Friday, January 30, 2009

THE NATURE OF NARRATIVE by Robert Scholes, James Phelan and Robert Kellogg

This new edition of Scholes and Kellogg's classic The Nature of Narrative, with a long afterword by James Phelan providing an overview of Narrative Theory since the book's initial publication, is a clear, well-written and highly readable introduction to a field too often obscured by impenetrable jargon (like "internally focalized heterodiegetic narrator"). Of special interest to me is the book's argument that the first-person autobiographical narrative was an innovation of the later Roman Empire (Petronius, Apuleius, Lucian, Augustine). The Western tradition of autobiography is thus born in an inward-turning, late, decadent milieu--a fact that may say something about the taste for memoirs (or novels disguised as memoirs and vice versa) in contemporary America, another empire in decline. The authors also suggest that ancient oral storytellers were apparently improvisors who 'riffed' (within strict limits, one assumes) on traditional scenes and formulae. It's possible (this is my thought now, not Scholes' or Kellogg's [although they do seem to suggest it]) that the long traveler's tale narrated by Odysseus within the Odyssey, his tale of the Cyclops, the Lotus Eaters, the Lestrygonians, Scylla and Charybdis, the bag of wind, etc., is just such an improvisation, an entertaining lie performed by that old windbag Odysseus, the 'man of many wiles,' the legendary trickster. (I wonder if Joyce had Ulysses-as-storyteller in mind when he was choosing archetypes for his own vast invention.) Scholes and Kellogg are also interesting on the classical ancestry of interior monologue (which they helpfully distinguish from stream of consciousness), a pedigree stretching back to Homer, Apollonius of Rhodes, Vergil and Ovid.

One serious weakness is the book's lack of any extraliterary historical sense. Scholes and Kellogg chart all of these momentous changes in the representation of consciousness in Europe but only briefly (if that) hint at the social, political and intellectual changes that formed and/or were informed by these literary changes. The Nature would be better if it were more 'natural,' i.e., materialistic. It seems that we still need a grand, synthesizing 'social history' of European literature along the lines of what Arnold Hauser did for art in general. But who alive today--indeed, who since the death of Erich Auerbach--would be capable of writing such a book? George Steiner? Franco Moretti?...

In the end I return this book to the shelf having learned some interesting things from it, but I remain unconvinced that the Narratology to which it helped give birth is anything more than the last gasp of a moribund Structuralism. Phelan essentially confirms this in his afterword when he relegates a brief mention of deconstruction to an endnote. The works of Derrida, de Man and Miller must be thus quarantined by Narrative Theory, since they have the power to annihilate all of Narratology's beloved categories.

No comments: