Beyond 'The Brain of Katherine Mansfield': the radical potentials and recuperations of second-person narrative.
But some preliminaries first. Before I argue that the second person has a potential to radicalize narrative discourse (and more), I should look at how that potential is contained, for, certainly, not all texts that employ a second-person narrative modality realize any such promise. Stories that continually refer to a "you" can seem quite baffling, even unnatural. So, in order to make these outlandish narratives understandable - knowable and stable - we bring to bear on them in our habits of reading whatever hermeneutic frames, whatever interpretive keys, come to hand. I could invoke here any number of notions about naturalization or framing or intertextuality or the vraisemblable, among which I include Bakhtin's speech-genre. Moreover, I might include a large number of unexceptional forms of discourse that employ the second-person pronoun, and so help us interpret any particular passage of second-person narrative. These forms include letter writing and internal dialogue (i.e., talking to oneself), the language of the courtroom, the travelogue, the maxim, and the like. And, of course, there are the interpretive keys provided by the literary notion of genre. For instance, the first two chapters of Bill Manhire's book The Brain of Katherine Mansfield immediately suggest a particular generic interpretive approach. It draws on a genre that has found its niche in fiction for young adults: the "choose-your-own-adventure" story. You, Gentle Reader, are to find your own pathway through the text from the alternatives offered at the end of each chapter. But one typical feature of this genre is the way the hero or heroine will be designated by the second-person pronoun.
You are just an ordinary New Zealander. You have strength, intelligence and luck, though you are not particularly good at languages. Your family and friends like you, and there is one special friend who really thinks you're swell. Yours is a well-rounded personality; your horoscope is usually good; your school report says "satisfactory." But somehow you are restless. Your life is missing challenge and excitement. You want to make things happen. Go to 2.
On your way home from school one day, you find an old man waiting outside your house. He is holding a leather-bound book. He looks as if he has been expecting you.
"I have been reading your story," he says. "But it seems to have stopped. Something seems to happen when you enter the house."
He goes on to explain that he is eager to know how your life will continue. In fact, he says, your life is essentially an unwritten story. You yourself are the hero of the story.
"Many are the choices you must face, but the outcome of the tale will depend on you alone."
You stare at the stranger speechless, but your heart is beating with excitement. Dimly, as at a distance, you hear him say that you will need more than human help on the adventures which await you: you must choose one of three magic weapons to take with you on your journey. But you will have to come with him to his house. It lies in a distant suburb of the city.
It is getting late. The dark clouds of a winter afternoon swoop down over the familiar hills and houses. You shiver. The time of your first decision is upon you. Do you dare to turn the pages of adventure?
If you decide to accompany the old man, go to 5. If you decide to go home and think it over, go to 11.
As these chapters illustrate, The Brain of Katherine Mansfield becomes a little less baffling because we find that we are familiar with its habits, we have met it before - and better yet, it is a game. Thus because of our familiarity with the genre and our delight with its ludic qualities we are less resistant to any work being done by the pronoun. This work, first, is to facilitate the reader's conceit in thinking that she or he does choose the path of the adventure, the illusion - the role-play illusion - that he or she is the person upon whose wisdom and fortune rests the final outcome. Moreover, we may argue, secondly, that the pronoun helps the reader identify more closely with the protagonist, for there seems a collapse of reader address and character reference, one falling into the other.
I will return to this matter of the collapse of the border between reader address and character reference later. but here I want briefly to elaborate the problem in the context of Manhire's book. The "you" of its opening lines is highly generalized and ostensibly can refer to any average, urban New Zealander. The presentation of a generalized "'you' with which the reader in the role of '(any)one' can identify" (Fludernik, "Test Case" 452) before the shift to a more fully narrativized "you" is a characteristic of second-person narrative textuality and has been observed by many critics. They describe its use in this way as a strategy for drawing the reader into the tale before the pronoun is particularized in narrative. They argue that, ordinarily, readers coming upon this generalizing modality certainly may feel
sorely tempted to identify at first, but only so long as their situation overlaps with the protagonist's . . .; as soon as the protagonist becomes too specific a personality, becomes, that is, a fictional character, the quality of the presumed address to an extradiegetic reader in such texts evaporates. (Fludernik, "Related Issues" 287)
Faced with specificities of "sex, job, husband or wife, address, interests, and so on, . . . the reader has to realize that the 'you' must be an other, a or the protagonist" (Fludernik, "Test Case" 452). In many instances, however, the effect of direct reader address may not entirely evaporate after all. As incontrovertibly as Manhire's "you" becomes a discrete protagonist, it retains much of its generalizing force: it remains without (explicit) gender, without vocation, and (beyond nationality) without address. As Fludernik goes on to note, there are indeed
some texts in which the generalized reading ("you" equals "one"), in the form of a very specific reader role, persists despite the narrowing of reference, and it does so because in these texts the desired effect is precisely to make the reader feel personally responsible, personally caught in the discourse. (452)
In such texts, the second-person pronoun may open a space for an experience of reading quite unlike those we are accustomed to in relation to first- and third-person narrative texts. The work of naturalization carried on by our prevailing practices of reading, however, is far from exhausted.
Another way critics and readers have hermeneutically framed or naturalized second-person narrative discourse, paradoxically, is by withholding legitimacy within critical discussion. Frequently, and in many cases too hastily, they ridicule second-person narrative modalities as being unnatural and stylistic affectations of first- or third-person narrative, consequently re-reading each narrative-you utterance in terms of disguised or "deeper," more conventionally predictable structures and contexts. Katherine Passlas, for instance, analyzes "the linguistic functions of the second-person narrative pronoun in Butor's La Modification . . . [by] transposing subject pronouns and verb tenses in selected passages" (197) to conclude that Butor's "surface" pronouns don't alter the underlying relationship between author, reader and text at all. The reader, Passias says, can react to Butor's "you" only as an observer. "If the reader visually records 'you,' he logically perceives 'I'" (199). The problem with such readings is that they assume the inviolability of a given dyadic structure of narrative person, one in which there are people who speak and people who are spoken about and in which when anybody is spoken to (outside ordinary dialogue between characters), he or she can only be some form of reader or narratee. Narrative person, of course, is quite distinct from grammatical person - albeit the narrative form predicates itself precisely on the grammatical. Grammatical person, on the one hand, operates at the level of the discrete utterance and refers to the linguistic distinction between the utterance's three possible participants: the necessary first person (who speaks) and second person (who is spoken to), and the optional third person (who may be spoken about). Narrative person, on the other hand, operates at the level of narrative structure, and, as Gerard Genette has pointed out, it is not properly determined by the identity of the narrator, but by the person the narrator speaks about - the first-person narrator doing nothing so much as speaking about him- or herself.
Most importantly in this context, prevailing practices of reading also work to frame or constrain meaning in a text by figuring a limited range of proper relations between speakers and listeners, and among story-tellers, audiences, and objects. These relationships are the ones that we come to expect among implied readers, narrators, narratees, characters, and the rest of the narrated world. They are, moreover, relations that Jonathan Culler would identify as belonging to the first level of the vraisemblable, the world-as-text (Structuralist Poetics 140-41). But this should remind us that narrative person is a deeply mimetic figure. As Jerome Bruner observes, we habitually, in a socially circumscribed behavior, look for meaningful relations between the worlds we "inhabit" through listening to or reading fiction and the experiential worlds we exist within (about which I am leaving completely aside, if only for a moment, the issues of what constitutes our knowledge or our sense of that experience and "our world," our identity, and so on), Put crudely, as social subjects, we readers tend to make meaning of narrative texts - "readerly" narrative texts, at the very least - by relating to them as if they are about (fictional) people who more or less resemble ourselves and who inhabit (possible) worlds that more or less resemble the one we ourselves experience. There is a learned, but perhaps inescapable, recourse to "as if." To say (or to be invited to say) what a narrative text "is about," in the most ordinary and "pre-critical" way, is (to be invited) to paraphrase a tale in which somebody does something somewhere sometime and to express opinions about the storyteller's insight, probity, and veracity. So the penetrating authority of mimesis - and the conventionalizing and naturalizing work it does - can be thought of as one buttress by which the good standing of the metaphor of person is upheld. If we construe mimesis this way, we can accept that it plays a role in reading without the acceptance becoming a mere apologia for a mimetic aesthetics and poetics. Our acceptance not only will situate mimesis, instead, as a term within contemporary conventional textual practice, but at the very least will also remove it from its traditional "transparency" and presumptive primacy and authority.
The inescapably dialogic and allocutionary character of much second-person narrative fiction has ensured that most extended discussions are informed in some measure by an extrapolation of these relations between speakers and listeners. These relations can be modelled like this:(3)
This model, which might be called the addressee model, offers four broad paradigms of second-person reference based on to whom a narrator refers when saying "you." Very broadly, as in Figure 1, the "you" may point back to a narrator who is either talking to him or herself or using the "you" to substitute for or disguise a self-referential "I." Or [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED] it may point to a character other than the narrator. Or [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED] the "you" may point to a narratee or to some form of implied or even actual reader. Or [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED] it might, and often does, point to no person at all, the "you" having become a term in a figure of speech, such as, "when you're hot, you're hot."
In order to clarify what is at stake, I think it necessary to make one further point about these relationships before looking at how the second person may occasionally frustrate them. The ways in which these speaker-addressee relationships are conceived originate in "a certain prejudice" (Kalaga 144). And this "prejudice" is the dominant Western concept of the self. In a discussion of Charles S. Peirce's criticism of Descartes, Walter Michaels argues that
For Descartes the self is neutral - "unprejudiced," it begins by believing in nothing except its own existence; for Peirce, the self is always committed - it cannot begin by calling into question all its beliefs, for these beliefs, these "prejudices," "are things that it does not occur to us can be questioned." (194)
"For Descartes," says Michaels, "the self is autonomous . . . [,] it is primary, it exists independent of any external constraints; for Peirce the self is a sign" (194). Moreover, I would apply to "sign" all its post-Saussurian implications. But "Cartesianism," as Wojciech Kalaga calls the first concept of the self, even if roundly discredited by the orthodoxies of post-structuralism, "has nevertheless saturated the general way of thinking" (145). The terms of point of view, for instance, invite (even necessitate) readers to ask, time and again, "who speaks/sees/overhears?" - thereby explicitly or covertly returning Cartesianism's sovereign, knowing subject to the center of narrative sense.(4)
I describe the terms of the addressee model above as belonging to the first level of the vraisemblable. As such, it draws both sense and authority from "the text of the natural attitude of a society (the text of l'habitude), entirely familiar and in this very familiarity diffuse, unknown as text" (Heath, qtd. in Culler, Structuralist Poetics 140). On this Culler is unequivocal: this order of vraisemblance, he says, "is what we should today call an ideology: 'a body of maxims and prejudices which constitute both a vision of the world and a system of values'" (144).(5) To be defined as "a discourse which requires no justification because it seems to derive directly from the structures of the world" (140), the "text of l'habitude" expresses everywhere as natural Cartesianism's particular conception of being and being-in-the-world. Says Culler,
We speak of people as having minds and bodies, as thinking, imagining, remembering, feeling pain, loving and hating, etc., and do not have to justify such discourse by adducing philosophical arguments. It is simply the text of the natural attitude, at least in Western culture, and hence vraisemblable. When a text uses such discourse it is to that extent inherently intelligible, and when it deviates from such discourse the reader's tendency is to translate it back into this natural language. (Structuralist Poetics 140-41)
The addressee model, of course, is not the only moment of naturalization sketched above that might be described as illustrating one or another of the levels of the vraisemblable as Culler describes them in Structuralist Poetics. Culler argues that
what we speak of as conventions of a genre . . . are essentially possibilities of meaning, ways of naturalizing the text and giving it a place in the world which our culture defines. To assimilate or interpret something is to bring it within the modes of order which culture makes available, and this is usually done by talking about it in a mode of discourse which a culture takes as natural. (137)
Whether one calls this process recuperation, naturalization, motivation, or vraisemblablisation, he concludes, "it is one of the basic activities of the mind" (138). In speaking about interpretive practice in this way, it has been said, Culler insightfully stresses the positive, constructive force of naturalizing strategies, as against the negative connotations of "recuperation" and "naturalization" as circulated within, for example, much Materialist Marxist literary criticism, connotations that, respectively, stress "the notion of recovery, of putting to use" and "that the strange or deviant is brought within a discursive order and thus made to seem natural" (137). By construing modes of naturalization in terms of vraisemblablisation, Culler allows us to see them as enabling, even empowering - as practices that provide us with the means to make sense of the narrative texts we come to lest they stand before us as intimidations, as wonders.
If, indeed, criticism might benefit more by regarding naturalization as enabling than casting it as preeminently recuperative or deterministic, the case remains that processes of naturalization, however conceived, always originate from and return the reader to particular ideological/discursive structures. All of the forms of the vraisemblable are (always-)already instituted within social, cultural relations or meaning, such that what vraisernblance describes is the way we fit the inscriptions we read - that is, the way in which we naturalize them - into those given (cultural and social) forms. To offer a disarmingly reductive metaphor, these habits, in a sense, involve a fitting of appropriately shaped pegs to appropriately shaped holes, the pegs and holes given - remembering of course, as any child's play shows, there is tremendous enjoyment and expression to be had as well as frustration in the play of deferral and mismatch and of forcing new syntheses between shapes and spaces. Clearly, some moments of the vraisemblable will be more thoroughly inscribed by a culture's dominant ideologies than others, just as some utterances or modes of behavior will be. When interpretation (re)turns us toward any of these - whenever, for instance, we read the inscription "I" and see in it Cartesianism's (anthropomorphized, deeply psychologized) grinning face, or read that you are an ordinary, well-rounded New Zealander who has intelligence and luck and usually a good horoscope, though no particular skill in a second language, and so know yourself and your heritage to be European-centered (rather than Pacific Islander-centered) - then the work of hegemony might be said to have been done. The suggestiveness of Culler's description of vraisemblance lies in its avoidance of the pessimism attending many discussions of naturalization and of the rigidly deterministic practices of reading that those discussions can imply. Although social or cultural relations are instrumental in limiting the meaning available in a text, far from being repressively deterministic, described in terms of vraisemblance, the way in which we make sense is absolutely resilient. As Culler shows,
we can always make the meaningless meaningful by production of an appropriate context. . . . Certain dislocations in poetic texts can be read as signs of a prophetic or ecstatic state or as indications of a Rimbaladian "dereglement de tousles sens." To place the text in such frameworks is to make it legible and intelligible. When Eliot says that modern poetry must be difficult because of the discontinuities of modern culture, when William Carlos Williams argues that his varied foot is necessary in a post-Einsteinian world where all order is questioned, when Humpty-Dumpty tells Alice that "slithy" means "lithe" and "slimy," all are engaged in recuperation or naturalization. (Structuralist Poetics 138)
Of course, it is not a strange notion to twentieth-century literary criticism at all that there are specifiable relations between narrative person as it is usually conceived and ideological social formations, including the way in which we conceive of our being and our being-in-the-world (and the correlation I am drawing between person and Cartesianism). Most broadly, for instance, as Brian Richardson notes in his article in the special issue of Style, there is wide sympathy for the position that "third-person omniscient narration tends to reify and 'naturalize' existing social relations" (320). Likewise, there has been considerable investigation of pronominal modality by feminist writers, a practice that has an antecedent, perhaps, in the predominance of confessional and autobiographical genres within eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writing (both fictional and non-fictional)(6) by women. It has been argued by Joanne Frye among others that these forms appear to articulate "subjectivist" rather than "objective" discourse, such that "to speak directly in a personal voice is to deny the exclusive right of male authority implicit in a public voice and to escape the expression of dominant ideologies upon which an omniscient narrator depends" (Frye, qtd. in Richardson 321). But Richardson hastens to point out that many critics and writers in fact "question the subversive or libratory value posited in the first-person pronoun," because, clearly, just as we do not find all second-person narratives radicalizing, neither do we find all first-person narratives emancipatory (320). Dependent on how the "I" is conceived, first-person texts may also naturalize existing social relations: indeed, they will be deeply implicated in the maintenance of social, ideological relations. As Luce Irigaray says, "With men, the I is asserted in different ways; it is significantly more important than the you and the world, With women, the I often makes way for the you, the world, for the objectivity of words and things" (qtd. in Richardson 322). The masculinegendered "I" Irigaray is speaking about here, of course, is the autonomous and self-identical "I" erected as Cartesianism's monument: it is the "I" of Descartes' cogito ergo sum. Such a recognition that the "I" won't easily relinquish its dominating modes of authority, Richardson suggests, helps explain why many feminist writers have moved beyond "the closed universe of the first-person pronoun" (322) in search of a language or means of expression not already dominated by masculine social relations. This search has involved, amongst other strategies, the invention of ideologically marked pronouns such as Monique Wittig's j/e, texts in which first-, second- and third-person modalities freely alternate and conflate, and an embracing of the "fluid, interactive, and destabilizing technique of second-person narration" (322).
The problem faced by readers of some second-person fiction, particularly in the face of the four moments offered by the addressee model, is exactly that it can deviate from the expected modes of discourse to such a degree that attempts flounder "to translate it back into this natural language." Indeed, this fluidity and undecidability is central to the value of second-person modality for much feminist and other oppositional and alternative writing, The second person has a Protean, shape-shifting quality that can defeat our willful attempts to specify and identify, as a hermeneutic imperative, the necessary "I" who says "you" (and to whom?). As Irene Kacandes records about the initial reception of Michel Butor's La Modification (Second Thoughts), "Some readers passionately testified to their sense of being themselves addressed. . . . Others insisted that the vous could only refer to a protagonist . . .; yet other readers just as intensely asserted that the pronoun ambiguously addresses both protagonist and reader" (333). The notion that it can be difficult to fix the identity of the "you" to any one point across the four terms modelled in my four figures is generally (if frequently implicitly) accepted by critics of second-person narrative - though not all take this deferral of narrative closure, this lack of clarity, as some critics have it, as an agreeable and positive feature (see, for instance, Jonathan Holden's "The Abuse of the 'Second-person' Pronoun," in which Holden privileges the written over the spoken - "literature" over "oration" - asserting that the second person can only work well when it constitutes a direct, unambiguous address to an audience). In such a statement as, "You are unsure of how to react," James Phelan argues that trying to fix on the referent of the you (let alone deciding upon a credible narrating situation) "depends on a clear and stable distinction between an intrinsic, textual 'you' - a narratee-protagonist - and an extrinsic, extratextual 'you' - a flesh and blood reader" (350). The reader is expected (and expects to be able) to choose between these two distinct positions. Nonliterary epistolary writing, as a genre, nicely illustrates this distinction. The separation between the addressee "you" and a storied "you" is absolute. Although the addressee is expected to identify him or herself with the storied "you" should it enter the letter (in reminiscences over shared past experience, for instance, or in projections of hypothetical future encounters as might occur in love letters), the "you"-narratee being directly and intimately addressed exists at the same discourse level as the writer-narrator, whereas the "you" being recalled or imagined stands at an embedded level, as an inscribed, textual subject.
Even in literary epistolary novels, such as Jane Rule's This Is Not For You, and the first and third sections of Butor's Degrees, the appearance of this same separation is systematically maintained. There is the "you" being addressed by the writer of the letter, and the "you" being described in the writing: the former is figured as geographically or temporally distant, the latter is explicitly recalled or reinvented. Indeed, this separation frequently becomes integral to the narrative itself, the novel's actual reader understanding the narrator's characterization of the embedded "you" as ironic, subjective, and even flawed. Occasionally, however, as Phelan suggests, this conventional certainty partly or wholly evaporates, leaving it undecidable whether the "you" utterance refers to the protagonist or to the addressee-reader, the discourse at that moment blurring the expected boundaries (351). Moreover, says Phelan, this play with the narrative level (textual or extratextual) of the addressee is only part of the problem.
When we read "You are unsure of how to react" and recognize that the "you" who is narratee-protagonist need not coincide with "you" the actual reader, another audience position becomes prominent: the observer role familiar to us in reading homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narration, the position from which we watch characters think, move, talk, act. In fact, what happens as we read "You are unsure of how to react" is frequently an important dimension of reading second-person narration: when second-person address to a narratee-protagonist both overlaps with and differentiates itself from an address to actual readers, those readers will simultaneously occupy the position of addressee and observer. (351)
To make this ambivalence more poignant, Kimberly Nance puts it differently. Nance observes in her contribution to the special issue of Style that "[e]ven in an experiential model that offers a fairly straightforward reason why one might need to hear (a new version of) a well-remembered story of one's own experience, a key question remains to be answered: who is doing the telling?" (371). Whoever the referent of the "you"-utterance, what this Protean, shape-shifting quality makes ambiguous is the origin of the narrative utterances, and it can make uncertain the stability and therefore the authority of that origin. The notion that this might present a particular problem for reading narrative is supported by Culler's claim that "[o]ur major device of order is, of course, the notion of the person or speaking subject, and the process of reading is especially troubled when we cannot construct a subject who would serve as the source of the . . . utterance" (Structuralist Poetics 170). Culler adds that any work that does make it difficult to construct a speaking persona still relies for effect on the fact that the reader will try to construct for it an "enunciative posture" (170). For instance, is the opening paragraph of The Brain of Katherine Mansfield the utterances of an involved but self-effacing narrator (i.e., a disguised "I"), the utterances of some more or less omniscient entity telling a tale about others, or either of these two types of narrator addressing some form of reader? In his essay in Style's special issue, Richardson looks at a similar deep ambiguity in Nuruddin Farah's novel Maps. Not only does the narration alternate between all three forms of narrative person, but there is also a slide in the identity of who utters "you." Says Richardson,
Many passages suggest that a narrator-protagonist is referring to himself in the second person: "Alone, again, once you knew how to write your name, you would securely graft your name, born the same day as the tree, on its bark" (63-64), At other points[,] however[,] the protagonist appears to be depicted externally: "You sit, in contemplative posture, your features agonized and your expression pained . . ." (1). . . . Unlike Bleak House [which shifts between "first" and "third person"], in which Esther Summerson's first-person account can be neatly placed within a larger, extra- and heterodiegetic whole, the three narrations of Maps refuse to fall into any epistemological hierarchy. We cannot determine whether Askar is telling his story using three different pronouns or whether an extra- and heterodiegetic narrator is employing all three forms or whether two or three distinct narrators are at work. (319)
Richardson correctly argues that it is "precisely this irreducible ambiguity that gives [Maps] its peculiar tension" (319). This tension, however, occurs less as a result of the mere fact of a deep ambiguity than from the dialogue or quarrel between the will towards a synthesis of unity and stability, on one hand,(7) and, on the other, the impossibility of resolution (or more exactly, perhaps, the reader's sanctioning of irreducibility). In Maps, this tension becomes a resistance - an explicitly political resistance - to a dominating, univocal practice of reading that privileges particular forms of authority and legitimacy over other, less oppressive forms of authority.
We find an equally forceful example of how the second person slides across the points of reference illustrated in the addressee model above - but also of the way we readers will try to staunch this flow - in Daniel Gunn's novel Almost You. Almost You has two primary characters, one of whom is consistently addressed by the narrator as "you," and who, although not an amnesiac, has his own unhappy life story told back to him. This character is a translator of literary texts and suffers the translator's equivalent of writer's block; what's more, for this, he is also having a breakdown. The book he seizes upon is Georges Perec's Un homme qui dort (The Sleeping Man), also a second-person novel impossible to translate (or impossible for the "you"character to translate) precisely because the modalities of Perec's French second-person pronouns are not expressed by the single second-person pronoun current in the English language. The other protagonist, however, is spoken about in the third person. He is the hero of an apparently fictional, fable-like story - told by the narrator to the first character - about an amnesiac who "awakens" in France. The "you"-protagonist, however, in trying to stop the narrator from telling this other story, tries to take over the telling, derides it, and calls it melodramatic rubbish. Thus there is a large amount of implicit dialogue between the "you"-protagonist and the narrator. But concomitant with this implicit dialogue is a deep ambiguity as to the origin of the narrative voice: should we situate the narrator, to use Genette's very useful terms, as intradiegetic or extradiegetic? The reader wants to know, and being a close reader, he or she will be looking for a moment of proof one way or the other. The narrator says:
Ask: Why is it that you are being given suggestions, instructions, even orders - and by whom? How is it that you have no choice but to hear and obey? Why do the fingers in your ears not block them out, even when reinforced by the loud humming in which you intermittently indulge? (24)
So even jamming his fingers into his ears won't silence the narrator's voice? It must be coming from inside! But the ambiguities are so inextricably entwined that doubts return. If these are a self-effacing narrator's own intimate recollections, why are they narrated with a modality of voice that is so alienatingly formal, and with an authority and peremptoriness apparently quite uncharacteristic of the protagonist himself? The narrator of Almost You could be a deeply disturbed intra-homodiegetic narrator recounting his own story as a pathological waking dream. Or he could be a deeply disturbing extra-heterodiegetic narrator forcing the "you"-protagonist to examine his own life and harassing him with a mad tale about an amnesiac being led from France to Scotland by a juvenile female sheep (an almost-ewe), the narrator, what's more, turning the "you"-protagonist into a sort of ventriloquist's dummy as he is ordered to ask, think, and even shout out against the narration. Finally, however, neither reading is fully convincing, for the narration is always in excess of either interpretation. Moreover, as much as we want to fix the identities in place, to do so might in fact be to work against the narrative's own strategies - and might be, dare I say it, untrue to the text.(8) For it would also appear to be the case that a great many of the tensions developed within the novel arise expressly from this undecidability of interpretation.
Some theorists who argue that the second person can constitute a discreet point of view have embraced this shape-shiftiness as the particular feature that sets it apart from first- and third-person points of view. Traditional concepts of narrative subjectivity and authority figure narrative agents, especially the narrator, as stable and self-identical - and therefore as providing readers with stable, distinct modes and positions of subjectivity with which to identify. The Protean second-person point of view, however, seems to reject this identification to produce an intersubjectivity, an ephemeral and fluid subject-in-process. Lois Oppenheim is one of the first to make this suggestion in her phenomenological study of Butor's La Modification. Taking up her arguments, Darlene Hantzis argues that not only are the identities of the speaker and of the spoken-to in proper second-person point of view always shifting, always changing within a complex of mutually authorizing, always fading selves, but also that this oscillation hinders the production of a single, privileged subjectivity able to guarantee its own authority. To paraphrase Ross Chambers, the narrator of a conventional narrative text is constituted as one "knowing" subject addressing another, similar "knowing" subject, one as the origin and anchor for this knowledge, the other as the appropriate (curious, desiring, needful) recipient and guarantor of such knowledge (Chambers 3637). Conversely, the reader's experience of the subjectivity constituted by Hantzis's second-person point of view is produced through the undecidability of origin and recipient, that is, of who says "you" and to whom. "By surrendering a false claim to individual identity, the participants moment by moment function as subject guarantors for each other" - taking it by turns, as it were, to be the other (Hantzis 75). Moreover, the reader's own status as a subject becomes integral to this point of view, and not only through the sensation of feeling directly addressed by the "you" utterances. This point of view, says Hantzis, generates an "alternating pattern of identification and displacement" in which the reader is both drawn into the text when he or she identifies (and identifies with) the addresser and addressee of the "you," and expelled again when their identities slide and make identification untenable. Interestingly, where Phelan describes the experience of Protean second-per - son textuality as involving a moment of simultaneous identification (the various positions of identification overlapping and collapsing on one another), Hantzis describes the positions of identification as mutually exclusive. For Hantzis, it seems this exclusivity provides much of the motive force for the oscillation of identification from term to term to term. Moreover, as a consequence of this identification, argues Hantzis, the involved reader not only can participate in the certainties of identity and knowledge guaranteed by the stable subject typical of first- and third-person points of view, but also can experience the destabilizing intersubjectivity of second-person point of view. This, she would argue, is what lies behind the unsettling force of Almost You's narrative discourse. The new vision produced by the second-person view of the world and one's place in it is what a human subject (however it is constituted) comes to and experiences - it offers a rupture of unitary subjectivity that a reader experiences as an epiphany.
Its terms of reference provided by the paradigms of the addressee model, Hantzis's formulation, however, does seem to depend upon old habits. Hantzis herself admits this, observing that the idea there is a collusion between subjects in her notion of second-person point of view necessarily defines the discreet entities involved as possessing prior subjectivity: they possess self-identities before they become ephemeral second persons (74). She is also clearly mindful that her definition of point of view, as "that which constructs the whole of the textual world through the voice that speaks it," must acknowledge the powerful and conventional assumptions behind that metaphor of a speaking voice (12, my emphasis). This is so because, of course, as Chambers writes, narrators and narratees are not at all
autonomous instances capable of using discourse in an instrumental way but, to the contrary, and like personal pronoun shifters, best conceived as empty "slots" whose "content" [or identity, let's say, and their capacity "to speak"] is a function of the predications of discourse itself. They are thus representations (or more precisely simulacra) produced as tokens of the type "human subject," controlling the discourse which, however, itself produces them. (37)
I have spoken of the ways in which reading practices frame meaning and identified Cartesianism as one of the principal mechanisms of this containment. As valuable a tool for criticism as I believe it is for the insights it can offer into the ways we respond to these texts, the point of view that Hantzis describes is no less constrained by Cartesianism than our notions of first- and third-person points of view. Even if a second-person point of view can feel deeply unsettling, Hantzis's formulation of it, far from radically destabilizing normative subject positions, would appear to reinstitute the authority of the autonomous, originating subject that remains firmly ensconced as the enabling condition of this intersubjectivity.
This is not to say, of course, that the metaphors of narrative person and point of view should be set aside from critical and theoretical discussions. Even Genette's almost algebraic figures of mood and voice still respond to the questions "who speaks?" and "who sees?" The categories of narrative person (and the metaphors of person and point of view more broadly), powerfully entrenched constitutive and interpretive categories that they are, so thoroughly inform the social significance and signification of texts as to be inseparable from contemporary reading practices. Certainly, they could not be separated from reading practices without simultaneously relinquishing some degree of a text's social or thematic or emotional or, dare I say, ethical meaning. I would like to suggest, however, quite a different way of explaining the deeply unsettling discourse articulated by Almost You. Theorists like Barthes, Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, and C. S. Peirce before them, have variously argued that the sovereign, unitary subject of knowledge is no more to be discovered outside and prior to texts - that is, out there reading texts, including this text - than within them. Peirce's dictum that "my language is the sum total of myself" is picked up by and repeated throughout post-structuralist cultural theory. But as Vincent Colapietro observes, Peirce himself admits that it is difficult for us to conceive of the self as sign, because, faced everywhere by the hegemony of the Cartesian self, we persist in identifying ourselves with our will, with our power over the animal organism, with our brute force (29). Jacques Derrida has said something along the same lines: that the prevailing notion of self is predicated on the experiential, auto-affective fact of our own subjectivity as the sole subjectivity of which we can be assured. I, as I write, experience my own identity as stable and continuous. But that is not to say that what constitutes me as a subject does not itself simultaneously provide that identity with the comforting appearance of continuity and self-sufficiency. In fact, as Foucault argues, one function of discourse is to make the radically discontinuous and dispersed human subject appear unitary, and to make it appear, moreover, as the origin and principle of unity of the discourse that speaks it. "Readers are astonishingly eager," says Michaels, "to see shattered or social selves in novels and poems, but are a good deal more reluctant to acknowledge the consequences of such a deconstruction for their own relations with texts" (200).
Rather than talking about the second person as a point of view, then, and so always to entrench it in old habits, I think the insights the second person might offer criticism concern the modalities and functions of narrative person more broadly, not only as narrative functions, but also as textual functions elemental in the constitution of our own identities as human subjects. The task of exploring the striking effects of second-person narrative would ask the critic to keep in mind always that the too-often vitrified metaphors of person do not provide disinterested analytical perspectives on fiction. Rather, as Culler reminds us, each category of narrative person needs to be seen as inseparable from the fiction-making process itself ("Problems" 6). They need to be seen as an enabling fiction for the criticism we practice, and, as Michaels argues, as literary critics whose avowed topic is fictions, we need not find this embarrassing. Crucially, we should see person as also contributing to a hegemony whose function is to maintain particular normative ideological and discursive structures and the sovereignty of that favorite "father," the knowing subject. The tension produced between particular modes of second-person narrative discourse and those prevailing and powerful ideological and discursive structures, the discomfiting gap between thinking ourselves "unprejudiced" and seeing the "prejudice" in our words, I believe, is what largely underwrites the potentially radical, unsettling force of narrative "you," a force understood as arising through a confrontational and perilous articulation of what much post-Saussurian cultural theory assumes to be the actual condition of subjectivity - subjectivity, that is, constituted as an apparent unity, but one in fact ruptured, disparate, in process.
This "subject-in-process," however, is not to be construed in any way whatsoever as being produced by destabilizing instances of second-person narrative. The position I am advocating is not a variation of that adopted by Hantzis. Instead, what might be claimed for the second person is that it has the potential to reveal this condition. Recalling Richardson's comment that third-person narrative tends to naturalize social relations and Irigaray's that the "I" often expresses authority over other persons and the world, we see clearly that first- and third-person narratives do produce particular experiences of subjectivity in the reader. In their relationships with mimesis and so on, both first- and third-person forms tend to sponsor the reader's close identification with, and sense of identity as, "a self that is coherent, stable, and knowable [and that] provides a center of fixed truth" (Siegle 7). But this sense of self-identity neither alters the condition of subjectivity that precedes this produced (and merely apparent) self-identity, nor alters the condition of the entity onto which Cartesianism maps its own particular conception of the human subject, its particular conception of being and of being-in-the-world. As Michaels's comment about finding "shattered or social selves in novels and poems" suggests, the condition or nature of the subject as discontinuous and contingent should be applied to the reader who comes to a first- or third-person narrative text no less than to the reader of a second-person narrative text. Unstable, ambiguous instances of second-person narrative as articulated by Almost You and Maps do nothing in this respect so much as tear the complex and systematic embroidery of ideological suture(9) that unifies Cartesianism's experience or sense of subjectivity. Beneath those tears, to repeat an image invoked by both Culler and Barthes, are glimpses of something insuperably monumental, something incomprehensible in the face of which we can only gaze and wonder, mute: to Cartesianism's subject, glimpses of something monstrous. The task of exploring the striking effects of second-person narrative, therefore, might not involve its analysis as a collusion between subjects (as Hantzis describes it), but as a failure of narrative discourse to manufacture for the reader the necessary, or at least anticipated, "token of the type 'human subject" - a token that acts as the "parsimoniously granted support," as Barthes puts it, for the subjectivity or identity of the involved reader (181).
Returning to The Brain of Katherine Mansfield to close the parenthesis I opened early in the paper, I'd like to share my favorite of the many ends Bill Manhire offers his readers. Where I take up the story, you've been abducted and lie strapped to a table.
You wake, your eyes dazed by bright lights. You are lying on your back, bound and unable to move. The place you are in is somehow like an operating theatre, except that it seems to be underground. . . .
On the far side of the room are shelves lined with jars. Each jar has a tube running into it, and each is filled with a curiously grey sponge-like substance. There are labels on the jars, but they are too far away for you to read them.
You manage to turn your head and look in the other direction. An old man clad in a white gown sits watching you. He has cold, steel-blue eyes. As his eyes meet yours, a smile begins to flicker on his face, as if he has just seen the point of a joke, one which has been puzzling him for rather a long time.
"For pity's sake!" you cry. "Who are you? What are you? What is this place?" Go to 41.
The strange man introduces himself. He tells you that his name is Schneidermann. Wait! Haven't you heard this name before? The fact that he addresses you in a thick German accent and stands to attention as he does so leads you to wonder if he is not in fact the infamous Nazi brain surgeon, the one who was presumed dead at the end of World War II. The one who loved classical music. . . .
He wheels you over to the shelves on which are arranged the glass jars you had spotted earlier. Their hideous contents pulse slowly, like living things. Oh no! You begin to put two and two together! You strain your eyes, and at last you can read the labels. "The Brain of Captain Cook." "The Brain of Te Rauparaha." "The Brain of Samuel Marsden." There are row upon row of them. . . . Sitting by itself on the top shelf is a jar whose label reads "The Brain of Katherine Mansfield." But this jar differs from its fellows. It seems to be full of black jelly beans. . . .
You have stumbled into the midst of some fiendish experiment. You must act, and quickly.
With one superhuman effort you strain at you bonds and burst free. If you have the Swiss Army Knife you should attack at once and rid the world of this madman once and for all. If so, go to 29.
If you think the better plan is to flee through the underground labyrinth, go to 38.
In a swift jack-knifing movement you launch yourself at Herr Schneidermann, simultaneously flinging open the Swiss Army Knife . . . [but] you are attacking him with the toothpick.
The struggle is brief and one-sided. Herr Schneidermann . . . gazes disdainfully down at you. He opens your Swiss Army Knife.
"Foolish boy. I shall use your amusing instrument to remove your brain. Your body is now too damaged to be of use to me."
He asks your name, and you name yourself with pride. He checks the spelling with you, then writes it on the label of a glass jar. Soon you will be unconscious. For you, this story is over. But maybe your brain will live on in the body of some future adventurer. Until then it must wait in a jar between Minnie Dean and the legendary Colin Meads. Close the book.
This second-person narrative has turned truly monstrous, but it may nonetheless have come to an end promising, optimistically, one of those collusions between subjectivities that Hantzis was talking about. Now, however, it is somebody else's body experiencing your brain. Or if you take up my reading, you would see one signifier tumbling over another, signs like scientist and Nazi clustering beneath the proper noun Schneidermann to produce an image of a person-ality, a simulacrum, and others stacked systematically on a mad scientist's shelves, not subjects or even objects of knowledge, just more proper nouns labelling transparent containers, and one of them is yours, so that we end in a moment of the uncanny, a brief moment of unnervingly direct reader address: your adventure is over; close the book.
1 An earlier version of this paper was given to the Conference of the Australian and South Pacific Association for Comparative Literary Studies, Auckland July 8-10, 1996.
2 See Bruce Morrissette's "Narrative 'You' In Contemporary Fiction," and Michel Leiris's "Le Realisme Mythologique De Michel Butor."
3 These four figures situate the narrator within the realm of the story-world, and so, of course, describe the case for intradiegetic narrators, but I do not intend to exclude extradiegetic narrators. The figures represent, if not explicitly then certainly by implication, both intradiegetic and extradiegetic narrators. To figure both intradiegetic and extradiegetic narrators in single diagrams would result in the loss of illustrative clarity; conversely, to present each form of the model would unnecessarily multiply the illustrations, the various blends of intra-, extra-, hetero-, and homodiegecity calling for a minimum of eight further diagrams.
4 For a cogent discussion of the roles of the first- and second-person personal pronouns in relation to this argument in a linguistic context, see Pronouns and People: The Linguistic Construction of Social and Personal Identity, in which Peter Muhlhausler and Rom Harre argue that "the transcendental ego, the 'inner self,' is not an empirically present entity, but a shadow cast on the mind by the grammatical forms used in the practices of self-reporting, avowing, etc., deriving from indexical properties of pronouns and their equivalents" (5).
5 Culler's quotation here is from Gerard Genette's discussion of the vraisemblable in Figures II (73-75).
6 One might recall, for instance, that Bronte's Jane Eyre was not only originally published under the male pseudonym of Cutter Bell, but that its full title was Jane Eyre, An Autobiography.
7 Louise Rosenblatt speaks about this will towards unity thus:
When we see a set of marks on a page that we believe can be made into verbal signs (i.e., can be seen as a text), we assume that it should give rise to some kind of more or less coherent meaning. We bring our funded experience to bear. . . . If the marks on the page evoke elements that cannot be assimilated into the emerging synthesis, the guiding principle or framework is revised: if necessary, it is discarded and a complete rereading occurs. New tentative guidelines, new bases for a hypothetical structure, present themselves. . . . Finally, a synthesis or organization, more or less coherent and complete, emerges, the result of a to-and-fro interplay between reader and text. (4)
8 Cf. the discussion of the functions of the second person in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow in which Brian McHale discusses the value of applying Keats's concept of literary interpretation as a quest for certitude or negative capability. McHale argues that the most productive way of reading Gravity's Rainbow is through a notion of "negative capability," in which the deep ambiguities and irreconcilable contradictions within the text are themselves central to the experience of reading the text and of the text's "sense." To read a text like Gravity's Rainbow or Almost You looking for "critical certitude," on the other hand, "is very often simple misreading, not seeing what is before one's eyes" (94). Confronted with a range of meanings, he argues, critics who choose the one most in accord with their own hypothesis have sought
to maximize integration and intelligibility. In short, they have . . . undertake[n] to interpret according to the norms of literary criticism. If, in the process, they (as we) have ascribed a greater degree of ontological stability to the fictional world than the text actually warrants, or have interdicted certain readings of the second-person pronoun, then the fault is less theirs than it is criticism's. More than merely justifiable, the critics' misreadings are in fact both intelligible and inevitable. . . . Inevitable, because these habits of reading have developed in response to texts radically unlike Gravity's Rainbow [and Almost You], while the habits that would enable us to read texts like Gravity's Rainbow [and Almost You] adequately are still scarcely conceivable. (112)
9 For a full account of this argument, see Kaja Silverman's The Subject of Semiotics, which remains one of the best treatments on the subject.
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Butor, Michel. Degrees. 1960. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Methuen, 1962.
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Colapietro, Vincent Michael. Peirce's Approach to the Self: A Semiotic Perspective on Human Subjectivity. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1989.
Culler, Jonathan. "Problems in the Theory of Fiction." Diacritics 14.1 (1984): 2-11.
-----. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.
Farah, Nuruddin. Maps. New York: Random, 1986.
Fludemik, Monika. "Second-Person Narrative and Related Issues." Style 28.3 (1994): 281-31 l.
-----. "Second-Person Narrative as a Test Case for Narratology: The Limits of Realism." Style 28.3 (1994): 445-79.
Foucault, Michel. "The Order of Discourse." Untying the Text: A Poststructuralist Reader. Ed. and Intro. Robert Young. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.48-77.
Gunn, Daniel. Almost You. London: Quartet Books, 1994.
Hantzis, Darlene Marie. "You Are About To Begin Reading": The Nature and Function of Second-Person Point of View in Narrative. Diss. Louisiana State U, 1988. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1992. DA 8904541.
Holden, Jonathan. "The Abuse of the "Second-person" Pronoun." The Rhetoric of the Contemporary Lyric. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980.38-56.
Kacandes, Irene. "Narrative Apostrophe: Reading, Rhetoric, Resistance in Michel Butor's La Modification and Julio Cortazar's 'Graffiti.'" Style 28.3 (1994): 329-49.
Kalaga, Wojciech. "Saving the (Implied) Reader." Southern Review 23.2 (1990): 143-51.
Leiris, Michel. "Le Realisme Mythologique De Michel Butor." Afterword. La Modification. Michel Butor. Paris: 18/10, 1975. 285-312.
Manhire, Bill. The Brain of Katherine Mansfield. Auckland: Auckland UP, 1988.
McHale, Brian. "'You Used to Know What These Words Mean': Misreading Gravity's Rainbow." Language and Style 18.1 (1985): 93-118.
Michaels, Walter Benn. "The Interpreter's Self: Peirce on the Cartesian Subject." 1977. Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Ed. Jane P. Tompkins. London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980. 185-200.
Morrissette, Bruce. "Narrative 'You' In Contemporary Fiction." Comparative Literature Studies 2.1 (1965): 1-24.
Muhlhausler, Peter, and Rom Harre. Pronouns and People: The Linguistic Construction of Social and Personal Identity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.
Nance, Kimberly A. "Self-Consuming Second-Person Fiction: Jose Emilio
Pacheco's 'Tarde de agosto' ('August Afternoon')." Style 28.3 (1994): 366-77.
Oppenheim, Louis. Intentionality and Intersubjectivity: A Phenomenological Study of Butor's La Modification. French Forum Monographs 16. Lexington, KY: French Forum, 1980.
Passias, Katherine. "Deep and Surface Structure of the Narrative Person Vous in Butor's La Modification and its Relationship to Free Indirect Style." Language and Style 9.3 (1976): 197-212.
Phelan, James. "Self-Help for Narratee and Narrative Audience: How 'I' - and 'You'? - Read 'How.'" Style 28.3 (1994): 350-65.
Richardson, Brian. "I etcetera: On the Poetics and Ideology of Multipersoned Narratives." Style 28.3 (1994): 312-28.
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Rule, Jane. This Is Not For You. 1982. London: Pandora, 1987.
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Dennis Schofield teaches creative writing at Curtin University of Technology, Perth, in Western Australia, and maintains the university's World Wide Web Creative Writing journal, SiteLines. His novel, Slackwire (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993), plays extensively with second-person narrative modalities.
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|Date:||Mar 22, 1997|
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