Time and Imagination: Chronotopes in Western Narrative Culture

Time and Imagination: Chronotopes in Western Narrative Culture

by Bart Keunen

Bart Keunen’s boldly comprehensive theory of literature springs from the synthesis between narrative time and space forms called the chronotope (from the Greek chronos “time” and topos “place”). The originator of the theory, Mikhail Bakhtin, argued that each literary culture and each genre uses a family of chronotopes that endow the


Bart Keunen’s boldly comprehensive theory of literature springs from the synthesis between narrative time and space forms called the chronotope (from the Greek chronos “time” and topos “place”). The originator of the theory, Mikhail Bakhtin, argued that each literary culture and each genre uses a family of chronotopes that endow the cultures and genres with their specific aesthetic charm, as well as their cognitive and moral strength. 

After constructing an archeology of the chronotope, Keunen proposes a remarkably original description of the various types of chronotopes. Chronotypes that emphasize conflict are using Greek mythological names to explain equilibrium, or reconciliation, and conflict chronotopes. He then develops a plot typology that covers the whole history of Western narrative culture. With examples and resonances both ancient and modern, Keunen’s Time and Imagination will equip theorists in a wide range of fields with powerful tools for years to come.

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Northwestern University Press
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Rethinking Theory Series
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Time and Imagination

Chronotopes in Western Narrative Culture
By Bart Keunen

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2011 Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2764-7

Chapter One

The Building Blocks of Narrative Imagination

Time as the Cornerstone of Narrative Imagination

The theory of imagination developed by Bakhtin significantly differs from traditional attempts to conceptualize narrative imagination. Neither formalist-structuralist theory nor hermeneutical or philological methodology met with his approval. For decades formalists and structuralists, justifiably dissatisfied with literary scholars caught up in theories about obscure entities like "themes," "mentalities," and "intentions," have been going out of their way to provide some scientific basis to the study of narrative imagination. In view of this scientific approach, they believed textual material to be the most fruitful object of inquiry. Bakhtin, on the contrary, claimed that the raw material of narratives consisted in mental images. He refused to have faith in the core tenet of Russian Formalism, that is, the belief that the imaginal realm could be mapped by describing the means of expression. His post-formalist approach, however, deviates from traditional hermeneutical research (to the same extent as thematology and the history of mentalities) because in his view it is simply impossible to reduce narrative imagination to meanings abstracted from narrative images.

The German Motiv- und Stoffgeschichte (history of motifs and themes; Elisabeth Frenzel and Horst Daemmrich) and the thematological school of French comparativism (Raymond Trousson and the Genevian Thematological School around Georges Poulet and Jean Starobinski) tried to explain narrative imagination by using concepts such as theme and motif. The major fl aw of these theories is exactly their method of abstracting narrative images from concepts and subsequently limiting the analysis to a comparison of these concepts. It is true that some progress was made in gaining insights into the intertextual relationships between narratives from different periods and linguistic regions, yet nothing whatsoever was learned about the experiences evoked by these sorts of images or even about the experiences that precede them. Bakhtin's methodological attitude differs from any such thematological enterprise. Abstract themes, such as love, grief, or death, he states, are like parasites attached to narrative imagination and to the experiences that take shape through these narratives: "All the novel's abstract elements ... gravitate toward the chronotope and through it take on flesh and blood, permitting the imaging power of art to do its work" (Bakhtin 1981a, 250).

Another problem with thematology is that it is far more interested in establishing a catalogue of literary images than in understanding the cognitive or mental processes that lie behind narrative imagination. Thematologists are collectors of images, for example, images about love (the motif of the double suicide, the Romeo and Juliet theme), and comment on their diffusion and impact. These typologies are not only fairly sterile but also fail to provide any insight into literary history. On the contrary, in most cases of traditional thematological studies a tendency toward universalism is rampant, as though the theorists wanted to trace the eternal stories of mankind. Thematic catalogues offer no help at all in a scientific attempt to locate the historical roots of literary images. By using thematic catalogues, we fail to address the most important issues about narrative culture: what is the reason that love takes on the meaning of "ever-lasting" in Greek adventure novels but in Balzacian literature designates a struggle determined by fate? Why does the epic novel sing the praises of universal values while the hero in a picaresque novel is the prisoner of a contingent world? For us to be able to interpret themes, Bakhtin says, we must have a sound grasp of the strategies of imagination that exist in a given period. To use the words of Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson: "for us to understand ... meanings, they must reach us; they must pass through the gates of the chronotope" (1990, 432).


If we are to give a thorough account of a narrative's thematic structure, then we must first attend to the study of the way in which images are created in narratives. The basis for this methodological operation is the perception that a narrative shows a world-in-motion. Narratives bring up interesting evolutions and processes, and in doing so, they make use of images that are equally characterized by change; a narrative's string of events constitutes "moving images." In this sense, time is the cornerstone of a chronotopic image, the basis of a construction of narrative imagination. Perceptual images (that arise, for instance, from contemplating or photographically reproducing a landscape) or imagined objects (the face of an absent loved one) can perfectly exist without any development of time. A story, by contrast, only deserves to be told (see Herman's concept of "tellability") if some form of process is involved. A narrative is only interesting inasmuch as it tells of an event that is relevant for the recipient—a meaningful action, a changing mood, the confirmation of a moral value, or the evolution of an opinion. Events, in other words, constitute the core of narrative imagination.

This is the reason why philosophers who direct their attentions to narrative theory stress the fact that "time" represents the heart of narrative art, the heart of the art of storytelling. In Temps et récit (Time and Narrative), Paul Ricoeur states that fictional narratives only become narratives when they focus on creating a "mimesis of action" (1984, 290). Following Aristotle, he believes that even stylistically premature narratives constitute narratives as soon as they depict actions and processes, though any narrative evidently is dependent upon language and style. Indeed, Aristotle claims that the poet "should be the maker of plots rather than of verses; since he is a poet because he imitates, and what he imitates are actions" (1929, 51b27). Therefore, the motor behind the constructions of narrative imagination is human action. In fact, only very rarely do we encounter a narrative in which the source of change assumes a nonhuman form.

Consequently, if action can be called the cornerstone of narrativity, time can be called the essential component of telling a story. In addition, this perspective turns chronotopes into the most fundamental entities in the study of narrative imagination. A chronotope is an imaginal construct or entity representing a temporal process that occurs in a spatial situation. It is exactly because of the fact that every activity, every development of time, is expressed through spatial changes that we should consider chronotopes to be the essence of narratives.

This, as a matter of fact, applies to all narrative media. Cinematic images, for example, are subject to the chronotopic nature of narrative imagination. Even if the spatial element leaves very little to the imagination (everything is mechanically captured by the film camera), it is nonetheless necessary for a spectator to put the events through a mental operation. In cinema, processes of time preserve their status as the cornerstone of narrative imagination. It is no coincidence that editing is the key operation in cinema's aesthetics. Though cinematic images may seem to have little appeal to the imagination, they still exhibit a highly imaginative power by way of the plot's structure. Reality is different from cinema because the sequences of images are staged by the imagination. Reality comes alive in a specific structure through the filmmaker's imagination. Apart from this, films are chronotopic because they are the realization, both on a spatial and a temporal level, of the effects of imagination experienced by the filmmaker. Sets and lighting are adjusted in ways that allow the filmmaker to express a specific reality of imagination. The spectators are offered little room for personally specifying the cinematic images because the camera does this for them, yet through the style of directing, handling the camera, and editing, the filmmaker offers a concrete, realized form of the narrative in the film in a way his or her imagination considers it to be possible. The narrative told by the filmmaker possesses a dynamic imaginal structure that needs to be decoded by the spectators if they are to gain any insight into the narrative.

In narrative texts that work with verbal tools, such as literary narratives, the dynamics of the chronotope need to be realized in a different way. As banal as this may seem, one of the primary means to this end is the use of verbs. In Mille Plateaux, Deleuze notes that verbs represent the heart of an event. In the "becoming" of a situation, the image-in-motion is expressed in the verb (Deleuze and Guattari 1980, 263). Apart from verbs, narratives apply temporal indicators that point out the leading moments in the narrative processes. Indicators such as "suddenly," "exactly on time," "at that moment," and "one day later," among others, give rhythm to adventurous events and tell us something about the contingency of the actions occurring in the fictional world. Other indicators are related to conceptions of time in which chance hardly has any part to play: "on a beautiful Sunday afternoon" or "they lived happily ever after." By means of these temporal indicators, a situation in equilibrium is expressed. As we will see, the time of a love affair or of a creational myth is entirely constructed by means of reiterating processes that generate an image of equilibrium. Through the staging of seasons and natural cycles, a narrator fully subsumes a narrative within themes of repetition and regularity.


The building blocks of narratives are moving images, which can be interpreted and designated as stable entities (the duel or the fight, for example). Nonetheless, as mental constructs, they wholly incorporate a "becoming."

We can also observe the way in which narratives depict changes on the level of the rounded-off narrative. The well-established notion of plot represents a temporal pattern that guarantees the narrators, the audience, and the text itself the rational order of the narrative. E. M. Forster, Ricoeur, and Peter Brooks also detect in a plot a logical whole that can turn a chain of events into a narrative (Richardson 2005, 353). Plot, in other words, clearly involves mental activity. For this reason, Dame Gillian Beer considers plot mechanisms to be the "organizing principles of ... thinking" (1983, 47). Ricoeur, in turn, reserves the term "emplotment" for the reflexive activity behind the narrative, for introducing subdivisions in and applying structures to a narrative. For Ricoeur (1984), all instances of narrative art involve some kind of reflection. In consuming a narrative, we reflect upon a world-in-motion and represent this world as a totality. We practice, in other words, totalizing visualization. In the images that result from this operation, the beginning and end of a narrative are brought together, while recollected fragments in the middle function as a chain of elements connecting beginning and end. Adventurous fairytale heroes depart from home to solve problems in inhospitable regions, only to arrive safely home again after their adventures. This example of what I will call a teleological chronotope demonstrates that the changing spatial situation is accompanied by a temporal process: an initial situation gradually transforms into a new shape and ultimately leads to an end situation, which sharply contrasts with the middle part. This process of totalization is already active during the reception of the narrative. Even if we do not know the ending yet and have not passed through all episodes, we can still gather a representation of the whole. Anticipation, for that matter, belongs to the core of the reception process.

Another form of totalizing visualization is the imaginal construct of a network of characters (consider, for example, the relationships between Madame Bovary and her lovers) or the imaginal representation of the tension in the fundamental relationship between a character and his environment (for example, between Alfred Döblin's Franz Biberkopf and all of the actors he is confronted with in Berlin). This type of imaginal construction could be labeled as a dialogical chronotope—a network of singular time events or kairos moments.


The images-in-motion and worlds-in-motion are what makes it possible for us to call narratives, as Frank Kermode aptly expresses it, "fictive models of the temporal world" (1968, 54). Time can be connected not only to actions and plot-spaces but also to worldviews. The world-in-motion narrative, after all, obeys certain genre conventions that are in turn influenced by general views of time and space. Consider a writer of a story that is ruled by the time of adventures, or in which adventures lead to a satisfying happy ending. It is obvious that this writer chooses a different concept of time than, for example, a writer of tragedies or biographies. In an adventure story, time's impact on heroic actions is great, yet it is small or nonexistent on philosophical meditations or the biographic accounts of the principal characters. Adventure narratives are particularly proficient in establishing characters in an unrealistic manner because the conception of time does not allow realism. When Ulysses' long journey draws to a close, he has not changed a bit: setting foot on Ithaca, he requires Athena's help to take on the guise of an old man. Homer is so intently focused on the time of adventure that he does not bother to represent his hero, who has wandered the face of the earth for twenty years, as twenty years older. A biographer, by contrast, can be set to trace signs of decay on a scale of months. The same contrast exists between modern "realistic" stories and the myth-infused epics of antiquity. The backdrop of Le rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black) is the history of the French Revolution and the Restoration, while in the Iliad it is the eternal world of the Olympic gods. Worldviews (whether they are political or mythical) no longer belong to the narrative but involve ideological or philosophical inferences that originate with the recipient (see Eco's view on possible worlds in Lector in fabula).

The impact of worldviews also demonstrates that the images offered in narrative invariably comment on a specific type of experience. Evaluating human experience presupposes an adequate concept of time. Through our examination of time, we are tracing the ways in which the storytelling human animal reacts to experiences (the experience of chance, the experience of the relativity of a project) and how he or she attempts to get a grip on these experiences by constructing fictional representations. Literary historians, therefore, have an important part to play in the study of narrative imagination. By analyzing the differences in plot structure and the contrasts between genres on the imaginal level, we can gain an idea of the experiential invariables that are active in a culture and of the evolution that affects cultural experiences.

The Narrative Space

As fundamental as concepts of time may be for an analysis of narrative imagination, images are still not adequately describable without taking into account the spatial embedding of temporal processes. Nevertheless, only the temporal dimension is taken into consideration in many narrative theories. Aristotle famously argued that plot and mimesis (the depiction of action) were essentially sufficient to define narrative art. In the same way, Ricoeur thought that only time was needed to define the narrative identity of man. Most theorists do not share our view of narrative imagination as an imaginal entity in the broadest sense of the phrase (as a temporal and spatial given). They merely discuss plot patterns or the abstract order that provides structure to the succession of images. In my opinion, however, this goes against the commonsense views of the narrative space and runs counter to more than one narratological and empirical theory. It is hard to see how anyone can ignore the fact that narratives are stored in memory by means of spatial images. Bruno Hillebrand is right to point out that we first remember a setting when we are plumbing the depths of memory while attempting to call a fictional text to mind (1971, 418). Intuitions of this kind have led some narrative theorists to define space as a fundamental dimension of narrative imagination. Lotman, for example, holds that "the iconic principle and a graphical quality are wholly peculiar to verbal models" (1977, 217). Other narratologists no doubt share his thoughts when he emphasizes that the reception of a text is accompanied by the generation of visual denotata (Lotman 1977, 55; Bal 1978, 49). Although classical narratology makes room for examining spatiality, it would be presumptuous to say that it is genuinely concerned with the spatial component of the imagination.


Excerpted from Time and Imagination by Bart Keunen Copyright © 2011 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Bart Keunen is Professor of comparative Literature at Ghent University, Belgium.

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