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  • Social Minds and Narrative Time:Collective Experience in Thucydides and Heliodorus1
  • Jonas Grethlein (bio)

It has become clear only in recent years to what extent narratology can benefit from historical analysis. A synchronic focus is part of the discipline’s structuralist inheritance and has been readily adopted by some of the new narratologies that emerged in the last two decades. However, narrative forms and functions change over time. It is worth inquiring into the history of such narrative features as focalization, description and metalepsis as well as into the metamorphoses of genres. Monika Fludernik’s programmatic investigation of scene shifts provides a splendid example (“Diachronization”). In Middle English prose and verse narrative, a shift of scene is frequently introduced by such formula as “we now leave X and Y and turn to A and B, who were . . .” Such markers were made superfluous by the introduction of chapters. They nonetheless survived and can still be found in the modern novel, albeit with a new function: here, the metalepsis is used for ironic and parodic purposes. What was originally a structuring device has become an instrument of metafictional play.

Historical analysis not only alerts us to the transformations narrative features undergo, it can also help us reconsider the theory of narrative. In this essay, I shall [End Page 123] deploy ancient narrative to highlight a lopsidedness in current narrative theory. My argument is not so much a critique of cognitive approaches as an attempt to complement them. Alan Palmer’s work on fictional and especially social minds is emblematic of a broader trend to consider “theory of mind” the key to our response to narrative. While Palmer defines narrative as “the description of fictional mental functioning” (Fictional Minds 12), Lisa Zunshine argues that “certain cultural artifacts, such as novels, test the functioning of our cognitive adaptations for mind-reading while keeping us pleasantly aware that the ‘test’ is proceeding quite smoothly” (18). The primary use of narrative seems to consist in offering us a training camp for “theory of mind.” In the eyes of many cognitive narratologists, mind-reading is at the core of our response to narrative.

There can be no doubt that coming to grips with social minds as well as with fictional minds more generally is a salient aspect of the reading process. Social minds also permeate ancient narrative. As my examples will illustrate, ancient authors deploy internal focalization with great efficiency and draw on a large arsenal of devices for subtle shifts of perspective. And yet even in the ancient novel the presentation of characters and their minds is less an end in itself than a means to render an action in a vivid way. The definition of narrative as the description of processes of consciousness may work well for some classical modern novel which scholars like Palmer concentrate on; it does not hold true, though, for ancient narrative.2 Ancient novels as well as ancient historiography and epic draw our attention to another aspect that is, I think, equally important, namely time. Narrative time has received much attention in the Neo-Aristotelian and phenomenological traditions.3 In cognitive studies, however, while not completely ignored, narrative time does not have the place it ought to have. My exploration of collective experience in ancient Greek narrative will illustrate that the cognitive dynamics of narrative can be fully understood only if we take into account the entwinement of social minds and fictional minds in general with narrative time.

I will discuss two exemplary scenes featuring collective experience, one from historiography (Thucydides), the other from an ancient novel (Heliodorus). Other than public manifestations, collective experience encompasses emotions and thoughts that are shared by a group but hidden in their minds. For Dorrit Cohn, the access to such mental processes sets fiction apart from factual texts (Distinction of Fiction 16–17). While the historian is confined to the evidence of his sources, the novelist is at liberty to delve into the interior lives of her characters. In ancient literature, however, this division does not work. Greek and Roman historians are not shy of elaborating on the interior processes of historical agents.4 Even Thucydides, hailed as the father of critical historiography...


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pp. 123-139
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