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  • The Sense of Open-Endedness in the Ancient Novel
  • Steve Nimis

It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.


Of the many fictions academics foist upon unsuspecting students, the most transparent is surely the principle that the first step in producing a written composition is to prepare an outline. The assumption behind this advice is that one should somehow have finished the entire composition before actually beginning to articulate it in writing, so that it can be brought forth whole, with all the parts organically connected to each other. But anyone who has ever written anything knows that one of the best ways to defeat the blank page is to plunge in somewhere with some general idea and see where that beginning leads. After something has taken shape, it is then possible to reflect on the outcome and produce an outline or, better yet, an introduction that recasts the entire writing process as a teleological one aimed at what is now known to be the actual telos.

What interests me here is the analog that exists between this notion of how texts ought to be composed and the practice of reading by literary critics. For the assumption that texts are brought forth as a [End Page 215] completed totality requires and authorizes critics to focus on the way each part is infused with and resonates with some "main idea" that the author had from the start, as though the unfolding of a text were the progressive revelation of a predetermined content. Most modern readings of ancient literature have proceeded on the basis of some such teleological assumption. Whether an author's "main idea" is construed to be a philosophical statement or an assertion about social reality, or whether the author is thought to be titillating or instructing the reader, somehow the author is trying to convey something by some means that it is the critic's task to identify. And certainly such a critical procedure has produced many interesting and fruitful ideas about literature. However, a teleological approach is not necessarily the best one for every text, and, in fact, it is my contention that such a model of reading is prejudicial to the ancient novels and obscures what Bakhtin considers one of their distinctive features: "maximal contact with the present in all its open-endedness."2 The title of my paper refers both to this critical term and to Frank Kermode's book, The Sense of an Ending, a work that makes a classic case for the teleological idea of reading. Here is a statement of that idea from an article on Heliodorus by John Morgan, entitled "A Sense of the Ending" (1989a.299):

[T]he meaning of a story flows back from its ending, which constitutes a goal towards which the narrative can be seen to have been directed. Because an omniscient narrator in the past tense by definition knows how the story ends, his narrative discourse is itself an act of implicit structuration towards the ending, retrospective for himself, prospective for the reader, who is led back along an already mapped path through the maze of contingencies and unrealized possibilities and follows eagerly in his desire to achieve the meaning which only the end can bring.

Morgan blends two ideas of omniscience in this statement: the narratological pose of omniscience, a narrator who knows more than the characters and shares this knowledge with the reader, and the omniscience of the author who, having finished his novel, knows the story from beginning to end. [End Page 216] That the two go together is a natural enough assumption, but brings us back to the paradox with which I began: namely, that the omniscient narrator has essentially finished the entire work before actually beginning. One could, of course, argue that the ancient novels evolved in a number of drafts that required substantial rewriting and rethinking of the meaning and the end of the work, resulting in a novel that is in this way grasped by the author all at once as an organic whole. But the fact is that we know as...


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