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The Pleasures of Imagination. Aspects of Fictionality in the Poetics of the Age of Enlightenment and in Present-Day Theories of Fiction

  • Frank Zipfel EMAIL logo


Investigations into the history of the modern practice of fiction encounter a wide range of obstacles. One of the major impediments lies in the fact that former centuries have used different concepts and terms to designate or describe phenomena or ideas that we, during the last 50 years, have been dealing with under the label of fiction/ality. Therefore, it is not easy to establish whether scholars and poets of other centuries actually do talk about what we today call fiction or fictionality and, if they do, what they say about it. Moreover, even when we detect discourses or propositions that seem to deal with aspects of fictionality we have to be careful and ask whether these propositions are actually intended to talk about phenomena that belong to the realm of fiction/ality. However, if we want to gain some knowledge about the history of fiction/ality, we have no other choice than to tackle the arduous task of trying to detect similarities (and differences) between the present-day discourse on fictionality and (allegedly) related discourses of other epochs. The goal of this paper is to make a small contribution to this task.

The starting point of the paper are two observations, which also determine the approach I have chosen for my investigations. 1) In the 18th century the terms »fiction« or »fictionality« do not seem to play a significant role in the discussion of art and literature. However, some propositions of the discourse on imagination, one of the most prominent discourses of the Age of Enlightenment, seem to suggest that this discourse deals more or less explicitly with questions regarding the fictionality of literary artefacts as we conceive it today. 2) The concepts of imagination and fictionality are also closely linked in present-day theories of fiction. Naturally, the question arises how the entanglement of the concepts of fictionality and imagination can be understood in a historical perspective. Can it function as a common ground between 18th-century and present-day conceptions of fiction/ality? Is imagination still used in the same ways to explain phenomena of fictionality or have the approaches evolved over the last 250 years and if yes, then how? These kinds of questions inevitably lead to one major question: What do 18th-century and present-day conceptions of fiction/ality have in common, how much and in what ways do they differ?

For heuristic reasons, the article is subdivided according to what I consider the three salient features of today’s institutional theories of fiction (i. e. theories which try to explain fictionality as an institutional practice that is determined and ruled by specific conventions): fictive utterance (aspects concerning the production of fictional texts), fictional content (aspects concerning the narrated story in fictional texts) and fictive stance (aspects concerning the reader’s response to fictional texts). The article focusses on the English, French and German-speaking debates of the long 18th century and within these discourses on the most central and, therefore, for the development of the concept of fiction/ality most influential figures. These are, most notably, Madame de Staël, Voltaire, Joseph Addison, Georg Friedrich Meier, Christian Wolff, the duo Johann Jakob Bodmer and Johann Jakob Breitinger as well as their adversary Johann Christoph Gottsched.

The relevance of the article for a historical approach to the theory of fiction lies in the following aspects. By means of a tentative reconstruction of some carefully chosen propositions of 18th-century discourse on imagination I want to show that these propositions deal in some way or other with literary phenomena and theoretical concepts that in present-day theory are addressed under the label of fiction/ality. By comparing propositions stemming from 18th-century discourse on imagination with some major assertions of present-day theories of fiction I try to lay bare the similarities and the differences of the respective approaches to literary fiction and its conceptualisations. One of the major questions is to what extent these similarities and differences stem from the differing theoretical paradigms that are used to explain literary phenomena in both epochs. I venture some hypotheses about the influence of the respective theoretical backgrounds on the conceptions of fictionality then and today. An even more intriguing question seems to be whether the practice of fictional storytelling as we know and conceive it today had already been established during the 18th century or whether it was only in the process of being established.


My thanks go to my students for discussing the 18th century concepts on imagination in class, to the organizers and participants of the conference »History of the Modern Practice of Fiction« (October 2019) for their comments and feedbacks to the paper on which the present article is based on, to Carina Berg and Jan Jokisch for revising earlier versions of the text and again to Jan Jokisch for the English translations of the German and French quotes.


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