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Narrative 10.3 (2002) 195-221

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Where the Bodies are Buried:
Cartesian Dispositions in Narrative Theories of Character

Genie Babb

Bodily being does not mean that the soul is burdened by a hulk we call the body. . . . We do not "have" a body; rather, we "are" bodily.

—Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche (qtd. in Levin 124)

Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system.

—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (203)

What does the recent explosion of work on the body have to offer narrative theory? And what does narrative theory have to offer work on the body? These two questions frame the following essay. Such questions presume that the intersection of the two areas of inquiry has not been mapped out, and indeed, this is the case. As Daniel Punday has recently observed, "Despite its signal importance to so many schools of contemporary criticism, the human body has largely failed to garner a significant place in narratology" (227). On the other hand, though much work on the body addresses the body's representation in written discourse, very little if any of it operates from a specifically narratological frame of reference. Nowhere is this theoretical gap more pronounced than in theories of character formation, which throughout the twentieth century have focused on action, interiority, and consciousness.

Narratology's neglect of the body when analyzing character can in part be traced to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's influential Laocoön (1766). Lessing's famous dictum "[S]uccession of time is the province of the poet just as space is that of the painter" inaugurated a distinction between the two media that has been taken as axiomatic in twentieth-century narrative theory (91). What has been equally influential, [End Page 195] though rarely noted, is Lessing's relegation of the body to the representational space of painting and description. Lessing asserts a homology between poetry/painting and narration/description, and within poetry, Lessing makes a distinction between the explicit body displayed through description and the implicit body suggested through the action of a hero. Early in Laocoön, Lessing states as "unquestionable" the following proposition: "[S]ince the whole infinite realm of perfection lies open to [the poet's] description, this external form [physical appearance], beneath which perfection becomes beauty, can at best be only one of the least significant means by which he is able to awaken our interest in his characters. Often he ignores it entirely, being convinced that once his hero has won our favor his other qualities will either occupy us to such a point that we do not think of his physical form or, if we do think of it, we will be so captivated that we give him of our own accord if not a beautiful form, at least an ordinary one" (23 my emphasis). Lessing devalues the "physical form" of the hero as a means to appeal to the reader's sympathy. True beauty is something spiritual "beneath" the physical exterior, and to convey this spiritual beauty, the writer "often . . . ignores [the hero's body] entirely" and relies on the hero's "other qualities" to "[win] our favor." For Lessing, the hero's body doesn't matter very much in the larger scheme of things, since "the whole infinite realm of perfection lies open" to the poet's pen.

Twentieth-century narratology has, in large part, absorbed these assumptions about the representation of the body and character construction. Not only has classical narratology conceived of narrative in temporal terms, it has conceived of character in terms of either action or interiority or both. Michael Hoffman and Patrick Murphy conclude their survey on twentieth-century theories of character with a question that makes explicit the primacy of consciousness: "What then is character: a speaking voice, a thinking mind, a feeling of spirit?" (10). Structuralists and narratologists, of course, have posited the most fundamental feature of character to be the function...


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