veiled after the unveiling, the theoretical man, on the other hand, enjoys and contents himself with the cast-off veil»7. And Nietzsche’s sympathy goes all to the artist, and to his ride through the veils in a flight of masks.

20Here we find the origin of much postmodernism, and of the “theory” that mixes literature and philosophy, rhetoric and logic. The reasons for this preference for the mask and the artist are, in my opinion, easily recognizable. A professor of philology senses all the weakness of his knowledge compared to the large Wagnerian industrial productions of art in a society that is close to the mass media, or with respect to the growing prestige of natural sciences, and thus invents a new role for philosophy: i.e. precisely that of creating new values, new myths and new users for its own doctrines. If we read Nietzsche’s letters, it is hard not to notice the care with which he prepared the graphic layout and the launch of his books, or how he hoped for huge print runs and translations into all languages​​, just like a best-seller today. In Ecce Homo he narrates about himself to the public with the same self-mythisation and lack of discretion that is required today by the show business. Typically, Nietzsche, just as a postmodern “theorist” would do, addresses his books not to his colleagues, but to a wide and indeterminate mankind (basically, the same mankind that could be found in Bayreuth listening to the complete performance of the Ring of the Nibelung, and that would later be in Woodstock listening to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin). A mankind that must first of all be shocked, surprised, and loyalised with the guarantee that every single reader is the exclusive recipient of a disturbing message of wisdom: that virtue is only a form of the will to power, that concepts are nothing but ancient metaphors, that time circularly returns, and that the real world became a myth.

  • 8 Latour 2004.

21This is why for Nietzsche – and for the postmodern thinkers after him – the relationship between literature and philosophy was so central. Littérature et philosophie mêlées – Hugo’s logbook written in 1834 – was, in the mid-seventies, the title of a special issue of Poétique that conveys better than anything else the spirit of the time. It is not a matter of distinguishing between theory and narrative or between metaphor and concept, since philosophy (as Rorty argued) is only one kind of writing. Fine. But what about Global Warming? If we say that there are no facts, only interpretations, then also Global Warming is only an interpretation – which might be comforting at first, but in the long run does not augur well, since it is a very good reason to leave things as they are. I chose this example out of the many possible ones (what about the credit spread? Cancer? The Holocaust?), because it is the one used by Bruno Latour, a convinced postmodernist, in an article in which he retracts his position8. In other words, in art you may very well be romantic, but in philosophy it is best to be cautious, otherwise you are in trouble («Monotheism of reason and heart, polytheism of imagination,» as Hegel, Schelling and Hölderlin rightly said in the so-called First systematic program of German idealism).

  • 9 Asensi Pérez 2006.
  • 10 Marino 1616. The original Italian is: “E del poeta il fin la meraviglia | parlo dell’eccellente e n (...)

22In fact, if one thinks that there is no difference between theorizing and narrating, then there is a very high risk of formulating fashionable nonsense or bullshit or bêtises. These are issues on which books were written, such as Sokal and Bricmont’s or that by Frankfurt, which means that we are dealing with a sociologically relevant phenomenon. To realise this, it is enough to read a bit of the theoretical production of a few years ago, for example the one made in what Manuel Asensi, in a 2006 book dedicated to Tel Quel, called Los años de salvajes de la teoria9. Does it means that those thinkers were crazy? No, it means that they thought that “theory” could also target surprise, excess and paradox, i.e. what Cavalier Marino regarded as the target of poetry: «Marvel is the poet’s end» and «he who knows not how to amaze, let him be groomed». And maybe they forgot that, between one line and another, he specified: «I speak of the excellent and not of the clumsy»10.

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Asensi Pérez, M.
– 2006, Los años salvajes de la teoría, Valencia, Tirant lo Blanch

Baudelaire, Ch.
– 1951, My heart laid bare, and other prose writings, New York, Vanguard Press

Gaut, B.
– 2007, Art, Emotion and Ethics, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Gendler, T. and Hawthorne, J. (eds)
– 2002, Conceivability and Possibility, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Latour, B.
– 2004,Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, “Critical Inquiry”, 30: 225-248

Marino, G.B.
– 1616, La Murtoleide, Lecce, Argo, 2007

Nietzsche, F.
– 1872, The Birth of Tragedy, London, Unwin, 1909

Parsons, T.
– 1980, Nonexistent Objects, New Haven - London, Yale University Press

Siti, W.
– 2013, Il realismo è l’impossibile, Roma, Nottetempo

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1 Siti 2013.

2 It is not by chance that Parsons 1980 speaks of “imported objects”.

3 For an interesting exposition of the debate in analytic philosophy, see Gendler and Hawthorne 2002.

4 Baudelaire 1951: 706.

5 Original Italian: “non mettetemi alle strette | sono solo canzonette”.

6 Gaut 2007.

7 Nietzsche 1872: 115 (1909).

8 Latour 2004.

9 Asensi Pérez 2006.

10 Marino 1616. The original Italian is: “E del poeta il fin la meraviglia | parlo dell’eccellente e non del goffo | Chi non sa far stupar, vada alla striglia!”

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Notizia bibliografica

Maurizio Ferraris, «Otherness: The Prevalence of the Real»Rivista di estetica, 56 | 2014, 87-95.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Maurizio Ferraris, «Otherness: The Prevalence of the Real»Rivista di estetica [Online], 56 | 2014, online dal 01 juin 2014, consultato il 21 juin 2021. URL:; DOI:

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