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

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

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

[Originally published in Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 30, No.2, 1995, pp.143-154, this will appear in Antin’s long awaited & epical work of poetics & criticism, Radical Coherency, to be published later this year by University of Chicago Press.]

From Jean Pierre's introduction I guess you can tell that I come from the experimental wing of American poetry and criticism. So it won't be any surprise to you that I started out in the 1950s like many young experimental artists with a strong commitment to most of the received ideas of early 20th century modernism, the most important of which for a functioning artist was the idea of the exhaustion, experiential and esthetic, of representation in all its forms. For a language artist this mostly meant the uselessness of narrative.

I held this view for a long time, inconsistently I suppose, because I made use of some kinds of narrative anyway, but I continued to hold this view till some time in the early 1970s, when it became apparent to me and a number of other writers and artists that abstraction and collage, the modernist alternatives to representation had also become exhausted, perhaps through their success in advertising in magazines and on television. But for whatever reason, by the beginning of the 1970s both abstraction and collage appeared even more hopeless as signifiers of human experience and seemed reduced to conventionalized signifiers of style.

With something like this in mind -- the exhaustion of nearly all the modes of experiential communication -- I began to wonder if it wasn't time to re-examine narrative to see if what we had all supposed of it was really true or as I was beginning to suspect the consequence of a very narrow and conventional idea of narrative; and when I started looking around I discovered that a lot of other people had been studying it too, and some for a very long time, though very few in a way that I found useful.

The oldest studies were by the folklorists and ethnographers who had collected folktales -- like the Grimm brothers or Afanasiev -- mostly for cultural reasons; and many of them had cleaned up the material and deprived it of most of its narrative force, the way the Grimms did when they gathered together all those different tellings of the same story by different tellers in different dialects and melted them down into their idea of an Urform, which though attractive enough in a peculiar 19th century way is a kind of literary monster. And the only way you can recover the narrative force of these stories is to go searching through the vast appendices of the German collection to find the dialect originals. But even then you can't recover the original occasion or circumstances of the telling.

Now it was on one of these collections -- specifically on a group of fairy tales from Afanasiev's great collection of Russian folktales -- that Propp based his structural study, The Morphology of the Folktale, back in 1928, a work that in spite of its pioneering status seems to have gone underground with the suppression of Formalism in the Soviet Union at the end of the Twenties and didn't reappear till its translation into English in 1958. The English translation coincided with a whole new industry in structural studies in the United States and France, where it inspired and provoked a train of structural investigations of narrative, so that by the 1970s narrative was mainly being studied by a great number of structuralist critics, and a few philosophers and linguists.

The literary structuralists responding to Propp were mainly interested in finding some kind of grammar of narrative, because most of them were devoted to the fantasy science of semiotics, while the philosophers, who were involved in a dispute about the explanatory power of narrative in the philosophy of history, were mainly concerned with the logic of narrative. Since I was also concerned with the discursive force of narrative, I had some interest in the work of the philosophers. But I found practically nothing of value in the work of the structuralists, whose quasi-scientific claims were commonly attended by a cloud of technical vocabulary derived from arbitrary categories of analysis and supported by antiquated linguistics. The most valuable work I was able to find was in the areas of anthropology and sociolinguistics. I'm thinking mainly of William Labov's remarkable study of Black English Vernacular story telling and Dennis Tedlock's brilliant recreations of Zuni story telling. Somewhat later I discovered the phenomenological writings of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, whose positioning of narrative as an engagement with the paradoxes of the experience of time, seemed of crucial importance.

Still, what I found disappointing in almost all scholarly work on narrative was the near total emphasis on plot, as though the simple ordering of the events of a story were the main reason for its existence. In my experience it was otherwise; and though this may sound strange, I could think of stories that had no narrative and narratives that had no story. Consider the curious responses made by the aristocratic Aztec informants to Bernardino de Sahagun's request for definitions when he was compiling his vast account of their culture, his General History of the Things of the New World. We do not know exactly what he asked them, but standing there in the rubble of their culture so recently destroyed by the Spaniards, what could they make of the Franciscan scholar's request for definitions of the common things of their world? What would an Aztec think of as a definition? What they gave him was this:


It becomes long, deep; it widens, extends, narrows. It is a constricted place, a narrowed place, one of the hollowed out places. There are roughened places; there are asperous places. It is frightening, a fearful place, a place of death. It is called a place of death because there is dying. It is a place of darkness; it darkens; it stands ever dark. It stands widemouthed; it is wide-mouthed; it is narrow-mouthed. It has mouths which pass through. I place myself in the cave. I enter the cave.

This typical definition is not a story. It has no plot, no clearly articulated sequence of events. It is not even certain whether individual verbal passages -- "it darkens" ... "I place myself in the cave" -- represent specific events or typical events, or whether sequences like "it is wide-mouthed; it is narrow-mouthed" - - depict sequential experences in a traversal of the cave or merely list alternate experiences of it. But as far as I'm concerned, this is clearly a narrative. What it presents is narrative experience, and what other way could these Aztecs have conceived of explaining the meaning of a cave than by attempting to put themselves back into mental proximity with it and reenacting for the listener the threat or promise of this remembered or imagined place?

On the other hand this recent story from the San Diego Union is not a narrative at all:


El Cajon
Two men robbed an El Cajon shoe store Saturday night and confronted a customer who entered the store as they were leaving, police say. One of the two brandished a chrome handgun and demanded money from the cash register at the Payless Shoe Source on Avocado Boulevard. On their way out, the robbers took the purse of a customer entering the store, police say. A nearby patrol officer gave chase but lost the men when they fled into an unlighted residential neighborhood.

It's an account of a sequence of events recorded by the police and described by a noncommittal reporter. While it has a plot and purports to be a historical description of a temporal whole, it has no continuous subject who could have experienced this coherence, which is apparently an artifact of the desk sergeant -- the policeman who said -- apparently pieced together from the testimony of several witnesses. Though constructed from fragments of several people's experience, the story finally represents nobody's experience. So perhaps we need a series of definitions of an array of related terms that could help us distinguish narrative from story. To some extent this array of terms may appear to overlap the conceptual network of action that Ricoeur lays out in Time and Narrative; but, since I have no desire to distinguish here between what he calls the world of action from the world of physical change, I will not make use of it. Suppose we start with an event.

An event is a temporal whole representing the transformation of some state of affairs into a discriminably different state of affairs.

Example: A man and a woman came out of an old brownstone on a quiet street in the East 30's.

A sequence is a chain of events that succeed each other.

Example: A man and a woman came out of an old brownstone on a quiet street in the East 30s. A black Mercedes turned the corner and pulled up at the curb. A dog started barking across the street.

A story is the representation of a sequence of events and parts of events that articulate a significant transformation.

Example: A man and a woman came out of an old brownstone on a quiet street in the East 30s. A black Mercedes turned the corner and pulled up at the curb. A dog started barking across the street. Two men in black business suits jumped out of the car, grabbed the couple, forced them into the car and drove away.

This account is sufficiently articulated to serve as the testimony of a witness in a murder trial, but it contains only the barest representation of anyone's experience. The witness has carefully refrained from indicating his or her feelings watching, has omitted any account of resistance or fear by the couple, and has only minimally indicated the urgency and violence of the kidnappers, who "jumped out... grabbed the couple, forced them..." In this story three potential subjects have stakes in the outcome of this sequence of events -- the couple who have been "grabbed," the kidnappers, and even the dog, though we can only guess at what they are. This is a story that could yield several different narratives from several different subject positions -- but a narrative requires a sense of something at stake for somebody in some particular subject position, which is what characterizes the stake. It is this sense of stake that should be taken as the center of narrative. To articulate the meaning of this sense of stake, it is useful to redefine narrative away from story. So let's define narrative as the representation of the confrontation of a desiring subject with the threat or promise -- or threat and promise -- of transformation.

From this definition it's easy to see why I'm claiming that narrative is a fundamental cognitive modality. Subjects are continually confronted by the promise and threat of change. But no promise comes without the threat of fulfillment. If a beggar wishes to become a king and there is a chance of his becoming one, there is also the possibility that the change will annihilate him together with his desire, leaving behind only a troubled king suspecting his wife, his sons, his brother-in-law, or a revolution in the street.

Any transformation, no matter how promising, contains the threat of destroying its desiring subject in the magnitude of fulfillment. But what the beggar wants is to remain the beggar inside the life of the king, or to hold on to that subject position from which the life of a king would be a sufficient satisfaction to at least offset the gravest problems of statecraft, which the beggar has most likely never counted on. And it would be in the interest of the king, who is suffering from all the anxieties of kingship and in whose state of mind the beggar remains only in threads of nostalgia and anxiety, to build a bridge from his present life to his past. As it would be in the interest of the beggar to build a bridge from his present to his possible future, to imagine the speculative consequences of his transformation.

This bridge building across change is what I would suggest is the central human function of narrative. The act of reconnecting subject positions across the gulf of change is what constitutes the formation of self. All self is built over the threat of change. There can be no self until there is an awareness of one's subject position, which can only be created by the threat of change or the memory of change. Every change creates a fracture between successive subject states, that narrative attempts and fails to heal. The self is formed over these cracks. Every self is multiply fractured, and narrative traversal of these fracture planes defines the self. Narrative is the traditional and indispensable instrument of self creation.

The king's genre is autobiography, while the beggar's is science fiction or dream. But both will have to address all three temporal modes -- past, present and future -- to function as narrative. The king will have to re-experience his past as the present of a beggar and the beggar's future -- in the form of desire -- as it turns into a present with the coming of kingship. To experience this from the standpoint of the king's present and anxiety ridden future. The beggar and the king will have to and perhaps never quite can be one. And all the efforts of emplotment will never put the pieces together again. If plot is a gathering together of a succession of diverse events to create an intelligible temporal whole, plot in this sense is the least significant aspect of narrative.


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