August 14, 2016

Narrative is Representation

In the early 20th century, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf pushed the envelope of literary fiction by injecting plots with randomness to intensify realism (a.k.a. “representation”). Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (English 1953, free online; German 1946), concluded by waxing philsophically about Joyce and Woolf specifically, anticipating (nay, seeding) the historical theory of Louis Mink and Hayden White by twenty to thirty years (p.548-53): “He who represents the course of a human life, or a sequence of events extending over a prolonged period of time, and represents it from beginning to end, must prune and isolate arbitrarily.” Does that sound more like literary theory or historiographical theory? It is both. This is one thing the past 50 years of struggling with “the linguistic turn” should have taught us.

Thus, when Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) heroically argued against the popular dogma of composition instructors everywhere - "show me, don't tell me" - his valid claim that "telling" could and often did accompany "showing" in literature can serve as case in point. Such an argument would have been meaningless if the field of literary critics had not all agreed that the purpose of fiction was to represent human experience. Observe, as Booth prepares to mount his somewhat contrarian argument, how he deftly acknowledges all of this common ground:
[N]ovelists and critics of widely different schools have echoed again and again the belief of Flaubert that the fully expressed "natural" event will convey its own meanings far better than any explicit evaluative commentary might do.* [And here Booth cites Auerbach on Flaubert’s skillful “showing” (Mimesis, p.486), and quotes from R.G. Collingwood's The Principles of Art (1938): “If you want to express the terror which something causes, you must not give it an epithet like 'dreadful.' For that describes the emotion instead of expressing it, and your language becomes frigid, that is inexpressive, at once. A genuine poet, in his moments of genuine poetry, never mentions by name the emotions he is expressing' (p.112)." (Booth, footnote, Kindle loc. 7505)]
“When I read in a novel, 'John was peevish,'" says Ortega, "it is as though the writer invited me to visualize, on the strength of his definition, John's peevishness in my own imagination. That is to say, he expects me to be the novelist. What is required, I should think, is exactly the opposite: that he furnish the visible facts so that I obligingly discover and define John to be peevish" (p.59). Some decades before this formulation of the need for purity, the unknown James Joyce, revising [Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man], carefully expunged most of the adverbs and adjectives [and] authorial commentary... Having once written, "Stephen stuck his spoon angrily through the bottom of the [egg] shell," he reconsidered and crayoned out "angrily." Why? Because it was clearly the author refusing to let the natural, the pure object -- in this case a physical action -- speak for itself. . .

We can admit, of course, that the choice of evocative "situations and chains of events" is the writer's most important gift -- or, as Aristotle put a similar point, the "most important of all is the structure of the incidents." The gift of choosing the right "object" is indispensable, whether that object is a thought, a gesture, a descriptive detail, or a great character involved in a significant action... (Booth, Chapter 1; Kindle loc. 1685)

In this preface for his own counterbalancing argument, Booth acknowledges the dominance of "expression", "visualization", and "action”, as indicators of "showing", over things like "commentary", "definition", and "adjectives” which qualify here as "telling”. Enhancing the point further by genuflecting to Aristotle, Booth acknowledged "evocative 'situations and chains of events'" or "the structure of the incidents" as having supreme importance for the critical tradition of analyzing fictional narratives. The most prominent task of fiction is to represent the dynamic activity of human change over time, and if narration inserts descriptive asides that is more or less incidental. But before Booth’s can argue that “telling” is less incidental than many believe (Cf. Mieke Bal’s similar championing of “description” alongside “representation”, almost 30 years later), he must pledge allegiance to Flaubert, along with Ortega and Auerbach, and he absolutely must acknowledge the greatness of James Joyce and Aristotle. Delightfully, however, what all these writers have in common is best illustrated (in this excerpt) by the erstwhile historical theorist, Collingwood, whose treatise on aesthetics, The Principles of Art, was published eight years before his more famous The Idea of History.

For Collingwood, the novelist is a long form poet that happens to be crafting prose. In his view, if you merely "describe" then you have not "expressed" because the art of narrative properly involves representation. A poet never tells the reader to be sad or happy; a poet immerses the reader in a vicarious experience that evokes the desired effect of her rhetoric. For the novelist, the foremost desired effect is to make the reader imagine aspects of reality in some particular way, and to do this requires a solid grounding in referential objectivity and verisimilitude -- the representation of a plausible world, as an imaginable story.

While Booth correctly draws out the delicious irony that ALL narrative is telling, and therefore every “showing” actually *IS* telling, it would be pragmatic of us to consider this merely a technical point. To pursue such a line of reasoning, for contrarian ends, would be pedantry. Yes of course it's all words. This is obvious; duh. But although every narrative is a discourse, it is far more pertinent that not all discourses are narratives. A story cannot be defined by its verbiage. What is Narrative, really, actually? It is art. A story must provide representation, an expression of realism. This is why Aristotle and Auerbach invoked mimesis, and why Collingwood talked of poetry.

Poetry is mental telepathy. It's an effort to make words do what words should not be able to do.

Just like Poetry - and Metaphor, and Irony - Narrative offers a special way of making words convey things which actually remain unsaid. But this is the key: a good storyteller does not just convey words along with an additional, unstated, extra something. Rather, a good storyteller conveys the vicarious experience of a hypothetical reality, but that immersive depiction is not something that can be conveyed by individual words, phrases, or sentences. Likewise, a good story does not consist of its individual elements: plot, character, setting, and so forth. Rather, a good story becomes a dynamic integral. How can mere words convey something that feels tangibly four-dimensional?
The proper word for this phenomenon is “Representation”.

A good narrative tells you far more than words should be able to say.

As a clarification, please note that I am not here describing the way Narrative conveys unstated themes, although narrative obviously can do this also. For instance, when you read Tolkien you should realize he isn't really talking about Hobbits and Orcs but about courage, responsibility, and fellowship. That's an unstated, overarching theme. What I'm talking about in this post is not meaning, concepts, or themes. I’m talking about Representation, which takes place, for example, when reading War and Peace makes you recognize the broad, sweeping importance of its titular subjects, not in abstract ideals but in terms of illustrated human experience. You should recognize this as Tolstoy’s reader long before you arrive at his philosophical epilogue (which, not incidentally, Booth praised as an effective “telling" that remained poignant far longer than some of Steinbeck's “showing” symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath, which for Booth had grown "decidedly outmoded and obtrusive" in just 22 years (Kindle loc.3270). For Booth, Tolstoy's epilogue "told" and Steinbeck’s narrative "showed" but the trick was done properly as long as each writer conveyed solid ideas about human struggle, in all its fallen glory; frustration, faith, and grace.

To sum up, then, my point is that Narrative can do more as a whole than when broken up into pieces. When you think about Homer's Odyssey, you envision a chain of events working all together. What you think of is therefore nowhere in the text. Likewise, when present day Joyce fans celebrate Bloomsday in Dublin each June 16th, they spend time envisioning (if not quite re-enacting) a related chain of events which - to them - represents the massive cacophony of represented experience accounted by Joyce to the randomness of a single day, in the fictional (and-yet-actual) Dublin of Leopold Bloom's uniquely imagined existence.

Structurally, Joyce is nothing like Homer. Rather than a traditional unity of plot and conflict, Ulysses coheres purely through its main character and his associates, with their shared civic setting. One man, on one day, in one city, makes his way amidst hundreds of circumstantial details. In contrast, as Aristotle declared, the exploits of Odysseus comprise one single action - to get back home and to repossess it. These are vast differences in terms of classical Plot. Despite that, what Ulysses and the Odyssey DO have in common is the point of today's post. It is not structure, content, or form that they share. It is not setting or characterization. What they both do is achieve viable mimesis. Each narrative is a representation of actual life that offers - at least in some respects - plausible verisimilitude. If they did not, why would anyone bother reading them?

Granted, Homer's style of realism obviously includes the "magical" (supernatural), in addition to being contrived and formulaic. Despite that, Homer’s primary purpose was precisely the same as Joyce's. Each storyteller conveyed the idea of an actual human being undergoing a succession of experiences, sometimes with and sometimes without having enough power to thwart circumstance. What the audience receives from each narrative is not simply plot plus character plus setting with a few clever rhetorical moves and ex machina devices. What the audience receives from each narrative is a combination of all that and yet something else also.

We do not learn about each character universally, but under specific conditions. We do not merely observe a plot sequence, but imagine how real persons would plausibly navigate such events. We don't look to translate settings like the Ormond hotel in Dublin or Circe's island of Aeaea into symbolism, we just imagine those places as the sites of specific occasions in the characters’ hypothetically “actual” lived experience. To quote Ankersmit for the Nth time this month: “We read the novel as if it were true.” Fiction lives or dies based on verisimilitude.


This is standard and proper literary theory about how fiction narratives work. Their central aspect is representation. As a reader of fiction, your primary task is to be in your head, constructing the story world, building up as much as you can build from the narrator's discourse. The writer must provide raw material and arrange it to cause her rhetoric’s effect, but it is only the reader who can imagine a story world, regardless of whether that world is real or imaginary or a mixture of both. Therefore, any critical reader of narratives should ideally recognize (in whatever terms they see fit) that fiction narratives are exactly like historical narratives in the way they attempt to represent human beings in a plausible story world. One way that historical narratives (F or NF) differ from other types of narratives is that the audience may integrate the story world with their own images of the rememberd past.

My own personal takeaway from all this, for reading New Testament Narrative Criticism, is that I will always keep hoping to see each critic embrace that representational aspect in historical context, whether or not they believe the Gospel literature is more accurately described as fiction or non-fiction. Likewise, I will always feel disapointed when a critic deliberately proffers a view of narrative’s atomized functions and elemental aspects which amounts to viewing narrative merely as a formulaic discourse, or viewing narratives as if they cannot provide representation.

To me, there is nothing so hollow as Narrative without Representation...

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