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  • Sideshadowing and Tempics
  • Gary Saul Morson (bio)

Tempics and the Bias of the Artifact

Time is of the essence. All of us directly experience our lives as opening into an uncertain future. We possess no guarantee that each event in our lives will prove to be of significance or will fit a meaningful pattern. But successful narrative art, unlike life, does typically ensure such significance, which is one reason almost everyone senses the artificiality of even the most realistic story. However precise the author may be in recording the texture of daily life, the very fact of a work’s structure renders its temporality radically different from that of real life. 1

In life, most people would regard it as futile to forecast one’s future on the basis of what would make the most effective story. But in reading literature, this way of thinking about characters’ lives is often justified. In novels there is a point when all loose threads must be tied together. But real time is an ongoing process without anything resembling literary closure.

Writers who have wanted to represent time as open have therefore sometimes struggled against this narrative demand for structure and closure. And yet for very good reasons, a work without these twin insurers of unity is likely not to be effective at all. It appears that literary structure is not neutral with respect to philosophies of time.

Lessing contended that art forms carry inherent predispositions, 2 and we may say that narratives, insofar as they rely on structure, are predisposed to convey a sense of fatalism, determinism, or otherwise closed time. It is relatively easy to make a narrative’s temporality isomorphic with—the same shape as—closed time, but many writers have felt it almost impossible to create isomorphism with open time. That was the task set by those two extreme devotees of realism, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—Tolstoy in order to represent the radical contingency of the world and Dostoevsky to represent human freedom. They developed remarkably interesting ways to resist the bias of the artifact—to overcome what I like to call Lessing’s curse. Their most interesting method for doing so was a device I have named sideshadowing. [End Page 599]

Let me project beyond my own examples and my earlier work to where I want to go in the future. It seems to me that the history of poetics, from Aristotle to the present, has, for all the variety of interpretive schools, almost always found meaning in narrative by reading out its eventness. A poetic reading shows us how the unfolding of incidents completes a pattern, how the work, when finished, is graspable as a synchronic structure that has simply required time to unfold. The work is spatialized, and so real eventfulness exists only for the characters.

For the reader, the work becomes graspable in all its artfulness after reading is over, when it is contemplated as a whole or reread. Indeed, for an experienced reader, even a first reading constitutes an anticipated rereading. Time becomes symmetrical, so that events may be explained not only by what precedes them but also by where they must lead to complete the structure in the best possible way. The future is given, as is the past, and the present moment of any event possesses no special meaning.

But in life, and for most novelistic characters, time is asymmetrical. While the past is fixed, the future is experienced as open and the present possesses real presentness, in which the weight of chance and choice may lead to many different outcomes. From this sense of presentness, we derive the capacity for regret and other emotions that depend on an uncertain future and a momentous present. Unlike most art, life is genuinely eventful and set in open time, with loose ends and without closure. And yet, some artworks have managed to overcome the bias of the artifact and convey a sense of open and asymmetrical time. Contemplating such works, critics, largely by default, have continued to read poetically and force a structure where one is lacking. The signs of ill-fit between work and interpretive method are apparent, but there is nothing else...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-661X
Print ISSN
0028-6087
Pages
pp. 599-624
Launched on MUSE
1998-11-01
Open Access
No
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