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Ontological Metalepsis and Unnatural Narratology

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 42, Number 2, Summer 2012
pp. 166-192 | 10.1353/jnt.2012.0005

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In this article, we focus on ontological metalepses that involve represented transgressions of world boundaries as one manifestation of the unnatural. We first discriminate between ascending, descending, and horizontal metaleptic jumps—three types of unnatural metalepses, or, more specifically, metalepses physically or logically impossible (Alber 80)—and, in a second step, try to determine their potential functions. We also propose a new cognitive model that modifies Gérard Genette’s structuralist model to conceptualize ontological metaleptic jumps as (1) vertical interactions either between the actual world and a storyworld or between nested storyworlds, or as (2) horizontal transmigrations between storyworlds.2 We argue that our postclassical method offers a more effective way of analyzing metalepsis because it allows us to describe the nature of ontological metalepsis more accurately and also because it embraces interpretation. We place this article on the overlap between unnatural narratology and transmedial narratology insofar as we analyze ontological metalepsis, an unnatural phenomenon, in both print and Storyspace hypertext fiction.3

Metalepsis and Narrative Theory

In Narrative Discourse, Genette defines metalepsis as “any intrusion by the extradiegetic narrator or narratee into the diegetic universe (or by the diegetic characters into a metadiegetic universe, etc.), or the inverse” (234–35).4 Since Genette’s original definition, narratologists have devised numerous typologies of metalepsis (see John Pier’s entries in the Handbook of Narratology and Routledge Encyclopedia). Marie-Laure Ryan, for example, discriminates between ontological and rhetorical metalepsis: ontological metalepsis “opens a passage between levels that result in their interpenetration, or mutual contamination,” while rhetorical metalepsis only “opens a small window that allows a quick glance across levels, but the window closes after a few sentences, and the operation ends up reasserting the existence of the boundaries” (Avatars 207). Monika Fludernik distinguishes between four types of metalepsis: (1) authorial metalepsis (as in Virgil “has Dido die”), which serves to foreground the inventedness of the story; (2) ontological metalepsis (type 1) in which the narrator (or a character) jumps to a lower diegetic level; (3) ontological metalepsis (type 2) in which a fictional character jumps to a higher narrative level; and (4) rhetorical metalepsis (389). Fludernik also discriminates between “‘real’ and metaphorical metalepsis,” or in other words, “between an actual crossing of ontological boundaries and a merely imaginative transcendence of narrative levels” (396, emphasis original).

From our perspective, authorial and rhetorical metalepses are merely metaphoric ones in which no actual boundary crossing takes place.5 To put this point slightly differently, only ontological metalepses involve disorienting transgressions of boundaries that are physically or logically impossible, and hence properly unnatural. All instances of metalepsis are physically impossible because in the actual world, entities from two different ontological domains cannot interact. For instance, a fictional character cannot literally communicate with his or her author, and an author cannot step into the fictional world that s/he has created. Some ontological metalepses are also logically impossible because they violate the principle of non-contradiction whereby two contradictory states of affairs cannot be true at the same time, which means, for example, that the same character cannot exist in two ontologically distinct domains simultaneously. Indeed, as Ryan notes, “ontological transgressions cannot . . . occur in a fictional world that claims to respect the logical and physical laws of the real world” (Avatars 210).

In this article, we discriminate between three types of unnatural metalepses: ascending, descending, and horizontal. In an ascending metalepsis, a fictional character or narrator jumps from an embedded storyworld to a hierarchically higher one, whereas in a descending metalepsis, a narrator or a character jumps into an embedded storyworld or an author jumps from the actual world into the storyworld.6 In addition to these two vertical types of metalepsis are horizontal metalepses that represent cases of what Pier calls ‘transfictionality,’ in which “say Sherlock Holmes appears in the fictional universe of Madame Bovary” (Handbook 199). The transmigration of a character or narrator into a different fictional text is metaleptic because, as in the other two cases, it involves the transgressive violation of storyworld boundaries through jumps between ontologically distinct zones or spheres.

This article will also expand the scope of unnatural narratology by introducing digital narratives for analysis. As Pier recognizes, “metalepsis...

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