Thursday, June 17, 2010

Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot

Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot; Design and Intention in Narrative, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1984.

We might think of plot as the logic or perhaps the syntax of a certain kind of discourse, one that develops its propositions only through temporal sequence and progression. (xi)

Our common sense of plot…Most of all, perhaps, it has been molded by the great nineteenth-century narrative tradition that, in history, philosophy, and a host of other fields as well as literature, conceived certain kinds of knowledge and truth to be inherently narrative, understandable (and expoundable) only by way of sequence, in a temporal unfolding. In this golden age of narrative, authors and their public apparently shared the conviction that plots were a viable and a necessary way of organizing and interpreting the world, and that in working out and working through plots, as writers and readers, they were engaged in a prime, irreducible act of understanding how human life acquires meaning. (xi-xii)

…I have looked for the ways in which the narrative texts themselves appear to represent and reflect on their plots. Most viable works of literature tell us something about how they are to be read, guide us toward the conditions of their interpretation. The novels of the great tradition all offer models for understanding their use of plots and their relation to plot as a model of understanding. (xii)

Even more than with plot, no doubt, I shall be concerned with plotting: with the activity of shaping, with the dynamic aspect of narrative—that which makes a plot “move forward,” and makes us read forward, seeking in the unfolding of the narrative a line of intention and as a portent of design that hold the promise of progress toward meaning. (xiii)

My interest in loosening the grip of formalism has taken me to psychoanalysis, particularly to the work of Freud himself, which presents a dynamic model of psychic processes and thus may offer the promise of a model pertinent to the dynamics of texts. Psychoanalysis, after all, is a primarily narrative art, concerned with the recovery of the past through the dynamics of memory and desire. (xiv)

It is not that I am interested in psychoanalysis study of author, or readers, or fictional characters, which have been the usual objects of attention for psychoanalytically informed literary criticism. Rather, I want to see the text itself as a system of internal energies and tensions, compulsions, resistances, and desires. (xiv)

When E. M. Forster, in the once influential Aspects of the Novel, asserts that Aristotle’s emphasis on plot was mistaken, that our interest is not in the “imitation of an action” but rather in the “secret life which each of us lives privately,” he surely begs the question, for if “secret lives” are able to be narratable, they must in some sense be plotted, display a design and logic. (4-5)

From sometime in the mid-eighteenth century through to the mid-twentieth century, Western societies appear to have felt an extraordinary need or desire for plots, whether in fiction, history, philosophy, or any of the social sciences, which in fact largely came into being with the Enlightenment and Romanticism. As Voltaire announced and then the Romantics confirmed, history replaces theology as the key discourse (5-6)

Not only history but historiography, the philosophy of history, philology, mythography, diachronic linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, and evolutionary biology all establish their claim as fields of inquiry, and all respond to the need for an explanatory narrative that seeks its authority in a return to origins and the tracing of a coherent story forward from origin to present. (6)

The enormous narrative production of the nineteenth century may suggest an anxiety at the loss of providential plots: the plotting of the individual or social or institutional life story takes on new urgency when one no longer can look to a sacred masterplot that organizes and explains the world. The emergence of narrative plot as a dominant mode of ordering and explanation may belong to the large process of secularization, dating from the Renaissance and gathering force during the Enlightenment, which marks a falling-away from those revealed plots—the Chosen People, Redemption, the Second Coming—that appeared to subsume transitory human time to the timeless. (6)

And this may explain the nineteenth century’s obsession with question of origin, evolution, progress, genealogy, its foregrounding of the historical narrative as par excellence the necessary mode of explanation and understanding. (6-7)

…with the advent of Modernism came an era of suspicion toward plot, engendered perhaps by an overelaboration of an overdependence on plots in the nineteenth century. If we cannot do without plots, we nonetheless feel uneasy about them, and feel obliged to show up their arbitrariness, to parody their mechanisms while admitting our dependence on them. Until such a time as we cease to exchange understandings in the form of stories, we will need to remain dependent on the logic we use to shape and to understand stories, which is to say, dependent on plot. (7)

…plot as the syntax of a certain way of speaking our understanding of the world. (7)

Nor can we, to be sure, analyze these narratives simply as a pure succession of events or happenings. We need to recognize, for instance, that there is a dynamic logic at work in the transformations wrought between the start and the finish… (10)

Plot, let us say in preliminary definition, is the logic and dynamic of narrative, and narrative itself a form of understanding and explanation. (10)

Mythos is deferred as “the combination of the incidents, or things done in the story,” and Aristotle argues that of all the parts of the story, this is the most important. It is worth quoting his claim once more: / ‘Tragedy is essentially an imitation not of persona but of action and life, of happiness and misery. All human happiness of takes the form of action; the end for which we live is a certain kind of activity, not a quality. Character gives us qualities, but it is in our actions—what we do—that we are happy or the reverse. In a play accordingly they do not act in order to portray the Characters; they include the Characters for the sake of action. (10-11)

Later in the same paragraph he reiterates, using an analogy that may prove helpful to thinking about plot: ‘We maintain, therefore, that the first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of Tragedy is Plot; and that the Characters come second—compare the parallel in painting, where the most beautiful colours laid on without order will not give one the same pleasure as a simple black-and-white sketch of a portrait.” Plot, then, is conceived to be the outline or armature of the story, that which supports and organizes the rest. (11)

Finally, just as in the visual arts a whole must be “of a length to be taken in by the memory.” This is important, since memory—as much in the reading a novel as in seeing a play—is the key faculty in the capacity to perceive relations of beginnings, middles, and ends through time, the shaping power of narrative. (11)

…distinction urged by the Russian Formalists, that between fibula and sjuzet. Fabula is defined as the order of events referred to by the narrative, whereas sjuzet is the order of events presented in the narrative discourse. The distinction is one that takes on evident analytic force when one is talking about a Conrad or a Faulkner, whose dislocations of normal chronology are radical and significant… (12-13)

We must, however, recognize that the apparent priority of fibula to sjuzet is in the nature of a mimetic illusion, in the fabula—“what really happened”—is in fact a mental construction that the reader derives from the sjuzet, which is all that he ever directly knows. (13)

Perhaps the instance of the Russian Formalists’ work most compelling for our purposes is their effort to isolate and identify the minimal units of narrative, and then to formulate the principles of their combination and interconnection. In particular, Vladimir Propp’s The Morphology of the Folktale merits attention as an early and impressive example of what can be done to formalize and codify the study of narrative… Taking some one hundred tales classified by folklorists as fairy tales, he sought to provide a description of the fairy tale according to its component parts, the relation of these parts to one another and to the tale as a whole, and hence the basis for a comparison among tales. Propp claims that the essential morphological components are function and sequence. One identifies the functions by breaking down the tale into elements defined not by theme or character but rather according to the actions performed: function is “an act of character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action.” Functions will thus appear in the analysis as labels for kinds of action, such as “interdiction,” “testing,” “acquisition of the magical agent,” and so on; whereas sequence will concern the order of the functions, the logic of their consecution. (15)

Propp suggests an approach to the analysis of narrative actions by giving precedence to mythos over ethos, indeed by abstraction plot structure form the persons who carry it out. Characters for Propp are essentially agents of the action; he reduces them to seven “dramatis personae,” defined by the “spheres of influence” of the actinos they perform: the Villain, the Donor, the Helper, the Princess and her Father (who together function as a single agent), the Dispatcher, the Hero, and the False Hero. (15)

Propp’s analysis clearly is limited by the relatively simple and formulaic nature of the narratives he discusses. Yet something like the concept of “function” may be necessary in any discussion of plot… (16)

Todorov… is no doubt less valuable as a systematic model for analysis than as a suggestive metaphor, alerting us to the important analogies between parts of speech and parts of narrative, encouraging us to think about narrative as system, … Perhaps the most challenging work to come out of narratology has used the linguistic model in somewhat playful ways, accepting it as a necessary basis for thought but opening up its implications in an engagement with the reading of texts. What I have most in mind here is Roland Barthes’s S/Z. (17-18)

If we ask more specifically where in S/Z we find a notion approximating ‘plot,’ I thin the answer must be: in some combination of Barthes’s two irreversible codes—those that must be decoded successively , moving in one direction—the proairetic and the hermeneutic, that is: the code of actions (‘Voice of the Empirical’) and the code of enigmas and answers (‘Voice of Truth’). The proairetic concerns the logic of actions, how their completion can be derived from their initiation, how they form sequences. The limit-case of the purely proairetic narrative would be approached by the picaresque tale, or the novel of pure adventure: narratives that give precedence to the happening. The hermeneutic code concerns rather the questions and answers that structure a story, their suspense, partial unveiling, temporary blockage, eventual resolution, with the resulting creation of a ‘dilatory space’—the space of suspense—which we work through toward what is felt to be, in classical narrative, the revelation of meaning that occurs when the narrative sentence reaches full predication. The clearest and purest example of the hermeneutic would no doubt be the detective story, in that everything in the story’s structure, and its temporality, depends on the resolution of enigma. Plot, then, might best be thought of as an ‘overcoding’ of the proairetic by the hermeneutic, the latter structure the discrete elements of the former into larger interpretive wholes, working out their play of meaning and significance. (18)

In other words, the only ordering or solution to the problem in understanding Rousseau has set up here is more narrative. No analytic moral logic will give the answer to the question, why did I behave that way? As it will not answer the question, how can I be in my proper place? Nor indeed the question subtending these, who am I? question such as these cannot be addressed—as they might have been earlier in Rousseau’s century—by a portrait moral, a kind of analytic topography of a person. The question of identity, claims Rousseau—and this is what makes him at least symbolically the incipit of modern narrative—can be thought only in narrative terms… (32-33)

To understand me, Rousseau says more than once in the Confessions, most impressively at the close of Book Four, the reader must follow me at every moment of my existence; and it will be up to the reader, not Rousseau, to assemble the elements of the narrative and determine what they mean. Thus what Rousseau must fear, in writing his Confessions, is not saying too much or speaking lies, but failing to say everything. (33)

There is simply no end to narrative of this model, since there is no ‘solution’ to the ‘crime’. The narrative plotting in its entirety is the solution, and since that entirety has no endpoint for the writing—as opposed to the biographical—self, Rousseau is reduced to requesting the reader’s permission to make an end here: ‘Qu’il me soit permis de n’en reparler jamias.’ (33)

Our example from the ‘rpoairetic’ end of the narrative spectrum has turned out to be fully as ‘hermeneutic’ as the detective story. (34)


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