- Fictions of Discourse: Reading Narrative Theory
Patrick O’Neill serves up a rich stew of narratology, reader-reception theory, and a postmodern theory of truth. Many narratologists have taken the postmodern turn, while others have pursued a reception-theory route. Either path requires careful navigation, and the combined one even more so. Classical narratology focuses on the textual structure with its network of various narratological relations. Reader-reception theory assigns to the reader a leading role in the creation of the text. O’Neill in various ways challenges or at least reformulates the notions of both text and reader, endorsing as he does a postmodern theory of truth which he terms the “Zeno Principle.” This principle is that “narrative discourse is always potentially subversive of the story it would seem to reconstruct” (p. 7). The Zeno Principle is a version of what he understands to be the Heisenberg Principle, namely that “discourse (including theoretical discourse) at least potentially subverts the story it sets out to narrate, and ultimately itself also” (p. 9). O’Neill contends that his narratological project will support the Zeno Principle. If successful, though, his endeavor will of course meet the usual self-destructive fate of such theories. But its self-annihilation seems not to discourage O’Neill, who finds all theories essentially “ludic.” O’Neill’s undertaking is ambitious; I shall focus on just a few of his moves.
First of all, it is no surprise to hear that postmodernism is not new nor even that it has a classical pedigree. But it will probably astound—not to say sadden—the reader to see O’Neill locate its origins in the paradoxes of Zeno—the fifth-century Eleatic, the logician so well known for defending the epistemic primacy of reason, one of the uncontested intellectual progenitors of Plato, who remains the explicit target of Derridean fire. This is not simply a persnickety objection to O’Neill’s terminology, but a reflection on the broad implications he draws from his narratological investigations.
Plato, working in the Eleatic (Zenoian) tradition, draws our attention to the perspectival nature of literature and would extend this to all empirical discourse. Any empirical narrative—history, biography, or literature—is in principle illusory because merely perspectival. Plato, true intellectual heir of Zeno, anticipates the narratological enterprise in this respect, while demonstrating [End Page 532] the exclusive epistemic integrity of logical thought. One finds this of course in his Republic, but nowhere are his narratological sympathies more evident than in the Symposium, with its many tiers of narration. He prefigures, then, the modern insight that all narrative is, in Wayne Booth’s terms, rhetoric and in narratological terms, focalized.
If we grant with Zeno, Plato, and other friends of rationality that empirical discourse is perspectival or focalized, we can see that narrative must place us in some hypothetical vantage point: from another standpoint, the world looks different and assumes new contours and mood. Once we acknowledge that no one point of view is more privileged than another, our perceptions seem less stable. Lolita, for example, told from the viewpoint of the nymphet herself, would be a different story. Moreover, any narrative must be mediated by narrative perspective, and as O’Neill indicates, the narrative vantage point may not be that of the narrator or implied author. As he puts it, “Voice and vision . . . [may] derive from separate points of origin” (p. 84).
In a sense, then, all empirical discourse is subversive. But does it follow that all theoretical discourse is therefore subversive? O’Neill scrutinizes fictional discourse, and helpfully so for us. But the perspectival nature of literary or empirical narrative hardly suffices to cast doubt on the notion of truth per se. The real Zeno Principle is the Platonic one that however arbitrarily empirical perspective might shift, rational intuition does not. If one wants to challenge that view, one must defend the Protagoras Principle, the true classical articulation of postmodernism. Aristotle, after all, wrestles with this in his Metaphysics rather than in his Poetics.