Combining Time and Narrative

After an initial treatment of Augustine’s meditations on time and Aristotle’s concepts of emplotment and mimesis, Ricoeur devotes a chapter to outlining the way he intends to combine these apparently very different concerns and approaches.

A very complex spectrum of Aristotle-Augustine hybrids developed during the Latin high middle ages, but Ricoeur’s approach is quite different from any of them. As in Ricoeur’s case, the various medieval syntheses were especially motivated by questions about what it is to be a human person, but there the resemblance largely ends.

Ricoeur begins by saying that “time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode, and narrative attains its full meaning when it becomes a condition of temporal existence” (Time and Narrative vol. 1, p. 52; emphasis in original). The “cultural abyss” that separates Aristotle from Augustine, however, compels him “to construct at my own risk the intermediary links” (ibid). “Augustine’s paradoxes of the experience of time owe nothing to the activity of narrating a story…. [Aristotle’s] ‘logic’ of emplotment discourages any consideration of time” (ibid).

Emplotment seems to be the “structuralist” moment in Aristotelian mimesis. Although he acknowledges this second of three moments of mimesis as central to the whole scheme, Ricoeur wants to say that rather than considering it in splendid isolation, we should recognize that it draws “its intelligibility from its faculty of mediation” (p. 53) between the other two moments he identified — a preliminary “preunderstanding” of actions prior to emplotment, and a reception of the ensemble by a reader or audience. “For a semiotic theory, the only operative concept is that of the literary text. Hermeneutics, however, is concerned with reconstructing the entire arc by which practical experience provides itself with works, authors, and readers” (ibid). He comments that every structural analysis of narrative implicitly presupposes a phenomenology of “doing something”.

(I was in doubt whether the first moment should even be considered as a separate layer. It at first seemed to involve the kind of “agentless actions” he found not very useful in Oneself as Another. I’m more inclined to think emplotment would relate to a blind apprehension of events as Kantian thought does to intuition, or Aristotelian form to matter. Its mediating role then would not be between bare events and the reader or audience, but in contributing form to the self-relations of the practical experience in the quote above. But Ricoeur takes a different approach, made plausible by the beginning of a real account of the first moment, which he now refers to as a “preunderstanding of the world of action”.)

Incidentally, Ricoeur now adopts Ernst Cassirer’s very general concept of “symbol”, which he had rejected for a more specific one in The Symbolism of Evil. He speaks of symbolic mediation of practical understanding as already associated with the first moment of mimesis. Human action is “always already articulated by signs, rules, and norms” (p. 57). A preunderstanding of action involves not only a “conceptual network of action” and its symbolic mediations, but “goes so far as to recognize in action temporal structures that call for narration” (p. 59). “What counts here is the way in which everyday praxis orders the present of the future, the present of the past, and the present of the present in terms of one another” (p. 60). These make up Augustine’s threefold present.

Plot in turn will be called a “synthesis of the heterogeneous” (p. 66). The “followability” of a story “constitutes the poetic solution to the paradox of distention and intention. The fact that the story can be followed converts the paradox into a living dialectic” (p. 67). The “configurational arrangement” of plot takes the experience of time beyond a bare linear succession of events. “[T]he act of narrating, reflected in the act of following a story, makes productive the paradoxes that disquieted Augustine” (p. 68). Ricoeur likens it to the Kantian productive imagination that engenders a mixed intelligibility both intellectual and intuititive. “This schematism, in turn, is constituted within a history that has all the characteristics of a tradition” (ibid).

Ricoeur develops the notion of tradition. “Let us understand by this term not the inert transmission of some dead deposit of material but the living transmission of an innovation always capable of being reactivated by a return to the most creative moments of poetic activity” (ibid). The various paradigms followed by works of art are products of sedimentation, but each individual work also embodies innovation. “[T]he possibility of deviation is inscribed in the relation between sedimented paradigms and actual works” (p. 70).

Next he argues that the emplotment moment of mimesis requires complementation by the third moment characterized by the reception of the reader or audience. “[N]arrative has its full meaning when it is restored to the time of action and of suffering” (ibid). He will be concerned with the relation between “a phenomenology that does not stop engendering aporias and what I earlier called the poetic solution to these aporias. The question of the relationship between time and narrative culminates in this dialectic between an aporetics and a poetics” (p. 71).

We should not place all consonance on the side of narrative and all dissonance on the side of temporality. Temporality cannot be reduced to pure discordance, he says. (This might seem to put him at odds with the Foucault of the Archaeology of Knowledge. I have indeed begun to wonder if some of the unspecified contrasting references of that work’s preface are actually to Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy. But Foucault’s emphasis on intelligible distinction over unity is not necessarily to be identified with a view of time as pure discordance.) Also, emplotment is never the simple triumph of order. “[P]lots themselves coordinate distention and intention” (p. 73). Even the regimented form of Greek tragedy makes essential use of contingencies and surprises.

He wants to address an objection that “If there is no human experience that is not already mediated by symbolic systems, and, among them, by narratives, it seems vain to say, as I have, that action is in quest of narrative” (p.74). He suggests that in the first moment of mimesis — now associated with action and life — there are only potential stories. In life, he says, we are passively entangled in untold stories. Our quest for personal identity, he says, ensures there is a continuity extending from our potential stories through to those for which we actually assume responsibility. “[H]uman lives need and merit being narrated” (p. 75). Thus he speaks of a hermeneutic circle of narrative and time.

Notions like schematization and traditionality, he says, already undo a rigid separation between the “inside” and “outside” of a text. They are “from the start” categories of interaction between writing and reading. Emplotment is the “joint work of the text and the reader” (p. 76). The written work is a “sketch for reading” (p. 77).

Extending what he said about metaphor in The Rule of Metaphor, he insists that the literary work is not just language upon language, but also has a kind of reference. (This will be further explored in volume 2 of Time and Narrative.) The communicative role of the work, he says, already implies that it must have some sort of reference, saying something about something. At the level of sentences and texts, language is oriented beyond itself. “Reference and horizon are as correlative as figure and ground” (p. 78). Language does not constitute a world unto itself, but rather belongs to our world. Reciprocally, Ricoeur suggests that the verb “to be” itself has metaphorical import. Hermeneutics will aim “less at restoring the author’s intention behind the text than at making explicit the movement by which the text unfolds, as it were, a world in front of itself” (p. 81).

From Augustine to Husserl and Heidegger, the phenomenology of time has made “genuine discoveries” that nonetheless “cannot be removed from the aporetic realm that so strongly characterizes the Augustinian theory of time” (p. 83). Ricoeur suggests this means phenomenology in the sense of Husserl and Heidegger cannot play the foundational role that Husserl and Heidegger wanted to give it; nonetheless, he will also take up this phenomenology, and place it in a three-way conversation with history and literary criticism.