In this essay, Kames speaks of "ideal presence", his term for the impressions created either by vivid memory of "real presence" from one's own past, or through fictional representation. In the following passage, he discusses the social effects of fiction:
It is wonderful to observe upon what slight foundations nature erects some of her most solid and magnificent works. In appearance at least, what can be more slight than ideal presence? And yet from it is derived that extensive influence which language hath over the heart, an influence which, more than any other means, strengthens the bond of society, and attracts individuals from their private system to perform acts of generosity and benevolence. Matters of fact, it is true, and truth in general, may be inculcated without taking advantage of ideal presence; but without it, the finest speaker or writer would in vain attempt to move any passion. Our sympathy would be confined to objects that are really present, and language would lose entirely its signal power of making us sympathize with the beings removed at the greatest distance of time as well as of place. Nor is the influence of language by means of ideal presence confined to the heart; it reacheth also the understanding and contributes to belief.
This idea of the relationship between reading and society seems to conflict with Rousseau's, as expressed in the second Preface to La Nouvelle Heloise. Of course, the main center of conflict is in the image of society, not of the potential constructive power of fiction. But this difference dramatically alters the role that writing of sensibility can have in the world.Related terms: