From the Editor
Narrative as a Way of Thinking
in Honor of Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan
The present issue, published jointly with a series of essays on narratives of trauma in the journal Literature and Medicine, is dedicated to Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Founding Director of the School of Literatures of the Hebrew University (the sponsor of Partial Answers), on the occasion of her retirement. Rimmon-Kenan is one of the leading contemporary narratologists, a critic and literary theorist who has exerted a major influence on the shaping of this field.
Narratology, the theoretically-oriented study of narrative, may be intradisciplinary or interdisciplinary. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s earliest work, starting with her doctoral dissertation, written under the supervision of Frank Kermode and published in 1977 as The Concept of Ambiguity: The Example of James (University of Chicago Press), was largely of the former kind, though aided by categories provided by philosophy (in particular, logic) as well as literary criticism. This was followed by a number of analytic studies of different writers, such as Beckett, Borges, Faulkner, Morrison, and Nabokov. At this point the methodology was that of descriptive poetics: a system of structural concepts was used to shed new light on specific texts, further refining the system itself as a result of that process.
In her second book, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (Methuen, 1983), Rimmon-Kenan systematized, complemented, and amended the best up-to-date achievements of the study of narrative. The book became required reading in fiction and theory courses throughout the scholarly world. It has been translated into Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Finnish, and Czech, and repeatedly reprinted. In 2002 an expanded edition was published by Routledge, as one of the ten best-sellers of the New Accents series.
The mid-1980s saw a crisis of descriptive poetics – due to a variety of internal and external reasons. Rimmon-Kenan was one of the first to realize that a way to deal with this crisis could be by exploring other disciplines in which narrative acts play an important role, such as law, historiography, and psychoanalysis. She turned to interdisciplinary literary research, in which the narratives studied are affiliated with one discipline while the methodology and the system of concepts used are based on another branch of learning. In 1987, the research project that she conducted within the framework of the Center for Literary Studies of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem led to the publication of a collection of essays, Discourse in Psychoanalysis and Literature (Methuen/Routledge), which she edited.
The courses that Rimmon-Kenan taught and the graduate work that she supervised since the mid-eighties were devoted to the intersection of literary studies and other fields. Her 1996 book, A Glance beyond Doubt: Narration, Representation, Subjectivity (Ohio State University Press) is an epistemological approach to narrative, also opening up to ethical issues. It was largely this approach that gave rise to the project “Narrative as a Way of Thinking,” represented in this issue and dealing with the ways in which narratives think and render operative (rather than think about and negotiate) cultural realia, psychological states, and philosophical principles -- or else serve as anchors, or as pilots, for the reader’s cognitive quest.
In the late nineties, stimulated by her own health problems and by illnesses among friends, Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan translated her concern with ideological aspects of disease and healthcare issues into a literary investigation. In recent years her research has concentrated on illness narratives. A number of articles in the present collection deal with literary representations of individual engagement with illness and death.
If in the beginning was the word, it was followed by an emerging narrative. The essay by Wolfgang Iser, which opens this issue, discusses the emergence of narrative in tandem with, and in consequence of, its negation. The essay discusses Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing and Malone Dies; it demonstrates, among other things, how these narratives think nothingness and make it perceptible through its inroads into what is; how they negate nothingness in its turn and defer their own preoccupation with the end by engaging what has been anterior to themselves.
Another narrative of a dying character – Chekhov’s “A Boring Story” -- is discussed in the paper by Pekka Tammi, which starts with an attempt to define the proper applicability of the notion of narrative (as opposed to overly broad uses of this term) and goes on to show how a literary narrative may deal with the paradoxes of human efforts to process experience, becoming not a strategy for coming to terms with one’s pain but, rather, a thinking through of not coming to terms with it.
Rita Charon’s essay shifts the focus from speaking one’s own pain to listening to another’s – and to the doctor’s thoughtful narrative response that grants dignity to an individual in a hopeless state of health. The sensitivity refined by the study of literary masterpieces (the examples given are by Henry James) enhances the doctor’s ability to fulfill the Hippocratic oath humanely even in the face of incurable disease. The author of this striking article, a professor of internal medicine and Chair of Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, also holds a PhD in literature and is the Editor of Literature and Medicine.
“Narrative medicine” of a different kind is practiced by the hospital staff in the novel discussed by Matti Hyvärinen – Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things. On the basis of this eschatological fiction and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, Hyvärinen suggests a circular relationship between acting, thinking, and narrating – the freedom of meaningful action, including listening and telling, does not necessarily follow thinking but can serve as a precondition for the ability to think. The essay associates this relationship with Paul Ricoeur’s distinction between sameness and selfhood in individual identity.
The relationship between self-protective static sameness and dynamic selfhood is taken up by Amit Marcus who attempts to redress the current narratological tendency to privilege the latter. Marcus’s essay analyzes Agota Kristof’s The Notebook in order to show that sameness can take over selfhood in the constitution of narrative self-identity. This is the first in a sequence of articles on character in the present collection. It is followed by Baruch Hochman’s statement of opposition to postmodernist resistance to character. Hochman reads this resistance as a defense against nostalgia for the traditional view of character (in, for instance, Renaissance drama or nineteenth-century novel) as well as for the energy of protest and struggle within the cultures that fostered it. Indeed, Judith Levy’s paper on Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist shows that, along with political placing and ideological dismantling of the protagonist, the text also elicits sympathy for the protagonist’s moments of existential craving and loss, for experience that is both individual and trans-subjective.
James Phelan’s essay distinguishes between narrativity and portraiture but traces the emergence of character from narrative instabilities. By showing the ways in which the evocation of character in Alice Munro’s “Prue” doubles as an indirect comment of conflicting cultural signals among which North American women had to orient themselves in the 1980s, Phelan’s article effects a transition to a group of papers that read narrative techniques as instruments for activating the reader’s enactment – thinking rather than thinking about the idea-content of the narrative. Jon Whitman’s article shows that the interlacing of the past, present, and future in the late-medieval genre of romance differs from a similar phenomenon in the chansons de geste by being relocated into the inner life of the character, transferring the reader from the public sphere to the hero’s inner life. H. M. Daleski’s essay associates the sjuzhet (in the sense of multiple departures from the putative chronology of “the story” of the fabula) in Conrad’s Lord Jim with the reader’s experience of painstakingly discovering what has been concealed, an experience parallel to that of the characters; the essay goes on to show that in Conrad’s Nostromo, the multiple shifts in time and space make the reader re(enact), think along, the confusion of the narrative itself, in a constantly baffled search for the clarity of vision.
Leona Toker’s paper proposes to borrow the notion of enthymeme from classical rhetoric and apply it to the play of presuppositions and extrapolations in narrative. The discussion of the varieties of this figure in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and James Joyce’s Ulysses and “The Sisters” suggests that narrative enthymeme is not a technique of persuasion but a tool for activating both logical thought and empathy with non-valid intellectualizations of experience.
The technique discussed by Brian McHale is that of mise en abyme: McHale reviews the history of this notion and then extends this history by examining the cognitive potentialities of mise en abyme – as commenting on the structure of the master text (esp. in Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew), modeling the task of the reader (esp. in William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix), or replicating the author’s vision of his contemporary cultural map (in Cervantes’s Don Quixote). Shuli Barzilai’s ensuing discussion of Margaret Atwood’s “Bluebeard’s Egg” further supplements the discussion of mise en abyme by pointing out the possibility of its negative transmutation: the gaps in an embedded text invite the reader to listen to what remains unsaid, unthought, unacknowledged in the master narrative.
Ruth Ginsburg’s essay on two stories (“Traces” and “A Scrap of Time”) by Israeli Polish writer and Holocaust survivor Ida Fink performs a reprise of both negativity and emergence. At the center of the essay is what Ginsburg calls the negative chronotope – a vanishing trace of the irrecoverable past, time frozen in the space of a photograph that captures the traces of the doomed in the snow, unintelligible without the act of telling in the fictional present, the act whose sequel, in the self-reflexive entrelacement of “Traces,” is still in the future.
Ida Fink’s stories are fictional testimony about the Holocaust. The works by Danilo Kiš, discussed by Renate Lachmann, are fictionalized discourse about the victims of the Gulag as well as of the massacre in Novi Sad on the Danube, in 1942. The essay deals with a technique reminiscent of mise en abyme – Kiš’s embedding of, or reference to, fictional documents in his fictional testimony about crimes against humanity. The convergence of factography and fictionalized thanatography enhances the effect of literary attesting – not by conventional pathos but by way of trope, multiplication, and mnemonic procedures.
Narratives of the Holocaust and the Gulag can be subsumed under the heading narratives of persecution. Gershon Shaked’s essay offers a paradigm of such narratives (in Mendele Moykher Seforim, Agnon, Joseph Roth, and Jacob Wassermann) showing how they distinguish between historical persecution and persecution as a state of mind, exploring both possibilities through the schemata of master-narratives, referred to through verbal and structural allusions, symbolism, character deployment, and thematic reversals.
The topos of persecution and the problem of attesting to atrocities in fiction rather than eye-witness narratives are also dealt with in Myrna Solotorevsky’s article on two contemporary Latin American novelists. In Santa María de las flores negras by Hernán Rivera Letelier and Amuleto by Roberto Bolaño, “real” historical personalities appear side-by-side with fictional characters. These personalities, the essay argues, are not real referents but pseudo-real referents, evocative elements of the fictional world. The two novels have a similar ethical agenda – the imperative act of remembering the murder of saltpetre workers in Santa María de Iquique in northern Chile in 1907 (Letelier) and the murder of university students in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, in 1968 (Bolaño). However, the poetics of the two texts is different, and hence also the function of the pseudo-real referents in each. Though post-modernist texts tend to erase epistemological boundaries, meta-literary discourse needs to retrace them, if only in order to conceptualize the specific artistic achievements of each text.
The collection ends with an essay by Michal Govrin, a writer of fiction and a literary scholar, who has conducted an intense dialogue with Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan over several decades – about her own and Shlomith’s writing, literature and reality, religious and secular thought, disruption and continuity, and the continuity in disruption which she finds in the history of Shlomith’s thinking about narrative. The current issue of Partial Answers comes full circle, when, from her own standpoint and in her own idiom as a creative writer, Govrin retells the story of Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan with which this relatively brief academic overview has begun.