Literary Narrative

Resuming the thread on Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative, the beginning of volume 2 makes it clear he thinks the stakes in discussing fictional narrative — distinguished from historical narrative by not being oriented toward anything analogous to historical truth — extend well beyond the traditional concerns of literary criticism. (Of course, going beyond those traditional concerns is pretty much the norm for literary critics these days.) Let me say that I am no scholar of literature, though I used to write experimental “language on language” poetry, and have read a bit of literary theory mainly for its philosophical content.

Philosophically, he will defend the “precedence of our narrative understanding in the epistemological order” (vol. 2, p. 7). There will be a great “three-way debate” between lived experience, historical time, and fictional time. He will extensively take up the idea of the “world” projected by a text. There will be a sort of analogy between the place of a structuralist or semiotic analysis of a literary text and the work of explanation in history, but Ricoeur says the analysis will eventually show that literary narrative has different relations to time than historical narrative.

Thinking about literary narrative, he suggests, will turn out to be more helpful in shedding light on Augustine’s paradoxes of the experience of time. In the literary case, there will be a distinction between the time of the act of narration and the time of the things narrated.

The continuing relevance of a notion of plot in modern literature, he says, needs to be shown rather than assumed. Rather than extending and further abstracting the general principle of formal composition that Aristotle had begun to articulate, modern literary studies began with an odd combination of struggle against old conventions, concern for increased realism, and inappropriate borrowing from models of ancient genres. According to Ricoeur, this resulted in a mutilated, dogmatic, not very interesting notion of plot associated mainly with a linear sequence of events, that “could only be conceived as an easily readable form” (p. 9).

Modern novels, on the other hand, have greatly increased the importance of character, and explored the dynamic process of its growth. They may take alternate forms, such as streams of consciousness, diaries, or exchanges of letters. Action accordingly has to be understood in a broader and deeper way no longer limited to external behavior, encompassing things like growth of character and moments in a stream of consciousness. Once this is done, he says, a generalized notion of imitation of action will again apply.

But the early English novelists “shared with empiricist philosophers of language from Locke to Reid” (p. 11) an ideal of purely representational language stripped of metaphor and figurative constructs. “Implicit in this project is the reduction of mimesis to imitation, in the sense of making a copy, a sense totally foreign to Aristotle’s Poetics” (p. 12). I’m more inclined to think so-called literal language is just a limit case of metaphor. I would also note that this representationalist paradigm of transparency is the direct opposite of the “language on language” perspective. “Today it is said that only a novel without plot or characters or any discernible temporal organization is more genuinely faithful to experience” (p. 13). The kind of justification offered, he says, is the same as the one for naturalistic literature — reproduction of experience rather than synthesis. I’m sure someone must have done that, but appeals to experience are somewhat inimical to the structuralist “language on language” view.

Ricoeur wants to suggest that literary paradigms originate “at the level of the schematism of the narrative understanding rather than at the level of semiotic rationality” (p. 15). He will argue that a purely semiotic approach to narrative has the same weaknesses as the positivist “covering law” model in history. I’m a little confused by this, because earlier he more charitably compared the semiotic approach to historical explanation in general, which he had presented as legitimately different from narrative understanding.

He suggests that structural analysis at lower levels like phonology or lexical semantics does not lose nearly as much context of meaning as structural analysis of narrative, which aims to reduce away all temporal elements and replace them with logical relationships. He also says the identity of a style is transhistorical, not atemporal, and that styles are perennial rather than eternal.

He contests the assertion of Roland Barthes that there is an “identity” between language and literature, and that each sentence already has the essential features of a narrative. Behind what Ricoeur is objecting to, I think, may be the additional idea of a strictly compositional, bottom-up interpretation of meaning, which he alluded to earlier. In a formal context like that of structural analysis, compositionality is an extremely important property, but in a broader hermeneutics, I agree with Ricoeur that a bottom-up approach is basically a non-starter. My own past enthusiasm for structuralism had much more to do with its relational, difference-before-identity aspect. I’ve always had severe doubts about any bottom-up reduction when it comes to meaning.

On the other hand, while recognizing many valuable contributions of Husserl and his followers, I fundamentally disagree with what I take to be that tradition’s identification of “consciousness” with what I take Hegel to have sharply distinguished from consciousness as “self-consciousness”.

On my reading, this distinction is the radical “break” in Hegel’s Phenomenology. I have glossed “self-consciousness” as actually other-focused even though it does involve a unity of apperception, and as anything but a species of a genus “consciousness”. I think unity of apperception and Hegelian “self-consciousness” have to do with Aristotelian ethos and what we care about, as a discursive stance in relation to others. I do of course agree that there is consciousness, and that it has a kind of interiority of its own. I also agree that one of its features is something like Husserl’s “living present”, but I think consciousness and the living present belong to what Brandom calls our sentience rather than to what he calls our sapience, which I associate with unity of apperception and “self-consciousness”.

What attitude one takes on this question of the identity or distinctness of consciousness and self-consciousness matters greatly when it comes to something like the debate between structuralism and phenomenology in the tradition of Husserl. I care about rich concepts of reason and feeling, but “consciousness” not so much. I am not worried about the impact of structuralism on the living present, because I see them as pertaining to disjunct domains.

On the other hand, I think Ricoeur is right to be very doubtful whether narrative can be adequately understood without temporality, and right again to reject bottom-up determination of meaning. I am inclined to be sympathetic to his view that temporality cannot be reduced to logic.

I also think it makes a big difference whether one is considering a stereotyped form like the folk tales whose analysis by Vladimir Propp he discusses, or something as complex as a modern novel. Structural analysis may come much closer to yielding comprehensive insight in the one case, while falling much further short in the other. (Ricoeur is not satisfied even in the case of the folk tale.)

Ricoeur also discusses work on a higher level “logic of narrative” concerned with roles of characters, and the narrative grammar of Greimas. He says narrative has more to do with history than with logic. He makes the very valid point that the structuralist notion of the “diachronic” captures only a simple notion of succession. I agree that one should not look to structuralism for rich analyses of time itself, but that does not mean it cannot give us insight about things happening in time, which in turn does not mean it gives us the whole story either.