Narrative 3: The Image-Thinkers

I was intrigued by the idea presented in Preface To Plato that within the Homeric epics the narrative proceeded paratactically, that is by one scene following another without there necessarily being any causative chain:

But it can fairly be generalized that the saga considered from the standpoint of a later and more sophisticated critique is essentially the record of an event-series, of things happening, never of a system of relations or of causes or of categories or topics (Preface, p.173).

Havelock goes on:

[The events] are remembered and frozen into the record as separate disjunct episodes each complete and satisfying in itself, in a series which is joined together paratactically. Action succeeds action in a kind of endless chain. The basic grammatical expression which would symbolize the link would be simply the phrase ‘and next…’ (Preface, p.180).

This got me thinking about good old cause and effect. Would it be possible to create meaningful and coherent paratactic narratives where scenes were simply butted up against each other without obvious causation? Probably, but I think what would be happening is that the audience would, in effect, supply their own chains of causation: simply by placing these scenes in order would imply some kind of relationship, causal or otherwise. Seymour Chatman has said:

But the interesting thing is that our minds inveterately seek structure, and they will provide it if necessary. Unless otherwise instructed, readers will tend to assume that even “The King died and the Queen died” presents a causal link, that the king’s death has something to do with the queen’s. We do so in the same sense in which we seek coherence in the visual field, that is, we are inherently disposed to turn raw sensation into perception (Story & Discourse, pp.45-46).

Perhaps the best conclusion we can come to is provided by Abbott:

[T]here are narratologists who require a clear causal sequence as an essential defining feature of narrative, though [I am] defining narrative as “the representation of events,” whether bound together by a clear sequence of causation or not. A quest story, for example, can include many events that come after one another without causal connection (first the knight sinks into a bog, the he is set upon by wild rodents, then his pants catch on fire…), yet it would be difficult on that score alone to say that it is not a narrative. Here is an instance where the term narrativity may help. For, if the sense of causation is not a defining feature of a narrative, it is so commonly a feature that we can say that its presence increases narrativity (Cambridge Introduction To Narrative, p.38).

Of course this hinges on what he admits is the “disputed term” narrativity. If you use this word it ultimately implies that you accept there is no ‘edge’ to narrative, no place where you could say that at this point it stops being a narrative and becomes something else. Which I do accept.

I think.

Abbott, H. Porter (2002) The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chatman, S. (1978) Story and Discourse. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press.

Havelock, E. (1963) Preface To Plato. Cambridge, London: Belknap Press.

Preface To Plato

Eric Havelock’s Preface To Plato is a book I’d come across often: McLuhan frequently cites it, as does Walter Ong in Orality & Literacy. Well just before Xmas I got round to reading it, and I’ve just re-read it this week. I have been deeply impressed by the book because of its wealth of ideas, its deep sense of scholarship, and because it is so well written: for a book on such a relatively obscure and ancient subject it is a surprisingly good read. Despite being an overtly academic text it manages to provoke a deep sense of wonder about ancient Greek culture, and offers a tantalizing glimpse of the unfathomable alien-ness of their ways of thinking.

The book begins by asking why Plato makes such a sustained and vehement attack on poetry in The Republic. Havelock suggests it is because ‘poetry’ for the Greeks at that time—around 360 BC—bears almost no relation to the rather ephemeral art form we now know, but was an “encyclopedic” repository for the culture’s storehouse of knowledge. It was central to the preservation of the culture’s history, traditions, belief systems, social mores, and technology. It was as important didactically as it was for entertainment.

Because this culture was primarily an oral culture, memorization was achieved through repetition. This is because sound is an ephemeral medium where each utterance disappears the moment it has ceased, and it is only through ritualistic and incessant repetition that information can be maintained in the group consciousness. This creates a hypnotic, trance-like, mental state that Havelock likens to indoctrination, where “the task of education could be described as putting the whole community into a formulaic state of mind”. It was this that Plato was railing against.

Havelock’s argument is that Plato represented a new type of man: the literate man. Literacy allowed information to be stored externally. This “preserved knowledge” broke the spell over the hypnotized oral culture and allowed new means of expression, categorization, abstract thought, and the creation of ‘subject’ and ‘object’. That is, rationalism, and the “supreme music” of philosophy. Havelock goes on to say that Plato, and later Aristotle:

… created ‘knowledge’ as an object and as the proper content of an educational system, divided into the areas of ethics, politics, psychology, physics, and metaphysics. Man’s experience of his society, of himself and of his environment was now given separate organised existence in the abstract word.

This then is the conceptual core of Preface To Plato. It’s a marvelous book. Along the way there’s lots of good stuff about narrative, performance, the relation of performers to their audience, and plenty of interesting textual analysis of The Iliad.

However, although I do basically agree with Havelock’s position, I think he has overstated the influence and importance of epic poetry as an oral culture’s means of storing knowledge (which in this particular context means overstating the importance of Homer). There are certainly other ways of remembering things without writing—images, song, ritual, plays, sculpture, and story, for example. This criticism is borne out by critics such as Halverson.

Nonetheless, wholeheartedly recommended.

Halverson, J. (1992) ‘Havelock on Greek Orality and Literacy’ in the Journal of The History of Ideas.
Havelock, E. (1963) Preface To Plato. Cambridge, London: Belknap Press.
Ong, W. (2002) Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge.