What Do We Mean When We Say “Narrative Literature?” Looking for Answers Across Disciplinary Borders



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H. Porter Abbott
University of California, Santa Barbara
What Do We Mean When We Say Narrative Literature Looking for Answers Across Disciplinary Borders
It often seems that the various disciplines are like city-states, each with excellent plumbing, excellent standards governing the width of the pipes, the depth of the threads, the valves, the fixtures, the nuts and the bolts, so that internally each system works very well. But when you want to make connections at the borders, things start to breakdown. Nowhere is this clearer than in the effort to adapt terms and concepts (even the term concept poses problems of translation. Complicating matters is the fact that the further a discipline is from physics, the likelier it is to tolerate a plurality of usage for any single term. Within literary study (afield very far from physics) there is, for example, no general agreement regarding terms like narrative plot literature discourse representation This lack is not necessarily a fault, but a sign of how the complexity of literary study requires a certain degree of play at this level of study. Efforts to establish a Prussian order in the terminology of literary study can do more harm than good. Nonetheless, terms bring with them ways of thinking, and it is the impacted nature of these ways of thinking that leads to infrastructural breakdowns at our disciplinary borders. It is possible that we will eventually achieve some kind of protocol for pan-disciplinary exchange that will allow us to connect with each other meaningfully. But I would like to suggest also, in this essay, that sometimes the shock of leaping borders and suddenly seeing your old familiar terms from anew disciplinary perspective can be salutary precisely because the differences of field are so great.
This essay focuses on two terms, narrative and literature that have enjoyed along and happy coexistence in humanist discourse. My argument is that, when looked at in terms of the cognitive operations they involve, these terms appear to be separated by a deep conceptual difference. Probing this difference may give some indication of where we might start to work in trying to match literary and cognitive understandings. At the same time, it shows how simply by trying to cross disciplinary borders we can give vigorous new life to old terms. Put briefly, the conceptual difference between narrative and literature, when understood as cognitive operations, is a kind of puzzle that goes like this where narrative can best be described as a platform, literature can best be described as a set of toggle switches. To older generations, this may look like a mixed metaphor, but in the age of the computer, it works. A platform is something that persists in time, supporting a host of other This content downloaded from
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operations that are carried out on top of it. A politician can stand on a platform and do many things (for example, give speeches) that may have little to do with the platform he or she stands on. In computers, a platform doesn’t stand, it runs, but the deep concept is the same. While the platform is running, other operations can be performed on top of it. Many of these operations are controlled by toggle switches. They are either on or off, but the platform keeps running.
I. Narrative
As terms in the humanistic disciplines, narrative is more secure than literature We are usually pretty sure that we know it when we see it. And this goes for most of us, humanists and non-humanists alike.
As soon as he came up, he leaped from his own horse, and caught hold of hers by the bridle. The unruly beast presently reared himself on end on his hind legs, and threw his lovely burden from his back, and Jones caught her in his arms. (Fielding This is, in all its parts, the telling of an event (the commonest definition of narrative. It is discourse that lets us see that something happened. And if most of us are pretty clear about obvious examples of narrative like this, many (though perhaps not most) of us are also pretty clear about what is not narrative:
The critic, rightly considered, is no more than the clerk, whose office it is to transcribe the rules and laws laid down by those great judges whose vast strength of genius hath placed them in the light of legislators, in the several sciences over which they presided. (This is exposition, sermonizing, opinionating, but it is not narrative. It is not the telling of an event but the exposition of an idea. Yet this second example occurs within eleven pages of the same single continuous text as the first. The book is
Tom Jones
, and though it is a novel full of action, it is also full of the latter kind of passage. The narrator (so-called) also quotes poetry, at times in Latin, and includes purely descriptive passages in which, again, nothing happens at all. And yet, in literary study, we are quite comfortable calling the whole text, that is Tom Jones, a narrative. Even though Henry Fielding interrupts the flow of narrative at regular intervals to discourse in a decidedly non-narrative way about a range of subjects,
Tom Jones
is a novel, a novel is a narrative genre, and therefore the whole thing is a narrative.
There is more than inertia or easy habit operating here. By calling the whole thing a narrative, we are also acknowledging an intuitive truth. Narrative tolerates non-narrative, because the latter can sit on top of it. Narrative, in other words, operates as a platform. Once it is engaged—once we read the title, The History
of Tom Jones, A Foundling
, and recognize by certain clear signs the genre we are setting out to read—the narrative motor keeps running all the way to the end. So, whatever expository interludes the narrator may throw on top of this platform, we have a capacity to read them with the understanding that narrative is somehow still operational. Its motor is running, but it is in neutral, ready to be engaged. In the meantime, the author can keep piling other operations on top of it—including This content downloaded from
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H. Porter Abbott additional narratives. In Moby Dick, Melville piled an immense encyclopedic discourse about whales onto his narrative platform. This may get a little trying, but we are not at all surprised when the action picks up again. Non-narrative added to narrative does not turnoff the narrative motor.
If casual literary language speaks broadly of books like Tom Jones and Moby
Dick
as narratives, even though great stretches of these narratives are not narrative, disciplined narratological language is equally unfazed. Narratology features the distinction between story and narrative discourse (between fabula and sjuzhet), and a narratologist would argue that my “non-narrative” examples are still narrative discourse insofar as they are part of the vehicle that conveys the story. And indeed they do inflect that story as we expect narrative discourse to do. Without the discourse of Fielding’s persona on sundry topics, the story of Tom Jones would be conveyed to us differently. The distinction between story and narrative discourse is a powerful one and very useful. But its operation is formal. The distinction works for the description of oral and written narrative. Some would argue that it works also for the description of plays and films as well. This is all well and good. But to fasten this pipe-end of formal narrative study to the psychological pipe-end of cognitive aptitudes, we will have to agree on a more specific set of understandings within this framework. To begin with, we will need to isolate first the capacity to convey story and then we will need to isolate another capacity to keep the story mode active while other operations are running on top of it.
Let me push this idea of a narrative platform a little further. In literary study, when asked for an example of a non-narrative literary mode to set in opposition to the narrative mode of the novel, scholars are likely to choose the lyric. Lyrics are generally poems that go nowhere. Devoted to the expression of an emotion, they are static. Sonnets, odes, love poems dwell on the object of love, grief, awe. Here, for example, is a lyric poem:
Every bush new springing,
Every bird now singing,
Merrily sat poor Nicho,
Chanting troli lo loli lo,
Till her he had espied
On whom his hope relied,
Down a down, with a frown,
O she pulled him down. Auden Like so many lyrics, this anonymous Elizabethan poem works on the principle of contrast, setting out at the start the delights of spring to then set off the despair of unrequited love in two wonderfully strong lines Down a down, with a frown, / O she pulled him down But to grasp the poem at all, our narrative capability must be engaged. We see a situation in progress and an event—poor Nicho’s espying of his beloved and her frowning response—without which the feeling in the poem cannot be released. We might even seethe line O she pulled him down as a potential crux, yielding a possible alternative reading in which her frown is the frown of serious This content downloaded from
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sexual intent. But, if so, adjudicating the crux is basically a contest of narratives.
Take something completely fixed and flat, like a picture:


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