THE OPACITY OF NARRATIVE.
Peter Lamarque is well known for his 1994 collaboration with Stein Haugom Olsen, in Truth, Fiction and Literature. Twenty years later, in 2014, his interest in literature is manifested through his profound knowledge of narratives and storytelling in The Opacity of Narrative--a collection of essays on some of the biggest and most recurring concerns in literary thought. Eight of these essays had been previously published in journals or other volumes, but they were reworked for the purpose of this book. Therefore, a small problem of redundancy ensues: some of its themes or subjects are recurring throughout the essays, ending up in some repetitions of the theoretical framework as required; on the other hand, this redundancy grants the book's overarching argument consistency. Moreover, this brings us to an interesting point that agrees with one of the book's main arguments as well: The Opacity of Narrative suggests two modalities of being read, a particular one, focused on the subject of one or more essays, and a general one, that aims at the book's main argument, as its subject is, in turn, the modalities of receiving and dealing with narratives.
The main purpose of The Opacity of Narrative is to point at narratives (and literature) as a social practice with some kinds of interactions that are agreed upon by its partakers--the same as with Wittgenstein's concept of game. Lamarque's concept of opacity is grounded upon the fact that narratives are always told from a certain point of view and, thus, the facts they report are somewhat filtered by the way they are told (the selection of details is reflected on the selection of language employed). In Lamarque's words, "Rather than supposing that narrative descriptions are a window through which an independently existing (fictional) world is observed (...) we must accept that there is no such transparent glass--only an opaque glass, painted, as it were, with figures seen not through it but in it" (2014: 3). In other words, narratives are opaque because their content is indistinguishable from its mode of presentation (be this textual description or scenic setting). This argument is very well explained when Lamarque analyses Charles Dickens' description of the Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend, saying that "character descriptions, indissolubly tied to character identity, are seen to have a dual function: a characterising function and a connective or thematic function" (71). Therefore, besides describing a state of affairs in which something happens or someone shows up, narrative descriptions also work in a persuasive manner, as a means of connecting to its audience. This is deftly dealt with in chapter 8, "Thought, Opacity and the Values of Literature," where "Narrative voices" are considered to be "prominent, intrusive. The descriptions are not given, as it were, neutrally. They are deeply imbued with attitudes and values, with opacity, and are to be pondered and enjoyed in themselves not merely as vehicles for information" (159).
The argument for narrative opacity is, thus, consistent and easily agreed upon, as storytelling doesn't exist without this opacity Lamarque describes: it relies on a narrator's point of view and on his ability to reduce a certain situation to a communicable language. These descriptions are, as Nelson Goodman would call them, ways of worldmaking--built upon description dependent facts. Lamarque distinguishes the opacity of texts--that require intellectual understanding--from the transparency with which a photography presents its object. In this sense, this concept of opacity seems to stem from Charles Sanders Peirce's category of thirdhood, where a perceived sign depends of an intellectual interpretation on the behalf of the interpreter, while, in the case of photography, the perceived sign points directly at that which it refers to (being in a relation of secondhood). So, a transparent reading of a narrative would be one free of a narrator-dependent perspective and without formal artifices that obscure the world being presented--a hypothesis which is utterly impossible.
This collection of essays is substantiated by some Wittgensteinean principles, such as the notion of Literature as an institution to which readers relate in different ways, depending on their degree of investment. One of The Opacity of Narrative's purposes is to look at narratives, not as objects (books, texts, plots), but as the ways people relate to them, allowing for various ways to engage with narratives. It seems that a contradiction arises when Lamarque locates the concept of opacity, not on the means of communication used (even after arguing that narrative opacity relies on the incapacity to distinguish between content from means of presentation), but on this engagement on the behalf of the interpreter.
An interpreter's engagement (whether they are a reader or an audience) in a narrative depends on various factors, the main one being the defence that "participants in the rule-governed practice of literature are defined not by social or political criteria--class, gender, age, reader preferences and so forth--but by conformity to the roles in the practice" (106), where these roles are related to each person's function in interacting with the narrative ("author-roles, work-roles and reader-roles," ibidem). There are as many ways of engagement with a narrative as there are interpretations, as they depend on the interpreter's expectations and on their way to deal with narratives. One example of engagement comes from understanding a statement through paraphrase or synonymy: it is natural to essay synonyms over a statement to try and understand it, but there are no perfect synonyms and the means of the narrative have to be altered to be fully understood. The author admits that "opacity can occur in (at least) two contexts: the non-substitutivity of identities and the non-transparency or intentionality of representation" (8). Lamarque brings up the case of Cleanth Brooks, a critic hailing from the new criticism wave who considered paraphrase to be a heresy when it is taken as the sole aim of criticism. However, it is clear that, to point at and to explain a poem, it is necessary to paraphrase it, but criticism shouldn't be reduced to paraphrase.
Another of Lamarque's concerns comes from the excess of engagement with which one can relate to a narrative, and it consists in the recurring practice of assimilating life to narratives. People start building a kind of narrative identity, as if they could see chapters in the ways of progress of their own lives, when that kind of categorization is neither empirical, nor logical. According to the author, "People often dramatise their lives (or parts of them) in the sense of adopting a persona or playing a role (...) Standardly, the distinction between actor and role is secure even if in principle they might merge. Viewing our lives as a drama in which we are the central character might be the nearest we get to a "life narrative"; yet it need not involve narrative at all" (63). Unlike what happens in narratives, life doesn't have a deliberately intentional framework: for instance, while in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby the constant references to car traffic and to the wrecked vehicle that comes up after a party might be a way to hint at the cause of Myrtle's death, in real life, details don't open up a way to more details with the teleological intent of predicting the future. This kind of identification of life with narratives might have come up from deconstructing some mechanisms related to the biographical style, where it is not uncommon to value progress and failure as narrative developments in the life of the subject of the biography, when, as a matter of fact, these events might have been simple incidents in that person's life. This has to do with the principle of functionality posited in chapter 4, "Literary Narratives and Real-Life Narratives," that "It is always reasonable to ask of any detail in a literary work what literary or aesthetic function that detail is performing" (72). Lamarque even goes to explain why such an identification with narratives is so common, through a thought theory, "there are likely to be some kinds of isomorphism between the structure of a literary work--or at least parts of a work--and the structure of thoughts that the work elicits and which generate the emotional responses" (143)--because of the fact that during narratives we have to process what is being told through the way it's being told, there are certainly cases of isomorphism between narrative form and thought content reaction.
There seems to be two kinds of narrative opacity being described in Lamarque's book, even though they are treated as one and the same. The first one depends on the identification between form and content in narrative. The other one depends on an interpreter's engagement with a narrative, adding information that's logically sequential to the understanding through substitution for synonyms or paraphrase, which allow for modes of identification with characters or events. However, the author doesn't seem able to decide the root of his opacity theory: "Transparency and opacity in narrative are not intrinsic qualities of a text but ultimately rest on the interests brought to the text" (11-12).
This argument for a twofold view of opacity isn't disjointed from Lamarque's views on aesthetics too, as stated in chapter 9, "Aesthetics and Literature (A problematic relationship?)." It is in this chapter where the author's wit is most greatly displayed. Delving into Frank Kermode, Geoffrey Hartman and John Guillery's argument over the role of pleasure in constituting the canon (which can be read in Pleasure and Change: The Aesthetics of Canon), Lamarque remarks that this concept of aesthetics isn't grounded on taste-based value assessments, but through insightful characterisations of "how the work appears, what impact it has, what is salient in it, what merits aesthetic attention" (172). His inquiry reveals that what is aesthetical in the literary experience doesn't depend solely on merely textual properties, but also on the reader's engagement with the work, proposing a shift "from the picture of an author producing a text, communicating a meaning and inviting understanding to that of an author creating a work, engaging a practice and inviting appreciation" (177), concluding: "It is the latter that must underpin any coherent, non-reductive aesthetics of literature" (idem). It is through this engagement that aesthetic properties are revealed, such as the opacity Lamarque has been arguing about: it is neither a merely textual characteristic nor is it fully made-up by the intervener.
Although The Opacity of Narrative might be deemed a book on either Literary Theory or Philosophy of Literature, there are no prerequisites for its comprehension, but a basic understanding of what happens in a narrative situation to feel rewarded for reading this book. The point of the book is an aesthetical one: to posit that the way we feel or perceive the world we live in, or the narratives we know about, hold a strong influence on the way we communicate about such subjects and, for that, the inability to distinguish means of presentation from what is presented is not only a characteristic of narratives, but also of the way we experience the world. In times such as the ones we live in, where narratives give a factual framework to all sorts of incidents (be it historical events or news reports), Lamarque's distinctions and suspicions make for a very good reading. The Opacity of Narrative might be fundamental for people who are interested in the relationship between narratives and facts (or truths), biographies, history or journalism.
University of Lisbon
It is very interesting to read this academic book on narratology in the context of the recent heightened currency given to 'story telling' in the corporate and marketing sectors of society. Anyone with a brand to market, a book to sell, an event to organize or a career as an influencer to launch is advised to tell a story about themselves and their life trajectory. This is how legends are made, and myths created.
The recent worldwide popular culture literary phenomenon, 'Game of Thrones,' caused a furore amongst its fans when the final season of the show disappointed them because of its rushed and superficial storylines. The characters whose individual arcs were developed with subtlety and sensitivity in the books were forced by the scriptwriters to behave in ludicrously contradictory ways to rapidly resolve complicated plot issues. Millions of people signed a petition for the final season to be rewritten, showing their commitment to the narrative of the story and their sense of outrage at the callous violation of its integrity.
One of the characters in the books, and the show, Tyrion Lannister, overtly refers to narrative and story in a speech at the end in which he and his colleagues are deciding who will be the next ruler of the realm of Westeros. Brandon Stark is chosen - explicitly because of the 'importance of his story.' Having survived two assassination attempts, and the destruction of his home and family, and because in response to his physical immobilisation caused by injury he becomes a visionary, he is known as 'Bran The Broken.' As Harry Potter, another famous boy on a hero's journey, was 'The Boy Who Lived.'
Tyrion says: 'Nothing is greater than story. It is more powerful than gold... the person who holds the stories holds the memories of our people.' This is the brilliance of the title of this book: the 'opacity of narrative' refers to the way one cannot see 'through' a story, as one can see through a window, and you cannot see clearly, because the story is not transparent. Its elements are not interchangeable with the elements in other stories. A story is not just a vehicle conveying meaning: it has intrinsic meaning, in itself. It is coloured, it is emotive, it is smoky, it carries symbolic residue which partly obscures or adds glamour to what we are being shown.
The essence of story is the universalising of a character's specific life history and circumstances, humanizing it and opening it up so that many others can access its lessons of survival and the paths to fulfillment its protagonist creates. The narrator shows us, in what Lamarque evocatively terms a 'fine-grained' way, the relationships which connect characters to each other within the world and landscape of the story; the specificity of the story is not collapsed, blurred or lost in the process of its universalisation and projection into the imagination of the reader.
The cover of the book is an example of this: we see a young woman nursing a baby, under a tree, being watched by a shepherd boy with a cane. Ye t the boy's clothes are made of rich materials, and the woman is partially undressed, with her entire lower body visible, although she is in a public place. There is a streak of lightning in the dark clouds in the sky in the background, and an oddly modern-looking construction in the middle of the setting. Without knowledge of the context, our minds start creating a story to explain this scene and its elements. What we 'see' shows our bias, our beliefs about human nature, and our idiosyncratic tendencies when it comes to world-building.
Lamarque argues in the introductory section that it is the narrator's way of telling the story that makes it unique and memorable, and which differentiates a special and worthy narrative from mere reportage, summaries or factual recounts of events.
Lamarque's own mode of discourse is logical and calming in its structured progression: he states his intention to be 'anti-romantic' and skeptical in his approach, and to avoid the excesses of extremism when analyzing the narratological theories of others, and he follows through on this promise. The book unfolds sequentially, like a fan, each chapter building and expanding on the previous one, extending into a thing of both usefulness and beauty. Each chapter concludes with a graceful precis, succinctly demonstrating how the ideas within it have enriched the argument.
Lamarque's breadth of knowledge of his subject matter is impressive, and the discursive style he chooses is appealing and accessible even to a non-academic reader, although the philosophical discussion is detailed, comprehensive and intellectually demanding. The Bibliography for this book is multi-layered and almost 10 pages in length, and his dynamic use of the primary and secondary texts in counterpoint to each other in his argument is strong and balanced.
His argument has authority because of the balanced and inclusive way he constructs it: 'The fact that readers of the great works of literature give special attention to the precise manner in which the content is presented is integral to the practice of reading literature as literature... The form in which a work of literature is constructed... is absolutely essential to both its identity and its value as literature. So a reader who is indifferent to the fine-grained linguistic presentation and attends to the content only as broadly specified plot and character ... is not showing an interest in the work as literature.'
At times, Lamarque has a tendency to use ponderous double negatives and overly complicated syntax, which detracts from the clarity of his overall thesis. But this is balanced by the vibrancy and suppleness of his literary analysis, and the obvious respect he has for the poetry and prose he examines. 'Writers of literary fiction,' he notes, 'invest form, design and artifice with the utmost significance.'
Lamarque uses the concept of opacity as an integrating motif throughout this book, and it functions elegantly to enable him to examine different aspects of narrative and story in illuminating ways without blurring or collapsing them. He is so restrained in the book as a whole, refraining from making the sweeping statements that he critiques in the style of others, that when he does use the imperative voice, we listen with a respect he has earned, and grant him authority to do so:
'We must accept', he says, 'that there is no... transparent glass, but only an opaque glass, painted... with figures seen not through it but in it.'
University of Sydney
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|Author:||Clariano, Tiago; Brendon, Devika|
|Publication:||Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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