Wednesday, October 27, 2004


One of Peter Leithart’s most recent posts got me thinking about a few things. Leithart outlines the argument of Galen Strawson, who questions whether human lives are or should be narrative. Strawson speaks of the possibility of human experience being ‘diachronic’ or ‘episodic’ rather than merely narrative. Orality and LiteracyIn his fantastic book, Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong argues that the shape of the modern plot line has been largely formed by the printed word. The degree of manipulation, revision and reconsideration that is possible for the modern author encourages a far less open-ended view of the narrative. The story-line is self-contained and ‘defined by closure’. The very permanence of the printed word adds to this; printing ‘locks words into space’. The physical unity of the text binds together what it contains. In the oral culture, before the existence of ‘texts’, the narrative binds things together in a far looser fashion, in far more of an open manner. As authors have more conscious control over them in the age of the printed word, story lines become tighter and tighter and tend to adopt the climactic structure of the ‘Freytag pyramid’, rather than the episodic approach to narrative that was almost universal in purely oral cultures. Ong observes that the pyramid-shaped plot is most fully expressed in a detective story. Within the plot of detective story we can also observe the ‘inward turn of narrative’ — closure is first achieved inside the mind of one of the characters and then later revealed to the reader and the other characters in the novel. Ong contrasts the detective story with the old oral narrative: “The oral narrator’s protagonist, distinguished typically for his external exploits, has been replaced by the interior consciousness of the typographic protagonist.” Writing also raises the level of reflective consciousness, both in the writer and in the reader. Characterization differs in the oral narrative from characterization in the written narrative. ‘Rounded’ characters in narrative are largely a product of the written word. The oral narrative produces ‘flat’ characters, who are largely predictable in their behaviour. Oral narratives do not generally follow a linear plot as closely as written narratives do. Chronological order is not maintained. The oral narrative often starts in the middle of things and only later explains how the situation arose. However, even speaking of starting ‘in the middle of things’ is misleading as it tends to establish the linear plotline of the written narrative as some sort of norm against which the oral narrative can be assessed.
What made a good epic poet was not mastery of a climactic linear plot which he deconstructed by dint of a sophisticated trick called plunging his hearer in media res. What made a good epic poet was, among other things of course, first, tacit acceptance of the fact that episodic structure was the only way and the totally natural way of imagining and handling lengthy narrative, and, second, possession of supreme skill in managing flashbacks and other episodic techniques.
Ong argues that we should be careful not to think of oral plots as a departure from a form of plot that they never knew, one that we often think is normative. In the present day there are many narratives that reject the tight climactic structure that was brought in by the printed word. However, Ong maintains that they are not episodic narratives akin to those of a primary oral culture, but rather ‘impressionistic and imagistic variations on the plotted stories that preceded them’. What I was wondering, in the light of all of this, is the degree to which our idea of the connection between self-identity and narrative has been affected by the printed word, and latterly electronic media. To what degree is our idea of what narrative lives should look like shaped by our interiorization of the written and printed word? When we talk about human lives being narratives, what sort of plot lines are we thinking in terms of? Are we thinking of our lives as oral narratives, as novels, or films? Would we think of our narrative identity differently if we lived before the Internet and other media that affect our understanding of what plotlines should look like (e.g. film)? Will the ‘openness’ and non-foundationalist character of the Internet cause us to narrate our lives in a different way? What will our future narrative selves look like as electronic media and such things as globalization have their effect? Some have claimed that globalization leads to the undermining of our narrative identities. William Cavanaugh argues that, in the world created by globalization, man is ‘cast adrift in a sea of disjointed and unrelated images. If identity is forged by unifying the past, present, and future into a coherent narrative sequence, the ephemerality and rapid change of images deconstructs this ability.’ I am also wondering to what degree in the retelling of our stories by God’s grace in the Church, different forms of plot structure are produced as a result of the divergence of Jesus’ history and cosmic history after the ascension and the marriage between the two, particularly in the celebration of the Eucharist. I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on these questions.

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