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Real Mysteries

Narrative and the Unknowable

H. Porter Abbott

Publication Year: 2013

The influential and widely respected narrative theorist, H. Porter Abbott, breaks new ground in Real Mysteries: Narrative and the Unknowable. In it, he revisits the ancient theme of what we cannot know about ourselves and others. But in a sharp departure, he shifts the focus from the representation of this theme to the ways narrative can be manipulated to immerse “the willing reader” in the actual experience of unknowing. As he shows, this difficult and risky art, which was practiced so inventively by Samuel Beckett, was also practiced by other modern writers. Abbott demonstrates their surprising diversity in texts by Beckett, Gabriel García Márquez, Herman Melville, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, J. M. Coetzee, Tim O’Brien, Kathryn Harrison, and Jeanette Winterson, together with supporting roles by J. G. Ballard, Gertrude Stein, Michael Haneke, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The demands of this art bear directly on key issues of narrative inquiry, including the nature and limits of reader-resistant texts, the function of permanent narrative gaps, the relation between experiencing a text and its interpretation, the fraught issue of aligning grammatical and narrative syntax, the mixed blessing of our mind-reading capability, and the ethics of reading. Despite its challenges, this book has also been written with an eye to the general reader. In accessible language, Abbott shows how narrative fiction may create spaces in which our ignorance, when it is by its nature absolute, can be not only acknowledged but felt, and why this is important.

Published by: The Ohio State University Press

Series: Theory and Interpretation of Narrative

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

The seeds for this book were sewn in three essays: “Unreadable Minds and the Captive Reader,” Style (2008); “Immersions in the Cognitive Sublime,” Narrative (2009); and “Garden Paths and Ineffable effects,” in Frederick Aldama’s Toward a Cognitive Theory of Narrative Acts (2010). For all their studied autonomy, they were at heart three different takes on the same subject, with...

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pp. 1-24

Sometime in the mid-1980s, a student asked me “Did Beckett really say that? ‘Fail better’?” He was smiling, and I, smiling, assured him that Beckett had indeed put those two words together. They had appeared a few years before in Beckett’s last long composition in prose, Worstward Ho (1983), and now as it seemed had already gone viral. Global culture, even without digital assistance, was...

Part 1. Unimaginable Unknowns

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pp. 25-26

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1. Apophatic Narrative

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pp. 27-44

These kinds of questions have been asked for a long time. They belong to a larger set of expressive impossibilities that is still very much alive in many different modes of discourse—Buddhist, Romantic, Holocaust, poststructuralist, quantum physical.1 It includes an endless diversity of what is called the ineffability topos, which among other things is an ancient commonplace in protestations...

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2. Conjuring Stories

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pp. 45-62

In this chapter, I will address the same phenomenon I addressed in the last, but from another direction and using the quite different work of a quite different writer. As in the last, I will continue to develop the distinction between a literature of representation and a literature of experience. The challenge will be greater in this chapter, in part because of the sheer brilliance of...

Part 2. Inexpressible States

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pp. 63-64

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3. Sentences & Worlds

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pp. 65-83

In chapters 1 and 2 I addressed textually induced experiences of noncomprehension that occur when the mind is directed toward an unimaginable unknown. I called these experiences the cognitive sublime and argued that they aroused a state of unknowing that is available to us not only in our experience of certain texts but also in our condition as human beings. In other...

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4. Syntactical Poetics

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pp. 84-104

In this chapter, I return to an art that actively seeks to express inexpressible mysteries that we live with outside our textual transactions. They don’t abide with us as a birthright in the manner of the unknowable I dealt with in the first part of this book. They are paradoxical states of feeling that come upon us during the course of our lives, but they are at the same time...

Part 3. Egregious Gaps

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pp. 105-106

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5. Untold Events

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pp. 107-122

A gap in narrative, like the much more salient gaps in poetry, is any kind of opening in the text that is either permanent or requires some degree of filling in order for the text to do its work. Defined as such, gaps are endemic in narrative and have been since people started telling stories, though it was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the work of Menakhem Perry...

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6. Unreadable Minds

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pp. 123-140

Alan Palmer (2004, 2010), Lisa Zunshine (2006, 2009, 2011, 2012), and others have been building the case for reframing the action of narrative fiction as busily “intermental”—a collective reading and misreading of minds. Their work at once draws on and supports the idea that we have an evolved craving, along with a sufficient ability, to read the minds of others (loosely termed...

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Conclusion: Why All This Matters

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pp. 141-154

In the last chapter, I quoted Andrew Delbanco’s description of the narrator of “Bartleby” as “a good man trying to become a better man in the face of another’s suffering.” There is something very nineteenth-century in this twenty-first-century critic’s assessment, with its stress on empathy, and the conscious effort to be “a better man,” and the catalytic agency of suffering. But...

Works Cited

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pp. 155-168


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pp. 169-178

Other Works in the Series

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E-ISBN-13: 9780814270035
E-ISBN-10: 0814270034
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814212325
Print-ISBN-10: 0814212328

Page Count: 184
Illustrations: 1 halftone
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Theory and Interpretation of Narrative

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Fiction -- History and criticism.
  • Narration (Rhetoric).
  • Knowledge, Theory of, in literature.
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