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Narrative 12.1 (2004) 22-34
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"Omniscience" is a notion I have used in discussing narrative, without giving it much thought but also without having much conviction that "the omniscient narrator" is a well-grounded concept or really helps account for narrative effects. Looking into the matter, I find this situation is not untypical. Critics refer to the notion all the time but few express much confidence in it. The idea of omniscience has not received much critical scrutiny. 1
This past year I have spent time working on this problem, in a return to narratological matters, which I had rather neglected in recent years. 2 Studying omniscience while observing a president who espouses Total Information Awareness, manifestly thinks he has nothing to learn from anyone, and is convinced of the infallibility of his judgment of evil in its accordance with God's, I have tried to keep my rising repugnance from attaching to the concept of omniscience in narrative poetics. I have endeavored to separate the concept of narrative omniscience from current political fantasy, and I hope I have succeeded. I am reminded, though, of Virginia Woolf's comment in a letter to her sister after receiving a visit from T. S. Eliot, who talked of his religious conversion: "I mean there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God" (3:457-58). 3
I do not think the idea of omniscience is obscene, but I have reached the conclusion that it is not a useful concept for the study of narration, that it conflates and confuses several different factors that should be separated if they are to be well understood—that it obfuscates the various phenomena that provoke us to posit the idea. Wallace Martin writes, "'omniscient narration' becomes a kind of dumping ground filled with a wide range of distinct narrative techniques" (146). I believe that we should try to recover and recycle what we have dumped there. In one of the alternatives I have seen, Nicholas Royle, in a new book titled The Uncanny, proposes to [End Page 22] replace the idea of omniscience with that of telepathy—an idea about which I will say more later. 4 "Telepathy" does have certain advantages, especially that of estrangement. "Omniscience" may have become too familiar for us to think shrewdly about it.
The basis of "omniscience" appears to be the frequently articulated analogy between God and the author: the author creates the world of the novel as God created our world, and just as the world holds no secrets for God, so the novelist knows everything that is to be known about the world of the novel. This is all very well, but if, for instance, we do not believe in an omniscient and omnipotent God, then we cannot draw on what we know of God to illuminate properties of narrative. Even if we believe in God, there is precious little knowledge about him on which to rely. If you look into theological discussions of omniscience, you will quickly be dissuaded of any idea that God's omniscience could serve as a useful model for omniscience in narration, for discussions of divine omniscience are generally based on what is called "Perfect Being Theology." God is by definition perfect, and since to lack knowledge of any kind would be to fall short of perfection, God must be all-knowing. The main problem for theological discussions of omniscience then becomes whether the perfection of divine omniscience is compatible with free will, both of which are taken for granted as necessary and desirable. Since criticism need not presuppose either the perfection of the author or the freedom of characters, it seems unlikely that criticism can learn much from these theological debates.
The fundamental point is that since we do not know whether there is a God and what she might know, divine omniscience is not a model that helps us think about authors or about literary narration. On the contrary, one could say that the force of the analogy works the other way: the example of the novelist, who creates his world...