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Narrative IV: A post which is a crypto-commentary on Kafka's Parable on Parables

Algernon. Do you really keep a diary? I’d give anything to look at it. May I?

Cecily. Oh no. [Puts her hand over it.] You see, it is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication.

In my last post I started considering inconsistencies in the way fiction can order its characters' preferences. Mainly I wanted to note how easily we accept these inconsistencies in revealed preference when reading fiction (I included and include poetry there, especially lyric poetry).  I think this fact gets to the heart of one central phenomenon of fiction: the relationship of the fictional world to the real world in which the fictional work exists. The general point is that fiction enables a double response: what for us, in the real world, is considered performance may at the same time be, in the fictional world, simple action.  I don't mean to make the obvious point that actors (or authors) perform the characters they represent.  I mean that a fruitful equivocation between what is done for-us and what is done for-other-characters makes an interesting sleight of hand possible.

Consider again the classic noir pose of charismatic indifference.  When we see it in a book or movie, we suspend our normal, real-world psychological skepticism of this kind of performance (he's not indifferent -- he wants us to think he's cool!) and having done so we accept the otherwise incoherent claim that studied indifference is genuine indifference.  When the noirish Inspector Borlu (to recur to my earlier example) ranks indifference above an actual preference ("even more than I like it aj Tyrko, I don't care"), we can say that the author of the fiction is concerned to perform the narrator's indifference.  Since, in this first-person novel, the narrator as narrator speaks to us more or less with the writer's authority we can abbreviate this as follows: the narrator is concerned to perform indifference.  Of course this can turn into a comic moment, if another character utters a frame-breaking remark which makes the performance manifest in the fictional world too ("Listen to u-us.  Aren't we cool?", but it's the frame, not its breaking, that is conceptually prior. In the prototypical case we accept and ignore the contradiction between the character's revealed preference ("I want to be thought indifferent") and the revelation that the character has no preference ("I don't care").

Chandler pretty much says this in a letter to a fan, when he sums up a long digest of Philip Marlowe's characteristics:

The private detective of fiction is a class fantastic creation who acts and speaks like a real man. He can be completely realistic in every sense but one, that one sense being that in life as we know it such a man would not be a private detective.

I note this feature of noir as an example of the way a form or genre can exploit a larger fact about our relation to fictional narrators -- to the purveyors of fiction.  They present imaginary worlds and can and do exploit the strange frontier between the real and the imaginary, between the fact that the tale is being told to us who exist by a story-teller who exists like us but also doesn't exist because she belongs to the fictional world that doesn't exist.

This is true of both first and third person narrators, though more obvious in the case of first person narrators.  But even third person narrators assert as truth things which their authors do not want to be taken as assertions of truth.  So on the frontier between our world and the fictional world, we interact with a fictional human being who nevertheless acts in the real world.

One fairly minor but interesting way of exploring this frontier zone is through an interesting narrative distinction: between narrators who acknowledge the reader (or acknowledge that they're writing, which is to say that they're being read or potentially being read) and those who don't.

I want to put it this way because this distinction doesn't line up with a distinction between first and third person narratives in any obvious or firm way, though you would think it might. The texts written by first person narrators often don't exist in the world they describe. The great instance of this is Proust (whose narrator ends by regretting that he has waited too long to ever begin writing the book we're reading), but there are plenty of others. Marlowe and the Continental Op don't write out the narratives we nevertheless read. They may refer to lots of things, real and unreal, in their fictional worlds, but one thing they can't refer to is the set of pages that gives a first person account of that world, even though we're reading those pages.

Susanna Moore's In the Cut radicalizes this a little further (maybe by an unnecessary gimmick). We're talking about a borderline phenomenon, and one interesting fact that shows what a borderline phenomenon this is, that shows that the fictional narrator has a foot in the real, is that we can almost invariably count on first-person narrators surviving to tell the story of their survival, because otherwise how could they be telling it? -- a rhetorical question that more or less reassures us of their survival --  in their own world -- even if they're not telling it in their own world. Dead narrators (as in American Beauty or Sunset Boulevard) are rare.

Obviously some, maybe even a slim majority (maybe not), of first person narratives have some existence in the world that they create. (In the eighteenth-century epistolary and journal-novels that gave us modern first person narrative, they obviously have near-complete existence there. Clarissa's letters are discovered, for example, and her so-called posthumous letters survive her.)  But that existence tends to be ghostly, as with the presumed but not logically necessary survival of the narrator in the fictional world of her adventures.    If the presumption of narrative survival thus makes the barest of allusions to the narrative's existence in the fictional world, other allusions may be found in moments of self-reference: connecting words, conjunctions, explanations, etc. where the narrator at least treats the text she's writing as something we can refer to, refer back to, anticipate ("as we'll see, my wish was not to be granted"). But really the narrator and the reader live in a frontier zone where we can see and hold and read the text that the narrator has written; whereas in the fictional world where the narrator acts there is no one else, narrator included, who can see, hold, or read the text. (This is true of epistolary novels as well, where the narrator we'd most be inclined to call by the author's name, to call Richardson or Rousseau, represents himself as an editor for a public for whom the events told belong to another world -- another time and place and one in which neither editor nor public lives.)

Third person narratives, in fairly obvious ways, don't exist in the worlds they describe.

We might be tempted to say that to the extent that third person narratives tend towards omniscience, their narrators don't represent them as existing in any world. This is because their narrators can describe the entire universe if they wanted, but that the universe they're describing doesn't contain their book. (Otherwise the main character could read it and figure out what to do and what to avoid, right?)  But again I think that this is another way of saying that they have a ghostly and attenuated existence in two worlds -- ours, where they tell the story, and the fiction's where what they say is true.  Again the exceptions -- A Hundred Years of Solitude and the like -- prove the rule that no one in an omniscient third person narrative can read it. (In a way Borges's "Library of Babel" is about this, since the library contains the story. But that's a first person narrative.)

Think about the great third person narratives of high modernism and post-Modernism -- say those by Flaubert, Kafka, Joyce, Woolf, Musil, Gaddis, Stein, Pynchon. It's almost a point of honor that the blistering difficulty of the works not be acknowledged by their tellers. The hallmark of high modernism is its assumption of readerly omniscience from the start.

All third person narratives are about getting the reader to know as much as the narrator does. There's nothing more to know besides what the narrator has said. (It's fiction! There is nothing else. You can extend the fiction or revise it, sure, but once it's done it's done.) We're omniscient too, at the end. But in high modernism, we're somehow omniscient throughout. The encyclopediac novel (was this originally Robert Caserio's term?) expects and creates an encyclopediac narratee. (I think Ulysses breaks this pattern just once, with an explicit allusion to something said before -- the thrice-repeated phrase in "Sirens" about things already said by the narrator of the whole: "as said before".)

So the surprising thing is that high modernism and genre fiction share this studious disavowal and refusal of acknowledgement of the reader or of the pages being read. Whereas the great ironic narrative tone in Austen and Hugo and Trollope and Thackeray and Stendhal and James and Tolstoy and Eliot all do acknowledge the reader, acknowledge the fiction, acknowledge the fact that the reader is reading a fiction. Can You Forgive Her: "...she whom you are, if you can, to forgive." Or: "Let the reader be introduced to...." Or:

The progress of the friendship between Catherine and Isabella was quick as its beginning had been warm; and they passed so rapidly through every gradation of increasing tenderness that there was shortly no fresh proof of it to be given to their friends or themselves. They called each other by their Christian name, were always arm in arm when they walked, pinned up each other's train for the dance, and were not to be divided in the set; and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting, in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up to read novels together. Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom, so common with novel-writers, of degrading, by their contemptuous censure, the very performances to the number of which they are themselves adding; joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it.


This kind of bracing reference in the fiction to the fiction in which it appears characteristically has the narrator speaking in the first person: but the narrator is still omniscient. Such narrators may have been invented by Fielding and are to be found in Hawthorne and James as well.  Take for example James's assertion that Isabel's behavior in Portrait of a Lady was "surprising."

It was astonishing what happiness she could still find in the idea of procuring a pleasure for her husband....

It was surprising, as I say, the hold it had taken of her—the idea of assisting her husband to be pleased.

It was surprising for a variety of reasons, which I shall presently touch upon.

Surprising to whom? To all of us -- that's what we share here.  And yet there's no way quite to order the subjective probabilities here (the degree of surprise).  But that's what happens between the world & the world.

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TK: It's at the frontier which I am endeavoring to describe where Newcomb's bargaining and negotiation occur: in all fiction.

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(Political remark: everything I say here has some relation to the dangerous human tendency to hero worship.  Heroes are only fictional characters.  To endow someone with charismatic power is to engage with them as though they are fictional, without knowing it.)

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The Parable on Parables:

Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables
and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the
sage says: `Go over', he does not mean that we should cross to some
actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he
means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too
that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us
here in the very least. All these parables really set out to say
merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that
already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a
different matter. Concerning this a man once said: Why such
reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would
become parables and with that rid of all your daily cares.

Another said: I bet that is also a parable.

The first said: You have won.

The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.

The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.

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"The scriptures are unalterable and the comments often enough merely express the commentators' despair."

William Flesch's picture

William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).