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

Monday, August 2, 2010

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

[continued from previous postings on June 29, 2010 and July 14, 2010]

If a narrative is about making present and a story is about making sense, the two effects may come together or separately, but they invoke different cognitive capabilities and are produced by different means or by the different deployment of the same means.

Consider this passage from the Warhol Diaries.

Thursday March 23, 1978

Yesterday I watched the Flying Wallenda on the news fall from the highwire and get killed. You saw it all – he was walking, and he got to the middle, and a wind came from Miami, and -- he was just -- he fell, and then the cameras went close in, they showed him lying there

This is a simple story, the report of the aerialist's death, and it follows the form Labov suggests for oral stories of personal experience. It begins with an Abstract ("Yesterday I watched..."), followed in order by an Orientation ("...he was walking, and he got to the middle..."), a Complication ("...and a wind came from Miami..."), a Result ("...he fell"), and a Coda ("... they showed him lying there.") What makes it a narrative in my terms is what Labov calls the Evaluation, which in Labov's sense marks the significance of the event, but which as I see it narrativizes the story by marking the presence of a subject and the subject's sense of stake.

These markers begin with "You saw it all," proceed by insistence through the staccato rhythm of "he was walking", "and he got to the middle", "and a wind came from Miami", which would have have continued to "and he fell", but this clause is emphatically interrupted by the stammering "he was just", the most emphatic mark of the observer's stake in the outcome. While the next clause -- "and then the cameras went close in" -- reveals that the narrative impact is upon the observer to whom "they showed him lying there". From this point of view, the final clause turns out not to be a Coda, but the narrative Result. For while the story gives an account of the fall of the Flying Wallenda, tripped up by a wind from Miami, the narrative is the sense of Warhol watching, first with interest and admiration, then in fascination and helpless horror from 1500 miles away. It represents and reenacts the confrontation of the observer's subjectivity with the promise of esthetic delight in a spectacle of grace and skill that turns into catastrophe.

Narrativization can be accomplished in a number of different ways. In his letter to Richard Southwell of July 20, 1452, John Paston is essentially offering legal testimony. And the testimony is presented by means of a story or, more precisely, that part of the story not known to Southwell.

... this be proof that Jane Boyce was ravished against her will and not by her own assent. One is that she, the time of her taking, when she was set upon her horse she reviled Lancastrother and called him knave and wept and cried out upon him piteously to her, and said as shrewdly to him as could come to her mind and fell down off her horse unto that she was bound and called him false traitor that brought her the rabbits. And when she was bound she called upon her mother, which followed her as far as she might on her feet and when the said Jane said she might go no further she cried to her mother and said that whatsoever came of her she would never be wedded to that knave were she to die for it. And by the way at the Shraggary's house in Kokely Clay and at Brychehamewell and in all other places where she might see any people she cried out upon him and let people wit whose daughter she was and howe she was raveshed against her will desiring the people to follow and rescue her. And Lancasterother's priest of the Eagle in Lincolnshire who confessed her said that she told him in confession that she would never be wedded to him were she to die for it and the same priest said he would not wed them together for a thousand pounds.

But to prove that Jane Boyce was taken against her will, Paston has to present evidence not only of her resistance, but of her unflagging unwillingness to be taken. By the time he has finished he has painted so vivid a picture of her frustration, rage and shame, that the account serves as Jane Boyce's narrative.

Narrativization through marking of the subject's experience seems to be a human universal and not culture-dependent, though different cultural traditions may make use of different procedures to accomplish the same end. In the ancient Sumero-Akkadian poem Gilgamesh, the depiction of Gilgamesh's descent into the underworld in search of the dead Enkidu is a striking example of narrativization by insistent repetition. The journey requires him to follow the road of the sun through a netherworld of darkness and cold till he finally comes to the light. The fearfulness of the trip is dramatically staged by insistent literal repetition:

one hour he travelled
dense was the darkness /// nowhere was light
neither forward nor backward did it allow him to see

two hours he travelled
dense was the darkness /// nowhere was light
neither forward nor backward did it allow him to see ...

and though there are many missing lines in the cuneiform tablets and verses that expand on this formula, the formula is essentially repeated through the ninth hour
nine hours he travelled /// the north wind
licked at his face
dense was the darkness ///nowhere was light
neither forward nor backward did it allow him to see

till Gilgamesh appears to approach the light by the tenth hour, arrives at the beginning of light in the eleventh hour and comes into the full brilliance of sunlight in the twelfth.

This repetitive formula, which was characteristic of old Sumerian poetry and is deployed to great effect in the late Akkadian version of the poem, serves as a kind of narrative staging of the story. In this tradition formulaic repetition is typical of action sequences that are of major significance for the protagonist and have the effect of theatrical presentation. While the manner and style of performance or recitation of these poems is unknown, even a silent literary reading, which is hardly likely for ancient near Eastern poetry, gives a powerful representation of the hero's subjectivity.

In a modern novella like Kafka's Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa's transformation has already taken place before the story begins. Or rather, the famous first sentence begins the narrative at a point after the the story has already begun:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself in his bed, transformed into an enormous insect.

And for the next 17 pages as the clock slowly advances from 6:30 to nearly 8:00 A.M. Gregor confronts his physical transformation from the point of view of the wretched human being he has always been -- the dutiful son, the miserable travelling salesman who has overslept and will be late to work and is afraid he will lose his job if he can't roll his beetle-like body onto its feet and off the bed.

It takes him 8 pages to rock himself off his back and out of bed, 6 more to crawl across the floor and prop himself up against the bureau, 2 more to let himself fall against a chair and use it to propel himself to the door, and a final page and a half to grasp the key in his mandibles, turn it, push the door open and appear in the open doorway. Gregor Samsa's journey across his bedroom is longer than Gilgamesh's descent into the underworld; and it accomplishes nearly the same thing -- the staging of the protagonist's subjectivity -- but by a nearly incredible precisionist description instead of repetition. In Labov's terms we might say that the Evaluation markers in Gilgamesh are produced by the insistency of repetition and in Metamorphosis by the precisionist, micro-detailing of Gregor's goal oriented behavior.

In both cases there is a story, which has a plot -- a configuration of events and parts of events that shape a major transformation, but the configuration doesn't make any important new sense of the events. Samsa fades away with a rotting apple in his side and dies with the mind of a human in the body of an insect, and Gilgamesh, who knew that he was going to die after seeing his friend die and went off to search for him and for immortality in the underworld, is still going to die and finds no new knowledge he can bring back from there. The tragedy of Oedipus makes no more sense than Gilgamesh or Metamorphosis. The young man who solved the riddle of the sphinx, who killed a rude old man at a crossroad and married the queen of Thebes, never killed his father or slept with his mother. He merely killed a man who turned out to be his father and slept with a woman who turned out to be his mother. The absurd chain of circumstances that connected these events, never connects Oedipus' two states of being. And because Oedipus despairs of connecting his two states of mind, he blinds himself. The narrative of Oedipus consists of the gradual confrontation of two states of mind that will not connect, and the plot is merely the device that brings the confrontation about. Kings never become beggars and beggars never become kings. Narrative explains nothing.

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