Journal of Commonwealth Literature
time, outside of narrative: it has no content, it is always the same in itscyclical moments of emergence, and the event in question takes on histor-icity only to the degree that the context of the explosion, the nature of that particular and historical repressive apparatus, knows speciﬁcation’’.
Expressed as a ‘‘powerful abstraction’’, desire can unify diverse aspirations;as it ‘‘takes on historicity’’, it can distinguish one nation from another.To accomplish both tasks, writers require a form that evokes somethingbeyond immediate experience; they require symbolism. A symbol can func-tion in a particular historical context and also suggest referents beyond it.David Lodge’s structuralist deﬁnition of terms is useful here. He proposesthat realism is metonymic in positing a horizontal axis of correspondencebetween the text and the observable world. Symbolism is metaphoric inprojecting a vertical axis of substitution that allows the word image togenerate multiple referents in the same position.
Thus realism is basedon an empirical epistemology that limits referents to observable reality;symbolism can be empirical, but it can also evoke referents beyond sensoryexperience. When symbolism goes beyond empirical experience, it may becalled myth, mysticism, vision, fantasy, or magic. Symbolism includes theempirical referent of realism but can continue beyond it, accepting anynumber of substitutions. References to a particular time and place are theend-point of realism but the starting-point of symbolism.
Despite Jameson’s view that narrative is a socially symbolic act, mostleftist critics ﬁnd symbolism objectionable because it is built on correspon-dences. Comparing an historical situation to anything else seems to reduceits importance, and linking the present to the past seems reactionary. Sincerealism is empirical, analytical and focused on a speciﬁc time and place,critics seeking political change urge writers to choose it. But realism cannotestablish commonality or create a distinct identity. National identityrequires some unifying principle that transcends empirical experience, someconviction that events are related to one another, some constant to establisha pattern among events.Symbolism provides these qualities. Gregory L. Lucente contrasts realismand the symbolism of myth in terms of their relation to the immediate andthe enduring:
Brieﬂy, then, mythic components are those repeating elements of narrativewhich approach an existence apart from the speciﬁcity of space and time,which at their core involve uniﬁed and idealized ﬁgures, and which establishand depend upon a relationship of unquestioning belief. By contrast, realisticcomponents are made up of those elements that claim a clear and deﬁniteposition in space and time (and so in culture), that involve ﬁgures whoserelation to experience is not idealized, and that invite an attitude of analysisor even skepticism rather than immediate faith.