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Heroic History, 6

the unique story-discourse dynamic in biographical narratives
and the mnemonic efficiencies of remembering life stories

Plot is not the only mnemonic glue that makes stories rememberable as stories. Biography also assists audiences in their job of identifying a coherent story (a.k.a., “constructing a rememberable fabula”) within the narrative discourse. No matter how haphazard the narrative structure, its content can be coherently re-structured if the audience can simply recognize which story elements are self-sequencing. With a classic Plot, self-sequencing material is supplied by narrative causality. With Biography, self-sequencing material comes primarily from human mortality (the life story’s “beginning and end”) and secondarily from patterns of human growth and development (the life story’s “middle”). While this gives Biography a different type of “wholeness” than Aristotle prescribed, the subject’s birth and death are unmistakable narrative endpoints, and the subject’s ongoing continuity in-between guarantees a minimum level of coherence. It’s less concise than Aristotelian “unity”, but it offers different advantages that cannot be derived from a classical Plot.

This biographical coherence takes effect in the story (fabula) as put together by an audience, fully aware that life-stories are always chronological. However, chronological life-stories aren’t always conveyed by a straightforward linear narrative (discourse). For example, a literary biography of Herod the Great can start with his death and work backwards, or even skip around through various periods of time. If the biographical text (discourse) conveyed enough chronological information, or self-sequencing story-content, the biographical story-structure (fabula) would become linear and display chronological sequence in the mind of the reader.

(Note: I’m emphasizing the term “fabula” to bring reader theory closer to memory theory. The audience’s construction of “story”, both during and immediately after a “discourse”, is the earliest mnemonic version of the narrative’s content being retained within “story-structure”. Any given audience member’s immediate fabula, therefore, is the first foundation for all their own future remembering of “the story”.)

In practice, this works uniquely well for biographers, who take great liberty in arranging their non-linear discourse and yet remain confident that its audience will put together (and remember) a coherent and linear fabula. As with any puzzle, you need to find the right pieces and put them in the right order; and just like a puzzle gets easier when you start from the corners and edges, a life-story fabula is easier because you already know the Beginning and End - birth and death. That’s a tremendous advantage. With most kinds of stories, readers (listeners/watchers) must reconstruct tentatively, repeatedly anticipating a variety of possible story endings, and wait to see whether new information will retroactively complicate or extend the fabula’s chronological beginning. Each new piece of the puzzle could be a new corner or edge, so the shape of the puzzle is uncertain until the discourse is finished, which is why Aristotle preferred the wholeness of presenting “a single action”. A concise Plot makes the whole structure clear at the beginning and therefore gets a head start on structuring audience memory. But despite Aristotle’s objections, Biography sets forth its full boundaries even before page one begins, and those boundaries are never in question. In traditional life-writing, the generic expectation is clear - a comprehensive life-story, one individual lifespan, from cradle to grave. If the discourse is jumbled, then reconstructing the “middle” may be a challenge, but that’s much less of a problem (as we’ll observe, soon enough). 

The primary advantage of Biography, for delivering rememberable story-structure, is that the ultimate human contingencies (birth & death) guarantee the reader a stable continuity in discourse, with both consistent orientation on a single subject (stable content) and an implicitly overarching chronological timeline (stable structure). That's why a comprehensive life story’s fabula/discourse dynamic is unique among narrative genres and styles. 

It has been that way since ancient times, at least.

In analyzing Greco-Roman biographies (or Lives, or Bioi), from centuries before and after the canonical Gospels, Richard Burridge remarked categorically: “the author may order and allocate the interior structure of a Bios as he wishes, with material in a chronological sequence, or mixed up with topical analysis.” (What Are the Gospels?, 133, emphasis mine). That same point cannot apply to other genres of storytelling, in which a non-linear discourse must be ordered strategically, to give the audience the right puzzle pieces at just the right moments. In contrast, biographers have more freedom to sequence content arbitrarily, combine linear and non-linear style, and sometimes simply alternate between 'chronology' and 'digressions'.

Hermione Lee observed a loose pattern of narrative structure in ancient life-writing for Oxford’s Very Short Introductions (Biography, 2009, p.22-3):

Sometimes, as in Suetonius, good and bad characteristics are piled up in turn. But there is a standard pattern, beginning with early signs of character revealed in childhood incidents, followed by a rising trajectory, illustrated by exploits, sayings, or revealing examples of behaviour. The Lives [evidently referring to both Plutarch’s and Suetonius’ Lives] reach a plateau of status, influence, success, wealth, or power, and then fall or decline, through errors of judgment, unpopularity, conspiracy, defeat, exile, betrayal, disgrace, or senility. The death scenes… can have a powerful impact.

This is a carefully written and double-edged summary. On the one hand, we may compliment Lee’s careful avoidance of the word “chronological” while describing a “standard pattern” that is clearly (albeit loosely or roughly) chronological. That prudence is warranted because ancient biographical texts were not sequenced strictly by temporal order. On the other hand, Lee’s full description of this “standard pattern” also serves as a tacit rebuke against sloppy critics who’ve declared Plutarch, Suetonius, and the canonical Gospel writings to be non-chronological (on the Gospels, Cf. Burridge, p.195). The most careful commentators are most correct when they recognize a “loose” or “rough” chronology, and they observe this dynamic most prominently when pointing out Biography’s sharp bookends of cradle and grave.

Lee was also right to generalize because of wide variance in the ancient genre. In terms of structure, the works of Suetonius are generally more digressive and the works of Plutarch are generally more straightforward, but despite his more traditionally “Heroic” motifs, and his moral agenda, Plutarch also followed a more sophisticated pattern, influenced by the Alexandrians and Cornelius Nepos. For instance, Plutarch’s Life of Alexander proceeds chronologically from one section to another but then peppers each section of continuing development with a smattering of anecdotes that share no regard for story sequence being precise or comprehensive. (Greek Lives, Oxford World’s Classics, p. 306-8; but for a smorgasbord review of biography’s classical development, check the Oxford Classical Dictionary, p.241-4.) In constructing a literary discourse, Plutarch could sometimes be far more chronologically oriented than Suetonius’ typical pattern, but the same fabula/discourse dynamics helped both writers succeed in transmitting a chronological storyline into audience memory.

The “standard pattern” Hermione Lee noted was detailed more explicitly in K.R. Bradley’s Introduction to Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars (Loeb, 1998, p.14)

The biographies follow a broad constructional pattern, but the positioning of material can vary considerably… Typically, the subject’s family history is given first, then an account of his birth and life before his accession to power, next of his accomplishments as emperor, then of his personal life and his physical appearance, and finally of his death. The schema is crudely chronological, beginning at the start of the subject’s life and ending with his death. But the bulk of a biography, the portion ending with an emperor’s reign, abandons chronology altogether in favour of a topical arrangement of material that allows Suetonius to list examples from any point in time of various aspects of imperial behaviour and performance.

I suspect Bradley would agree with my contention, that the topical sections of Suetonius are viable as a literary construction only because of the broader chronology clearly running between birth and death. What I mean is, the story/fabula of Augustus’ Life is not held together for readers primarily because of direct verbal cues like, “I shall next give an account of his private and domestic life” (Aug.61). Rather, the reader’s advantage is simply realizing beforehand that any topical digression from the overall storyline (timeline) should be easy to integrate with the chronological fabula so far because the biography never really “abandons chronology” at all. Rather, the “topical arrangement” begins only after the “broad constructional pattern” has been firmly established. Suetonius can narrate long sections that ignore micro-chronology because the reader can always fall comfortably back on the macro-chronology. But note well, this special pattern of narrative communication is made possible only because Biography’s overall story-structure is secured in advance. The assured coherence of this "Middle" is enabled by firmly prefiguring a Beginning and End.

Cradle to grave structure is what gives Biography its unique Story/Discourse dynamic. 

We find this illustrated repeatedly by Burridge’s impressive survey (especially in p. 132-6, 159-68, and 191-6.). The structure of ancient “Bioi” is generally a “chronological framework” that gets “interrupted by the insertion of topical material” (135) which often includes but is by no means limited to “Birth… Boyhood and education… Great deeds… Virtues… Death and consequences” (141-2, 173-4, 200-202). In fact, thirteen of fourteen of the studied Bioi (including all four gospels) “return to chronology to describe the last years or days and death” (136, 160-63), and twelve of fourteen (including only two gospels) discuss birth and early years somewhere near the beginning (135, 160-63), although “Ancestry” is usually kept to “a mention” or “comments”, or left out altogether (141, 173).

Above all, as mentioned earlier, the ancient biographer exhibited total control over “allocation of space” in the discourse (131ff, 159ff, 191ff), though standard variations arise. Writers may “combine chronological and topical material in roughly equal proportions” or “stress the subject’s deeds in a chronological sequence” or “put the emphasis on his character and sayings” (163), and yet Burridge finds it remarkably unusual when Plutarch’s Cato Minor tracks chronology so closely he goes “almost.. year by year” (165). On the other hand, while examining the least chronologically ordered of his ten classical texts - Suetonius’ Agricola - Burridge actually declares, “The Agricola is a carefully written coherent whole” in which “different structural units” (anecdotes, geography, speeches) that do not come across as “separate literary units” (167-8). The story, despite the discourse, holds all together. Of the Gospels, Burridge says their “exterior framework” is “a chronological sequence with topical material inserted” and “thus a structure typical of Graeco-Roman Bioi.” Well of course they are fairly typical in this way; apologetic concerns notwithstanding.

I only beg to differ with Burridge on the point of “scale”, as for example when he says (on p.167), “Suetonius’ topical arrangement of his works naturally limits the scale to the subject”. While not incorrect as regards literary dynamics, that statement reverses the writer’s actual process. It was not as if the arrangement accidentally began constraining his scope. Rather, from the very outset, it was Suetonius’ pre-compositional choice of a limited scope which facilitated the opportunity of constructing a topical arrangement. Topical writing doesn’t always ensure unified coherence. Biographical writing usually does. For more examples from Burridge’s ten case studies of “Graeco-Roman Bioi”, check below this post.

At this point, I trust you get the general idea. 

The free form intermixing of order and disorder in biographical discourse is facilitated by presupposed macro-structure of the expected fabula. Cradle & grave as “Beginning & End” guarantees that a Biography’s “Middle” will have a particular shape. From the outset, an audience can relax about micro-structure because they know that life-stories present one subject over a wide temporal scope. That’s a critically important side effect of all this. Biographical fabulas can encompass an expansive timeframe. By guaranteeing a minimal coherence of story-structure, this unique Story/Discourse dynamic maximizes the volume of story-content.

And that brings us back squarely to History and Time.

Biography is about memorializing the past, which is why Aristotle really denounced it, prescribing a less historic and more poetic type of a fabula, the kind that helps city leaders inspire peasants and keep citizens under control. In contrast, Biography at its best presents the kind of wholeness that helps audiences maximize knowledge of one person’s “life and times”, so to speak. Whether or not the biographer preserves “accuracy”, the biography’s effect is developing and expanding neural networks that condense vast reams of information by centering them around one single person. When you’re repeatedly told that Augustus did this, and Augustus did this, and Augustus did this, the story you wind up with is Augustus did lots of things for a long time and he was really important. That’s tantamount to a memory palace of compressed information. It’s both a memorable kernel of history and a kernel that can be made to “pop” if or when one requires a deeper recall of information related to “Augustus”. The residual fabula of Augustus’ Life-story is mnemonic shorthand for Augustus’ Times - though of course in any individual mind that fabula will be more or less “accurate” in representing “the actual past”. Nevertheless, for many readers, the name “Augustus” alone can encode huge reams of information, and encapsule a timeline that can easily span sixty years of historical events; or 110 years, if you include all the exploits of Augstus’ grand kids. 

The coherence of a biographical fabula can be mnemonically stronger and yet also cover a much broader time frame than most other stories. That is, biographical content coheres strongly around one single figure and broadly across the decades of one single lifetime. In terms of information theory (not only the encoding of linguistic reference, but also the compression of four-dimensional narrative content) we are suddenly talking about potentially unlimited mnemonic efficiency. That’s the uniqueness of Biography and Aristotle can stew on it. When it comes to narrating the past, Plot (or “emplotment” or “narrativization”) isn’t everything; not even remotely.

Here’s one last thought for today, about Biographical narratives and remembering Time.

In this post, we looked at Biography’s first-order of self-sequencing content, the macro-structure of human mortality, which accommodates the remembering of much data across a large time frame. However, this does not get us quite as far as differentiating the internal micro-structure within an individual life-story, much less the coherent remembering of that micro-structure as a story. In the next post, we need to look at Biography’s second-order of self-sequencing content, the increased mnemonic efficiency to be found in recognizing a story-structure that builds on predictable regularities of human growth and development.

Just like Plot Development, Character Development is a major method we use, in our own human minds, to cognitively memorialize the passing of Time. 

To be continued...


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And now, as promised, ten more examples from Burridge's What are the Gospels?, showing how much variety there can be in biographies, which uniquely jumble up discourse without threatening the reader's ability to construct a coherent and broadly-structured fabula:

(1) Isocrates’ Evagoras is essentially a eulogy to a king of Cyprus (125), but proceeds from “Early years and rise” through his “War deeds” (132) and yet “inserts his topical material as he goes along” (136). Evagoras is the only work (of B’s 14) not concluding with the subject’s death.

(2) Xenophon wrote in two parts, “a factual account of Agesilaus’ life” followed by “a systematic review of his virtues” (126) which fills over a third of the work (132). Clearly “even coverage is not a prerequisite for Xenophon” (132) who also covers “forty years in barely a page”, and yet puts “information about the subject’s public life [in] chronological fashion” (135).

(3) Satyrus’ Euripides is “very fragmentary” (126) but “reveals topical sections, identified by structural markers” that treat “style”, “character”, and various “opinions” before turning to the account of his “withdrawal from Athens… sojourn in Macedonia and eventual death”, aligning (if just barely) with “chronological structure into which the topical material is inserted” (136).

(4) Cornelius Nepos’ Atticus devotes altogether 75% of its text to its subject’s life story, spending its third quarter or so in a long section on character “before finally returning to chronology for the death” (133).

(5) Philo’s Moses, written entirely for a Greek audience, is a “systematic treatment” that seems mostly a “topical analysis” (128) but it begins with “the baby’s birth and the bulrushes” (141) and spends the first half somewhat chronologically on Moses “Life, as king” (133). Burridge also compares Philo with Xenophon, as both writers proceed topically only “after their chronology” (135) and both return to chronology at the end (133,6).

(6) Tacitus’ Agricola gives “a bare outline of Agricola’s life” that is “only sketchy” (159) and yet chronological periods are assigned to 69% of the categorized material (160), although 26 of those 69 points are allotted to one year, a military campaign. Despite controversy over its genre (151-2) Burridge affirms “The Agricola has a chronological structure” within which “specific items are given space” and “inserted into the chronological sequence” (165), including long digressions on the background of Britain that remains “focused on Agricola” the information remains focused on “furthering understanding of the subject itself” (167).

(7) Plutarch’s Cato Minor, Burridge says, “begins with the subject’s birth, family, and childhood, and closes with his death and burial. Unlike many Bioi, chronology is followed very closely here, almost on a year by year basis” (165) but “the early years do use anecdotes” along with speeches, longer stories, and notable sayings (168). Burridge also cites J.R. Hamilton to the effect that Plutarch’s biographies are less topically organized when there was likely more action in the source material - politicians, generals, and soldiers generally inspire fewer digressions, while poets, philosophers, and orators require more (165). In other words, when he needed it, Plutarch was happy to rely on the same convenient dynamic Suetonius’ style absolutely demanded.

(8) Suetonius’ Divus Augustus is arranged like his other biographies generally are - somewhat more topically than chronologically; “the whole of the period up to Augustus’ Principate is summarized in a few chapters (5-8), and then we have three main sections on his military, political, and personal affairs, before returning to a chronological account of his death and connected events” (161). Other pertinent comments by Burridge about Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars have already been noted above.

(9) Lucian’s Demonax has “a brief section about his life”, less than 25% of the work, which “merely mentions his birth and education” before moving to portray character with stories, anecdotes that illustrate the philosopher’s notable sayings and return to chronology for the last 9%, last years and death (162). The bulk of Demonax is “a string of unconnected anecdotes and stories” (163) and “more loosely structured with even less integration of teaching and activity than even Mark’s gospel” (166). However, “Lucian’s anecdotal approach entails a limited scope, with each story being about Demonax himself” (167). The literary structure may be loose, but its conveyed fabula is fully connected.

(10) Philostratus’ Apollonius of Tyana “has a brief introduction and account of the early years” (162) and proffers fantastical accounts of his birth and death (173,175) with a longer section about the philosopher’s imprisonment and trial, but at least 68% of the text focuses on the philosopher’s travels and dialogues (162). Burridge notes Apollonius of Tyana as the least fitting example of Bioi as a genre, having “more extraneous material and a wider scale” which is *not* strictly “limited to the subject and his concerns” as it ought to be (167) but he defends its status as the fringe of the genre (184).

So much for these extra ten abbreviations of Burridge’s first ten case studies. My readers, I trust, are familiar with the Gospels (Cf. Burridge 185-232).

Anon, then...