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


Fig. 1. Michel Garnier, La douce résistance (1793)



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Fig. 1. Michel Garnier, La douce résistance (1793)
We cannot grasp Michel Garnier’s La douce résistance without inferring an action in progress. We seethe woman’s instrument on the floor and note that she still has the bow in her hand, and we understand that things are moving quickly. We infer from this how the gentleman, now clutching her dress, must have felt a few moments ago. We also expect a certain outcome. The title of the picture may suggest that she will succumb, but not necessarily. He maybe feeling her resistance as sweet, but she may well swat him with her bow. These narrative possibilities hang in suspension, as they do in any good narrative in progress.
But Garnier’s picture is a genre piece, meant to cue our narrative response. Here is a much more apparently static piece of static piece of art (see fig. 2). One can appreciate this as a study intones of white and gray. But there are two glasses and two pillows, there is a champagne bottle, which is empty and upside down, and there is abed that is all mussed up. Noticing these signs makes it hard to resist what seems automatic, the recreation of a romantic-erotic narrative.
So it would seem from these examples that our narrative motor is so close to always being on that the slightest suggestions can engage it. Indeed, it is hard to turnoff. Only with a certain effort can we restore these two pictures to a pure compositional state in which we dwell on abstract features of design. One distinct feature of Francis Bacon’s great gifts as an artist was his understanding of this. In viewing Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, a great deal of the anxiety and fascination of our response is bound up with our desire to know what is going on. What is causing such excruciating pain Are they being punished If so, do they deserve to be punished What is the table used for Is there any hope for these sufferers In short, we want to know the story. And by This content downloaded from
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H. Porter Abbott


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