Perhaps the most persistent undercurrent of postmodern thinking has been the seemingly incompatible insistence on the necessity of narrative on the one hand and its infirmity on the other. At every turn we are offered a “story” as a self-contained explanation of human conduct while at the same time we are told that the traditional notion of the self-contained story is outmoded and illusory. Variants of the latter assertion may be found in the writings of just about every postmodern thinker, from Derrida’s deconstruction or Lyotard’s end of “grand narratives” to Barthes’ exaltation of the text whose indeterminacy provides the reader with creative jouissance over the work whose story-line is imposed by the tyrannical author. But the more high-cultural narrative dissolves into texts that bring jouissance to Barthes and to most of us, unbearable boredom, the more we tend to find stories in everyday uses of language that had been described since Aristotle in terms of syllogistic logic or the generally non-narrative figures of rhetorical persuasion. The universalization of narrative and its deconstruction are in fact the rising and falling movements of the same fundamental thought-process. There is no truth, only “stories”; if in everyday life, it suffices to be aware of this to judge the stories on their merit, in the probing (and generally oppositional) world of the intellect, the story’s lack of truth-value can be used to undercut the ethical pretensions of the authorized narrative subject.
Yet nothing in this critique of narrative provides a new understanding of what narrative is. In the heyday of French semiology in the 1970s, considerable effort was expended in the search for the building-blocks of narrative, but the historical consensus seems to be that the attempt was unsuccessful. Barthes’ S/Z is an estimable but only partial exception; if its analytic categories are indeed of general significance, one wonders why no systematic effort has been made to construct a narrative typology on their basis. The Russian formalists were revived after 1968, but their many sharp insights into literary intersubjectivity never led to a new synthesis. Can something in the common-sense notion of the (effective) story have eluded those whose attention was focused exclusively on its internal structure and its contrast with the internal structure of other stories?
In “Originary Narrative” (Anthropoetics III, 2; 1997-98) I attempted to describe the essential features of narrative in terms of the temporalization of the sign, as contrasted with its timeless textuality. In the absence of the element of originary firstness discussed in the preceding Chronicle, only the temporal unfolding of the sign itself provided a model for the duration of narrative. The inclusion of human firstness in the originary hypothesis makes it appropriate to rethink the place of narrative in the originary event.
Chronicle 345 distinguished the Christian narrative from tragedy by the degree of identity they respectively affirm between the two originary loci of difference: that, absolute and permanent, between the sacred center and the “profane” participants who designate it by a sign, and that, ephemeral and relative, between the first user of the sign and his fellows. Christianity, characterized by a maximal faith in Jesus as Christ, asks us to believe that human and divine difference are in essence identical, whereas tragedy, and by extension, secular art in general, purports to show that human difference, although modeled on sacred difference, is “tragically” incapable of attaining its undisputed and timeless objectivity. We may say as a first approximation that religious narrative tells the story of how the common identity of human and divine firstness comes to be revealed to us, whereas secular fiction narrates our discovery–which may be comic as easily as tragic–of their inevitable divergence.
In the originary event the appetitive, goal-directed temporality of the act of appropriation is converted into the self-contained temporality of the sign. This new activity is not without duration, but the framework of this duration has changed; it is no longer goal-directed action in the “horizontal” world of appetite, but sign-formation whose end resides in the “vertical”signifié/signifiant world of form. Yet the simple apprenticeship of detemporalization that the sign produces in its user is not enough to give the full sense of the interactive configuration of narrative. Semiosis depends on the interlocutor’s awaiting the closure of the sign, but the origin of this awaiting cannot be explained in semiotic terms.
It is the consideration that the first user of the sign must persuade his fellows that his gesture is no longer an act of appropriation but a sign, or in other words, that his relationship to the central object of desire is the newly invented/discovered relationship of signification, that effectively joins the temporality internal to the sign to that of the scene as a whole. The substitution of the sign’s formal temporality for that of worldly appropriation confirms the deferral of appetitive action and of the concomitant risk of mimetic violence. The individual firstness of the first user of the sign is absorbed in the common reciprocal communication of the sacred difference of the object, which the sign both creates and discovers.
The uncoerced pleasure all humans find in stories (whether narrated or dramatized) demonstrates that the minimal faith realized in linguistic exchange is not limited to the intention implicit in a given statement as intuited by our “theory of mind.” Were this the case, speech could still be confused with the simple transmission of indexical signs; a statement that “it’s warm out” conveys much the same data as the dial of a thermometer. But when I voluntarily attend to a narrative, and may even be willing to pay to do so, I demonstrate a faith in language that is necessarily symbolic or cultural; I am confident that the imaginary world I experience under the storyteller’s mediation will effectively defer communal violence. At the maximal limit of this faith is the belief that human difference is ontologically identical to sacred difference, that each individuality possesses eternal significance. But at the minimum, we cannot help but believe in the capacity of our imagination to conceive sacred difference as the outcome of the irruption of human difference. We submit to the functionally divine authority of the esthetic subject to defer the resentment that challenges our faith in the sacred necessity of the human order. This submission takes place in the oscillatory mode of esthetic experience, where the story continually generates in us an imaginary reality that continually returns us once more to our dependency on the narrating subject.
The originary analysis of storytelling conceives narration as an extension of the reciprocal exchange of the originary sign; this requires that we bracket the worldly attitude that takes the existence of language and story for granted. The originary event is a crisis occasioned by the transformation of mimetically enhanced appetite into desire and deferred by the initiative of a first to substitute a sign for the attempt to appropriate the object of desire; the sign is repeated by the other participants because it attributes to this object a transcendental difference or significance that defers the possibility of its dangerous presence in the world of its desirers. The originary object of desire is no less desired for becoming sacred; on the contrary, its inaccessibility to immediate appropriation completes the originary paradigm of desire, and of the resentment that accompanies desire’s frustration. In its turning away from appropriation, the first sign expressed originary resentment at the inaccessibility of its referent; resentment is at the root of all narratives and indeed of all cultural phenomena.
On this model, a story is an imagined series of events that take place in the world constituted by the originary scene (yet outside the sacred space of its ritual reproduction) in which the resentment occasioned by desire is deferred by revealing the ultimately transcendent nature of its object. Submission to the narrator is analogous to submission to the mimetic mediation of the first in the originary event, just as the desires we espouse under the narrator’s influence are analogous to the desire aroused by the originary central object. Like the first user of the sign, the narrator and in general the esthetic subject must persuade his audience that the outcome of the operation will be the deferral of mimetic conflict. Our willing acceptance of the narrator’s representation of either the unrealizability of these desires in tragedy or their miraculous fulfillment in comedy has its origin in our acceptance of the first’s originary representation as the means to avoid such conflict.
The esthetic judgment we pronounce on narratives as on other esthetic forms is our post factum judgment as to whether our faith in the esthetic subject was justified. The persuasiveness of a narrative as of the originary sign depends on the audience’s intuition that it will defer conflict, but this ethical motivation is inextricable from the sign’s esthetic quality–its ability to contain the attention and therefore the desire of each member of the group within the oscillatory circle of sign and referent.
The earliest stories of which we are aware are myths. In myth, as a general rule, resentment is discharged through a sacralizing act of murder/metamorphosis at the hand of a god, reproducing the originary scene in which the deferral initiated by human firstness transcends itself in the unanimity of the sparagmos that consecrates the central object’s sacred difference. Even archaic civilizations such as Egypt could not altogether abandon myth so long as its kings were accepted as divine.* The most humanistic literary narrative of ancient Egypt, the “Tale of Sinuhe,” recounts the protagonist’s adventures in an interregnum between Pharaohs. It ends with Sinuhe’s return to Egypt, where the new Pharaoh builds him a tomb on sacred ground and has a gold statue made in his likeness. The last line of the “tale” reads: “There is no poor man for whom the like hath been done; and I enjoyed the favors of the Royal bounty until the day of death came.” In a work of fiction, one can write of one’s own death only ironically. Sinuhe is anything but ironic; his death is not the end but the fulfillment of his life. This mortal’s tale is asymptotic to a myth ending in metamorphic apotheosis, like Zeus’ (or Artemis’) transformation of Orion into a constellation.
What we call literature arises when narrative comes to focus on human rather than wholly or ambivalently immortal protagonists. As the first work of Western literature suggests, the abandonment of myth for secular narrative occurs in reaction to the establishment of an explicitly human hierarchy and its concomitant focusing of resentment. The first word of the Iliad, menin, the accusative of menis, refers to the resentment or “wrath” aroused in Achilles by Agamemnon’s arrogant seizure of Briseis, his captive, to replace his own when she is discovered to be the daughter of a priest of Apollo. Achilles is the most valuable / valorous member of the attacking force, but the leader of the Trojan expedition cannot be challenged in combat. The communal acceptance of Agamemnon’s leadership as essential to the social order distinguishes the world of the Iliad from that of myth, where collective resentment of a Big Man would normally find expression in “supernatural” violence toward him. The heart of the Iliad is the story of the consequences of Achilles’ resentment: his refusal to fight; his rejection of the offer of reconciliation; the Greek reverses; the death of Patroclus; Achilles’ return to battle and defeat of Hector. The narrative ends with Achilles’ gesture of humanity to Priam in permitting Hector’s burial, the sign of his recognition that human firstness is trivial in comparison with that of the immortals. As Achilles’ final conversation with Priam makes clear, the cure for the worldly resentment of other humans is originary resentment of the sacred.
The late emergence of literary narrative suggests that we acquire our salient awareness of mortality, which common sense assumes is a constant of human self-consciousness and the source of our resentment of the gods, only when we come to experience human hierarchy as distinct from divine. The difference between Pharaoh’s assumption of sacrality and Agamemnon’s sacred kingship is capital. Literature comes into being only when individual desire, the hypothetical or tentative sacralization of a personal object, becomes a social force in its own right under the influence, as Homeric epic shows, of war as a “market” for individual ability. Agamemnon’s leadership is the expression of a “general will” analogous to the sacralizing originary sign, yet he is subject to the resentment of human firstness. This is not a clear-cut ethical situation. Do Agamemnon’s privileges extend to taking Achilles’ captive to replace his own? If not, does this injustice justify a vengeance that risks endangering the Greek mission? Conversely, would Achilles be dishonored if he simply remained in battle? Or even if he accepted to return after Agamemnon’s peace offering in Book 9? Literary narrative allows us to experience the tension between human and sacred firstness by identifying both with Achilles’ illusory dream of autonomous power (in Book 16, 97-100, before sending Patroclus to what would be his final combat, he prays, “O Father Zeus, Athena, and Apollo, if only no single Trojan could escape death, nor any Achaean, but we two were spared destruction, so that we alone might tear down Troy’s sacred walls!”) and with the necessity of its humiliation after the death of Patroclus, just as later we would espouse the impossible desire of the tragic protagonist while identifying at the same time with the esthetic subject who requires his sacrifice in the name of the sacred order that maintains the community.
If the experience of the esthetic work is analogous to that of originary firstness, with the narrator mediating between his listeners/readers and the imaginary objects of his story, the ultimate criterion of our judgment is likewise ethical: maintenance of the communal order. This criterion is not applied as a moral judgment to the specific acts in the story, but to the narrative universe as a whole, which we can know only at the conclusion. This deference (or deferrence) to ethical totality, which expresses our faith in the narrating subject, is what separates esthetic from moral judgment. Narrative is characterized by a provisional espousal of individual desire despite its ultimate incompatibility with sacred order, an identification that has its origin in the experience of originary firstness.
*The argument of this section reprises in a new light some material from The End of Culture (1985).