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  • The Novelization of the Body, or, How Medicine and Stories Need One Another
  • Rita Charon (bio)

We are contained by the spaces and times given us, chosen by us, or that simply, randomly, befall us. Like the water jug or the sonnet form, containers simultaneously confine and give shape. The freedom we achieve during and beyond our lives is, perhaps, not unrelated to the containers that hold us and from which we free ourselves. How we live in and become free from what contains us—our mother's uterus, for example, or the town we grew up in—influences the attained freedom. Whether the stricture of genre, the structure of language, or the constructs of culture, that which frames the stage on which we perform self will alter the outcomes of the dance.

The boundaries of our containers, as we know well, determine the grounds for meaning. Defining what is outside and what is inside of a text or a frame or a discipline orients us toward the work of understanding or interpreting it. Paying attention to the border zones between one space and its contiguous but different neighbors is one way to locate ourselves in the spaces we find ourselves in. Once located, we can more ably identify what we do, who we are, and even, sometimes, what it all might mean.

The boundaries themselves have become our loci of work and life at the limens of fields, cultures, genders, or biological structures. Knowing about the placenta or adolescence is not unlike knowing about Pashtun or graphic novels. Such boundary positions undermine certainty and stay the hand of the totalizer. Not only does one live in such zones around doubt and the enduring state of being a misfit; one also has a rare chance to transfigure what one sees or understands about one's originary site.

Boundary questions are essentially questions about location, about contiguity, about the situation of "hereness." Mobilizing the elemental question of space itself, boundary questions enable us to contemplate our very stature as spatial creatures [End Page 33] whose thoughts, actions, and affiliations have not only discretion and duration but also dimension and relation. When Mikhail Bakhtin combined space and time in his notion of the chronotope, he demonstrated for us the implausibility or partiality of regarding one without the other: "We are presented with a text occupying a certain specific place in space, that is, it is localized; our creation of it, our acquaintance with it occurs through time" (252). Our lived experiences of the phenomena of being selves rely, Bakhtin suggests, on our simultaneously being placed somewhere temporally—in the now, in memory, and in anticipation—and spatially—materially, visibly, in matrices with others. The status as body conferred on all members of the plant and animal kingdoms (and even some of the members of the mineral kingdom—think of a piece of feldspar or a hunk of coal) confers upon us pari passu properties of space and of time. Combining both functions of occupying space and keeping time, these bodies by virtue of their materiality exist within both dimensions, and we are hard-pressed to think of one aspect without the other, no blade without the sheath, no needle without the thread.

Starting with Joseph Frank in 1945, narratologists have augmented their traditional Augustine-Bergson-Proust-Ricoeur-driven attention to temporality with specific attention to the spatial relations in texts and ideas. As reported by Gaston Bachelard (1958), Michel de Certeau (1974), W. J. T Mitchell (1980), Julia Kristeva (1966), Susan Stanford Friedman (1993), and many more along the way, spatial forms in literature grant a strategy for reading and, more generally, a mode of conceiving of phenomena of any kind that make room for dynamism, relation, revision, and contact. The interiors in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady—the dusty disheveled office in Albany where Isabel Archer is found by her rich English aunt; the Touchetts' grand English manor house that wordlessly beckons Isabel toward privilege; the artful dead museum of Osmond in which Isabel, on marrying him, is nearly embalmed; the elegant but equally dead town house in Rome in which she is virtually imprisoned—each of these...


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pp. 33-50
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