Lukas Püttmann    About    Blog

Modes of inquiry

In a newspaper article I once read, a professor of music pointed out the advantages of music education for children. He wrote that music is one way of experiencing and accessing the world.

The literary critic Michael Orthofer expresses similar thoughts about reading novels:

ORTHOFER: But I definitely think [reading fiction] really expands my horizons in a way that other things can’t. Travel, talking to people, meeting people, reading the newspaper, following current events – those things obviously also help you understand the world better, but I think fiction adds a totally different dimension to it. And truly great fiction really can take you much farther than other things can, I think. (link)

Consider Hans Fallada’s novel Jeder stirbt für sich allein (“Alone in Berlin”) which takes place in 1940-1942 Berlin. The author follows a working-class couple whose initial hopes in Hitler are disappointed and who become estranged from the Nazi regime. They start to secretly distribute postcards with subversive messages.

I can’t visit the Berlin of the 1940s, but Fallada can take me there. And it’s easy to feel with them. The domesticity of the couple is familiar and typically German. And when they get caught and things turn violent, even the swearing is what you hear today.

The couple really existed, but Fallada didn’t try to find out any facts about them or to document their case. Instead he unearths the “inner truth of the narrative”.1

But an author can do even more, he can depict a world that does not and did not exist, but in our fantasy it could have:

ORTHOFER: Being not tied down. […] That nonfiction, the description of what has actually happened – first of all, it’s also very difficult to capture just precisely what has happened. And often fiction allows you to go beyond that, to imagine the reasons behind it, which you might not be able to if you were doing just purely following the facts, […]. (link)

Paul Theroux calls travel a “mode of inquiry” and that you could also call music and fiction.


  1. The German original by Hans Fallada in the introduction to the book (added emphasis):

    Nur in großen Zügen – ein Roman hat eigene Gesetze und kann nicht in allem der Wirklichkeit folgen. Darum hat es der Verfasser auch vermieden, Authentisches über das das Privatleben dieser beiden Menschen zu erfahren: er musste sie so schildern, wie sie ihm vor Augen standen. Sie sind also zwei Gestalten der Phantasie, wie auch alle andere Figuren dieses Romans frei erfunden sind. Trotzdem glaubt der Verfasser an die “die innere Wahrheit” des Erzählten, auch wenn manche Einzelheit den tatsächlichen Verhältnissen nicht ganz entspricht.