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



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Fig. 2. Author’s sketch
Fig. 3. Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion
(1944). Courtesy of the Tate Gallery and Art Resources, NYC
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What Do We Mean When We Say Narrative Literature
265
permanently jamming our narrative reflex, Bacon has endowed his painting with an energy that will never dissipate.
So, if narrative capability can be described as something that, once engaged, persists while other kinds of operation work on top of it, these four examples suggest that this capability may always be ready to be engaged. One can think of instances like abstract art in its pure form, or an equation, in which the narrative impulse is almost entirely at rest, yet even here the motor seems spring-loaded to engage. Take Boyle’s Law:
PV = k
As an equation, this is a spatial representation of an idea—that hydraulic pressure relates proportionally to volume. The product of pressure (P) and volume (V) is always constant (k. But even with this abstract statement of scientific law, as soon as we step off on one of several sides of it, we find ourselves in a narrative environment. This is so because any formulation of a theory is almost immediately contextualized in a narrative way when we begin to discuss it. One way is by giving examples taken from the way the world operates. You take a hose, then you turn on the water, place your thumb over the nozzle and watch what happens to the spray—that’s Boyle’s Law. We also narrate when we invoke the history of dispute that led up to and followed Boyle’s formulation. Or we narrate Boyle’s own trials and errors incoming up with the theory. Indeed, it has often been pointed out how similar are narrative and the course of intellectual reasoning. Even moving left to right through the equation, we trace the general shape of narrative (if this times that, then . . . Soto sum up this first point, a genre can activate a particular narrative, and then this narrative can act as a platform on which all kinds of other non-narrative and narrative) modes can be piled, and yet remain operative. But our narrative motor may perhaps always be running, even when we are not engaged by genres that specifically cue us up for narrative. I say perhaps My theory is still a little soft at this point—especially with regard to this metaphor of a platform always running, even when it is not cued—but let me put it temporarily on the shelf while I turn to the other term in my title. II. Literature
As a term, literature is more indeterminate than narrative. Its fuzziness has been one (but not the only) reason fora widespread effort to disavow it, to deconstruct it, to feature it as an arbitrary cultural phenomenon rather than an inherent quality. It is true that there have been recent efforts (by Richard J. Gerrig and David S.
Miall, among others) to revive the idea of literary inherency from a reader-based perspective a literature effect or literature response to certain formal cues in certain contexts. I wish them luck, but as a plumbing connection the term literature unlike narrative will probably notwork except in quite restricted ways. This content downloaded from
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266
H. Porter Abbott
The reason for this likely failure is that literature as I suggested at the outset, has a conceptual character fundamentally different from that of “narrative.”
In the various attempts that have been made over the years to isolate the identifying qualities of literature, maybe five or six have been most commonly identified.
Non-instrumentality
Reflexivity
Fictivity
Significance
Originality
I don’t want to go seriously to bat for any of these as definitive traits of the literary, but readers will recognize them as the kinds of things that are usually invoked when one speaks of literary qualities. I will now look more closely at the first two on the list to show the deep general distinction of literary qualities that I am focusing on.


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