- Time, Narrative, Life, Death, & Text-Type Distinctions:The Example of Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year
The Narrative Difference
"[A]ll knowledge is encoded as stories." This sweeping assertion by Roger Schank and Robert Abelson seems designed to provoke (2).1 But then here's Mark Turner affirming much the same position: "Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought" (4). And here's Merlin Donald asserting that "the narrative mode is . . . the basic product of language" (257). Fredric Jameson called narrative "the central function . . . of the human mind" (13), and Lyotard called it "the quintessential form of customary knowledge" (19). Goranson and Cardier called narrative a "driving imperative" (1), and Robert Storey contended that narrative is "an innate way of knowing, essentially as pre-linguistic in its operations as conceptualization has proven to be" (84) and, as such, "the 'deep grammar' of literature itself" (113). Storey was echoing both Algirdas Greimas and Greimas's sometime critic Paul Ricoeur, who both preferred the term "narrativity" for this deep pre-linguistic informing capability, with Ricoeur extending its operation well beyond fictive literature, as did most emphatically Hayden White, who called narrativity a "panglobal fact of culture" (19).
If there is no empirical evidence yet that would put any of these assertions beyond doubt, they nonetheless indicate a shared intuition that narrative is somehow of a different order from the other text types. And this intuition, in turn, can make the job of discriminating text types a lopsided endeavor. In strictly literary discourse, discriminating text types has traditionally been a matter of formal categories rather than cognitive equipment. Generally, as formal categories, they constitute equivalent kinds in a hierarchy of forms. In this scheme, they are usually situated equally together at [End Page 187] the top of the ladder, while below them lie the genres, and below the genres lie discourse segments or modes (Georgakopoulou 595).2 Plato put them on the top rung when he introduced the distinction between diegesis and mimesis. Roland Barthes did the same thing when, in a footnote to his landmark "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative," he suggested a "typology of forms of discourse" comprised of "three broad types": "metonymic (narrative), metaphoric (lyric poetry, sapiential discourse), enthymematic (intellectual discourse)" (84n). Scholars differ on what a complete list of text types would include, but common candidates for inclusion are narrative, description, explanation, exposition, lyrical effusion, argument, portraiture, and analysis (Werlich, Chatman, Bruner, Görlach, Herman, Phelan). What makes the list lopsided from the cognitive viewpoint I am taking in this essay is the fact that, for the other text types, one cannot find the kind of intuitive privileging that has been given to narrative.3 One doesn't come across assertions like "all knowledge is encoded as description" or "lyrical effusion is the fundamental instrument of thought."
I would contend that there is good reason for this lopsidedness, and it lies in the fact that narrative is the only text type that requires all four of the dimensions in which we live our lives, three of space and one of time. All the text types take time to read, of course, but narrative is the only one that has what Chatman called an "internal time sequence" (9). It is this unique dimensional scope of the narrative text type that has led, generally, to the absorption of Plato's distinction between diegesis and mimesis into one overarching type. The melding of Plato's types began almost immediately with Aristotle, who described them as sub-types, the told and the dramatized, of the same thing, mimesis. For most narratologists today the term of choice is narrative. If the inclusion of drama and film in this overarching text type has brought in its wake problematic applications of the terms narrate and narration (and it has), the general willingness to accept this price is a sign, I think, of the primary importance of the temporal character of drama and film that they share with written and oral narrative. They all present stories that unfold over time, and it is this internal temporality that sets them apart from the other text types.4