Blog Post

Against Narratives III. Or a Certain Kind of Narrative

A recent talk by my colleague Joshua Landy on "Still Life in a Narrative Age: Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation," and the comments on my most recent blog "Against Narrative" made me cruelly aware of a divide between on the one hand the perception of what Josh and myself see as the creeping dominance of narrative models to think about life, but also, by extension, to experience it; and on the other hand the incredulity of another part of the audience about the need for a "cure" from this addiction (our words) or state of affairs (their words). To be fair, the word "narrative" requires some elucidation, and what we really mean is a certain kind of narrative: not the picaresque, not the Joycean (in other words, neither the early nor the postmodern), but the good old Aristotelian (reincarnated nowadays in the Hollywood template, or even, the makeover reality show success stories, which by the way, fall perfectly into Propp’s morphology of the folk tale, complete with opponents, obstacles). While Landy and I were interested in the question "Can we (still) think (our lives, the world, and yes, why not, history itself) outside of narratives?," some were wondering. "Why would we want to do so?"

Joshua Landy had a very convincing argument to that last question, and his brilliant presentation suggested that we are not alone thinking about this, and trying to find ways to, as Landy put it, "release the grip" of the narrative impulse which permeates the way we think about ourselves, the world, and the way we describe them, or rather, tell their stories. His argument was that Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation was trying to do just that: to find a way to make a film that would create a space for timeless contemplation, a film about, just, flowers: not the history of flowers, nor the story of a flower, but the presence of flowers.

I have myself suggested in my past posts how some of the most fundamental of human experiences, to say nothing of the natural and cosmic worlds (which do very well, and which we would maybe appreciate and respect more, if they were left alone to their cyclical time), are stripped down from their intensity, beauty, horror, and maybe their truth, when we try to make sense of them by forcing them into a narrative box.

I wonder if I am suspicious of this tendency to package everything into meaningful stories because of my cultural background, my literary tastes, or because of too many loose ends in the lives around me. The underpinnings of this surreptitious wrapping up of everything into narrative schemes (I'm talking here about redemptive, "meaning at the end of the story" kind of narratives, not Robbe-Grillet or Joyce) rely on a teleological worldview which I just can't buy. And which, I believe, is a dangerous lie. There is meaning, in life, and in texts, but it seems deceptive that it should only be in the ending, and deceptively simple, if not dishonest, to represent it as the end results of a nice, linear narrative arch.

This may be why I have personally been drawn over and over again to texts which defy, almost forbid, a purely narrative reading: poetic collections like those of Scève, Jaccottet, or Deguy, which create as much silence and white between the poems as to force other kinds of reading response and other metaphors to describe them (constellations, synchronicities, open ended repetitions that spiral in and out without coming back to center, even the “rhizome” dear to Guattari); picaresque novels or unfinished tales; fragments and elliptic aphorisms such as Pascal Quignard’s; “grotesques” or “monstrous” essays as Montaigne describes them, where order is not a precondition for meaning... texts that each in its own way use narrative (if any) only as a ploy to entice us to try and fail to apply a narrative model; texts that work really as little devices crafted to open up new ways of thinking in multiple directions across or away from linear temporality, smart tools designed to uncork our circuits plugged by too many habitual story lines.

Reading a poem is a practice: a practice in taking the time to be with each word, to let the rhythm reverberate, untouched by thoughts and yet pregnant with insights. It's not just about beauty, or the "aesthetic experience," at least if we consider these as a parenthesis in our lives (like a visit to the museum where art is confined to “the art world," extraneous from the world we live in). Poetry is ethical, philosophical, and spiritual in essence: it's an exercise in seeing, in listening, in being. It's an exercise in not doing anything, not selling anything, not going anywhere.

A poem is a gentle, ingenious device to make us stop, force us to be present, and present only to what is there, as it is, one word after the other, one line after the other, not rushing anywhere, and certainly not rushing to "the” meaning. Poems are anti-ideologies (or should be). They are instances of resistance to our own impatience, our tendency to simplify, our pragmatism, our constant efforts to be “efficient” and our unfaltering neediness, this need to cling on the belief that there should be a meaning at the end of the day, at the end of our lives, or at the end of history. I like to believe that poems work against interpretation (if interpretation is understood as the translation of a complex, alive system into a more legible, consumable dish), that they are agents of resistance.

Language can be like the natural world: wonderfully opaque yet vividly present, quietly unyielding, closed onto its own undemanding presence, yet welcoming and fluid. If we need flowers to stop and taste a moment outside of time, as Landy’s talk and Kaufman’s film suggest, we have poetry to save language from the pressure of our troubling narrative urge.

Cecile Alduy's picture
« Je ne puis tenir registre de ma vie par mes actions: fortune les met trop bas; je le tiens par mes fantasies. » Montaigne, Essais, III, 9, 945 A prescient definition of blogging, no? Cécile Alduy, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of French Studies at Stanford University. A former student from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, she teaches French literature and film, with an emphasis on gender and ethnic studies.  Her research interests include Renaissance literature and culture, the history of the body, poetry, cognitive theory, and more generally how we make sense of the world.