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Authenticities East and West
March 30 - April 1, 2001

The Distinction Between Fact and Fiction: Mori Ôgai and Virginia Woolf
Shion Kono (
Department of Comparative Literature, Princeton University

"Rekishi sonomama to Rekishi-banare" (1915) by Mori Ôgai (1862-1922) and "The New Biography" (1927) by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) are two essays in which the authors express their desires to combine fact and fiction-one (Ôgai) through various methods of writing a historical novella and the other (Woolf) through the revolution of the ways in which biography is written. The two essays distinguish various elements that constitute new forms of "historical" narrative, fictional or non-fictional. Once the two essays are juxtaposed for comparison, the issue of intercultural comparison raises its ugly head (or an intellectually stimulating and fruitful one, depending on one's point of view). For how is it possible to compare these two texts from two very different historical/cultural contexts? Although two writers in our comparative scheme wrote in two close temporal points, the literary cultures in which they wrote were very different. Ôgai is reacting against the Japanese Naturalists' version of shôsetsu and Min'yûsha biography; Woolf, along with her Bloomsbury friends, struggles against Victorian biography. The historical contexts for each writer are certainly determinant factors in our understanding of key terms such as "history as it is" for Ôgai and "personality" for Woolf. In fact, the comparison of these two essays so embedded in respective historical moments reveals that there is no generic distinction between fact and fiction available to us that one could impose from the universal vantage point. The distinction between fact and fiction is historically contingent.

This is not to say, however, that the fact/fiction distinction does not exist, although the latter statement has been argued for in recent years, in various manifestations. The weaker version of this statement states that the narrative of fiction and the narrative of non-fiction are formally indistinguishable-and this often coupled with another statement that the distinction between fact and fiction can be made, but only in extratextual clues such as tacit "pact" between the reader and the author or the different kinds of narrative "act." As Dorrit Cohn argues in Distinction of Fiction, emphasis on formal similarity between, for example, the novel and history tends to cover up minor yet significant formal differences between fiction and non-fiction in a given set of narrative conventions. One of the most notable of such formal differences in our contemporary conventions is the freedom accorded to fictional narrator(s) to move in and out of the minds of the third person.

This does not mean that the borderline between fact and fiction has never been crossed. Instead, the close reading of the two texts reveals that the distinctions Ôgai and Woolf make in the essays actually let them make stronger cases for their new approaches to historical narrative. Woolf argues for the potential of fiction that could remedy the defects of fact-laden Victorian biography, but in order to make this argument, she emphasizes the different origins of fictional narrative and factual narrative, to such an extent that the granite-like solidity of fact and the rainbow-like intangibility of personality with fiction as its vehicle are almost irreconcilable. Meanwhile, Ôgai distinguishes his shôsetsu from the shôsetsu by the rest of the literary circle predominated by Naturalists because it preserves the way history actually is. At the same time, Ôgai is aware of the limitations imposed on historically truthful narrative. Their emphases on the distinction also highlight similar historical conditions, which may be called "modern": the lack of "natural" distinctions to which the authors could ascribe, whether it results from their active, willful forgetting of conventions or it has more to do with the surrounding pervasive sense of loss in the particular historical moments.

Shion Kono is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at Princeton. Previously a double-major in Physics and Religion at Bowdoin College, he is currently writing a dissertation on literary approaches of biography in Mori Ôgai and Virginia Woolf.

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