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  • Plot Taxonomies and Intentionality
  • Jon Adams

Ever popular among the various topics occupying non-academic conversations about literature—such as the identity of the real author of the plays attributed to "Shakespeare"—is the notion that there exists only a finite number of storylines, and that all the stories we know are only ever complications or rehearsals of these few, elementary plots. What is the status of that claim? The issue gains a renewed relevance in light of literary criticism's recent interest in the possibilities of employing evolutionary psychology as a means of naturalising literary study, but interest in plot taxonomies stretches a long way back. Why might we seek to categorise plots into a finite taxonomy? And what are the implications of the claim if true?

Organising literature into any classificatory scheme is an attempt to achieve something like the coherence that the natural sciences have achieved—in chemistry and physics with the composition of the periodic table, and in biology with Linnaean classification. Much of science's epistemic prestige is rooted in the enormous success with which they have organised and categorised their subject of study. In searching for mechanism and pattern, the natural sciences proceed confidently from the belief that those mechanisms and patterns exist to be discovered, and that (relatively) simple rules underlie the manifest complexity of natural phenomena.

Unfortunately, the study of literary fiction has no such security. There are two senses here in which we can talk of literature being patterned. At the micro-level, we have the question of whether individual works can be thought of as internally patterned. Usually, this type of patterning is easy enough to establish and recognise, and something the author is (or ought to be) in a good position to control. But, of course, internal [End Page 102] structures are not always conspicuous, and readers faced with an overtly complex text, like Pound's Cantos, or Finnegans Wake, have no guarantee that there is sense to be made of it. Surface complexity may shield a profound and subtle architecture, or the work may be as unstructured, fragmentary, and chaotic as it initially appears. A frustrated Wayne C. Booth draws attention to the problem: "One can't be sure that Finnegans Wake is not a great novel; perhaps someday readers will discover that the complex structure they now dream of and quarrel about is a realizable structure, an experienced structure. I doubt it, but it may happen. Until then, each new intricacy discovered ... reveals precisely nothing more than that: a new intricacy."1 What's missing is a conceptual centre around which overall coherence might be achieved from what had seemed to be unconnected parts. Even so, if this sort of centre cannot be found in the individual work, it may yet obtain between works. In other words, The Cantos or Finnegans Wake may yet occupy nodal roles in a larger system, within which they acquire a previously unrecognized unity and order. This type of organization is something the individual author is obviously in a much less suitable position to control. Nonetheless, mapping out this larger, macro-level order is a task that literary criticism might want to take on. There is the example Borges uses of how Kafka's work retrospectively confers a familial similarity upon previously unconnected works. The quality of being "Kafkaesque" is the only thing common to the pieces, but was not apparent (or rather—the paradox that excites Borges—did not exist) prior to Kafka's writing.2 This is the second sense in which literature might be thought of as patterned; that is, not within works, but across them. On the larger scale, is it possible that literature as a whole could be understood as patterned?

The notion that literature can be understood "as a whole," and its corollary, that a literature so understood would submit to taxonomical classification, is an enduring one. Anthropologists and art historians have long acknowledged that there appear to be recurring themes, motifs, and commonalities across world cultures, and consequently, commonalities among the narratives those cultures construct and consume. Cataloguing these similarities has produced a variety of classificatory systems.

In the mid-nineteenth century, German scholar Adolf...


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pp. 102-118
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