Voice and Time

 Originally Appeared in: Optional-Narrator Theory: Principles, Perspectives, Proposals, ed. Sylvie Patron | Published: February, 2021

Novel theory greets narratology as an insightful but overconfident and often dogmatic friend. The narratologist proposes formulas of vast scope and seeks to generalize, ideally to the point of universal validity, the nature and techniques of storytelling across all narrative genres, forms, and media. The novel theorist is more likely preoccupied with the historical specificities and artistic singularities of novelistic practice and works from the premise that the rise of the novel—as it has occurred, and continues to occur, in various societies, among various groups, and at different historical moments—requires particular social, educational, technological, and economic conditions. The novel is at once a literary form, a particular cultural phenomenon and social practice, and a unique commodity (the book) that unites artwork and manufactured object. All of which is why the novel’s survival is often seen as inevitably or already precarious.

What narratology and novel theory undoubtedly do share is the fuzzy category of narrator. Is the narrator a subject? a rhetorical construct? a fiction? a simulacrum? a readerly illusion? Is the narrator a purely linguistic effect? Is it neuropsychologically grounded? Is it an evolutionarily acquired cognitive capacity—if so, is it essential or superfluous to our species survival?

The invitation from Sylvie Patron to contribute an essay to a discussion and debate regarding the concept of narrator and, in particular, its validity in the analysis of third-person narrations brought to my attention the narratological controversy over what are called optional-narrator and pan-narrator theories. Patron’s own work brought me back to the differences between narrative theory and novel theory, which are sometimes productively in tension and sometimes in irreconcilable conflict. How do those tensions, productive and antagonistic, play out when it comes to the category of narrator

Perhaps the most basic and hence scarcely noticed convention of fictional storytelling, a convention pilfered from factual storytelling, is that events are being recounted. When I pick up a novel, I know full well that the events making up the story I will read are invented, fictive, did not happen. But the moment I begin reading, I fully accept that these events are being recounted. Invention and recounting. Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero, an essay as provocative and enigmatic today as it must have been in 1953, cast a suspicious eye on the novelistic tradition’s use of the passé simple—the preterit—that is, the verb tense in French that places the story’s events in a past that is absolutely cut off from the present. A chasm separates the past of the story from the present of the narration, the deeds of the énoncé from the act of the énonciation, the past of the narrated events from the present of the speech event. It is as though, as Barthes sees it, the very act of writing tried to detach itself from l’histoire—that is, from the story it tells and from history itself ([1953] 1968, 29–41). That sense that events in a novel are being recounted gives rise to a consequent question, obvious and yet, as a somewhat later Barthesian provocation demonstrates, enigmatic: Who is speaking? It is then that the concept of “narrator” can be said to arise—as a too easy and easily unexamined answer to Qui parle? The narrator problematic is a question of voice and a question of time and a question of the linkages of voice and time.

Theoretical models of the narrator in impersonal third-person narratives—from Wayne Booth’s distinction between author, implied author, and narrator through the various narratological models placing a narrator and a narratee within an imaginary space that brackets out the empirical writer and reader—arose, I suspect, as a kind of backformation from aspects of certain first-person narratives. I argue elsewhere that Edgar Allan Poe in an uncanny story like “The Black Cat” organizes the relation of the I-storyteller to the discourse as a whole in such a way that the moral dread expressed by the narrator is encased within an aesthetic fascination with that dread. Poe achieves his ideal of “unity of effect” through the simultaneity and differentiation of the two attitudes. In my hypothesis, such an artful joining-differentiating of narrator and discourse contributed to establishing “the conventions of the imaginary space of narration” in prose fiction, a space that will be theorized via the narrator/narratee relation or the distinction of narrator and implied author and projected as a valid account of all narrational practices.

If, however, we refuse to use narrator and narratee to bracket out writer and reader and if we resist the postulate of an implied author, which sets up the ungraspable triplet of subjects—[writer (implied author [narrator])]—text—[([narratee] implied reader) reader]—a different question imposes itself. How does the writer write the telling of the story? The writing-of-the-telling is the act and process whose nature, procedures, and techniques ought to be the theoretical focus. For there is only one actual subject in prose fiction, namely, the writer. It is more than a little weird that narrative theory works so hard to keep the writer and writing out of bounds.

Structuralism’s distinction between the énoncé and énonciation and delineation of “shifters” as those linguistic features that establish links between énoncé and énonciation remain helpful terms because they bear predominantly on, precisely, subjectivity and temporality. To modify the terms a bit, they bear on the relation between a discourse’s articulated temporality and its articulating subject, including the convention of recounting that is so basic to fictional narration as to be considered a norm. The norm, however, is hardly fixed. The entwining of articulating subject and articulated time has turned out to be marvelously malleable, paradoxical, and fluid in novelistic discourse. Novelists exploit an intrinsic capacity of language to volatilize subject and temporality in the énonciation/énoncé relation. Shifters determine where the speaker is situated in time and space relative to the events spoken about. I will illustrate language’s volatilizing capacity with a nonliterary—or at least nonnovelistic—example. One day, setting out to jog down the esplanade along the East River in New York, I caught sight of graffiti that had been written on the back of a street sign. It exploits the paradoxes of subjectivity and temporality in the relation of énoncé and énonciation in but nine syllables:

We were so in love
when I wrote this

Logically, the shifter has missed a gear. If these lines were those that a poet inscribed in a copy of his or her latest book of poems given to a former lover the voice/time relation would seamlessly makes sense; this would refer to the book of poems in which the message is inscribed. In the graffiti, this refers to the utterance itself and so loops the énonciation through the énoncé to paradoxical effect. Yet, rhetorically and poetically the sentence does make sense. Its playful violation of discourse-and-time logic evokes a variety of possible intentions, moods, tonalities: a cheeky sense of love’s fleetingness, anticipatory melancholy, fatalistic self-doubt, self-defeating fatalism.…


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