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Story and Situation. Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 11, Number 2, October 1987
pp. 352-354 | 10.1353/phl.1987.0049

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352Philosophy and Literature sionistic talk about the conventions of literature, witii no serious attempt to connect die examples widi the definition. The causal theory of names does get used in Pavel's investigations. The trouble is it gets misused. He argues diat, like ordinary proper names, fictional names are not essentiaUy connected with descriptions, but are just "pegged" to individuals. Fictional characters can, he says, "be named and individuated independently of any kind of description" (p. 37). But which individual is "Hamlet" pegged to? No actuaUy existing individual, surely. To a possible individual ? Which one? How can we pick out a merely possible individual? Not by ostention; not even by description. It would be like saying "Let's caU 'Hamlet' the person who possibly did aU the things described in Shakespeare's play." But there are coundess people who possibly did those things. On die causal model, which Pavel wants to apply to fictional names, pegging is done by causal contact . What causal connections are diere between die supposed individual Hamlet and ourselves? I'm talking about possible worlds and their inhabitants here, and Pavel wiU object diat he has already transcended diem for somediing richer. In diat case he ought to teU us enough about the structure of fictional worlds to show mat such individuation is plausible. He doesn't. What is motivating Pavel here — and the motivation is sound — is the apparendy legitimate use we make of fictional names in counterfactuals: Hamlet might not have kUled Laertes, for instance. We certainly need a theory to accommodate such judgments, but taking die causal dieory over wholesale creates more trouble than it is worth. At the end of this book fictional worlds remain what diey have always been; a seductive metaphor widiout explanatory power. University of OtagoGregory Currie Story and Situation. Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (Theory and History of Literature, vol. 12), by Ross Chambers; xxii & 255 pp. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, $29.50 cloth, $14.95 paper. This exceUent book develops a theory of the pragmatics of story teUing in a discussion of narration and situational contexts in weU-known short tales by Poe, Balzac, Nerval, Henry James, and Joyce. Chambers strikes a subde balance between interpretation and theoretical analysis, providing at once an original and important development of narrative theory and very engaging readings of The Purloined Letter, Sarasine, Sylvie, The Figure in the Carpet, and The Reviews353 Dead, and brief discussions of one text by Saki, The Open Window, and anodier by Schwob, Les Sans Gueule. These narratives constandy problematize the distinction between discourse and die context of narration. Narration is perlocutionary in its effect; die impact of the tale depends not only on the narrative itself, but on successfuUy recruiting die desire of the other, the addressee, in order that a point be made. Narrational audiority both asserts its power over the addressee, and, at the same time, remains vulnerable through its necessary dependence on the other. As diese narratives mediate exchanges between die participants of die fiction, uiey invite consideration of a wider field of relationships ofpower which impinge upon history. Chambers dius provides a pertinent and much needed extension of narrative dieory, which, more often than not has been indifferent or blind to questions of history and ideology. The texts discussed identify their situation by die metaphor of seduction, which Chambers interprets as a sign of modern, alienated writing. Unable to rely on (die perception of) direct communication between narrator and audience (Benjamin), die modern text sets its communicative situation in terms of the manipulation of desire and the deferral of communication. The power of these fictions is derived from their abUity to theorize dieir performance, to produce situational self-definition and to engage in seduction. The power of seduction relies upon the readerly aspects of the story (Bardies), the promise tiiat meanings are wiuiin our grasp. To sustain die lure of seduction, however, the text must constandy defer die mastery it promises dirough techniques which we now associate with Bardies's term, the writerly. Poe's Purloined Letter explores the interrelation between narrational duplicity, which disguises the strategies of narration, and self-reference, in which die operations of narration...