One of the most encouraging trends among conservatives in recent years has been the increased amount of recognition and discussion they have given to the importance of culture and the arts. There is, on the right, a growing sensitivity to the ways that many of the political and social ills we commonly bemoan have their antecedents in prior cultural malformations, and to the ways that beauty, in all its manifestations, might serve as a more adequate corrective to those ills than the usual partisan squabbles. Less common, it seems to me, are discussions about the specific forms of engagement with culture likely to be fruitful now, particularly in light of the many decades—even centuries—of deracination to which our culture has been subjected, and the way that deracination necessitates stark departures, in both theory and in practice, for those who now wish to be culture-makers in their various disciplines.
So let me attempt to sketch the outline of one such departure, specifically in regards to narrative art, both because it is an art form dear to my own heart, and because it is one that has always occupied a central role in our intellectual culture. But there can be no doubt that the art of literary storytelling has reached a dead end. Anxieties about “the death of the novel,” which have preoccupied authors and critics in recent years, reflect a widely shared recognition that narrative literature no longer speaks to the public in any meaningful way. The sources of this marginalization are commonly located in the broad technological and social transformations of modernity, with the result that causes internal to literary history are ignored. But what would happen if we were to inquire into the stylistic history of modern fiction, and ask in what ways the dominant trends of that history might have contributed to the irrelevancy of literary storytelling?
A good place to begin such an inquiry is with Frank Kermode’s A Sense of an Ending, a work that explores the relationships obtaining between a culture’s received story of the cosmos, and the formal conventions which determine the shape of its literary productions. In all times and places, writes Kermode, “there must be a link between the forms of literature and other ways in which . . . ‘we try to give some kind of order and design to the past, the present and the future.’ ” Storytellers in all eras confront “the justification of ideas of order” if they are to perform the characteristic gestures fiction requires of us. In the modern world, the urgency of this imperative grows oppressive, and threatens to undermine altogether our faith in the propriety of storytelling. Today, due to what he calls the “non-narrative contingencies of modern life,” “there is a necessary relation between the fictions by which we order our world and the increasing complexity of what we take to be the real history of that world,” and goes on to aver that the increasing “remoteness and doubtfulness about ends and origins” so characteristic of the modern world has compelled authors to explore ever greater “subtlety and variety” in their fictions. They must now eschew “fictions that are too fully explanatory, too consoling”; must resort recurrently to “irony and paradox and peripeteia”; and must allow their stories to grow from, and towards, an “acceptance of inexplicable patterns, mazes of contradiction.”
Its clear that Kermode’s prescriptions for modern literature accord quite well with the shape it has often taken in our times—one only has to think of works like Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace to see what the “mazes of contradiction look like.” What is important is the assumption underlying Kermode’s argument that narrative structure is fundamentally representative. At first glance, this may sound like another iteration of the mimetic theory, and it is of course the conception of narrative art that informed works like Waiting for Godot and Blood Meridian, in which a purportedly meaningless cosmos is represented through an incoherent narrative structure, presenting us with what we might call an anti-story. But in fact, they are not the same theory, a point that becomes evident when we examine the opening passage of the Poetics, where Aristotle claims that in a story, the things imitated, are “men in action,” but the thing imitating, the medium of imitation, is some formative apparatus, found either in language or in rhythm or in a combination of the two things. Aristotle clarifies this point in Section Four where he inquires into the genesis of poetry and storytelling. He says these arts have two causes. The first is “the instinct of imitation (that) is implanted in man from childhood.” This instinct has its roots in the pleasure that we take in learning things since to imitate something it is requisite that we first have some understanding of its properties. The second cause from which poetry and storytelling spring is the “instinct for harmony and rhythm,” of which he declares poetic meter to be a species. Crucially, this impulse is separate from the representational impulse; it satisfies not the desire for knowledge about the contingent world, but the desire for pattern, structure, and comprehensible order. This desire, too, is an instinct that springs from our rational natures, but is of a different character than the instinct towards representation.
Mimesis occurs when the media of rhythm and harmony are matched to the actions of men; when the rhythmic qualities of language are arranged towards the depiction of human behavior; when form is made adequate to content. On this account, formal structures are never wholly derived from content, but have their origin in different intellectual impulses than those satisfied by representation. Mimesis, on the Aristotelean model, represents a unified exercise and satisfaction of two basic, yet often antagonistic impulses of the intellect: to know the world under the guise of its specific appearances, and to know the unalterable forms of order behind those appearances. On this model, narrative art provides a means of expressing what Coleridge called “the high spiritual instinct of the human being impelling us to seek unity by harmonious adjustment.”
Kermode’s account of narrative structure, quite differently, derives the entirety of narrative structure from the shape of the reality it purports to represent, giving us what may be called the representational theory of narrative structure. It is an account of narrative art that is wanting—as I hope to show—but one that has undeniably occupied the central role in literary art over the last several centuries. The history of narrative art over the last two centuries can be written as a working out of this representational theory.
Central to such a history would be the increasing disassociation between narrative and poetry (a feature of cultural landscape we take for granted). Why does this matter? Contemporary poetry does not give us a clue, so we must examine its history as well. What that history reveals—I think uncontroversially—is a gradual reduction in the formal elements, in the stylistic effects, used to establish a boundary between the realm of poetic discourse and that of the quotidian. What exactly was being lost when those formal elements were surrendered? An important clue comes to us from a book entitled How to Slay a Dragon, by Calvert Watkins, which is a study of the development of Indo-European myth and poetics. In this work, Watkins refers to the “demarcative function” of meter in that archaic poetry. Meter functions to set off the experience of the poem from ordinary experience, by setting off the language of the poem from the language of the quotidian. I think the point can be extended to the whole range of stylistic effects upon which traditional formal poetics have always relied—special dictions, generic conventions, figurative language. All of these demarcate the artistic space of the poem from the space of everyday experience.
That is to say, they operate in a manner analogous to the formal presentation of ritual, since ritual relies heavily on the erection of boundaries to create a special experiential space for the reception of ultimate truths. Much of the literature on ritual points to this aspect and its significance. I think the key point is made in a book entitled Ritual and Its Consequences where the authors emphasize that ritual has a “subjunctive” nature, which they describe as “the creation of an order as if it were truly the case.” Such an order is “self-consciously distinct” from the realm of ordinary life; there is an “incongruity between the world of enacted ritual and the participants’ experience of lived reality.” It follows that ritual assumes a world that is “inherently fractured and fragmented,” and in fact only makes sense “in terms of (this) disjunct.” The end of the ritual is a “world construction,” and the impression of this created order may influence the thoughts and actions of the participants as they carry out their ordinary lives. But there is always a sense in which those lives will fall short of—will remain incongruous with—the world of the ritual.
Modern poetry is marked by a loss of this ritual instinct. The full importance of this point can be grasped by looking at the claim of anthropologist Roy Rappaport’s that ritual is “the social act basic to humanity.” So long as poetry emerged from the same spiritual sources, it too constituted a social act basic to humanity, an act of world construction—of soul-making, as Keats put it. These formative functions of the art demanded the formalizing structures of pre-modern poetics, because those are the very structures that allow the poet to wrest his reader’s attention away from the domination of everyday existence, and to be moved towards an apprehension of the final harmonies lying hidden above, within, and behind that existence. The erosion of formal style over the modern period should be understood as the visible sign of the modern poet’s abnegation of his role in the practice of world construction; he no longer engages in a “social act basic to humanity.” Auden pronounced the ruling motto of modern poetry when he declared that “poetry makes nothing happen.” What poetry traditionally made happen was the work of world construction, of “soul-making;” the work that emerges out of the ritual impulse. Severed wholly from that impulse, poetry is left with no other work to do.
So what would it look like to rejoin narrative to poetry with such a conception of poetry in mind? What would a truly poetic storytelling look like? For one, it would mean recognizing narrative structure as one of the formal elements which establishes the artistic space of the literary artifact, similar in this respect to the other stylistic elements I mentioned, and to recognize therefore that the form of narrative structure is not wholly derived from the reality it aims to represent. To appreciate what this means, I think we have to return to the Poetics, particularly to the section when Aristotle gives the account of tragedy emerging out of the dithyramb. According to Aristotle, the decisive moment occurred when Thespis differentiated the voice of a single speaker from that of the chorus, and set the two in response to one another, a feat he accomplishes by varying the meter in which the persona articulates his lines from the meters employed by the chorus. Its interesting to note then that for Aristotle, dialogue is, in the first place, an act of rhythmic modulation, so we can see that at the level of creative practice, meter and narrative form are not separate things. Right from the start, the central challenges of storytelling are poetic challenges.
I think the key to understanding Aristotle’s account lies in recognizing that the dithyramb was sung for Dionysius, the god of life, and in that sense represented an expression and celebration of the pure consciousness of life. The legendary wildness of his rites is probably best understood as an expression of the ecstasy of embodied being. It’s a basic orientation of consciousness captured by David Bentley Hart, in his Experience of God, when he writes:
the structure of rational consciousness is ecstatic: our minds are capable of reflecting the world because there is a kind of elation in our thinking, a joy, or at least anticipation of joy, which seeks its fulfillment in an embrace of truth in its essence.
The poet of the dithyramb, then, is the one who goes up before the source of being and stands immediately in the glory of its presence; who feels the pristine and undiluted splendor of its power most fully, and who is tasked with interpreting the knowledge of that presence for the community—of translating ecstatic apprehension into reflective comprehension.
Thus far the station of the poet and the priest would seem to coincide, and in fact there has been a long tradition of recognizing the sacred quality of poetry—think springs bursting on the sides of sacred mountains, gods of light placing laurel wreaths on their favorites. Nonetheless, this affinity is not an identity; the poet and the priest depart from one another at a quite fundamental juncture, and it is this departure that determines the development of literary style thereafter. When does this occur? Of course, when Thespis stands forward from the chorus—forward, but not apart. It is a moment of self-conscious difference, when the speaker discovers himself to be a speaker by articulating something distinct from the hymn of the joy of pure consciousness; when he becomes aware that he may no longer speak of being in the assured, direct manner of the priest, and yet cannot free himself of the urgent compulsion to speak of being. And the first consequence of Thespis’ stepping forward is a pause in the rhythm; an aural modulation, which must remain a modulation, by being harmonized to the rhythms of the chorus, lest the pause turn to a cessation, and the rite collapse to an end.
The point I am inviting the reader to consider through this little tableaux is the extent to which poetry and storytelling, in and of themselves, have their origins in our awareness of our aboriginal separation and abandonment; our inexorable severance from the source of our being; and to consider the extent to which the most basic and conventional structures of literary art emerge as an attempt to ameliorate this awareness. The great conceit of modern literature is that the unique disenchantment and self-consciousness of modernity have vitiated the legitimacy of conventional forms, and necessitated radical alterations and departures in the formal presentation of our stories and our poems. Yet this conceit blinds us to the way those conventional forms might have arisen at first from an even more basic sense of disenchantment and self-consciousness. It blinds us to the fact that poetry always comes to us as a consolation for the dereliction of our state, and so can never alter fundamentally as a result of an intensified consciousness of that dereliction. To take the ritual affinity of poetry seriously is to appreciate the disjunct operative in its practice as well, and to realize that in an age of fragmentation and disorder, its formalizing elements become more, and not less, necessary.
There is, then, a tension at the heart of narrative which I am trying to bring into focus. Its appearance is—can only be—an efflorescence of man’s drive for expression, for growth and development; a response to the conscious act of life and being, emanating out of a fundamental acceptance of life and being. Its appearances depend upon the representation of everything that endangers or inhibits growth and development: of deprivation, conflict, calamity, ignorance, and rage. The whole artistry of storytelling, as I see it, inheres in the ineffable power of depicting all of these appearances—in as pronounced a fashion as is necessitated by the imperatives of verisimilitude—in a manner that adumbrates the interrupted vision of life amidst which they unfold. It is the art of recounting lives that reveal life. And it is the art of revealing the beauty that inheres in human life, even in its most befuddling or tormented instantiations.
There is a passage in Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead that is emblematic of the account of narrative I am attempting to delineate here. It occurs just after a prisoner has died of tuberculosis at the prison hospital—an agonizing and lonely death. The other prisoners look on sullenly, staring at the wasted form, still bound in its ankle shackles, when one of them suddenly mutters, “He must have had a mother too.” It is a moment where the meaning of the specific event being narrated is revealed through the event’s portrayed relation to a pattern of life, and the beauty of the pattern of life is felt because of its acute deprivation in the specific event. All great storytelling does this, does what the philosopher Michael Davis calls “allowing us to experience our lives as wholes.” I take this movement towards the experience of our lives as wholes to be the sovereign purpose of literary art. If the movement towards wholeness is unique to the literary artifact, its causes must be sought out in the nature of the literary artifact. Gadamer makes the important observation that every work of art, before it is a representation, is in the first place, a presentation, a stylistic and rhythmic performance demarcating itself as a performance, and stemming from the energies of “self-realization, self-fulfillment”—the energies of bildung. As the story of Thespis helps us understand, the unity of a story is not in the first place a consequence of thematic correspondence or necessity in the progression of events, but in its ritual origins, and the demarcative rhythms emerging from that spiritual inception.
If the presentation of the literary artifact begins as a certain rhythm, then that rhythm becomes the demarcative element of the artifact. Everything that shares in that rhythm becomes a part of the artifact; everything that departs from that rhythm becomes separate from it. The rhythm elicited by the author’s stylistic strategies serves as a transcendent, though indeterminate, force in the work, pulling its disparate narrative or thematic elements together into a unity that is only adumbrated without being articulated; a presence hovering in the midst of every conflict or privation represented in the narrative progression.
Yet what is ultimately most important about poetic storytelling is not the way it transforms the plot or the characters, but the way it transforms audiences. The form of a story, including its narrative structure, permits us to see and feel what we have not seen and felt before, namely the unity lying at the back of our lives. In this sense, narrative structure does not receive its validity from the extent to which it mirrors the shape of our experience, as Kermode’s theory implies; it receives its validity from the extent to which it more authentically shapes our experience. A story is a true construction; a fabricated sequence of events, which, in disclosing their meaning to us, disclose the patterns of meaning which determine human experience. A story is not merely the representation of an action; it is an action, a cultural act, which is a gathering into awareness of the reality that has revealed itself in the events, and it is precisely this status as an act of acculturation that gives a story its proper shape. As Gadamer puts it, “The work of art has its true being in the fact that it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it.”
At least one work in our tradition presents us with a dramatization of the poetic event, so described. The story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins in the world of the quotidian—a world of importunate fathers and clownish guildsmen, of unlucky lovers and hindered love. It is a world where the affections of Demetrius and Egeus, misdirected and intemperate, threaten the integrity of the community, and compel the true lovers, Hermia and Lysander, to fly from the confines of that same community. In the woods to which they flee, the “sharp Athenian law” holds no sway; the dictates of the quotidian are abrogated. There, the fairy king and his factotum, Puck, weave a realm of fictions for the enticement of the lost Athenians. One by one, by “the power (the charm of fiction) doth owe,” the lovers wake to find themselves immersed in a different kind of dream, a world that is the construction of the most airy and insubstantial of potentates, in which the randomness, the violence, and the agony of their conjured passions in the forest reveals to them (and to the audience) the randomness, the violence, and the agony of the love they felt for one another back in Athens.
When they return to the city, the memory of the vision stays with them, compelling them to see their world henceforth through “parted eye.” They are uncertain as to whether the realm of the fiction, from which they are newly emerged, or the realm of the quotidian, into which they are re-immersed, has in it the greater authenticity, yet what is certain is that their passions have been transformed, through the ministrations of the insubstantial fairies, into something more substantial, and something more salubrious to the community. Demetrius now loves Helena, and can only regard his past disdain for her as a sickness of the heart. The vision has been efficacious; the fantasy in the woods has fructified into a lasting bond in the city; and the spritely authorship of Oberon has prevailed over the imperatives of the quotidian. Theseus, the type of the unimaginative skeptic, whose range of vision terminates with the limits of the quotidian, cannot attribute any virtue to the lovers’ altered state precisely because he cannot discover in the power of fiction any legitimate means of transformation. Love and poetry are just allied modes of madness; the kindred maladies of “seething brains.” It belongs to Hippolyta—herself a denizen of a fantastic world, far distant from the city of Athens—to assert the truthfulness of the vision, telling him, telling us:
[that] all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.
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The featured image is “Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake” (c. 1786) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.