Fictional Foreplay or The Art That Never Was

Image of  ETA Hoffman’s Johannes Kreisler from Wikimedia

Everyone loves a little artistic foreplay, the fictional pieces in fiction. How can we not appreciate or be tempted ourselves as artists to conjure up a make-believe novel or fantasy composition and feature the fictional masterpiece in our work? Charlotte Bronte has Jane Eyre sketch psychedelic landscapes. Oscar Wilde’s picture that never was of Dorian Gray haunts readers’ minds with warnings of sin and the dangers of beauty.

These fictional masterpieces ask for nothing other than the reader’s imagination to conjure the magnum opus. No blood, no sweat, and certainly no tears on the artist’s part. All pillow talk with very little fuss or muss.  Poets & Writers’ Alex Dmitrov in “Invisible Library” and The New Yorker’s Alex Ross’ “Imaginary Music” have recently revealed the wannabe artist who skulks amongst even the most famous and reputable writers. ETA Hoffman longed to be a composer and so created Johannes Kriesler whose fictional compositions are said to have influenced Schumann. Roberto Bolano forged Archimboldi in his novel, 2666, a novelist who chronicled an unrivaled work on Nazi Germany.

We all know people who love to talk about the books they could write if they only had the time. We might even be those people if we’re truthful about what we can and cannot do. Fictionalized art confirms our greatest fears and hopes about the actual creation of art. Imaginary fictions are the Holy Grails of Art. A dream we constantly chase, a fantasy we fall back on, which only perpetuates the unattainable ideal, these pieces quintessentially embody the unrequited romance, an unconsummated lust where we simply enjoy the anticipation of and never have to deal with the bittersweet aftertaste of actuality. Fictional fictions remain perfect in our imagination. They loom in the ether of possibility and tease us with our own chimeric aesthetics.

From Jane Eyre, Chapter XIII:

He spread the pictures before him, and again surveyed them alternately.

While he is so occupied, I will tell you, reader, what they are: and first, I must premise that they are nothing wonderful. The subjects had, indeed, risen vividly on my mind. As I saw them with the spiritual eye, before I attempted to embody them, they were striking; but my hand would not second my fancy, and in each case it had wrought out but a pale portrait of the thing I had conceived.

These pictures were in water-colours. The first represented clouds low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea: all the distance was in eclipse; so, too, was the foreground; or rather, the nearest billows, for there was no land. One gleam of light lifted into relief a half-submerged mast, on which sat a cormorant, dark and large, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart. Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn.

The second picture contained for foreground only the dim peak of a hill, with grass and some leaves slanting as if by a breeze. Beyond and above spread an expanse of sky, dark blue as at twilight: rising into the sky was a woman’s shape to the bust, portrayed in tints as dusk and soft as I could combine. The dim forehead was crowned with a star; the lineaments below were seen as through the suffusion of vapour; the eyes shone dark and wild; the hair streamed shadowy, like a beamless cloud torn by storm or by electric travail. On the neck lay a pale reflection like moonlight; the same faint lustre touched the train of thin clouds from which rose and bowed this vision of the Evening Star.

The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky: a muster of northern lights reared their dim lances, close serried, along the horizon. Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head,–a colossal head, inclined towards the iceberg, and resting against it. Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, and supporting it, drew up before the lower features a sable veil, a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible. Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge. This pale crescent was “the likeness of a kingly crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.”

“Were you happy when you painted these pictures?” asked Mr. Rochester presently.

“I was absorbed, sir: yes, and I was happy. To paint them, in short, was to enjoy one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known.”

“That is not saying much. Your pleasures, by your own account, have been few; but I daresay you did exist in a kind of artist’s dreamland while you blent and arranged these strange tints. Did you sit at them long each day?”

“I had nothing else to do, because it was the vacation, and I sat at them from morning till noon, and from noon till night: the length of the midsummer days favoured my inclination to apply.”

“And you felt self-satisfied with the result of your ardent labours?”

“Far from it. I was tormented by the contrast between my idea and my handiwork: in each case I had imagined something which I was quite powerless to realise.”



  1. Fantastic, generative topic. You’ve inspired me to write a book of literary theory on imaginary books:

    Chapter 1
    Iris Murdoch’s Book from The Book and the Brotherhood.

    Chapter 2
    The catalogue of catalogues from Borges’s “Library of Babel”

    Chapter 3
    Walter Benjamin’s (phantasmically completed) Arcades Project

    Chapter 4
    Nabokov’s “Pale Fire”
    (Does it count that the guy actually wrote the fake poem?)

    Chapter 5
    The dull book (with no pictures in it) that Alice’s sister is reading as the girl nods off

    Chapter 6
    The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein (Orwell, 1984)

    Chapter 7
    Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

    I’m going to get started on this right away. Well, probably tomorrow. Or, more realistically, next week. Next month at the outside.

  2. Cheers, Roz! Sounds like a great crit theory text with a cool cult following! Definitely CFP-conference worthy. What a cool panel presentation. Someday…

  3. More fictional foreplay, imaginary food from “The Guardian, ” “The Exotic Flavour of Literary Food” by Phil Hall, December 16, 2009:

    “There is a strong synesthesia that takes hold of the reader when food is described in literature. A simple sketch easily conjures up the platonic essence of food and drink. When you read the description of frying kidneys at the beginning of Ulysses it is advisable to open the curtains and at least one window.

    But the corollary of this is that no cherries will ever taste as delicious as the ripe cherries in The Snow Queen and no Martini will ever be able to match James Bond’s in Casino Royale, shaken or stirred.

    Descriptions of food and drink in literature can create unassuagable hungers and unquenchable thirsts. And sometimes they create these hungers and thirsts for foods that don’t exist. I would have loved to eat the fruit of the toffee tree in The Magician’s Nephew. My children longed for a visit to Willie Wonka’s factory and Honeydukes.

    Food in literature also evokes the taste of what it symbolises, TS Eliot’s peach is sweet and shameful. Literary food as love and comfort must be one of the major causes of childhood obesity.

    What did the the lotuses taste like on the Isle of Circe? How about the forbidden fruit in Genesis, and was it really as good as the Russet Matthew Cuthbert gave Anne in Anne of Green Gables?”

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