The essays included in this special issue of Critical Inquiry are a product of the symposium on “Narrative: The Illusion of Sequence” held at the University of Chicago on 26-28 October 1979. The rather special character of this symposium was not fragmented into concurrent or competing sessions, and all the speakers remained throughout the entire weekend to discuss the papers of their fellow participants. Several distinguished participants, in fact, did not read papers but confined their contributions to the conversations which developed over the several sessions of the three-day program. The impact of these sustained discussions is reflected in the revisions which the authors made in preparing their papers for this special issue, and thus this collection is a “product” of the symposium in a fairly precise sense.
To raise the question of the nature of narrative is to invite reflection on the very nature of culture and, possibly, even on the nature of humanity itself. So natural is the impulse to narrate, so inevitable is the form of narrative for any report of the way things really happened, that narrativity could appear problematical only in a culture in which it was absent—absent or, as in some domains of Western intellectual and artistic culture, programmatically refused. As a panglobal fact of culture, narrative and narration are less problems than simply data. As the late (and already profoundly missed) Roland Barthes remarked, narrative "is simply there like life itself . . . international, transhistorical, transcultural."1 Far from being a problem, then, narrative might well be considered a solution to a problem of general human concern, namely, the problem of how to translate knowing into telling,2 the problem of fashioning human experience into a form assimilable to structures of meaning that are generally human rather than culture-specific. We may not be able fully to comprehend specific thought patterns of another culture, but we have relatively less difficulty understanding a story coming from another culture, however exotic that culture may appear to us. As Barthes says, "narrative...is translatable without fundamental damage" in a way that a lyric poem or a philosophical discourse is not.
· 1. Roland Barthes, "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives," Music, Image, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York, 1977), p. 79.
· 2. The words "narrative," "narration," "to narrate," and so on derive via the Latin gnārus ("knowing," "acquainted with," "expert," "skillful," and so forth) and narro ("relate," "tell") from the Sanskrit root gnâ ("know"). The same root yields γνωριμος (“knowable,” “known”): see Emile Boisacq, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque (Heidelberg, 1950), under the entry for this word. My thanks to Ted Morris of Cornell, one of our greatest etymologists.
See also: Hayden White, Historical Pluralism
Hayden White, professor in the program of history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is the author of The Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism, The Greco-Roman Tradition, and Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe. " The Narrativization of Real Events" appeared in the Summer 1981 issue of Critical Inquiry. Critical Responses to the present essay include Louis O. Mink's "Everyman His or Her Own Annalist", and Marilyn Robinson Waldman's "The Otherwise Unnoteworthy Year 711: A Reply to Hayden White," both in the Summer 1981 issue of Critical Inquiry.
The primary narrative problem of the analyst is, then, not how to tell a normative chronological life history; rather, it is how to tell the several histories of each analysis. From this vantage point, the event with which to start the model analytic narration is not the first occasion of thought—Freud's wish-fulfilling hallucination of the absent breast; instead, one should start from a narrative account of the psychoanalyst's retelling of something told by an analysand and the analysand's response to that narrative transformation. In the narration of this moment of dialogue lies the structure of the analytic past, present, and future. It is from this beginning that the accounts of early infantile development are constructed. Those traditional developmental accounts, over which analysts labored so hard, may now be seen in a new light: less as positivistic sets of factual findings about mental development and more as hermeneutically filled-in narrative structures. The narrative structures that have been adopted control the telling of the events of the analysis, including the many tellings and retellings of the analysand's life history. The time is always present. The event is always an outgoing dialogue.
Roy Schafer is clinical professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cornell University Medical College, adjunct professor of psychology at New York University, and a supervising and training analyst at Columbia University's Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. He is the author of A New Language for Psychoanalysis, Language and Insight, and Narrative Actions in Psychoanalysis: Narratives of Space and Narratives of Time.
The law is mad. The law is mad, is madness; but madness is not the predicate of law. There is no madness without the law; madness cannot be conceived before its relation to law. Madness is law, the law is madness. There is a general trait here: the madness of law mad for me, the silhouette of my daughter mad about me, her mother, etc. But La Folie du jour, An (accountless) Account?, carrying and miscarrying its titles, is not at all exemplary of this general trait. Not at all, not wholly. This is not an example of a general or generic whole. The whole, which begins by finishing and never finishes beginning apart from itself, the whole that stays at the edgeless boundary of itself, the whole greater and less than a whole and nothing, An Account? will not have been exemplary. Rather, with regard to the whole, it will have been wholly counter-exemplary.
The genre has always in all genres been able to play the role of order's principle: resemblance, analogy, identity and difference, taxonomic classification, organization and genealogical tree, order of reason, order of reasons, sense of sense, truth of truth, natural light and sense of history. Now, the test of An Account? brought to light the madness of genre. Madness has given birth to and thrown light on the genre in the most dazzling, most blinding sense of the word. And in the writing of An Account?, in literature, satirically practicing all genres, imbibing them but never allowing herself to be saturated with a catalog of genres, she, madness, has started spinning Peterson's genre-disc like a demented sun. And she does not only do so in literature, for in concealing the boundaries that sunder mode and genre, she has also inundated and divided the borders between literature and its others.
Jacques Derrida is professor of history of philosophy at L'Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. His greatly influential works include Writing and Difference, Of Grammatology, Spurs: Of Nietzsche's Styles, Positions, and Dissemination. Avital Ronell teaches German at the University of Virginia and is the author of Poetics of Desire and Principles of Textuality in Kafka's "Das Schloss."
The capacity of narrative to submit to the desires of this or that mind without giving up secret potential may be crudely represented as a dialogue between story and interpretation. This dialogue begins when the author puts pen to paper and it continues through every reading that is not merely submissive. In this sense we can see without too much difficulty that all narrative, in the writing and the reading, has something in common with the continuous modification of text that takes place in a psychoanalytical process (which may tempt us to relate secrets to the condensations and displacements of dreams) or in the distortions induced in historical narrative by metahistorical considerations.
All that I leave to Roy Schafer1 and Hayden White. My immediate purpose is to make acceptable a simple proposition: we may like to think, for our purposes, of narrative as the product of two intertwined processes, the presentation of a fable and its progressive interpretation (which of course alters it). The first process tends toward clarity and propriety ("refined common sense"), the second toward secrecy, toward distortions which cover secrets. The proposition is not altogether alien to the now classic fabula/sujet distinction. A test for connexity (an important aspect of propriety) is that one can accurately infer the fable (which is not to say it ever had an independent existence). The sujet is what became of the fable when interpretation distorted its pristine, sequential propriety (and not only by dislocating its order of presentation, though the power to do so provides occasions for unobvious interpretations of a kind sequence cannot afford).
· 1. Not forever, I hope; his essay and its "refined common sense" have powerful implications for a more general narrative theory.
Frank Kermode is King Edward VII Professor of English at Cambridge University. The author of The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, Continuities, and Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays, his works also include The Classic and The Genesis of Secrecy. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry are "Novels: Recognition and Deception" (Autumn 1974), "A Reply to Denis Donoghue" (Spring 1975), and "A Reply to Joseph Frank" (Spring 1978).
In sum, flashbacks and foreflashes are commonplace in narrative, and such rearrangements in the telling of a story seem to leave us not only with a story but with very much the same story.1 . . . Will no disparity between the order of telling and the order of occurrence destroy either the basic identity or the narrative status of any story? An exception seems ready at hand: suppose we simply run our film...backwards. The result, though indeed a story, seems hardly to be the same story in any usual sense . . . Does cinematic narrative actually differ this sharply from narrative in a series of snapshots or in words? I think not. Our first impulse with any tale when the order of telling is clear is to take the order of occurrence to be the same as the order of telling; we then make any needed corrections in accord with temporal indications given in the narrative and with our antecedent knowledge both of what happened and of causal processes in general. But discrepancy between order of telling and order of occurrence cannot always be discovered instantaneously—or at all. If our series of snapshots is shown in reverse order at normal speed, we readily detect the reversal; for we know that a race begins at the starting gate, ends at the finish line, and so on. Even if the pictures do not show the starting gate or finish line or other identifiable parts of the track, we are not deceived, for we know that horses do not run backward. But when the film is run backward, such clues and considerations usually cannot be brought to bear soon enough, and we momentarily mistake the direction of the actions filmed. A little time is needed to make the correction. What seemed like a drastic difference between film and other forms of narrative amounts to nothing more than this lag.
· 1. In an obvious and important sense. Of course, whether two version are properly said to be of the same story—or of the same world—depends upon which of many permissible interpretations of sameness is understood; but that need not trouble us here.
Nelson Goodman is emeritus professor of philosophy at Harvard and the founder of both Project Zero and the Harvard Dance Center. His works include The Structure of Appearance; Fact, Fiction, and Forecast, and Ways of Worldmaking. His contributions to Critical Inquiry are "The Status of Style" (Summer 1975), "Metaphor as Moonlighting" (Autumn 1979), and "The Telling and the Told" (Summer 1981).
The key word in amy account of the different ways that visual details are presented by novels and films is "assert." I wish to communicate by that word the force it has in ordinary rhetoric: an "assertion" is a statement, usually an independent sentence or clause, that something is in fact the case, that it is a certain sort of thing, that it does in fact have certain properties or enter into certain relations, namely, those listed. Opposed to asserting there is mere "naming." When I say, "The cart was tiny; it came onto the bridge," I am asserting that certain property of the cart of being small in size and that certain relation of arriving at the bridge. However, when I say "The green cart came onto the bridge," I am asserting nothing more than its arrival at the bridge; the greenness of the cart is not asserted but slipped in without syntactic fuss. It is only named. Textually, it emerges by the way. Now, most film narratives seem to be of the latter textual order: it requires special effort for films to assert a property or relation. The dominant mode is presentational, not assertive. A film doesn't say, "This is the state of affairs," it merely shows you that state of affairs. Of course, there could be a character or a voice-over commentator asserting a property or relation; but then the film would be using its sound track in much the same way as fiction uses assertive syntax. It is not cinematic description but merely description by literary assertion transferred to film. Filmmakers and critics traditionally show disdain for verbal commentary because it explicates what, they feel, should be implicated visually. So in its essential visual mode, film does not describe at all but merely presents; or better, it depicts, in the original etymological sense of that word: renders in pictorial form. I don't think that this is mere purism or a die-hard adherence to silent films. Film attracts that component of our perceptual apparatus which we tend to favor over the other senses. Seeing, after all, is believing.
Seymour Chatman, professor in the department of rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Later Style of Henry James and Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. His contribution to Critical Inquiry, "Reply to Barbara Herrnstein Smith" appeared in the Summer 1981 issue.
Although it might be argued that the social drama is a story in [Hayden] White's sense, in that it has discernible inaugural, transitional, and terminal motifs, that is, a beginning, a middle, and an end, my observations convince me that it is, indeed, a spontaneous unit of social process and a fact of everyone's experience in every human society. My hypothesis, based on repeated observations of such processual units in a range of sociocultural systems and in my reading in ethnography and history, is that social dramas, "dramas of living," as Kenneth Burke calls them, can be aptly studied as having four phases. These I label breach, crisis, redress, and either reintegration or recognition of schism. Social dramas occur within groups of persons who share values and interests and who have a real or alleged common history. The main actors are persons for whom the group has a high value priority. Most of us have what I call our "star" group or groups to which we owe our deepest loyalty and whose fate is for us of the greatest personal concern. It is the one with which a person identifies most deeply and in which he finds fulfillment of his major social and personal desires. We are all members of many groups, formal or informal, from the family to the nation or some international religion or political institution. Each person makes his/her own subjective evaluation of the group's respective worth: some are "dear" to one, others it is one's "duty to defend," and so on. Some tragic situations arise from conflicts of loyalty to different star groups.
Victor Turner is professor of anthropology and a member of the Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia. His many publications include Schism and Continuity in an African Society, The Forest of Symbols, The Ritual Process, and, with Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture.
The configurational dimension, in turn, displays temporal features that may be opposed to these "features" of episodic time. The configurational arrangement makes the succession of events into significant wholes that are the correlate of the act of grouping together. Thanks to this reflective act—in the sense of Kant's Critique of Judgment—the whole plot may be translated into one "thought." "Thought," in this narrative context, may assume various meanings. It may characterize, for instance, following Aristotle's Poetics, the "theme" (dianoia) that accompanies the "fable" or "plot" (mythos) of a tragedy.1 "Thought" may also designate the "point" of the Hebraic maschal or of the biblical parable, concerning which Jeremias observes that the point of the parable is what allows us to translate it into a proverb or an aphorism. The term "thought" may also apply to the "colligatory terms" used in history writing, such terms as "the Renaissance," "the Industrial Revolution," and so on, which, according to Walsh and Dray, allow us to apprehend a set of historical events under a common denominator. (Here "colligatory terms" correspond to the kind of explanation that Dray puts under the heading of "explaining what.") In a word, the correlation between thought and plot supersedes the "then" and "and then" of mere succession. But it would be a complete mistake to consider "thought" as a-chronological. "Fable" and "theme" are as closely tied together as episode and configuration. The time of fable-and theme, if we may make of this a hyphenated expression, is more deeply temporal than the time of merely episodic narratives.
· 1. It may be noted in passing that this correlation between "theme" and "plot" is also the basis of Northup Frye's "archetypal" criticism.
Paul Ricoeur is professor of philosophy at the Université de Paris (Nanterre) and John Nuveen Professor at the University of Chicago. Some of his works to appear in English are Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology, Main Trends in Philosophy, and The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays on Hermeneutics. His previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, "The Metaphorical Process as Cognition, Imagination, and Feeling," appeared in the Autumn 1978 issue.
It was a dark and stormy night, in the otherwise unnoteworthy year 711 E.C. (Eskimo Calendar), and the great-aunt sat crouched at her typewriter, holding his hands out to it from time to time as if for warmth and swinging on a swing. He was a handsome boy of about eighteen, one of those men who suddenly excite your desire when you meet them in the street, and who leave you with a vague feeling of uneasiness and excited senses. On the plate beside the typewriter lay a slice of tomato. It was a flawless slice. It was a perfect slice of a perfect tomato. It is perfectly boring. I hold out my hands to the typewriter again, while swinging and showing my delicate limbs, and observe that the rows of keys are marked with all the letters of the English alphabet, and all the letters of the French alphabet minus accent marks, and all the letters of the Polish alphabet except the dark L. By striking these keys with the ends of my fingers or, conceivably, a small blunt object, the aging woman can create a flaw in the tomato. She did so at once. It was then a seriously, indeed a disgustingly flawed tomato, but it continued to be perfectly boring until eaten. She expired instantly in awful agony, of snakebite, flinging the window wide to get air. It is a dark and stormy night and the rain falling in in the typewriter keys writes a story in German about a great-aunt who went to a symposium on narrative and got eaten in the forest by a metabear. She writes the story while reading it with close attention, not sure what to expect, but collaborating hard, as if that was anything new; and this is the story I wrote . . .
Ursula K. Le Guin, distinguished novelist, poet, and essayist, is the author of The Left Hand of Darkness, Malafrena, and The Dispossessed, for which she won both the Hugo and the Nebula Award. Her novel The Lathe of Heaven was made into a film by the Public Broadcasting System.
Why, then, do we huddle in the dark around the campfires of our flickering narratives? There are obviously many different reasons for doing so. Yet, having heard various récits—whether "stories" or "accounts"—during the narrative conference, I am more inclined than ever to see self-assertive entertainment and self-transcending commitment as two kinds of ultimate motivation for our countless narratives. Stories and histories and other narrative or descriptive accounts help us to escape boredom and indifference—ours as well as that of other people. Those nearly vacant states of mind at the zero degree of entertainment and commitment bring us frightfully close to the experience of nonexistence. Hence our desire to replace boredom by thrilling or gratifying entertainment (remember Edmund Burke's contrast between the Sublime and the Beautiful?) and to replace indifference by the social or cosmic commitment either to change the world or to change ourselves. In a world of unmixed colors and pure literary genres, tragedy, comedy, satire, and romance might answer distinct needs for thrill, gratification, indignation, and admiration. But, as Roy Schafer and Victor Turner have reminded us, the private and social dramas underlying psychoanalytical and anthropological accounts are even less pure than most works of literature. Couldn't we conclude that life's internal and external dramas stem from a compound desire for self-assertion and self-transcendence—a desire which, in the realm of literary entertainment and commitment, motivates the emergence and appreciation of tragicomedy?
See also: Hal Foster, “Primitive" Scenes
Paul Hernadi teaches English and comparative literature at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Beyond Genre: New Directions in Literary Classification and the editor of What is Literature? and What is Criticism? His previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, "Literary Theory: A Compass for Critics," appeared in the Winter 1976 issue.
This long digression into language was necessary because we cannot understand verbal narrative unless we are aware of the iconic and indexical dimensions of language. Narrative is not just a sequencing, or the illusion of sequence, as the title of our conference would have it; narrative is a sequencing of something for somebody. To put anything into words is to sequence it, but to enumerate the parts of an automobile is not to narrate them, even though the enumeration must mention each part in the enumeration's own discursive order. One cannot narrate a picture, or a person, or a building, or a tree, or a philosophy. Narration is a word that implicates its object in its meaning. Only one kind of thing can be narrated: a time-thing, or to use our normal word for it, an "event." And strictly speaking, we require more than one event before we recognize that we are in the presence of a narrative. And what is an event? A narrated event is the symbolization of a real event: a temporal icon. A narration is the symbolic presentation of a sequence of events connected by subject matter and related by time. Without temporal relation we have only a list. A telephone directory is a list, but we can give it a strong push in the direction of narrative by adding the word "begat" between the first and second entries and the words "who begat" after each successive entry until the end. This will resemble certain minimal religious narratives, even down to the exclusion of female names from most of the list (the appearance of nonpersonal listings in the phonebook complicates things, of course).
Robert Scholes is professor of English and comparative literature and director of the semiotics program at Brown University. He is the author of Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction, Fabulation and Metafiction, and Reading, Writing, and Semiotics. "Toward a Semiotics of Literature," his previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, appeared in the Autumn 1977 issue.
. . . I should like to review and summarize the preceding general points:
1. For any particular narrative, there is no single basically basic story subsisting beneath it but, rather, an unlimited number of other narratives that can be constructed in response to it or perceived as related to it.
2. Among the narratives that can be constructed in response to a given narrative are not only those that we commonly refer to as "versions" of it (for example, translations, adaptations, abridgements, and paraphrases) but also those retellings that we call "plot summaries," "interpretations," and, sometimes, "basic stories." None of these retellings, however, is more absolutely basic than any of the others.
3. For any given narrative, there are always multiple basic stories that can be constructed in response to it because basic-ness is always arrived at by the exercise of some set of operations, in accord with some set of principles, that reflect some set of interests, all of which are, by nature, variable and thus multiple. Whenever we start to cut back, peel off, strip away, lay bare, and so forth, we always do so in accord with certain assumptions and purposes which, in turn, create hierarchies of relevance and centrality; and it is in terms of these hierarchies that we will distinguish certain elements and relations as being central or peripheral, more important or less important, and more basic or less basic.
4. The form and feature of any "version" of a narrative will be a function of, among other things, the particular motives that elicited it and the particular interests and functions it was designed to serve. Some versions, such as translation and transcriptions, may be constructed in order to preserve and transmit a culturally valued verbal structure. Others, such as adaptations and abridgements, may be constructed in order to amuse or instruct a specific audience. And some versions, such as "interpretations," "plot summaries," and "basic stories," may be constructed in order to advance the objectives of a particular discipline, such as literary history, folklore, psychiatry—or, of course, narratology. None of these latter versions, however, is any less motivated or, accordingly, formally contingent than any of the other versions constructed to serve other interests or functions.
Barbara Herrnstein Smith is professor of English and communications and the director of the Center for the Study of Art and Symbolic Behavior at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Poetic Closure and On the Margins of Discourse. "On the Margins of Discourse" was also contributed as an essay to Critical Inquiry in the June 1975 issue. Responses to the present essay are Nelson Goodman's "The Telling and the Told" and Seymour Chatman's "Reply to Barbara Herrnstein Smith". Both appear in the Summer 1981 issue of Critical Inquiry.