A contextual view of narrative fiction in the first person plural.
In endorsing Richardson's contextual outlook, I wish to demonstrate that the frequency of first person plural narration depends on a variety of norms: philosophical (what beliefs about consciousness operate in the writer's community?), social-political (what are the societal and political conditions under which the narrative is being composed and how might the narrative be addressing them?), and literary (should the form and the ideology of the narrative represent the hegemonic system of values or subvert it? what counts as a deviation from the literary norm?). My main goal in this essay is to analyze some of the norms that may hinder or, alternatively, foster the creation of first person plural literary works. The historical awareness of the fluidity of literary (and other) values will also contribute to my discussion of other, non-contextual approaches to "we" narratives.
Margolin (132) cites three reasons for what he considers as the rarity of "we" fictional narratives. The first is "what Roman Jakobson has called 'the semantic instability and internal contradiction, [two] inherent properties of the first person plural'" (454). (1) The second is the "inherently unresolved" mental access in "we" narratives, which combines "immediate first-person inside knowledge with a second- or third-person inferential one." The third reason mentioned by Margolin is that "the intense sense of collective subject ... is probably easier to convey directly in lyrical or meditative texts than to embody in a description of situations and courses of events."
Margolin's synchronic analysis is founded on classical Structuralist assumptions and method, and as such, does not take into account philosophical, social-political, and literary conventions that determine the preference of one pronoun to another. It implies that first person plural narration always is and always will be rare to the same degree. I intend to demonstrate that this effect is dependent on a certain conception of consciousness and narration in literature which is, by its very nature, contextually bounded.
The approach that links the preference of certain pronouns in the narration of fictional works to a specific ideology, historical conditions and intellectual atmosphere is familiar. For example, Roland Barthes (29-40) analyzes the use of the third person in the classical nineteenth-century novel as a manifestation of bourgeois ideology, which seeks to disguise its interests and world-view and represent them as universal truths--in other words, to naturalize them. Barthes argues that the authority of the omniscient narrator serves this purpose much better than a first person narrator would, since the latter's system of beliefs and values is perceived by the reader from the outset as subjective and therefore disputable.
By contrast, Brian Richardson ("I etcetera" 320-1) contends that there is no unequivocal connection between a certain ideology and the use of a specific form of narration. He points out that authors who sympathized with fascism, such as Louis-Ferdinand Celine, frequently use first person singular narrators, thereby confirming that first person narratives are not essentially more emancipatory than third person narratives.
However, I believe it is worthwhile to articulate connections between ideology and form (including narrative locus) that are more complicated and less rigid than the ones criticized by Richardson. Thus, Celine and other authors who supported authoritarianism may have preferred first person singular narration because personal experience is considered in their society and in the tradition of the Western novel to have greater power and effect on the reader than impersonal (third person) narration. Hence the dissent of these authors regarding the modern liberal conception of the autonomous subject does not necessarily prevent them from harnessing it to their own aims. In the next paragraphs, I shall examine Margolin's explanations of the rarity of "we" narratives in light of a contextual approach that seeks to formulate subtle connections between ideology and form.
REPRESENTATIONS OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND "WE" FICTIONAL NARRATIVES
Margolin is correct in characterizing (after Jakobson) first person plural narration as semantically instable, or at least potentially so. But can this truly justify authors' avoidance of this form of narration, in an era that consecrates incoherence, inconsistency, and equivocation? Indeed, stability (whether in content or in form) has proved to be one of the most depreciated values in modern and postmodern literary fiction. Authors such as Donald Barthelme, Christine Brooke-Rose, James Joyce, Toni Morrison, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Virginia Woolf have destabilized conventional attitudes and beliefs concerning plot, character, and narration. Moreover, second person narration is semantically unstable to a greater degree than first person plural narration, thus promoting a reconceptualization of the basic category "person" and a reexamination of the distinctions between story and discourse (2) (Genette's "recit" and "histoire") as well as between the virtual and the actual (3). Nonetheless (or for this very reason), "you" narratives have flourished in the last few decades. "We" narratives are one way to subvert established forms and conventions of narration, and this subversion is not prima facie more radical or difficult to achieve than those undertaken by other literary texts.
The second reason proposed by Margolin for the uncommonness of first person plural narratives calls for a more thorough exploration. Margolin's Cartesian (4) conception of consciousness causes him to distinguish between the self's direct access to his or her own consciousness, and the indirect access of others to the same contents or images. Yet this view is highly problematic and has been attacked from many different angles, psychological and philosophical, over the twentieth century. Nor was it consensual in previous eras. Some of the disputes concerning the structure of consciousness are reflected in "we" fictional narratives, as will be shown. Other first person plural narratives display (explicit or implicit) awareness of the conception voiced by Margolin and confront it in various ways.
Theoretically, the first component of Margolin's contention, privileging the self with the most immediate and accurate knowledge of that self, has been challenged radically and in detail by Sigmund Freud and other psychoanalysts, who attributed the most significant role in mental life to the unconscious. If this part of the contention is rejected and the self's access to his or her own consciousness is deemed inferential, the difference between this kind of inference and the inference of another about the self's state of mind requires clarification.
The inference of other people's states of consciousness based on their speech and conduct, despite its relatively high fallibility, is not usually considered implausible or unreliable, neither in ordinary life nor in literature. A large part of the information that each of us gathers about others relies on such conjectures. Yet similar conjectures are made about one's own self. I do not mean to deny the essential difference that exists between one's knowledge of the state of mind of another person, which is based solely on external signs, and one's knowledge of their own state of mind, which is founded on internal factors as well. Nor do I reject the privileged position of the self in closely inspecting one's "stream" of mental images, thoughts, and sensations. However, no mind is transparent, except perhaps in some literary narratives, to paraphrase Dorrit Cohn's well-known title.
Ludwig Wittgenstein's criticism of the common-sense conception of consciousness as comprising purely private experiences took an utterly different direction to that of Freud's. According to Wittgentein's Philosophical Investigations, "even introspective discourse is a public institution which depends on conventions and hence on training." (5) Wittgenstein was not an adherent of radical behaviorism. He neither denied that there are mental processes and internal experiences, nor identified such processes and experiences with physical events. (6) Yet he insisted that there is no such thing as a "private language" (7): everything we learn and express in words, including one's own states of mind, is based on external manifestations and on the correct use of words within specific practices. (8) Hence no one can detect his own pain based solely on his own experience (293). The meaning of pain (as of every other private sensation or image) is always dependent on its use in a "language game" shared with other people. For example, when one sees another person inadvertently place his hand in a fire and recoil immediately, the external observer knows that the other individual feels considerable pain by external signs, such as the cry of pain, the burnt hand, and previously, the recoil itself.
Wittgenstein's criticism of what is familiar to most of us as "private language" is significant to my argument because it emphasizes the public nature of all (linguistic) knowledge. This approach does not regard the attribution of mental states to other people as necessarily more speculative or doubtful than the attribution of mental states to oneself (9). Hence the credibility of statements such as "we feel ashamed," "we are in great pain" or "we believe in God" should not be automatically considered suspect either in everyday life or in literature.
An example from literature may be helpful at this point. The narrator of Aharon Appelfeld's Laish tells the story of a group of travelers who wander around Europe with the intention of arriving in Jerusalem, where all their pain, sorrow, and distress shall disappear. The hope of salvation drives the travelers onwards in their quest, despite the difficulties facing them. Many openly express this hope, and their most meaningful actions are linked to their belief in a better life that is awaiting them in the Holy City, which they never reach. The narrator supplies enough evidence in the speech and conduct of the characters to justify his conclusion: "but we deceived ourselves that salvation is imminent" (158, my translation). The same account given in the first person singular would not have been more trustworthy or less inferential.
Some "we" fictional narratives justify the representation of collective mental events by highlighting the close affinity between individual consciousnesses, which results in similar thoughts, volitions, and emotions. Western social philosophers are divided into individualists, who hold that "any complete explanation of social events would have to trace them to the behavior of those constituent parts" (Carr 123), and holists, who "argue that society consists not merely of individuals but also of the relations among them ... and that the 'behavior' of individuals cannot even be understood apart from those relations" (ibid. 123). However, even the adherents of holism refuse to accept the personification of social groups--in other words, to treat groups as analogues of persons (ibid. 122).
In certain non-Western cultures, by contrast, the idea of a separate consciousness is perceived as a fatal error. The error is not just conceptual, but what is more important, practical, since it threatens the solidarity and cohesiveness of the community. Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons is the best illustration of this conception among "we" fictional narratives. In portraying the mythical history of the black people, the novel represents an ideology that considers private, autonomous consciousness as a spurious and dangerous belief of white people. The individuals compounding the black community of "our way, the way" are compared to the limbs of a human body. Individual consciousness that functions separately is deemed useless and ineffective as are severed limbs; the community is, or should be, an organic whole:
Of unconnected consciousness is there more to say beyond the clear recognition this is destruction's keenest tool against the soul? That the left hand should be kept ignorant of what its right twin is made to do.... That the heart detached should beat no faster even when limbs familiar to it are moved to heinous acts--is that not already the severed atrophy of connected faculties.... That the passion and the thinking and the action of any one of us should be cut off from our connected consciousness by mere physical things, walls of wood or walls of stone--that would indeed be the manic celebration of death's white empire.... In these surroundings built to separate each of us from the other, to turn each discrete one selfish from the whole, the seeing and the hearing and the thinking of each of us would find no understanding with any other, not even access to the general consciousness, and all our uttering would be like the wild, senseless cacophony of the market places. (128-29)
Other first person plural narratives do not present such a systematic and unequivocal view of human consciousness, but they do suggest that close connections between people (whether these connections are created by free choice, as between couples, or by coercion, as between prisoners) promote similarity between their separate consciousnesses. The dream is conventionally treated in modern Western tradition as a sphere of private consciousness completely inaccessible to others (unlike, of course, the narration of the dream). Normally, the contents of someone's dream are more difficult to infer from words, gestures, and behavior than the contents of other mental states, experienced in the course of waking life. Perhaps for this very reason the dream has become, in some "we" fictional narratives, the paradigmatic case of such close connections.
Appelfeld's novel The Ice Mine mentions in passing the similar dreams of prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp (94). Conversely, in John Barth's novel Sabbatical the shared dream becomes a central topic. The married couple who tell the story, Susan and Fenwick, share with each other the dreams they had during one of the nights of their journey. At first, it seems that the two dreams are astonishingly alike and perhaps even identical--actually a single dream, "our dream" (202-3, 208). But as the story continues, a few conjectures subvert this conception of the dreams' sameness. The most interesting among these is that the two characters have each unconsciously accommodated her or his version of the dream to the other's in order to prove their harmonious partnership. The dreams are finally revealed as similar, but not identical. Nonetheless, "our dream" enables Susan and Fenwick to fulfill their unrealizable wish to become one and the same person. Their anxiety dreams during later stages of the story demonstrate how distant they have grown (286, 313-14, 319).
A provisional conclusion from the above is that both private consciousness and collective consciousness are portrayed in various ways in first person plural narratives, and that the depiction of states of mind in such narratives is not always as problematic or "inherently unresolved" as Margolin claims. More precisely, the problem may be formulated, as Susan Sniader Lanser suggests, as "the product of individualist cultures which presume consciousness to be unique and literature the 'original' product of single authorship" (256). This problem is thus political-ideological, rather than (merely) epistemological.
In a recently published book, Unnatural Voices: Extreme Narration in Modern and Contemporary Fiction, Richardson addresses Margolin's three reasons for the rarity of "we" narratives in a similar way to the one proposed here. (10) Richardson states that "we may agree that the narrator's access to the contents of other minds is potentially problematic, but hasten to point out that this is only an issue if we insist on postulating a mimetic framework for the text." Yet he also notes that "[e]ven within a realistic framework, it is not clear to me that the presumed knowledge of other minds is always some kind of embarrassment.... The drama created for the reader is thus to determine how literally and how figuratively to take each such expression of shared mental events" (57).
All the above qualifications notwithstanding, I believe that Margolin's assertion, according to which the representation of consciousness in "we" fictional narratives is a more complex issue than in other types of narratives, is not utterly incorrect. Some first person plural narratives avoid this difficulty by minimizing the representation of mental events and emphasizing action instead. The motivations for this focus on action vary. I previously mentioned Armah's Two Thousand Seasons as a novel that replaces the conception of individual consciousness with that of collective consciousness. In accordance with this conception, the narrator lays emphasis on shared action for the accomplishment of collective goals. The reestablishment of the black-African community requires the rejection of foreign ideas, primarily the idea of the autonomous subject. Accordingly, private states of mind are rarely represented in this novel.
A different motivation for minimizing the representation of consciousness is most prominent in Agota Kristof's novel Le Grand Cahier and, to a lesser degree, in Appelfeld's Holocaust and post-Holocaust novels Searing Light and The Ice Mine. In these literary works, the "we" group (or "we" couple in Kristof) helps the individual survive in extreme conditions. Conversely, faculties of consciousness, such as feeling, believing, wishing, and remembering are perceived as a threat: they weaken one's instinct to survive, since instead of focusing all the attention on ways of coping with his or her hostile surroundings, the individual engages in fantasies about an essentially different world. (11)
Appelfeld, in his First-person Essays (19, 28, 31), claims that even when extreme conditions no longer exist, survivors tend to avoid introspection, probably because they are afraid to reveal that their moral and emotional faculties have been severely damaged. The gap between the ideal-self or the former (pre-war, pre-Holocaust, etc.) self-image and the current self-image (if one dared to retrospect and introspect) is perhaps what makes the survivor his own worst enemy (31). Therefore, the identification of the individual with a "we" group in such circumstances is both evidence of the insufficiency of the self and a reasonable solution to avoid the self's collapse.
The challenge in the representation of mental events in first person plural narration, if it adheres to the norms of realistic literature, corresponds to a challenge in the representation of speech. We know from everyday speech that two people or more do not usually pronounce exactly the same words at precisely the same time, because they are considered to have (or to be) separate consciousnesses. Therefore a report of collective speech seems to correlate with--and evoke similar problems to--a report of collective states of mind. Collective speech--more accurately, "twin speech"--is a non-realistic narrative technique employed by Kristof in Le Grand Cahier. The twins, who narrate their story in one voice as if they had a single story and a unified, consolidated identity, always say the same things at the same time in their dialogues with other characters. (12) In the Western literary tradition, at least, this representation of speech cannot be regarded as realistic.
To conclude: Margolin's view of consciousness, which causes him to consider the representation of mental events in "we" fictional narratives as inherently problematic, does not take into account alternative ways of conceiving and depicting consciousness in literary works (as well as in everyday life). Nonetheless, some first person plural narratives hint at potential difficulties in portraying a collective consciousness, or bypass these difficulties by focusing on the representation of action.
CONTEXTUALIZING "WE" FICTIONAL NARRATIVES: THE CASE OF HEBREW LITERATURE
Returning to our preliminary question regarding the rarity of first person plural narratives, it seems that changing the perspective of the argument can perhaps yield some rewarding insights. Instead of a merely grammatical and epistemological point of view, I suggest focusing on the political, sociological, and ethical aspects of this issue. I will not attempt to present at this time a thorough and systematic history of "we" fictional narratives. My main concern will be with Hebrew twentieth-century fiction, which manifests in a most remarkable way the connection between changes in norms and conceptions, and the preference for specific forms of narration, including the use of personal pronouns.
One of the most ancient "we" narratives in the Jewish-Hebrew tradition is the Passover Haggadah, which tells, partly in the first person plural, the story of the Hebrew people who were brought out of Egypt to the Promised Land, regained their freedom and (re)established their national identity. The "we" group referred to in the Haggadah "may in fact refer to any and all generations of the Jewish people tout court" (Margolin "Telling" 614). The Haggadah was a fundamental text in the Israeli communal settlements (the kibbutzim), not only because it highlights national freedom and collective identity, but also because it requires each member of the community to actively participate in the creation and recreation of this identity, and deems the repeated narration of the shared story a means of achieving this ideological goal. In this way, "this collectivity that is telling its own story is in fact also addressing itself as its own collective narratee" (ibid. 615).
The 1940s and 1950s were the formative years of the Israeli state, giving voice most vehemently to a communitarian ideology. Surprisingly, Israeli "we" narratives were considerably less common in the period shortly after the establishment of the state than during the following three decades (beginning at the 1960s). Subjective experience was probably deemed during those formative years more persuasive for the didactic goal of educating a nation, both because it is easier to identify with a hero (or a heroine) successfully accomplishing a goal than with a relatively anonymous "we" community, and because the collectivist society was considered successful if it was able to exhibit perfect compatibility between self-fulfillment and the achievement of collective objectives.
One story, "The Fish Grillers," in Moshe Shamir's collection of stories With His Own Hands: Alik's Story and two stories by Yizhar Smilansky, "The Story of Hirbet Hizah" and "The Prisoner," are the most prominent fictional narratives of these decades narrated partly in the first person plural. Smilansky's use of "we" prefigures the ironic and critical stance of authors from the 1960s and the next decades, with regard to accepted collective values.
"The Story of Hirbet Hizah" tells of the expulsion of Arab villagers by Israeli soldiers during Israel's War of Independence. On the one hand, the narrator highlights the spiritual gulf between the Jewish soldiers and the Arab villagers: the latter are "vicious, collaborators of the enemy" (34); they are abject, filthy, and flea-ridden; they possess beautiful lands, but in contrast to "us" soldiers, they are unwilling to fight for their property, and simply run away (40-41). No wonder one of the soldiers concludes that the villagers are simply "non-human" (41). On the other hand, the narrator alludes to the similarity between the recent history of the Jews and that of the Arabs, when describing the unjust and aggressive acts of the Israeli soldiers in terms associated with the Jewish Holocaust, which had come to a close only a few years before. The Arab villagers are led to the "concentration place" (58) like a "frightened and obedient flock" (71) and are driven away in station wagons.
The narrator oscillates between two contrasting voices: the first voice accepts unreservedly the corrupt norms of his "we" group, interiorized by the self, and wishes to contribute to the general goals of the community, no matter what they are; it is indifferent to the suffering of the Arabs or even enthusiastic about aggravating their pain. The other voice desires to avoid participating in the crimes that are carried out against the villagers. However, this voice is not purely conscientious. It is motivated by apprehensiveness and indecisiveness as well as by a real concern for the fate of innocent human beings (see esp. 64-68). The temporal distance between story and narration matches a change in the narrator's vantage point: the second, rebellious voice has overcome the conforming voice in his resolution to tell the story; the narrator contrasts his authentic voice with the deceptive voice of the "we":
[once in a while I would reawaken, wondering how easily one can be tempted and misled, with eyes wide open, and join on the spur of the moment this large, general community of liars, made up of ignorance, utilitarian indifference, and sheer unabashed egoism, exchanging one great truth for the supposedly clever shoulder-shrug of a veteran felon. I realized that I must not waver any more, and although I had not yet decided what recourse there might be, it seemed to me in any case that instead of keeping silent, I should apparently begin to tell the tale. (33, my translation)
The conforming voice is correlated, to a great extent, with the use of the first person plural, whereas the non-conforming voice is correlated with the first person singular. Hence some interesting transitions from "I" to "we" (and vice versa) can be detected in the story, (13) for instance, in the following paragraph:
The chords that had been clamoring within me all along resounded at once, and a rebellious wave flooded me. And I could sense that taunting someone inside me grit his teeth and clench his fists. We tried to retain our indifferent spirit and ignore everything that happened down below, like a goose emerging from the water. We loudly distributed the canned food and the biscuits, attempting with a rich variety of words to find something that could make us burst out laughing, as we sprawled among the rotten foliage of a bare fig tree, but instead, an opaque something was accumulating in the air ..." (64, ibid., my italics)
Explicitly, the boisterous behavior of the soldiers was intended to help them "ignore everything that happened down below" in the Arab village. However, for the narrator (and possibly for other soldiers as well), no less important is the silencing of the non-conforming voice "inside," the voice of private consciousness. Collective consciousness is described in the cited lines by the words "our indifferent spirit," which it is plausible to access through external manifestations (without such access being, in my view, "inherently unresolved").
During the 1960s and the following two decades, the collective norms of Israeli society, previously taken for granted by most authors (Smilansky is an exception in this respect), were being challenged. (14) Some of the major writers of this period claimed that the new state had rapidly corrupted and strayed from the supreme values of social justice, solidarity, and equality, that it had abandoned its volunteering and pioneering spirit, and given up its aspirations to make every effort to live in peace with its Arab neighbor states. These writers spoke of a tremendous gap, perhaps even a chasm, torn between their universal and national ideals and the actual political reality. (15)
Prominent Israeli author Amos Oz is a case in point: during the early 1960s, Oz was notoriously active in a social-democratic circle called Min Hayesod, which protested against the glorification of the state, the army, the administration, and the leader (David Ben-Gurion) as values in their own right, instead of regarding them as means for achieving shared national goals. The members of Min Hayesod believed that this unwelcome trend induced passivity and irresponsibility: the authority to judge, evaluate, and impose norms was vested exclusively in the hands of a small group of experts, while all other citizens were deprived of the power to guide or advise government officials in making decisions that directly affected people's lives. In addition, the authorities sometimes misused their powers by disguising corrupt actions and presenting them as motivated by national interests.
Despite the disappointment with the great gulf between promise and reality, Min Hayesod did not consider "retreat to the inner citadel," to use Isaiah Berlin's term, (16) a suitable solution to the value crisis and continued to seek for appropriate ways to create a society in which collective ideas might fulfill a significant role. The group's criticism was directed against the deterioration of moral values in the new state of Israel, the uniformity of thought that it encouraged, and its insensitivity to the specific needs of individuals.
Israeli "we" fictional texts produced from the early 1960s until the early 1980s usually manifest the debates within Israeli society regarding the status of collective values: their implied authors simultaneously acknowledge the importance of the community for the survival, development, and prosperity of a nation surrounded by enemies, and display awareness of the potential dangers and distortions of unbalanced ideological collectivism that annihilates the subjective voice of the "I". The ironic or critical position towards the "we" in these narratives expresses, on the one hand, disappointment with the way in which Zionism and Socialism were realized in the young Israeli society, while, on the other hand, rejecting a thoroughgoing denial of collective ideas and actions meant to achieve common goals.
The sort of group signified by the pronoun "we" in Israeli narratives varies. They can be the members of a kibbutz (as in Oz's novel Elsewhere Perhaps and his short stories "A Hollow Stone," "Where the Jackals Howl," and "Nomad and Viper"); a group of soldiers in the Israeli army (Smilansky's stories; Yitzhak Laor's novel The People, Food Fit for A King; Oz's "The Trappist Monastery"); Holocaust prisoners, survivors and refugees (Appelfeld's novels Searing Light and The Ice Mine and his story "Cold Spring"); a convoy of Jews heading toward Jerusalem (Appelfeld'd Laish); a family or part of a family (Moshe Shamir's "The Fish Grillers," Smilansky's "The Escapade" and "A Story That Did Not Begin"); a group of travelers (Smilansky's "Running by the Sea"); and the inhabitants of an imaginary or undefined place (Abraham B. Yehoshua's "The Yatir Evening Express" and Appelfeld's "Our Lawyer").
In some "we" literary texts of the period, especially Oz's "Nomad and Viper" and Yehoshua's allegorical story "The Yatir Evening Express," narration in the first person plural disguises the loneliness, frustration, and despair felt by the anti-hero narrator. The community ostensibly fulfills its goal of protecting the individual, supporting him, and enhancing his sense of affiliation. Yet in fact, it encourages conformity, passivity, irresoluteness, and dependence on others, while giving the individual the false impression that he is powerful, courageous, and independent. This sense of "we" is capable of expressing, as well as reinforcing, individual self-deception. (17)
The narrating character of "The Yatir Evening Express" was one of the perpetrators of a horrible crime: the deliberate and well-prepared swerving of the evening express train off the rails. The moment of appearance and immediate disappearance of the train is the only thrilling event in the dull life of the inhabitants of Yatir, a small and isolated village. This ever-repeated moment constitutes the pinnacle of their daily experience: the train's noise, its rapid movement, and most of all, the unknown people that it transports from and to other worlds, symbolize the unattainable opportunities of the village inhabitants and evoke "that vague feeling of fervent anticipation and impotent fury" (142). Hence the narrating character's consent to and collaboration with this evil scheme is motivated not only by his desire for Ziva, the girl who malevolently plans it, but also by a life of desolation, despair, and spiritual death. The only way the residents of Yatir find to change their lives is by endangering the lives of others.
The narrating character's use of "we," like everything else that he says or does, follows Ziva's. When Ziva proposes that they go together to Barradon, the village secretary, and tell him "what's on our mind" (145), the narrating character does not protest at her use of the first person plural, as if they had one and the same mind and his thoughts were transparent to her. Instead, in the next paragraph he uses, as a narrator, the first person plural, when he uses similar words to Ziva's: "the girl began to tell him our fears, our thoughts" (ibid). Ziva's "our" expresses her feelings of superiority and her wish to overpower her enchanted friend, whereas the narrating character's acceptance of her plural reference demonstrates his passivity, feebleness, and lack of autonomous will.
Unlike "The Yatir Evening Express," in which the narrator mostly employs the first person singular and shifts to the first person plural only at some key points in the story, Amos Oz's Elsewhere Perhaps is narrated by a single narrator who employs the "we" pronoun throughout the great majority of the novel. This "we" in question mostly refers to the voices of kibbutz members transmitted through gossip. (18) Gossip is presented as the essence of kibbutz life, since it is engaged in by everybody and about everybody. The narrator points to gossip as his main source of information, his "testimonial function, or function of attestation," in Genette's terms of narration (256). Gossip is personified as "our old ally" (133), and as an ally, it shares with stories in general the yearning for "the complexities of love, hatred, jealousy, ambition, loneliness, horror, etc." (196 in Hebrew, my translation). (19) On the one hand, gossip consolidates the community, because its formation is dependent on the group that creates and transmits it, and because it encourages individuals who deviate from the social norms to accept them; on the other hand, gossip undermines the foundations of the community, since it focuses on private stories and demonstrates ideas and conduct that differ from the conventional ones. Such informal conversations expose the gap between the sublime ideological principles supposedly upheld by the community, and their application. Yet the narrator's blindness causes him to deny the existence of this gap, or at least to minimize its significance (86-87). (20)
Oz's narrator sometimes serves as a vessel for transmitting other people's gossip, thus ridiculing the traditional transmission of the words of the Muse by the omniscient narrator in the great epics: "Einav Geva tells Nina Goldring what she has heard from Dafna Isarov. Nina Goldring tells Einav Geva what she has heard from Yitzhak Friedrich, the treasurer. Fruma Rominov tells Hasia Ramigolski, on the authority of Gerda Zohar, who heard from Bronka Berger, the original source: Reuven Harish is worn out and depressed" (177). At other times, he is one of the many manufacturers of rumors. Being aware of the omnipresence of gossip, he expresses his anxiety of being caught in its snare if he misbehaves: "In any case, we are beginning to attract attention by standing here all this time by the swing door, scrutinizing everyone who comes past on his way to supper. If we linger here any longer, our intentions will supply welcome grist for the mill of gossip" (35). In the next paragraphs, the narrator recounts that six people are sitting around "our" table, and he describes five of them. Thus the reader concludes that in this case, "we" refers only to the narrator, who finds gossip as his potential rival. Nonetheless, he is so accustomed to speaking on behalf of the whole kibbutz, that he continues to do so even in a situation that lays bare his external perspective as an observer of the group and not as a fully participating member.
Gossip is portrayed as wishing, interpreting, and most of all, judging: "With eyes like hawks' we observe our neighbors' actions. Our judgments take effect in a hundred and one devious (21) ways" (177). (22) The collective "we" denounces every behavior that deviates from the norms of the kibbutz, especially those behaviors that show a preference for individual desires and interests, since such conduct is perceived as a threat to the unity and cohesiveness of the group. The kibbutz members, as a unified body, are the only ones authorized to permit the "legitimate" type of personal relationships and to prohibit any other, "illegitimate" types.
The narrator portrays the judgments of the gossip mongers as objective, didactic, uncompromising, and just (8-9, 135-36, 145). As such, gossip is identical to the omniscient narrator. Another characteristic of gossip that indicates its omniscience and omnipotence is its ability to fabricate fictional worlds by combining imagination with information about the characters: the narrator suggests that "we" (undefined in this case, perhaps including the reader as well as the narrator) can peek in on private letters and summarize their contents as if they were actually read (137). However, the opinions spread by rumors are revealed, at a relatively advanced stage of the story (i.e. 119), not only as fallible because they are based on conjectures, but also as motivated by the will to power and authority. In addition, gossip can be disgraceful, because its enthusiasts enjoy wallowing in the mire of indecent deeds (196-97 in Hebrew). Finally, the omniscience of a first person plural narrator is disclosed as unreliable, but the concept of omniscience itself is shattered, if its pretension to penetrate the consciousness of all characters is implicitly compared to describing personal letters one has never read.
Only on the last chapter of the novel does the narrator confess that he, a first person singular narrator, has exploited the first person plural mode as a mask. This type of "we" narration is neither a case of pluralis modestatis, employed to demonstrate the modest opinion of the narrator, nor a case of pluralis majestatis ("royal we"), which lays emphasis on the praiseworthiness of the narrator who presents (or addresses) herself or himself in the plural. It is, instead, the plural of camouflage (23): the narrator deploys the first-plural as a rhetorical device for disclaiming responsibility for his own words, for his own role as a gossip monger ("The Yatir Evening Express" is another example of such use of the plural). Moreover, describing the actions, thoughts, and beliefs of others is the narrator's way of avoiding introspection. Contrary to Margolin's view, the consciousness of such a narrator is anything but immediately accessible to himself. He is the representative of a society of gossip mongers, for whom the contents of private consciousness should be evaded and disguised, since each transmitter of gossip is himself or herself watched closely by the public eyes of the "Big Brother".
Needless to say, "we" narration is not the only possible way to criticize a society that glorifies collective unrealizable ideals. However, in the Israeli society of 1965, the year in which Oz's Elsewhere Perhaps was published, the use of "we" narration served to mirror the prolific use of the first person plural in the public sphere of Israeli life, a use which often appeared vain or evasive.
Unlike Oz's bitter irony, Appelfeld represents a more ambivalent position toward communal values in his "we" fictional narratives. Also unlike Oz, Appelfeld, in his fiction, is not preoccupied with the gap between collective ideology and its problematic application to everyday life; rather, his work seeks to demonstrate the complex relationships within a group of people forced to live and to function together. (24) Appelfeld nevertheless shares with Oz a critical attitude toward communal values, which were often exalted and admired by the Israeli leadership as well as by the literary works of previous decades. (25) In Appelfeld's novels, the narrator and the other characters subsumed under the pronoun "we" are prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps (in The Ice Mine) and refugees, Holocaust survivors (in Searing Light), whose existence is endangered both internally (for example, by ideological disputes) and externally (by various kinds of disease and fatal dangers).
Large parts of these novels are narrated in the first person plural (while the rest is told in the first person singular). Although the signifier "we" creates the impression of constancy and stability, its fluctuating signified indicates the group's actual, precarious situation. The groups formed in both novels are heterogeneous and subject to contrasting, centripetal and centrifugal forces. (26)
The theme of madness is especially interesting in this context: on the one hand, madness is one of the main centrifugal forces, since it is manifested by the seclusion of the mad person and his or her increasing difficulty in cooperating with others or even participating in their conversation. On the other hand, the contagious nature of madness (Searing 21) within the community demonstrates not only the growing weakness of individuals, but also the deep and extensive emotional ties between all members of the group, that is, the strength of its centripetal forces. Madness is conceived as the result of mental acts of private consciousness, such as thinking, believing, wishing, expecting, and dreaming, which challenge the accepted norms of the community and are therefore regarded as fatal to the efforts of survival.
Unlike Oz's narrator of Elsewhere Perhaps, the single narrators of Appelfeld's novels do not disguise themselves in the form of "plural of camouflage": in their "we" narration, they speak overtly on behalf of others. Furthermore, in certain contexts, such as the narrator's love affair in The Ice Mine and his artistic inspirations in Searing Light (esp. 53-62, 100-102), they adhere to the first person singular. However, when they do narrate in the first person plural, they focus on actions and words (external manifestations of consciousness) and seldom represent consciousness internally at all, whether individual or collective. Thus the problems which Margolin mentions regarding the representation of consciousness in the first person plural are hardly relevant to these narratives. Rather, they reveal the connections between life lived in circumstances of extreme danger, suffering, and humiliation, the need for a protective community, and the avoidance of introspection, retrospection, and prospection.
The pronoun "we" used by the narrator represents neither a stable community nor a well defined world-view or system of values. However, all individuals who take part in the "we" group share the wish to survive. Those who fall into despair are sooner or later expelled from the group, which feels threatened and acts in self-defense (Searing 108; Ice Mine 10-15). Survival in the concentration camps or as refugees after the end of the Holocaust generally depends on the cooperation and the emotional support that the victims provide to each other; dissociating oneself from the group decreases one's chances of survival. The characters of The Ice Mine that seek solitude and differentiate themselves from the group soon die. Yet some survivors of the camps consider the togetherness of the "we" to be no longer trustworthy after the war has ended. The group is no longer viewed as protecting the individual, but on the contrary, as an obstacle in adapting him/herself to the skills indispensable for leading an independent life: "Buchbinder believes that we should separate as Butzi suggested. Our togetherness is dangerous" (Ice Mine 135). (27)
The 1990s have produced, besides Appelfeld's The Ice Mine and Laish, a few fictional narratives in which "we" narration is mingled with narration in the first person singular and in the second person. Two of Smilansky's stories ("A Story That Did Not Begin" and "The Runaway") are preoccupied much less with political issues than his stories from the late 1940s, focusing instead on the individual, his personal experiences and close relationships. Accordingly, the "we" consists of a small group or a pair (a family in "The Runaway," a father and son in "A Story That Did Not Begin;" both in Stories of the Plain). In another story ("Running by The Sea," in By The Sea), Smilansky is subtly engaged with politics by ironically alluding to analogies between "fathers" and "sons," the Hebrew Zealots of Massada in the first century CE and the Zionists of modern times.
Collectivism in Israeli society, particularly in its military form, is acutely and harshly criticized in Yitzhak Laor's novel The People, Food Fit for A King. Laor's soldiers of 1967 do not share collective values that are considered crucial for a victorious war, like solidarity and the willingness to sacrifice oneself for a just common cause. On the contrary, they are self-centered, admit to having no principles (67), and cooperate mainly in order to improve the chances of each to advance their own personal interests. They obey the orders of their superiors only in order to avoid trouble (90), and they fail to cooperate even when deserting their base (504). In such circumstances, the narrator asserts that his own use of the first person plural in certain paragraphs is dubious (77). (28)
Unlike Oz's narratives of the 1960s, in Laor's novel collective ideals no longer exist, except in the shallow and unambiguous minds of authoritarian leaders and commanders, who cynically manipulate their subjects in the interest of their own will to power. Nonetheless, the novel offers an alternative model of shared action (and an alternative history): the soldiers decide to desert their base when they hear of the impending war. Although they fail to cooperate with each other in their escape, they succeed in preventing the Six-Day War by resisting the collective call of the government and the army officials for self-sacrifice (504-18).
My critique of Margolin's analysis of "we" fictional narratives demonstrates that his conception of consciousness as private, unique, self-transparent, and impenetrable to others is itself contextually bounded. Instead of being inherently problematic, some of these narratives depict states of mind in ways that are incompatible with the Cartesian epistemological tradition that Margolin follows. I suggested endorsing instead Richardson's contextual perspective to this issue, which better accounts for the variety of "we" narratives.
However, Israeli "we" narratives shed light on Richardon's recent study from another perspective. Richardson offers a historical survey of "we" narration, beginning with Joseph Conrad's The Nigger of the Narcissus, and laying emphasis on socialist, postcolonial, and gynocentric fiction. He concludes that "[t]he vast majority of 'we' texts valorize collective identity in no uncertain terms: 'we' is almost always a favored term and a desirable subject position that is to be sought out and inhabited" (Unnatural 50). Perhaps this generalization is accurate when applied to the postcolonial "we" fiction analyzed by Richardson. Yet it is inaccurate as regards Israeli "we" fiction, which has actualized the subversive potential of this grammatical form to critically examine collective norms, as well as the authority and knowledge of a collective source of narration. This is further evidence for the aptness of Richardson's own argument referred to at the beginning of this article, in which he urges readers to avoid drawing general unequivocal connections between ideology and the narrative form.
The broad range of effects that Israeli writers have created in their various uses of "we" narration does not conform to what one might expect from a simple assumption that the emphasis on community would foster first person plural narration that celebrates collective identity. Israeli "we" fictional narratives at the same time reflect and give rise to intense doubts about collective values, namely, the ideals of Zionism and Socialism, and their implementation in Israeli society. Their employment of the first person plural displays growing discontent with the established ideology and disillusionment with the myth of the Sabra, the "new Hebrew."
Israeli "we" narratives, particularly from the 1960s until the 1980s, show considerable awareness of conflicts between the individual will and the achievement of collective goals, of the sub-groups within any community that represent different (and often irreconcilable) interests, of the evasion of personal responsibility under the consoling cover of the "we," and of the destructive potential of the community in reinforcing the effect of sinister impulses. Most Israeli "we" fictional narratives are characterized by a "largely realistic narration that nevertheless stretches verisimilitude at key points" (Unnatural 59), hence, in terms of their form, they do not exhaust the potential for "semantic instability" that Margolin rightly attributes to the pronoun "we". Nonetheless, they are subversive with regard to the mainstream of Israeli fiction in previous decades.
Armah, Ayi Kwei. Two Thousand Seasons. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973.
Appelfeld, Aharon. "Cold Spring." In Smoke (Ashan). Jerusalem: Ahshav, 1962.
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--. Searing Light (Mikhvat Haor). Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1980.
--. Laish. Jerusalem: Keter, 1994.
--. The Ice Mine (Mikhre Hakerah). Jerusalem: Keter, 1997.
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Barth, John. Sabbatical. New York: G. E Putnam's Sons, 1982.
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Fludernik, Monika. "Introduction: Second-Person Narrative and Related Issues." Style 28 (1994): 281-311.
--. "Second-Person Narrative as a Test Case for Narratology: The Limits of Realism." Style 28 (1994): 445-79.
Frankl, Victor. Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1962.
Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: an Essay in Method. Translated by Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1980. Originally published as Figures HI. (Paris: Seuil, 1972).
Gretz, Nurit, Israeli Narrative Fiction in the Sixties. Tel-Aviv: Everyman's Univ. Press, 1983.
Herman, David. "Textual You and Double Deixis in Edna O'Brien's A Pagan Place" Style 28 (1994), 378-410.
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Kristof, Agota. Le Grand Cahier. Paris: Seuil, 1986.
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Laor, Yitzhak. The People, Food Fit for a King. Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1993.
Marcus, Amit. "Sameness and Selfhood in Agota Kristof's The Notebook." Partial Answers 4, no. 2 (2006), 79-89.
Margolin, Uri, 1996. "Telling Our Story: On 'We' Literary Narratives." Language and Literature 5, no. 2 (1996), 115-33.
--. "Telling in the Plural: From Grammar to Ideology". Poetics Today 21 (2000), 591-618.
Oz, Amos. "Where the Jackals Howl and Other Stories. Translated by Nicholas de Lange and Philip Simpson. London: Vintage 1992. Originally published as Artzot Hatan (Ramat Gan: Masada, 1965).
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Richardson, Brian. "I etcetera: On the Poetics and Ideology of Multipersoned Narratives." Style 28 (1994), 312-28.
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Shamir, Moshe. He Walked Through the Fields. Merhavia: Sifriat Poalim, 1947.
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I am grateful to Monika Fludernik, Ansgar Nunning, Anat Schultz, and the anonymous reader of Narrative for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this essay. I would also like to thank Brian Richardson for sharing his book manuscript with me before its publication.
(1.) Margolin mentions three referential ambiguities that generate semantic instability and internal contradiction: "Whenever more than two agents are involved in a 'we' state or action description, the exact scope of 'we' may remain ambiguous, since it may cover most, but not all members of G [a given group; A. M.], since it may or may not include the speaker, and since its reference group may consist of somewhat different subsets of G on different occasions of use" (ibid. 132).
(2.) See Fludernik ("Introduction" 290-92; "Second-Person" 457-60).
(3.) See Herman 379, Fludernik ("Second-Person" 457-58).
(4.) I have designated Margolin's conception of consciousness "Cartesian", due to the transparency and immediacy that he, like Descartes, attributes to introspection. Margolin's position is also similar to that of some empiricist philosophers, such as John Locke and George Berkeley, who claimed that immediate private sensations are the foundation of all knowledge. See Kenny 142.
(5.) Bloor 64. See similar formulations in Kenny 144 and Stern 182-84.
(6.) See Wittgenstein 306-7.
(7.) The exact term "private language" does not occur anywhere in Wittgenstein's published writings (see Stern 175), perhaps because it may be misleading. "Private" is used here "not in the sense that is peculiar to a single user, but in the sense that [the] words [in that language] have acquired their meaning for each of us by an essentially private process" (Kenny 142).
(8.) See Ayer 74-77.
(9.) However, Wittgenstein does state that "experiences ... can be kept secret without being publicly manifested in any way" (Kenny 150).
(10.) My critique of Margolin's position was articulated prior to reading Richardson's text. Despite the clear similarities between our positions, Richardson's critique emphasizes "we" narratives that transcend a realistic or mimetic representation, whereas my critique highlights alternative ways of understanding and depicting consciousness within a mimetic framework.
(11.) Existential psychoanalysts such as Viktor Frankl propose an alternative way of dealing with extremely harsh living conditions, like the ones faced by the twins in Kristof's novel--a way that enables the agent to maintain his or her moral responsibility. Frankl claims that a human being must know "the 'why' for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any 'how'" (88). See Marcus (84).
(12.) See Marcus (82).
(13.) In "the prisoner," the reader may notice a similar dramatized struggle between a conforming and a non-conforming voice, but unlike in "The Story of Hirbet Hiz'ah', the conforming voice correlates with 'T', and the non-conforming voice--with "you". It is implied that the 'T' must be distanced from the egocentric self in order to hear the voice of the other, which is the call of conscience.
(14.) The following three paragraphs are based, to a large extent, on Gretz.
(15.) Two central developments that brought about this criticism were the 1955 Lavon affair and its ramifications (named after Israeli defense minister Pinhas Lavon, this affair involved a scandal over a failed Israeli covert operation in Egypt, in which Egyptian, American and British-owned targets in Egypt were bombed), and the Sinai Campaign of 1956.
(16.) The metaphor "retreat to the inner citadel" is used by Berlin (135-41) in an essentially different context, as part of his distinction between positive and negative freedom.
(17.) Shaked (76, 138-39) contrasts the anti-stereotypical characters and anti-realistic plot in Hebrew narratives of the 1960s with the stereotypical characters and realistic plot of the previous two decades.
(18.) A preliminary version of gossip as the collective voice of the kibbutz is illustrated in Oz's story "Hollow Stone" (1963). Another interesting example of gossip as the agent of "we" narration and its relation to narrative unreliability is cited by Richardson (Unnatural 55).
(19.) The English translation of the novel omits some passages of the Hebrew original. In such cases, the page numbers refer to the Hebrew edition.
(20.) Another sign of the narrator's unreliability is his statement that unlike what some readers may hastily conclude, the kibbutz is not suffused with gossip (230). In arguing this, he is inconsistent with the way in which gossip is presented in the rest of his story.
(21.) The Hebrew original is much more subtle in this case; it does not explicitly mention any cunning or scheming intent.
(22.) However, in certain intimate situations, the gaze of gossip turns aside and does not dare to interfere (48).
(23.) I am indebted to Johnathan Stavsky for suggesting this term. Susan Sniader Lanser gives the designation "singular communal voice" to narration by a single narrator that "'pretends' to speak both for and as an entire community" (254), and contends that "within an individually authored novel, such a communal voice is actually the most fictional of all fictions of authority" (ibid.).
(24.) In his First-person Essays, Appelfeld feels obligated to emphasize that his use of the first person plural in is not meant to exceed the scope of "subjective issues" and "personal response" (7). The narrator of Appelfeld's The Ice Mine (who presumably represents the views of the implied author) expresses a similar opinion when he tells his girlfriend Ida that only "I" is the language of truth, whereas "we" is the language of disguise and blinding generalization (23). However, contrary to authorial intention, Appelfeld's "we" narration addresses collective issues and experiences as well.
(25.) David Ben-Gurion, for example, famously sought to cultivate in his speeches Israeli collective, especially military, values. See Ohana and Wistrich 149-51. A notorious example of a novel that expresses the collective norms of the new state of Israel is Moshe Shamir's He Walked Through the Fields.
(26.) In Discourse in the Novel, Mikhail Bakhtin distinguishes between two perpetually conflicting forces of language: centripetal, striving for the unification of language, and centrifugal, decentralizing language and manifesting its heterogeneous features. However, my use of these Baldltinian terms is not limited to language. It includes all the social elements affecting the integration and the disintegration of the group.
(27.) See also Appelfeld's short story "Cold Spring." The gold merchant in Appelfeld's Laish expresses a similar attitude when a plague threatens the existence of the group of travelers to which he belongs (142).
(28.) This assertion concludes the story of Avikam, a soldier who naively tells his fellow soldiers of his relationship with his family and his girlfriend and--perhaps due to his extraordinary frankness--is being brutally beaten by them until he loses his consciousness. The narrator criticizes his own use of "we," because it obfuscates the disintegration of the group and creates the false impression of a collective memory, whereas in fact there is no consensus among the soldiers about what they actually did to Avikam: "Did he have any enemies? No. Who hated among us? The narratorial first person plural is also dubious: some remembered the incident [of the beating] and some remembered the opposite, and some remembered the anus of his girlfriend Tzeira" (77, my translation). The Hebrew word "mefukpak", used by Laor, means both "dubious" and "doubtful".
Amit Marcus is a postdoctoral scholar at the universities of Freiburg and Giessen. His postdoctoral research concerns "we" fictional narratives. He has recently published a book entitled Self-Deception in Philosophy and Literature (2007). His other publications include several essays on unreliable and self-deceived narration.
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