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Narrativity and Diachronic vs. Episodic Self-Experience: Reading Literature

collateral tales

collateral tales

If that’s all the witnesses and the testimony you can muster in your favor, you might as well try and get to Mexico while you still have time.

This is the third of four related blogposts:
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

This is the third part of my ongoing review of Galen Strawson’s critique of the “psychological Narrativity thesis,” the first part of which (“Setting the Scene”) you’ll find here, the second (“Checking the Evidence”) here, and Strawson’s original essay (“Against Narrativity”) here.

So what does it mean when Strawson claims that “Petrarch, Proust, Parfit and thousands of others have given this idea vivid expression,” i. e., the idea of episodic self-experience without the diachronic narrative strain the thesis presupposes? Strawson doesn’t explain. All he does is giving us another list:

Among those whose writings show them to be markedly Episodic I propose Michel de Montaigne, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Stendhal, Hazlitt, Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Borges, Fernando Pessoa, Iris Murdoch (a strongly Episodic person who is a natural story teller), Freddie Ayer, Goronwy Rees, Bob Dylan. Proust is another candidate, in spite of his memoriousness (which may be inspired by his Episodicity); also Emily Dickinson.

Proust, as you can see, counts among his most detailed examples; an important witness indeed since he’s not only mentioned twice, but also graced with both a subordinate sentence and a parenthetical remark.

Besides being devoid of any evidence whatsoever, this is, of course, as fallacious an argument as you can get in the neighborhood of literary criticism. Let’s brake it down to three objections.

First of all, you can’t just take a writer’s text and claim to know something about the writer’s character based on the way he or she writes. Episodic writing is a writing technique, for goodness sake! And not just a modernist technique, by a far cry. What Strawson’s “literary witnesses” amount to is a thoroughly romanticist argument that makes Formalism look bang up-to-date in comparison.

Then, what does episodic writing mean, as a writing technique? We can assume that Strawson has a certain kind of “fragmented” episodic writing in particular in mind which, again, isn’t exclusively modernist (even if it’s come to be identified as such), and has been further developed into collage, cut-up, pastiche, pastiches-within-pastiches, and other forms of “guerilla writing” techniques in postmodern literature, most prominent in many texts by William S. Burroughs or Kathy Acker. But does that mean that such texts do not tell a diachronic narrative? Woolf’s To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway, for example, employ episodic narrative techniques to make character development or character sketches, respectively, more vivid and three-dimensional than ever, and the overall experience is very much diachronic, not episodic. By the way, one can get easily confused into assuming episodicity when a character doesn’t change, but a so-called “steadfast character” has everything to do with story structure, and nothing with diachronic vs. episodic self-experience.

Lastly, what’s Proust doing here as a material witness? At all? À la recherche du temps perdu’s massive effort toward retrieval of everything that has been lost? À la recherche du temps perdu’s retracing of each and every memory which, in an intricately choreographed dance between the metaphoric and the metonymic, constitutes a narrator as his (arguably) diachronic master narrative, composed of countless (arguably) episodic narratives? Is this really the best witness Strawson can come up with?

What Strawson seems to be taken in by is a tendency to equate plot & (character) development with diachronic narrativity and self-experience, while equating the absence of plot and (character) development with episodic narrativity and self-experience. (He never mentions “plot” and only talks about “story,” which confuses matters even more; that he’s even prone to equating plot and story comes to mind but might go a little far.) But such an understanding of plot, or story misunderstood as plot, is a rather narrow one and (character) development, as mentioned above, is simply one option—and not even the default option: just go and take a look at blockbuster screenplays.

While some objections raised by Strawson against certain assumptions and conclusions with respect to the psychological Narrativity thesis are certainly valid and should be answered, he hasn’t come up so far with one striking argument, one shred of evidence, one plausible witness for his own theory of episodic self-experience. What’s left, finally, is his own testimony on behalf of his own self-experience, and I will try and dissect that in another post.

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6 Responses

  1. Hi Gyokusai, excellent take on Strawson’s psychological narrativity thesis. I can definitely use this on one of our Lit project which requires us to write a 500 page story on characterization. Thank you for posting this. Expect me to be a regular visitor of your site.

  2. Hi Julia, thank you! A 500 page story? Oh my goodness! But I’m intrigued—please do keep me posted as your project proceeds!

  3. Thanks Gyokusai! I appreciate it. I will keep you posted. Cheers!

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  1. Narrativity and Diachronic vs. Episodic Self-Experience: Observing the Self | between drafts
  2. between drafts | Narrativity and Diachronic vs. Episodic Self-Experience: Checking the Evidence
  3. between drafts | Narrativity and Diachronic vs. Episodic Self-Experience: Setting the Scene