This chapter balances the last. Both are about ways in which we think with narrative. But where in the last chapter we focused on the chemistry of narratives in combination, here we are looking at a chemistry taking place within narratives (or, more accurately, in our interaction with them). Where in the last chapter, we looked at the ways in which narratives are used as armament in a larger contest of narratives like a trial or a political race or an intellectual controversy, here we are looking at narratives as structures made up of contests, the claims of which they may or may not negotiate successfully. In part, this chapter brings us back to the agon – the contest or conflict, which is so often the life of narrative. More broadly it brings us back to the observation I made in chapter five that larger cultural, psychological, and moral conflicts are at play in narrative, some but not all of them represented by the opponents in the agon.
Narrative without conflict
Conflict is such a powerful element in narrative that there are those who make it a necessary defining feature of the term “narrative.” But given the inclusive definition of narrative that I have adopted for this book – the representation of an event or events – conflict is not a necessary component for something to qualify as a narrative. There are many short narratives, by my definition, in which conflict is nonexistent. The opening frames of Leni Riefenstahl’s film documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party Conference, The Triumph of the Will, create a smooth narrative entirely without conflict. It opens with the sound of a plane hidden in the clouds carrying the Führer to the party conference and then moves by a series of brilliant strokes to culminate in the roar of an enormous crowd hailing Hitler’s arrival. As is frequently the case in propaganda, the power of narrative in this instance, at least in the intentions of Leni Riefenstahl and in its impact on sympathetic German viewers in 1934, is exclusively rhetorical. In fact, the kind of thinking through narrative that I will be discussing in this chapter would seriously undermine the effect Riefenstahl worked hard to create.
Here is the well-known story illustrating the wisdom of Solomon: Two harlots appear before King Solomon with two baby boys, one dead and one living. One of the women tells what happened (in the larger story, her story is analeptic – it covers what happened in the story up to the point at which they come before the king). The two women had lived together in the same house and, within three days of each other, each of them gave birth. The other woman, according to the speaker, rolled over in her sleep and smothered her newborn child, killing it. She then “arose at midnight and took my son from beside me, while thine handmaid slept, and laid it in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom.” When she, the speaker, awoke and discovered the other’s dead child in her bed, she demanded her own back, but the other claimed the living child was hers. And so they took their dispute to the king. When the woman finished speaking, King Solomon called for his sword and ordered that the living child be cut in half and the two halves be given to the two women. You know the outcome:
Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it. Then the king answered and said, Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof. And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment. (I Kings 3: 26-28)
Here is a story with an agon, a conflict between two women, and it closes powerfully with Solomon’s brilliant ploy. Ordering one outcome to the story, the splitting of the child, he generates another, the discovery of the true mother and the reuniting of her with her child. It is a powerful story and it turns on Solomon’s understanding of psychology. So, in the resolution of the agon, the story adjudicates the difference between true and false mothers. This distinction and how it is weighed rides on top of the agon involving the two women. But at the same time, the working out of the agon negotiates the claims of other opposing ideas. One is the opposing claims of possession and love. It shows through the true mother’s reaction that, in the extreme case, mother-love trumps the need to possess. So this is also part of the narrative’s work of negotiation. Through the action of the narrative, we are shown how these two strong human passions fall into a natural hierarchy, so that the love of a mother for her child will take precedence over the keen desire to possess the child. Another conflict in this narrative is that between harlotry and motherhood. Both of these women are harlots, degraded figures at the bottom of ancient levantine society who make love for money. Yet the narrative implicitly works out a scheme of redemption. In the same figure, the harlot is displaced by the mother. Through her behavior in the working out of this story, the woman’s harlotry is almost forgotten. She instead becomes The Mother.
How plausible must a story be?
“All Israel” was persuaded by this story. Yet when you start to think about it, how likely is it that any false mother is going to say, “All right, go ahead. Cut the child in half”? Who wants a dead half-baby? Certainly not, one would think, someone so desperate for a baby that she is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to secure a live one. There are two points to be made here. One is that there is room for further narrative discourse to fill this gap. Such extension of the narrative might feature the history of these two women, their intense rivalry, and the bitterness of the false mother that could lead her to make her extraordinary statement: “Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it.” But the other point is that, even with an explanatory gap like this one, a narrative can still have immense power and do major work in the negotiation of cultural conflict, and this work can persist over the centuries, as in the case of this story.
The ostensible function of this short narrative is to show the wisdom of Solomon. This is the note that it ends on: “they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.” Yet what gives energy to the narrative, as to all narratives, is the conflict that works itself out over the course of the story. The fuel for that energy is brought to the story in the form of our concerns as readers, concerns that are catalyzed by the conflict. In this way, narrative is a form of passionate thought. The greatest masterplots are narrativized over and over again because they engage conflicts that seem to be a permanent part of our circumstances as human beings. Here is a famous one:
Laius, the king of Thebes, and his wife, Jocasta, are childless. Wanting a son and successor, Laius consults the Oracle at Delphi who cautions him that should he have a son, that son will kill him. Laius heeds the warning until one night, drunk, he conceives a child with his wife, and Jocasta gives birth to a boy. Hoping to avoid his fate, Laius has the infant’s feet pierced with an iron rod and orders a shepherd to abandon the child on Mount Citheron. Unknown to Laius, the shepherd takes pity on the child and through a friend delivers him to Polybus, the king of Corinth, and his wife Merope, who are themselves childless. They bring the child up as their own, naming him Oedipus, or Swellfoot, because of his wounded feet.
Later, when he is a young man, Oedipus is told by a drunken acquaintance that he is not really the son of Polybus and Merope. This and other rumors cause him to set out for the Oracle at Delphi to see what he can find out about himself. There he is told to his dismay that he is fated not only to kill his father, but also to marry his mother. Horrified, he determines to avoid this fate by never returning to Corinth. On the road, however, he encounters a traveler who is none other than Laius. In some versions, Laius is also on his way to the oracle to find out if his son had died of exposure long ago on Mount Citheron. Oedipus, as strong-willed as his father, though of course not knowing that this is his father, refuses to move out of the way for him. Laius strikes him with a whip, and Oedipus, enraged, kills Laius and all his retinue, except one who escapes.
Oedipus eventually comes to Thebes, a city in terrible straits. Not only has its king been slain (news travels fast), but it is oppressed by the Sphinx, a powerful creature, part human, part animal, who devours citizens of the city each time they fail to answer her riddle. The riddle is this: what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening, yet speaks with one voice? Creon, the brother of the widowed Jocasta, has proclaimed that whoever answers the riddle of the sphinx and frees the city from her tyranny will be made king and given his sister’s hand in marriage. Oedipus, with his native brilliance, answers the riddle: it is man (who walks on all fours as an infant, then on two legs, and finally, with a cane in old age, on three). Her riddle answered, the Sphinx throws herself to her death from the walls of Thebes. Creon in gratitude unites Oedipus with his sister, Jocasta, making Oedipus king of Thebes.
As the years pass, Oedipus and Jocasta have four children: two boys, Polyneices and Eteocles, and two girls, Ismene and Antigone. But eventually a devastating plague falls on Thebes. Oedipus sends Creon to the oracle to find out what he can, and Creon returns with the news that the city is polluted because it harbors the slayer of Laius and that the plague will only lift when that man is expelled from Thebes. Oedipus now trains all his power of intellect and command on solving this mystery. Thanks to his persistence, together with the testimony of the now ancient shepherd who passed him in his infancy to Polybus and that of the servant who escaped his wrath when he killed Laius, Oedipus learns that the cause of pollution is none other than himself. In their despair, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself by plunging his wife and mother’s gold brooches into his eyes.
Oedipus sends himself into exile, leaving Thebes and spending many years wandering as a beggar, accompanied only by his daughter Antigone. At last he finds shelter at Colonus in a grove sacred to the Eumenides, remembering that long ago the oracle that had told him his fate had prophesied also that he would end his days in the safety of such a grove. Meanwhile, his sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, disputing the crown of Thebes, have gone to war. Each sends to his father for his blessing and support, but Oedipus curses them both. Oedipus then goes off to die, bidding farewell to his daughters. At the end, only King Theseus is present to see Oedipus disappear mysteriously into the earth with the assistance and the blessing of the gods.
I have cobbled together this narrative rendering of the Oedipus story out of at least nine different versions from the ancient Greek, though I have relied most heavily on Sophocles’ classic treatment of the story in two plays, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus (5th century B.C.). There were surely many more than nine versions, each of them necessarily different from the others. Since that time, the story has reappeared in numerous languages throughout the world and in hundreds of analogue versions. This is clearly the signal case of a gripping masterplot, dealing with tough contradictions, that human beings have repeatedly used to think with in successive narrative renderings.
The agon at the heart of this story is most often regarded as the conflict between Oedipus and his fate. Struggle as he may to avoid the fate he learns from the oracle, he cannot escape it. Indeed, it is his very effort to escape that makes escape unavoidable. The narrative reinforces the centrality of this agon by having Oedipus’s struggle with fate anticipated and doubled by the conflict between Laius and his fate that sets the story in motion. But why should such a story grip us? Few people in the West believe in the existence of a fate so particularized that it can specify that a man will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Why should we care for people in a world so governed? The easy answer is that we suspend disbelief. Coleridge created this phrase to account for why we allow ourselves to get wrapped up in a play even though we know it is only acted. Thus we can allow ourselves to be transported to Thebes or Colonus by a play while knowing all the time that we are seated in a theater. But why should a twentieth-century audience allow itself to go along with this Greek notion of fate?
In this case, the most likely answer is that, though we may not believe in fate the way many did in ancient Greece, we all know what it means to struggle with constraints that in one way or another govern our lives. If you are born black where black is the minority, it is a foreordained fact that you will experience racism, both directly and indirectly. The combination of your unchangeable physical features and the mindset of millions would make this an unavoidable condition of your life. This is a kind of fate. If you are deaf, or misshapen, or schizophrenic, or parentless, or in some other way deeply marked by genetics or environment, constraints are laid down ahead of you that are very much like a destiny – as unavoidable as they are deeply affecting. But there are also conditions that are as inescapable as these and that lie in wait for almost all of us. All those who survive childhood go through the changes of adolescence, most will fall in love at least once, and the majority will know what it means to lose love. If we live past our young adulthood, we will experience the loss of physical and mental power that comes with aging. And, of course, there is one fate that none of us escape. Early on, we learn the way our story in this life ends, a conclusion that we see anticipated in the deaths of others, including many whom we love.
It is the struggle between this certain knowledge of how lives are determined and the need to assert a freedom and dignity that in some way overwrites this helplessness that is the larger conflict, riding on the agon contained in the story of Oedipus. In other words, his particular struggle against his fate catalyzes the general need to control what cannot be controlled, just as his self-punishment and later wandering are a way of thinking through the effort to come to terms with the crimes he committed in spite of his best efforts. The general point is that the narrative, in negotiating Oedipus’s dilemma, negotiates at the same time the general conflict between determinism and the freedom to act. An ancillary point is that different narrative renderings of this tale make for different thinking about its issues. In the version of Diodorus Siculus, for example, when Laius has his fatal encounter with Oedipus, he is seeking information about his son from the same oracle that tells Oedipus he will kill his father. This ironic coincidence heightens the sense that, in the case of both father and son, the very effort to avoid one’s fate makes that fate inevitable. A bleaker reading than that of Sophocles of the whole issue of human dignity in such a world, this version has Oedipus end his days in thrall to his impious sons. Sophocles, in contrast, works the narrative differently and in the process throws the balance between fate and freedom in the other direction. In his version, Oedipus at the end of his days is presented as one whose strength of character allows him freely to reject his sons. His capacity to persevere and to grow in wisdom earns him the reverential awe of King Theseus and the chorus.
Here again, in this last chapter, I am making a “foundational” proposition about how we relate to narrative. That is, before we are Marxian or Freudian, psychoanalytic or feminist, structuralist or post-structuralist, we all share common elements in the way we relate to narrative. To make this particular case, though, it is important to stress that I am not saying that we necessarily find in narratives successful negotiations of differences. Far from it. Butinsofar as we share in our own lives the larger conflicts of which these narrative conflicts are particular examples,we are moved by the narrative, drawn into it, and become alert to how these conflicts play out. And this, I am arguing, is an important form of thinking, whether or not the negotiation of conflicts is seen to be successful. Moreover, in contrast to more abstract modes of thought, this is passionate thinking. That is, in narrative our thinking is intimately tied to the emotions aroused during our narrative journey.
Are narratives like arguments?
Here are two views on this question. The first comes from the eminent psychologist Jerome Bruner: “A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness. The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof. The other establishes not truth but verisimilitude.”1
The second comes from the American novelist and critic Ronald Sukenick: “All fiction can be profitably regarded as argument. When you define fiction by representation you end up confining it to realism at some level and arguing that fiction, as a form of make-believe, is a way of lying to get at the truth, which if not palpably stupid is certainly round-about and restrictive. My approach frees fiction from the obligations of mimesis, popularly, and most often critically, assumed to be its defining quality.”2
Critical reading as narrative negotiation
An important qualification to this argument is that there is not necessarily any single privileged way of reading the conflict in a story, or sometimes even defining what or who it involves. This sounds extreme, but it can be especially true in longer and more complex narratives like the story of Oedipus. The reading of the Oedipus story that I proposed above, featuring the conflict between Oedipus and his fate, is only one (if the most common) among many readings of the Oedipus material. Yet – and here is the main point again – even among highly varied readings of the same story, one almost invariably finds the same underlying orientation, an attention to conflict of some kind and how it plays out. We can, for example, find this orientation in four famous readings of the Oedipus narrative, each of them representing a radically different take on the story from the one I chose above, yet each of them in their very different ways featuring the effort to negotiate a conflict.
Aristotle. In the Poetics (335-322 BC), Aristotle argued that the function of tragedy lay in its primary effect: “arousing pity and fear, whereby to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions” (631). And along the way he singled out the story of Oedipus as a masterful example of this complex emotional end:
The tragic fear and pity may be aroused by the Spectacle; but they may also be aroused by the very structure and incidents of the play – which is the better way and shows the better poet. The Plot in fact should be so framed that, even without seeing the things take place, he who simply hears the account of them shall be filled with horror and pity at the incidents; which is just the effect that the mere recital of the story of Oedipus would have on one. (641)
The puzzle that the combination of pity and fear presents is that these emotions move us in opposite directions. Pity draws one toward the pitiable object in a movement of sympathy; fear drives one away in a movement of self-preservation. Yet, for Aristotle, an overbalance toward one or the other spoils the effect of tragedy. What happens in the Oedipus story is a successful transaction involving these opposed emotions whereby, despite their differences, they are both aroused and spent in a mutual catharsis. Much ink has been spilled in trying to get at the exact meaning of Aristotle’s use of the word “catharsis,” but it seems implicitly to refer to the arousal and purgation of powerful emotions that otherwise might control us. The point to stress here, however, is that Aristotle features as the heart of the tragic effect, epitomized by the Oedipus story, a successful negotiation of the claims of two contradictory emotions which are allowed somehow to join together. At the most fearful and repellent moment of the story – when Oedipus drives the points of Jocasta’s gold brooches into his eyes – what keeps this from, as it were, “blowing us away” is that we grasp through pity the depth of despair that causes him to do this.
Freud. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud situated his reading of the Oedipus story directly against the common interpretation I outlined above. For Freud, the stress on the conflict between the decree of the gods and the human desire for moral freedom is really a smokescreen: “an uncomprehending secondary elaboration of the material, which sought to make it serve a theological intention.”3 The success of the Oedipus story and the reason for its universality “does not depend upon the conflict between fate and human will, but upon the peculiar nature of the material by which this conflict is revealed” (307). In other words, it is not fate that matters in this story but the specific acts of killing the father and sleeping with the mother. And this is because these are two acts that we (“we” meaning “men”) all secretly want to do. That both of these acts are treated in the same play is only fitting because, according to Freud, they are the two principal components of the same childhood yearning. Men are murderously jealous of their fathers because they want the exclusive love of their mothers. These are two yoked desires that most men successfully repress.
King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and wedded his mother Jocasta, is nothing more or less than a wish fulfillment – the fulfillment of the wish of our childhood. But we, more fortunate than he, in so far as we have not become psychoneurotics, have since our childhood succeeded in withdrawing our sexual impulses from our mothers, and in forgetting our jealousy of our fathers. We recoil from the person for whom this primitive wish of our childhood has been fulfilled with all the force of the repression which these wishes have undergone in our minds since childhood. As the poet brings the guilt of Oedipus to light by his investigation, he forces us to become aware of our own inner selves, in which the same impulses are still extant, even though they are suppressed. (308)
Jocasta, trying to comfort Oedipus as he approaches the truth, unwittingly provides internal support for this reading by noting that what he fears is a dream common to men:
For many a man hath seen himself in dreams
His mother’s mate, but he who gives no heed
To suchlike matters bears the easier life. (308)
In his reading, Freud has displaced one conflict with another. The conflict between fate and the free exercise of human will is displaced by the conflict between desire and conscience or, in later Freudian terms, between the urging of the libido and the tyranny of the superego. The normal price of this conflict in the everyday life of men, its negotiated condition, is repression and a kind of unlocalized malaise or free-floating guilt. In the story of Oedipus, the price of actually living the wish is self-inflicted blindness and expulsion from home. In the narrative, no compromise is possible, and expiation only ends with the death of the transgressor. For the audience, however, the transaction is more complex. Through Oedipus, the viewer is permitted the wished-for enactment of forbidden desires and at the same time allowed to separate himself (again, it must be male) by observing the punishment of his unacknowledged surrogate. The pleasures of the crime and the satisfactions of punishment are bound up in the same narrative package.
Propp. The Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp, considered by many a founder of structuralism and arguably the founder of narratology as well (though before the term was invented), produced a long paper on the Oedipus story in 1944. In this essay, he cast his net widely to cover a great range of variants of the story but all to the end of showing the “hybrid” character of the version Sophocles created in his two plays. Like Freud, Propp relocated the central conflict away from the ostensible struggle between Oedipus and his fate, but unlike Freud he saw the play’s conflict in historical terms: “The tale does not arise as a direct reflection of a social order. It arises from a conflict, from the contradictions that occur as one order replaces another.”4 Briefly, the two orders were the older one (according to Propp’s theory of social evolution) by which rule of the kingdom was determined according to matrilineal descent and the newer order by which rule of the kingdom was determined according to patrilineal descent.
In this reading of history, the older or more “primitive” fairy tales were structured to reflect a matrilineal order by which the throne passed from the father to a son-in-law. The future king is an outsider who comes in and marries the king’s daughter. Along the way, however, he must conform to a number of conventional patterns: being exiled or cast adrift in infancy, losing his name and being given another, passing a number of tests, and in some versions heroically killing the old king before marrying his daughter. In Propp’s reading of Sophocles’s Oedipus, the skeleton of this older genre can be seen. Oedipus is cast away, and his name (which reflects the condition of his exile) is given to him later. Coming to the city, he must pass the test of overthrowing the Sphinx, and of course he kills the father. But this version of the tale has no daughter to marry. Instead, Oedipus is offered the king’s widow. Moreover, the king he killed is not his father-in-law but his actual father. In this way and others, according to Propp, Sophocles synthesized a hybrid story that layers the new order over the old.
In the complex negotiation of one social order gaining ascendancy over another, Propp argues that Sophocles’s sequel, Oedipus at Colonus, played a crucial role. This is because, in following the pattern of the old order and killing the king, even (and significantly) in doing so unconsciously, Oedipus has overlaid the heroism of regicide with the horrendous crime of patricide. He must not only pay for this crime but in the process he must also achieve some form of apotheosis that in turn validates the new order in which the son succeeds the father. This second stage is what takes place after the years of blind wandering when Oedipus arrives in Colonus at the sacred grove of the Eumenides. He is honored by king and country, his body is blessed, he is called by the gods, and he enters the earth in anticipation of rebirth as a god himself (and Oedipus did in fact have a cult following in ancient Greece). In this way, Propp argues, Sophocles anticipates the pattern of numerous retellings of the story in analogous tales such as those of Gregory and of Andrew of Crete, both of whom become saints despite their crimes of kinship and incest.
Lévi-Strauss. When the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss published his classic reading of the Oedipus material in 1955, he was interested not so much in providing a reading of this specific story as in using it to show how all myths might best be read. What was revolutionary about his argument was his shift of focus from a linear reading of myth – that is, the kind of reading (like all four above) that goes from beginning to end – to a structural or “synchronic” reading that focuses on repetitions in the material. Quite literally, Lévi-Strauss spatialized the myth to get at its thinking. The repetitions within a set of mythic material like that of the Oedipus story he called “gross constituent units” or “mythemes.” These operate on a “higher level” of meaning than the linguistic phenomena (phonemes, morphemes, and sememes) by which we construe them. And when they are “bundled” together, they guide us away from the myth’s linear and historical content and toward its timeless content, explaining “the present and the past as well as the future.”5 Here is how Lévi-Strauss bundled the Oedipus mythemes:
his sister Europa,
ravished by Zeus
The Spartoi kill
father) = lame (?)
Oedipus kills Laios (Oedipus’
his father, Laios father) = left-sided (?)
Oedipus = Swollen-
his mother, Jocasta
Eteocles kills his
Antigone buries her
despite prohibition (214)
As you can see, in order to have sufficient narrative material to develop significant bundles of these repetitions, Lévi-Strauss drew on the story of Cadmus and Europa that precedes the Oedipus material as well as the story of Oedipus’s children that follows his death. This gave him enough material to reorganize the entire narrative, scoring it like music, so that the bundled repetitions stand out vertically, like chords. The result is four bundles of mythemes. Each column in the scheme above includes mythemes that share some repeated concept. In the first column, the shared concept is “blood relations that are overemphasized, that is, more intimate than they should be. . . . the overrating of blood relations.” In the second column, the shared concept is the “underrating of blood relations.” The third column features the slaying of monsters who would return us to the earth and therefore features the denial of the idea that we come from the earth (affirming that we are not “autochthonous”). And finally the fourth column features forms of lameness that are ancient signs of our having come from the earth (affirming that we are “autochthonous”).
Put together, the four columns constitute a kind of thinking about ideas in conflict, for “column four is to column three as column one is to column two”:
The myth has to do with the inability, for a culture which holds the belief that man is autochthonous . . . , to find a satisfactory transition between this theory and the knowledge that human beings are actually born from the union of man and woman. Although the problem obviously cannot be solved, the Oedipus myth provides a kind of logical tool which relates the original problem – born from one or born from two? – to the derivative problem: born from different or born from same? By a correlation of this type, the overrating of blood relations is to the underrating of blood relationships as the attempt to escape autochthony is to the impossibility to succeed in it. (216)
In other words, with the kind of knowledge that they had at their disposal, the ancient creators of these myths were thinking just as hard and just as well as we do today. Indeed, since there is no privileged version of any myth, and a myth repeats its thinking in all its versions, even Freud’s interpretation of the Oedipus story, according to Lévi-Strauss, can be absorbed into this reading according to bundled mythemes:
Although the Freudian problem has ceased to be that of autochthony versus bisexual reproduction, it is still the problem of understanding how one can be born of two: How is it that we do not have only one procreator, but a mother plus a father? Therefore, not only Sophocles, but Freud himself. should be included among the recorded versions of the Oedipus myth on a par with earlier or seemingly more “authentic” versions. (217)
To return to a fundamental point in this section, Lévi-Strauss, for all his radical reorganization of the way we look at myth – to the point of turning it into something that does not look like narrative at all, but rather a much more static, spatialized entity – still finds at the heart of narrative the effort to negotiate competing claims in a major conflict of ideas. In this extreme structuralist view, then, mythic narrative is still a mode of passionate thought, seeking to negotiate some way out of the contradictions of existence. To summarize, all five of the readings of Oedipus that I have reviewed here are implicitly based in the view that people think through the agency of narrative. In the process, I hope I have shown two additional things as well: 1) how differently people can respond to the same narrative and, at the same time, 2) how persistent through all this difference is the assumption that narrative appeals through its representation of some kind of conflict.
Closure, one more time Closure becomes important in this discussion because, at the level of questions, it is the end of narrative conflict. If closure of the conflict or agon coincides with closure at the level of questions, it gives the impression of resolving larger issues that are carried by the agon. Historically, there have been times when closure of this sort has been strongly advocated, at least in reference to questions of moral conduct. Early in the eighteenth century, Daniel Defoe wrote in the preface to one of his novels that “Every wicked Reader will here be encouraged to a Change, and it will appear that the best and only good End of a wicked misspent Life is Repentance; that in this, there is Comfort, Peace, and often times Hope, and that the Penitent shall be returned like the Prodigal, and his latter End be better than his Beginning.”6 For Defoe, in other words, or more accurately for his authorial persona in this text, issues of wickedness and its consequences are closed by the end of his novel. In the nineteenth century, Anthony Trollope affirmed much the same thing about the works of his entire oeuvre when he wrote that he aimed to “teach lessons” in his novels: “I have ever thought of myself as a preacher of sermons, and my pulpit as one which I could make both salutary and agreeable to my audience.”7 And in 1929, the French novelist and playwright François Mauriac wrote that the writer “has got to reach those who are still capable of being influenced and dominated. He wants to leave his mark on this living wax and imprint all that is best in him on those who are going to survive him. . . . he wants to make them replicas of himself; he wants his own image and likeness to be resurrected in them when he himself is in the grave.”8 Each of these statements reflects a desire for clarity in the domain of morality that can coincide with narrative closure.
For others, especially over the last century, a comment like that of Mauriac would be chilling. They see authorially imposed closure as a threat to the kind of thinking that narrative can assist. D. H. Lawrence wrote that “if you try to nail anything down, in the novel, either it kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.” Teaching clear moral lessons, in this conception, is exactly what a novel cannot do. It cannot because “morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance. When the novelist puts his thumb in the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality.”9 Forty years earlier, the short story writer Anton Chekhov made the same point in a letter to a friend, but in a different way:
You are right in demanding that an artist should take a conscious attitude to his work, but you confuse two conceptions: the solution of a question and the correct setting of a question. The latter alone is obligatory for the artist. In “Anna Karenin” and in “Onyeguin” not a single problem is solved, but they satisfy completely because all the problems are set correctly. It is for the judge to put the questions correctly; and the jurymen must decide, each one according to his taste.10
For both of these authors, narrative fits the words I. A. Richards used to describe a book: “a machine to think with.” But for both, this is thinking that finds no necessary closure in the work itself. Quite the contrary, it depends on the absence of closure at the level of questions.
These two ways of approaching the negotiation of conflict in narrative – with and without closure at the level of questions – are strikingly demonstrated in rival scenarios for the conclusion of the same film, The Jazz Singer. The first feature-length film to use sound throughout, The Jazz Singer was a great hit when it came out in 1927. The conflict on which its narrative is structured is that between a son and his immigrant father. The larger question riding on this conflict is whether there can be a workable synthesis of new ways and old, or whether one of these must triumph over the other as the new generation succeeds the old. The son, Jakie Rabinowitz, played by Al Jolson, finds himself drawn to the music of Broadway and popular culture in opposition to his father’s desire that his son follow in his footsteps as the sixth successive cantor in his family’s male line of descent. The film opens on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when devout Jews seek to atone for the sins they have committed during the year. Cantor Rabinowitz is anticipating the singing of Kol Nidre, the traditional beginning of Yom Kippur. This is music that he has carefully taught his teenage son in the expectation that tonight Jakie will sing in his place for the first time. But the wayward Jakie at that moment is singing “raggy time songs” in a beer hall. Discovered and then punished by his father with a beating, Jakie leaves home.
Throughout the film, the agon involving father and son is musically expressed by alternating renditions of the mournful yet hauntingly beautiful Kol Nidre and Al Jolson’s lively renditions of “Blue Skies,” “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” and other 20s hits. The film’s climax comes when Jakie, now Jack Robin, gets his big break, a starring role in a Broadway play. It brings him back to his roots in New York. But shortly after his arrival, he learns that his father is dying. To give excruciating accentuation to the conflict, the opening night of the Broadway play, April Follies, is scheduled to occur on the eve of Yom Kippur, the night when Kol Nidre must be sung. His father being ill, there is no one to sing Kol Nidre, except Jakie. Will he sing it? Everything appears to be at stake in this decision. As the producer warns him, if Jack Robin fails to appear at the opening of the Broadway show in which he is to star, his reputation will be ruined. His girl friend, Mary, also starring in the show and also present cries out: “You can’t throw away this one great chance, Jack – the house sold out – and it will ruin me too!” Yet Cantor Rabinowitz, revived momentarily by the appearance of his son, is convinced that his prayers have been answered. The members of the synagogue have already assembled; only Jakie can usher in Yom Kippur with the singing of Kol Nidre. And if he doesn’t “it will be the first time in five generations a Rabinowitz has not sung on the Day of Atonement.” How will the narrative negotiate this agonizing conflict between the claims of two different cultures? How will it close?
In both the original script and the film, Jakie finds that, even as he is preparing to go on stage on opening night, he cannot abandon the old ways. But the original script ends with the cancellation of the opening night of April Follies, and Jakie, his prayer shawl draped over his shoulders, singing Kol Nidre in the synagogue. As he sings, his father, who recognizes his son’s voice coming in through the open window, finally dies in peace. Then, in an extraordinary scene, the spirit of the father appears behind the son, and as Jakie continues singing, oblivious to his father’s ghostly presence, his father places his hands on his son’s shoulders in a gesture of blessing and then disappears. For all its melodrama, the scene is deeply moving. Jolson’s rendering of Kol Nidre is quite beautiful and it culminates a series of fragmentary renderings of the music that we have heard throughout the film and that have prepared for this final version. The image of the father, giving his son the “laying on of hands” in a gesture of forgiveness, harmonizes with the import of Kol Nidre. In short, there is a powerful sense of closure in this final scene. The implication for the larger issue, riding on the agon, is that the old spiritual ways are irresistible, and rightly so. In them you find depth and continuity. And however joyous and alive the music of popular culture may be, and however painful its abandonment, maturity and our deeper natures require this final rite of passage.
But the film that viewers saw in 1927 did not end with Al Jolson singing Kol Nidre. “The season passes – and time heals – the show goes on,” we are told, after the scene of Jakie singing Kol Nidre in the synagogue fades out. The old script is then supplemented with a new conclusion featuring Jack Robin in blackface singing “My Mammy” at the Winter Garden Theater. Both his mother and his father’s friend, Moisha Yudelson, a pillar of East Side Jewish society, are seated in the front row, smiling their appreciation. The film ends with the end of the song. As the light fades out, Jakie, who is black on black, slowly disappears until all that is visible in the last second of the film is his white collar. With this addition to the film, the process of narrative negotiation is revived and appears to swing back in the other direction. But how far does it go? Does popular culture triumph and are the two beaming representatives of the old ways seated in the front row a sign of the necessary acceptance of full assimilation to American ways? After all, Jakie’s mother, who “had a deeper and better understanding of life” than her husband, had already warned Cantor Rabinowitz that Kol Nidre may be in Jakie’s head “but it is not in his heart. He is of America.” Or is the predominant note tragic or pathetic, with blackface as a sign of the inevitable annihilation of Jakie’s identity? This reading would appear to be accentuated by the way he is made to disappear into blackness at the end. Or, trying again, are we meant to infer some kind of synthesis at the end, marked by the presence of both generations and keyed to the idea that the old sacred songs and the songs of the Jazz Age come out of the same impulse? It is noted on several occasions that whatever Jakie sings, he sings with “a tear in his voice.” And Jakie himself in one scene quotes his father back to him on the subject of song: “You taught me to sing – and you told me that music was the voice of God – and it is just as honorable to sing in the theater as in the synagogue.”
There are still other possibilities. But my own sense of the ending of this film is that closure does not occur without serious underreading. There are too many competing signifiers in the film’s final scene to permit one of the possible readings mentioned above to prevail. In other words, the passionate thought that is aroused by this narrative is still in progress after it concludes. It is a restless film, a case of Lawrence’s “trembling instability of the balance.” And it may be that it reflects a larger impossibility of resolution – that there is no satisfactory answer to the question the film asks. It may also be, of course, that I am finding a lack of negotiated resolution symptomatically where Warner Brothers had in fact intended resolution. Be that as it may, I hope the distinction of endings here makes clear how the sense of closure or its absence can impact the kind of thinking we do when we experience narrative negotiation.
The end of closure?
There are a number of viewers who would argue that, even if The Jazz Singer had ended with the final rendering of Kol Nidre, it would not have closed the film’s dilemma as neatly as I suggested above. Both Mary, Jack Robin’s co-star, and the producer of April Follies observe Jack singing Kol Nidre. How do we read their presence in this scene? Does it suggest an American cultural acceptance of the triumph of the old ways in a cultural harmony in which the old and the new co-habit? Or do we see them as cultural predators from American show business, busy appreciating the potential in Jack’s voice? Earlier, Yudelson, coming backstage in the theater to plead with Jakie to sing in his father’s place, is embarrassed by the beautiful bare legs of a dancer from whom he cannot tear his eyes. Is this the thin edge of the wedge for this Old World innocent? After Yudelson’s visit, Jack explains to Mary: “I don’t really belong there [in the synagogue] – here’s where I belong, on Broadway, but there’s something in the blood that sort of calls you – something apart from this life.” To which Mary replies: “I think I understand, Jack. But no matter how strong the call, this is your life.”
More insidious perhaps is the way in which, in both conclusions, submission harbors domination. Submitting to his father, Jakie becomes the father, dominating with his voice his captive audience in the synagogue. In this way the old conclusion anticipates the same paradoxical combination that Jack Robin achieves in the film’s final scene, submitting to his mother in an homage (“My Mammy!”) even while he is raised above her on stage, dominating an audience of which she is a part. Finally, in 1927, it would be hard for an audience to suppress awareness that the cantor in the final scene of the original screenplay is none other than Al Jolson, and that Jolson’s fame is precisely the kind that Jack Robin aspires to. Jolson’s fame as a popular singer is an insistent paratext that would seem to give the lie to Jolson the cantor. The guise of the cantor, in other words, might well have something of the same status as the guise of blackface.
In my way, what I have been doing here by opening up these interpretative gaps is to turn the original screenplay of this film into what Roland Barthes would call a “writable” text, as opposed to a “readable” one. Instead of simply taking the concluding scene on what appear to be its own terms, I have been actively “writing” it by capitalizing on its contradictory possibilities. In the terms of this book, my interpretations are approaching adaptation. But I am also “deconstructing” the original conclusion: showing that what appears to be its ostensible argument contains within it the traces of an opposed reading. “Deconstruction,” as I noted earlier, is grounded in the argument that uncertainty is inherent in the activity of making meaning through signs, be they written, oral, graphic, or otherwise. For Derrida, closure at the level of questions never arrives, regardless of the text. Moreover, since meaning is grounded not in some absolute contact with reality but in the web of differences out of which any sign acquires its signifying power, any process of narrative negotiation will never shake the differences that subvert it. Answers, in other words, that appear to emerge with closure at the level of questions will always contain traces of their opposites. Deconstruction no longer has the cachet it had in the 1970s and 1980s, but the concept has nonetheless left a permanent mark on the way we read. Thanks to the efforts of Derrida and others, there is, among humanists across the whole range of literary approaches, a persistent suspicion of closure at the level of questions, even in the simplest, most apparently readable, texts.
How far down this road do readers of narrative wish to go? One answer, of course, is that anyone is free to go as far as she or he wants. But does the multiplicity of readings turn narrative into a kind of game, disconnected from the world of action? Does narrative then become a place where readers sport together in endless displays of ingenuity? Opponents of deconstruction were quick to charge that deconstruction was morally nihilistic and that it really meant that all readings were equal since one reading was just as good as another. But defenders were equally quick to say this was not the case. The Jazz Singer, they might have pointed out, does not advocate replacing American representative government with a parliamentary system, it does not comment on the digital revolution, it does not include a critique of nuclear energy. For deconstructionist critics, as for most others, the list of patently inferior interpretations is infinite. And for some, like J. Hillis Miller, in any given text the number of productive interpretations with both credibility and urgency are relatively few. But Miller and others would also argue that an awareness of the necessary openness of narrative, its lack of closure, far from being morally nihilistic, is the basis of any ethics of reading. It is ethical because it not only rests in an acknowledgement of the nature of all communication – its semantic porosity – but it also prevents the appropriation of a text to one monolithic meaning. It liberates readers to exercise their creative reading power in response to the full potentiality of narrative. In the terms of this chapter, such awareness activates the best and fullest range of passionate thinking that a narrative can catalyze in its negotiations.
This is beginning to sound good. Certainly it does to me. But in the general spirit of these comments, I would like to end this text without coming to closure on the subject of closure. I will do this by raising three questions. The first has to do with the rhetorical power of narrative that we discussed in earlier chapters. Allowing narrative to carry us from one point to another is one of the great pleasures it provides. But if we always require ourselves to introduce an attitude of questioning, even suspicion, into our reading, so that we have an awareness of the plurality of possibilities in any particular narrative, do we run the risk of separating ourselves from that pleasure? To put this question in another way, is the attitude of detached questioning something that functions to protect readers and viewers from the power that narrative has to move us with deep feeling?
The second question is closely allied to the first. One of the ancient functions of narrative is that it gives us sufficient understanding to make up our minds about things. It provides not only information but also values to be passed down from one generation to the next. Parents rely on stories to reinforce moral behavior in their children. More broadly, anyone’s capacity to act in the moral sphere, to make tough decisions, requires what is commonly called convictions. Convictions are not necessarily absolute. They are what the word implies: something about which we are convinced. Yet without being absolutists – that is, people who feel they have found the only right way – we still need to dispose of ideas that are less convincing in order to arrive at our convictions. Now here is the question: if good reading depends upon maintaining in our minds opposed moral ideas in a kind of balance, does that work against the creation and maintenance of strong convictions? And by indirection does this work against the capacity for decisive moral behavior?
The third question is closely allied to the second. How true is it that narrative, by belonging to the world of language, acquires its meanings solely by the play of difference within that linguistic realm? Another way to put this question is: can we never test the truth of a narrative by reality? Derrida in a famous overstatement said that there is nothing outside the text. But many have wondered from what standpoint outside the text he made that statement. It would seem that, in order to generalize about a subject like language, one would have to have some sense of what is not language. And many scientists would argue that what they demonstrate in the narratives they tell, if they tell them well, is the “other” of language. The narratives they tell about matter and energy, or the symptomology of disease, or the growth of cells, or the movements of the earth’s crust, are continually being tested by a reality outside of language. And although, in the less empirically verifiable realm of human nature and moral behavior, our thinking is saturated with language from our earliest years, is it out of the question that wisdom leaks in from the world of feelings, actions, and consequences? And do we not judge a narrative by the way this wisdom tests it?
In one form or another, these objections have followed deconstruction from its arrival on the literary scene. None of them, in my view, is a knockout blow. But I want to end with them. They are very much alive – as alive as the perception that narrative is always and forever full of gaps that we must fill and that closure, however much narrative may seem to invite it, is finally something only we can confirm, and only if we choose to do so.
Further secondary reading
The story of Solomon’s wise decision can be found in the Old Testament in 1 Kings 3:16-28. The most famous version of the story of Oedipus can be found in two plays by Sophocles, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus (fifth century B.C.). For many of the variants on this continually fascinating story, you can consult two good books: Lowell Edmunds and Alan Dundes (eds.), Oedipus: a Folklore Casebook (New York: Garland, 1983) and Lowell Edmunds, Oedipus: The Ancient Legend and Its Later Analogues (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).
In thinking about narrative as thinking, it may help to consider Stanley Fish’s distinction, in his Self-Consuming Artifacts, between a “rhetorical text” that “satisfies the needs of its readers” by mirroring “the opinions its readers already hold” and a “dialectical text” that “is disturbing, for it requires of its readers a searching and rigorous scrutiny of everything they believe in and live by.”11 Of all the works on narrative, the one that for me best features the capacity of narrative to find new understanding through the working out of the story is Paul Ricoeur’s magisterial three-volume work, Time and Narrative. His writing can be a little dry, but it is well worth the effort.
Additional primary texts
My argument in this chapter is that most narratives of any complexity can be read as efforts to negotiate opposing psychological and cultural claims. And there are in fact some authors who have capitalized on the centrality of conflict in narrative to structure their narratives quite openly like a debate. These are perhaps worth special attention here, but only because of the way they foreground the process of narrative negotiation. Dostoevsky’s longer novels almost invariably operate in this way. Among others are Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c. 1601), both parts of Goethe’s Faust (1808, 1831), Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), André Malreaux’s Man’s Fate (1933), Georges Bernanos’s The Diary of a Country Priest (1937), Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1941), John Barth’s companion pieces The Floating Opera (1956) and End of the Road (1958), Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Fratricides (1963), and Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964). In almost every one of these narratives, the central figure is torn by a moral dilemma and, as the narrative proceeds, is pulled back and forth between competing moral claims.
1Notes for chapter twelve
Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 11.
2 Ronald Sukenick, Narralogues: Truth in Fiction (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), 2.
Sigmund Freud, trans. A. A. Brill, The Interpretation of Dreams, in A. A. Brill (ed.), The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud (New York: Random House, 1965), 309.
Vladimir Propp, “Oedipus in the Light of Folklore,” in Lowell Edmunds and Alan Dundes (eds.), Oedipus: A Folklore Casebook (New York: Garland, 1983), 81.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, trans. Claire Jacobsen and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, “The Structural Study of Myth,” in Structural Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1963), p. 211.
Daniel Defoe, The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honourable Colonel Jacque (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 2.
Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1947), p. 124.
François Mauriac [no trans.], God and Mammon (London: Sheed and Ward, 1936), p. 85.
D. H. Lawrence, “Morality in the Novel” in Edward D. McDonald (ed.), Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence (London: Heinemann, 1936), p. 527.
Anton Chekhov, trans. in S. S. Koteliansky and Philip Tomlinson, Letter to A.S.Souvorin (27 October 1888) in S. S. Koteliansky and Philip Tomlinson (eds.), Life and Letters of Anton Tchekhov (London: Benjamin Blom, 1925; reissued, 1965), p. 127.
11 Stanley E. Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts: the Experience of Seventeenth–Century Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 1.