September 23, 2016

The Real and Represented World(s)

I've not read much Mikhail Bakhtin but a serendipitous footnote elsewhere directed me to this "odd but good" gem from The Dialogic Imagination (Russian 1938, English 1981 ; Full PDF is here.)

Bakhtin's strange academic conceit of "chronotopes" basically refers to stereotypical frameworks of plot and setting (e.g., the chronotope of 'crisis', or the chronotopes of 'mystery', 'the road', 'threshold', 'encounter', 'carnival-time', ad infinitum. Despite his overly-categorical formalism, Bakhtin's fixation on schematized story worlds leads him to helpful insights about story worlds in general. Obviously, as indicated by "chrono-", and the chapter heading "Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel", his focus here is on temporality; or, more precisely, temporal representation. Thus, he summarizes:
What is the significance of all these chronotopes? What is most obvious is their meaning for narrative. They are the organizing centers for the fundamental narrative events of the novel. The chronotope is the place where the knots of narrative are tied and united. It can be said without qualification that to them belongs the meaning that shapes narrative./ We cannot help but be strongly impressed by the representational importance of the chronotope. Time becomes, in effect, palpable and visible; the chronotope makes narrative events concrete, makes them take on flesh, causes blood to flow in their veins. An event can be communicated, it becomes information, one can give precise data on the place and time of its occurrence. But the event does not become a figure [obraz]. It is precisely the chronotope that provides the ground essential for the showing-forth, the representatability of events. . . . Thus the chronotope, functioning as the primary means for materializing time in space, emerges as a center for concretizing representation, as a force giving body to the entire novel... permitting the imaging power of art to do its work. (p. 250-1)
While Bakhtin's larger project is to combine Setting with Plot (space with time) in the "chronotope", his argument here is that audiences can engage (immerse) most fully when storytelling is based in familiar narrative territory, so to speak. In turn, one supposes effective writers would be wise to build upon or play off from Story worlds which are already familiar to their audiences. But all this is background/subtext. The present argument is focused on narrative's central need to be set in a "concretized" story world:
Thus the chronotope, functioning as the primary means for materializing time in space, emerges as a center for concretizing representation, as a force giving body to the entire novel. All the novel's abstract elements - philosophical and social generalizations, ideas, analyses of cause and effect - gravitate toward the chronotope and through it take on flesh and blood, permitting the imaging power of art to do its work. Such is the representational significance of the chronotope.
And then he FINALLY generalizes further beyond his idiosyncratic conceit:
[A]ny and every literary image is chronotopic. Language, as a treasure-house of imagaes, is fundamentally chronotopic... It was Lessing in the Lacoon who first.. established the temporal character of the literary image. Those things that are static in space cannot be statically described, but must rather be incorporated into the temporal sequence of represented events and into the story's own representational field. Thus, in Lessing's familiar example, the beauty of Helen is not so much described by Homer as it is demonstrated in the reactions of the Trojan elders.. Beauty is drawn in to a chain of represented events and yet at the same time is not the subject of static description, but rather the subject of a dynamic story.
Lo and behold, we find another 20th century master of narrative distinguishing Description vs Representation! (For related thoughts in recent posts, see also here, here, and here.)

After some qualifications about Lessing, Bakhtin concludes his main point:
The distinctiveness of those generically typical plot-generating chronotopes discussed by us above becomes clear against the background of this general (formal and material) chronotopicity of the poetic images conceived as an image of temporal art, one that represents spatially perceptible phenomena in their movement and development. Such are the specific novel-epic chronotopes that serve for the assimilation of actual temporal (including historical) reality, that permit the essential aspects of this reality to be reflected and incorporated into the artistic space of the novel. (251-2)
Indeed. Read that last paragraph three times, please.

The novel incorporates reality.

Fiction incorporates history. 

The crown jewel of Russian Formalism was its distinction between Fabula and Sjuzhet - what we in the west now call Story and Discourse, and - it just now occurs to me - perhaps the eastern mind has some advantage in keeping these concepts separate. It's difficult for a western thinker to be told, "There is no story in the text." But there isn't. There's a story, a storyteller, and an audience. A text is a discourse (sjuzhet) but a story (fabula) is something the teller has in mind from the outset, and then becomes whatever an audience retains after the telling. In that sense, a story may not be something other than the contents of its discourse, but it normally is - and always ought to be - something more.

Without question, academics should always emphasize the distinction between the real world and the represented world, but academics must also recognize the various functional aspects of delivering and receiving narration. In a really good story, your mind blends the narration together with its concepts from the real world. Whether fiction or non-fiction, this is always what happens - always! - to some degree or another.

So, to my dear friends in New Testament scholarship, I now offer two challenges:

1. We need to stop equating story with discourse.
2. We need to stop separating narrative from history.

The Gospels' first hearers could ONLY imagine the narrative story world AS the real world of their past.

We ought to try and read the Gospels like they did...

UPDATE (9-24-16): I forgot to include this quote from page 253-4, from which I took the title for this post:
[T]here is a sharp and categorical boundary line between the actual world as source of representation and the world represented in the work. We must never forget this, we must never confuse - as has been done up to now and as is still often done - the represented world with the world outside the text (naive realism)... But it is also impermissible to take this categorical boundary line as something absolute and impenetrable (which leads to an oversimplified, dogmatic splitting of hairs). However forcefully the real and the represented world resist fusion, however immutable the presence of that categorical boundary line between them, they are nevertheless indissolubly tied up with each other and find themselves in continual mutual interaction; uninterrupted exchange goes on between them, similar to the uninterrupted exchange of matter between living organisms and the environment that surrounds them. As long as the organism lives, it resists a fusion with the environment, but if it is torn out of its environment, it dies. The work and the world represented in it enter the real world and enrich it, and the real world enters the work and its world as part of the process of its creation, as well as part of its subsequent life, in a continual renewing of the work through the creative perception of listeners and readers.
One final comment: Narrative is representation, and if you deny that the Gospels "refer" to actual past events, you are no longer working with narrative proper. You've actually destroyed the environment of your story world, and you're probably mostly dissecting a discourse.

I cannot understand Narrative without Representation.

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