12 June 2008


Speaking of doleful countenances... I took a brief retreat to the North Carolina mountains earlier this week, and read a frustratingly opaque essay by William H. Gass—my favorite knight-errant critic: "The Nature of Narrative and Its Philosophical Implications" in his Tests of Time (a book I've referred to before). I often turn to Gass for inspiration or for a spur to further reflection. The clarity of his style is legendary. This essay, however, left me scratching my head—as I was banging it against the wall.

His opening was tantalizing, proposing a distinction I have sought to articulate in my blogland commentary correspondences with the prodigious Nigel Beale [hope you're self-googling] and in my exegesis of James Wood's eloquent, though oddly self-limited, How Fiction Works:
"Stories are things that get told. They can exist outside of any particular medium or any particular method of narration. ...

To begin with, stories break up the natural continuum of life into events. Next, stories arrange these segments in a temporal sequence, in order to suggest that whatever ahappens earlier is responsible for what happens later. ...In stories, all events tend to be given the same weight or value... .

The linear movement always has an aim...and when the story has a happy ending, aim and outcome are the same. ...

In stories, there are agents and actions; there are patterns; there is direction; most of all, there is meaning. Even when the consequences are tragic, there is a point; there is a message, a moral, a teaching. And that is a consolation. It is consoling to believe that our lives have a shape, a purpose and direction; that the white hats and black hats have appropriate heads beneath them, and are borne about by bodies with the right souls inside; that there are historical entities, called events, which we can understand, periods which have cohesion and personalities all their own, causes we can espouse or oppose, forces we can employ, and so on.

Stories have to have a certain size. An arrow, to boast of flight, must fly awhile.

But should we believe in the story's simple determinism, in its naive teleology, its easy judgments, its facile divisions of time, its Chutes and Ladders structure? especially when stories are morally devious. There opening events are always an excuse, for the real aim of every story is a justification. ...

Stories invent a world which isn't there. Stories are abstract and indifferent to detail. A Story asks for the complicity of its readers, who share its ups and downs and tacitly approve the widkedness it wishes to justify. Histories do mostly the same thing: write up the past in a way that will authorize some present misbehavior. Stories try to keep us naive and trusting. Yes, indeed, they console us. They console us by shielding us from the truth. ...

Fictions, on the other hand, pull flashbacks and other tricks, fill their pages and the stories they pretend to tell with data: descriptions, expositions, conversations, digressions, momologues. There are characters with fictitious psychologies and fabricated pasts. ...

It might be plausible to suppose, as Hilary Putnam does, that if we turn the crank on a certain character, he will project his world on the tabula rasa of our reading, as if the world were an inference and th inference were useful to us in our own... . The data of any fiction, without the style and structure of that fiction, cannot guarantee any kind of real consequences. As soon as a so-called truth is removed from a literary text, as it must be if it is to be of further use, it loses its predictive power. ...

We do tell ourselves stories in order to live. That is just another one of our problems, and one wonders will we ever grow up. But we do not tell ourselves fictions. Fictions are too complicated; often they are nearly as long as life itself. And the good ones are frequently just as puzzling..." (pp. 3-8)
The gist is this: There are no new stories, only new ways of telling them. In the story, action is everything. Fiction gives the action context.

Gass concludes as follows in a section with the Foucaultian entitled 'Reality Has A History':
"narrative forms have always enjoyed a privileged position, as if they were the best mirrors of reality; indeed, the notion of the mirror (though it inverts) is beguilingly isomorphic. But the mind never did march, only its linear logic did; human character neither was built in a day nor let out its contents like a tap to a vat. Correlation replaced necessity, probabiilty certainty; entities were full of elements made of entities, yet entities were exclamations of relation. Death was a destination, not a consummation, and life, though full of purposes, had none, and though everything in life was a sign, life managed, itself, to be meaningless.

Story was a comfort, but if it was thought to be right for the realization of the world, except in the narrowest of cases, it was the comfort of a lie.

Fiction is story's polar opposite, though that does not mean they do not need one another, live in the same sphere, or have no common qualities. Both are cold most of the year." (pp. 26-27)
Gass tells us that "human society is full of narratives, which we set up and follow." The narratives change to meet our circumstances and need, but the story remains the same. But can we unearth the Ur-story around which our multiform narratives flit and flicker like flies on shit? This was the question I meditated on during my long drive down the mountain.

[to be continued]

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