Narrative Time

For Aristotle, Ricoeur says, “fiction is a mimesis of active characters” (Time and Narrative vol. 2, p. 65). This seems very sound. The notion of activity applicable to a character has a good Aristotelian basis that is entirely independent of the modern notion of consciousness (see digression in last post). It has a richness and ethical relevance that it is hard to attribute to a static formalization of the functional role of a character. Character development over time also does in fact seem to be the main thing that engages me in actual fiction.

(Very different from this, I used to write what I called poetry, in a “language on language” or “texture of the text” style somewhat in imitation of Finnegan’s Wake. This was not fiction and entirely lacked characters, but I felt it had profound meaning of a broadly figurative but mainly nonrepresentational sort, indirectly affecting what I would now call self-consciousness (see digression in last post) as well as expressing aspects of the unconscious. It used long nested series of adverbial phrases modifying previous adverbial phrases in a grammatical way, with the idea of conveying to the reader that we can generate an overflow of meaning while indefinitely deferring mention of a grammatical subject. This was in accordance with my old idea of the conceptual priority of adverbial phrases and parenthetic developments. So, I would emphasize that there is literature apart from narrative and active characters, but that does not detract in the least from the importance of active characters where they are present.)

Fiction is unique in that it can present the subjectivity of third persons in a first-person-like way. It creates a present that is different from the real present of assertion. Ricoeur discusses at length the fictional use of verb tenses, pointing out various ways in which they subtly differ from uses in ordinary assertion. We distinguish between the time of narrating and the narrated time. Like Braudel’s historical time, fictional time has a speed or slowness and a rhythm as well as a length. Fictional time is “folded”. Thomas Mann said that narrating is a “setting aside”, a choosing and excluding. Ricoeur says that thinking draws narrated time out of indifference. Narration brings what is foreign to meaning into the sphere of meaning.

Fictional characters can have something worthy of being called “experience”. We reach a shift toward character by considering that the mimesis of action is implicitly a mimesis of acting beings with thoughts and feelings. Increased emphasis on character leads to notions of point of view and narrative voice. Ricoeur says, however, that in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the notion of narrative voice “is not sufficient to do justice to the fictive experience the narrator-hero has of time in its psychological and metaphysical dimensions” (p. 86). There can be a further shift from characters to the discourse of characters.

Fictional narrative, he says, is constituted as the discourse of a narrator recounting the discourse of the characters. This redoubled aspect would seem to have a relation to the “folded” nature of fictional time. I confess that not being very interested in the re-creation of subjective “presence” per se, until this very moment I have felt genuinely puzzled why anyone would consider narrative to be philosophically somehow “better” than a thick description or other discourse. But if we take narrative in general as discourse about discourse or second-order discourse, this would seem to be strictly richer than first-order discourse, applying nicely to nonfiction cases as well, like history or my own accounts of philosophers.

He notes that several authors consider third-person narrative actually more revealing than first-person narrative. He asks whether the “polyphonic novel”, which seems to have many narrative voices, can still be understood in in terms of emplotment, and wants to suggest that it can. This would mean that the notion of plot cannot be tied down to a “monologic”.

The distinction between utterance and statement within narrative leads to a “reflexive temporal structure” (p. 100). The work is closed upon itself by a formal principle of composition (emplotment), but opens onto a fictional world. A confrontation of the world of the text with the life-world of the reader leads to a “reconfiguration of time by narrative” (ibid).

All fictional narratives are “tales of time”, but only a few are “tales about time” (ibid). He examines examples of these by Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, and Marcel Proust. They exhibit “uncharted modes” of the discordant concordance analyzed by Aristotle. Meanwhile, the sharing of a whole range of temporal experiences between the narrator and the reader refigures time itself in our reading. Time moves further and further away from simple measurement, exposing aporias like those of Augustine.

Ricoeur on Augustine on Time

In his Confessions, Augustine strongly identifies the divine with Eternity. His approach to time is through the medium of human interiority.

Long before, the notion of time as a simple succession of “nows” had been made the subject of logical paradoxes by Zeno the Eleatic, as a way of arguing for the unreality of time. Augustine’s meditation on time proceeds through a subtler and more extensive development of similar paradoxes.

Ricoeur notes that at each step of the development, Augustine uses the literary form of aporia or “impasse”, originally developed in Plato’s “Socratic” dialogues, many of which end with an honest recognition of puzzlement. In Augustine’s day, aporia was best known as a favorite device of the ancient Skeptics. Ricoeur emphasizes that for Augustine, each new insight into time that resolves one aporia leads to a new aporia.

Plotinus — the reading of whom Augustine records as a spiritual event in his life second only to his conversion to Christianity — had already made Soul responsible for time, and had begun to cultivate a sense of meditative interiority, but Augustine is the classic early exponent of interiority in the Western tradition. His aporias related to time are expressed in terms of a novel meditation on the details of interior experience.

Augustine’s introduction of the discussion is quoted by Ricoeur: “What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled” (Time and Narrative vol. 1, p. xi). Neither the past nor the future seems to exist, and if we reduce the present to a point, even the present hardly seems to exist.

To condense a lot, Augustine ends up suggesting that instead of trying to analyze time in this abstract way, we should think of it in terms of a threefold present in the soul that includes memory of the past, current attention, and anticipation of the future. In terms of human experience, this an important and very original observation. The “thickness” or non-punctual character of subjective experience in the present is very plausibly explained in terms of an interweaving of current attention with a remembered past and an anticipated future.

Ricoeur emphasizes that Augustine speaks of an intentio (“intention” or attention) and distentio (“distention” or distortion) of the soul in this connection. A distention can only be the distention of a prior intention, conceived as an act of the soul. Distension is related to the fleetingness of the temporal present, negatively contrasted with the unwavering permanent presence associated with Eternity. For Augustine, the imperfect and aporia-generating experience of presence associated with the act of the soul has to do with the “fallen” state of the soul.

Ricoeur points out that Augustine’s emphasis on intentional acts of the soul will provide the basis for later developments like the phenomenology of Husserl. (I did not actually know that the intentio used in the Latin translation of Avicenna already had an Augustinian provenance, even before the extensive adoption of Avicenna by medieval Augustinians; see also Intentionality.)

Ricoeur ultimately suggests that Augustine’s aporias will mean that contrary to what Husserl wanted, there cannot be a pure phenomenology of time. Through his own very original combination of this meditation of Augustine’s with notions generalized from Aristotle’s Poetics and some ideas from Kant, Ricoeur will eventually develop his own hermeneutic account.