To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

David Antin, On Narrative: The Beggar and the King (Part Two)

[Continued from posting on June 29]

The Arabic folktale that may have inspired Calderon's great play La Vida es Sueño is based precisely on the paradoxical insignificance of plot in narrative, and may be offered as a poet's refutation of Aristotle. Its plot makes nothing experientially intelligible. Calderon's beggar is turned into a king by an absurd act and turned back into a beggar by a similar and equally absurd act. And the pieces will never come together again, except in some kind of dream. But then, the absurd chain of circumstances that constitute the plot of Oedipus Rex do nothing to make intelligible the relations between Oedipus' innocence and guilt. And it is the powerful recognition of their absolute incommensurability and unintelligibility that is the strength of the tragedy. Which is why I would like to suggest that we do not derive our narrative competence from story telling, but from dreams. Because the goal of narrative is to make present, not to make intelligible, and a dream is nothing if it is not a making present of an anticipated future and a remembered past in which we always have a definite stake, because they are always anticipated and remembered in the light of desire.

I am supposing here that dreams are the narratives we construct for ourselves at night. There are, of course, many people who do not believe dreams are narrative -- some because dreams are often "absurd" or "illogical," others because they are apparently fragmentary. But there are also many dreams that are not especially illogical if somewhat fantastical or absurd; and there are many powerful, absurd and apparently illogical waking narratives, and the fragmentariness of some dreams may be the consequence of either an extreme ellipticality of the dream -- we are "telling" these narratives to ourselves and do not require as much context as narratives constructed for others -- or the result of imperfect recall. Dreams are accessible only through recall, our own or reported by others; and the neurological evidence of the fairly regular temporal patterns of rapid eye movement that seem to correlate with dreaming suggest a kind of fullness of the dream cycle that rarely corresponds to the dream reports. So it is probably reasonable to assume that dream recall is often only a partial representation of the dream experience. Still, I've recorded perfectly coherent narrative dreams. Here is one from a young woman:

I'm quickly getting ready for school. My mother is then standing at the front door and I'm outside. I realize that I had in all my rush forgotten to put on my shoes. I was standing there on the cold brick and I knew I couldn't go back into the house to get my shoes. I had to go to school without them. So then I went to school very nervously. No one notices that I am barefoot at school. But I am almost sick with anxiety. How could they not notice? I really want to go home and just get my shoes but I know it is not a possibility. I had to just accept the fact that I was barefoot and suffer the consequence.

Whatever the significance of the dream to the dreamer, it is a perfectly coherent narrative. It happens also to be a coherent story, because the sequence of events is absolutely clear and forms an intelligible temporal whole, though it may seem to lack an ending, because the anticipated consequences of appearing barefoot in school are not represented. But the emphasis of the dream is upon the dreamer's anxiety to get to school on time, the haste that produces, which causes her to forget to put on her shoes and will not allow her to go back to correct her mistake. The consequence is the suffering she feels at being shoeless in the classroom. This little dream narrative is somewhat more logical and inevitable than the career of Oedipus, as it has the advantage of not depending upon a great chain of unlikely coincidences.

Freud, the great pioneer of dream interpretation would, of course, be among the foremost to deny the narrative significance of dreams, though most of the dreams he reports in Traumdeutung are apparently narratives. Even though he often uses some of their narrative properties to interpret them, he persistently characterizes dreams in a static vocabulary, referring to them as "rebuses," "puzzle pictures" or "hieroglyphs," or what we might call collages. But he is not interested in interpreting the dream as a form of narrative communication. He sees the dream itself as merely the contingent outcome of a struggle between a communicational impulse and a censoring impulse in a presentational mental medium based heavily on iconicization, and his task is to unscramble a coded transmission for a concealed message. His work is not so much an interpretation as a deconstruction.
Nevertheless, The Interpretation of Dreams is a work of great significance for all narrative theory, not least because of Freud's situation of desire at its center. It is true that he grossly oversimplifies the relation of desire to dream in his hypothesis of the dream as wish fulfillment and in his remarkable suggestion that the desire underlying any dream is a simple vector that could be expressed discursively in something like a declarative sentence. But he also had the great virtue of reporting a vast array of dream narratives that offer much richer and greater complexities than the theory he offered to explain them. And if his theory of censorship appears to be redundant and probably irrelevant, his hypotheses of condensation and displacement under the constraints of a presentational medium, are still rich with meaning for any student of narrative. Still, the great mechanisms of distortion that Freud hypothesizes in Chapter VI of The Interpretion of Dreams to explain the deformation of the dream message by the dream seem hardly relevant to a dream as simple and lucid as the dream of the barefoot student, at least if we wish to consider it as narrative. They may be more useful in a more literarily complex dream like this dream of my own:

I was a guest among many at some pleasure ground that was as large as Prospect Park, and people had been feasting, bathing, drinking wine, etc., wandering off freely from room to room of this large villa, where some were sleeping, others lying about; and I remember at one point taking off my shoes and bathing my feet in a pool and then making my way to some northern point of the estate, where I found Elly (my wife), who pointed out that I had lost my shoes. So I said I would find them and set out looking from room to room, passing people and searching through all kinds of shoes. One man I encountered in my search grasped my arm in a friendly way and asked "What are you doing?" and when I answered "Looking for my shoes." he said, "Oh, I was thinking of going to the movies." I continued my search, passing out of one villa into an adjoining one, where a young woman with a notebook was recording responses on a video monitor. She seemed so studious and professional that it was hard to see her relation to the sybarite who owned the villa. "What's your con nection to him?" I asked. "Hogs," she said. Hog rustling had made the fortune that had acquired the villa and made her research possible. She was analyzing subject/object relations in a behavioristic manner, watching to see what the subject did and trying always to eliminate the ideas of choice or experience or anything that was not directly observable. "We are not trying to describe the experience of shame, but what people do in straightforward terms." But I answered that all terms have several meanings in natural languages and we slide from one meaning to another without even noticing it. "Give me an example," she said. "Subject and object," I answered.

There is surely an elaborate play of subject/object relations between the dreamer and the other figures of the dream. He begins as an observer of the scene and becomes in turn an object of advice from his wife, the subject of a search for his shoes, the object of a genteel pass from the man he encounters in the room full of shoes, and the object, along with everyone else, of the video observation of the young woman psychologist, who is in turn subjected to his observation and becomes the object of his final response, all the while that the dream observer maintains his subject position and watches it challenged as his surrogate traverses the terrain of the dream. But this network of signifiers, however it may be enriched by an analysis of possible condensations and displacements, is woven into the narrative structure. Whatever the narrative might be said to "mean", it is the presentational force of each of the successive states that count. Wandering about pleasantly, being called to account and finding oneself shoeless, searching, misunderstanding an invitation, and realizing one has been spied upon all the while in the name of pseudoscience by a pedant subsidized by a sleazy criminal. At the same time, the plot has no obvious logic.

In Ricoeur's sense this is perhaps not a narrative, or not a good one, though I would prefer to say it is not a story, or not a good one. If it is a gathering together of a series of diverse events to form a configurational unity, the ending is by no means an inevitable or even particularly logical outcome of the succession of previous incidents. If its last scene has the feeling of conclusion, it is only because the enigmatic final utterance suggests a self-referential reading that reverberates through all the previous incidents and perhaps challenges the security of the dream observer's subject position. This turns it into a kind of allegory, which to function has to be a somewhat defective story but not a defective narrative.


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