The Opacity of Narrative

The Opacity of Narrative

by Lamarque


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ISBN-13: 9781783480173
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 03/25/2014
Pages: 230
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Peter Lamarque is professor of philosophy at the University of York, UK. His many publications include Work and Object: Explorations in the Metaphysics of Art (OUP, 2010), The Philosophy of Literature (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition (with Stein Haugem Olsen, Wiley-Blackwell, 2003) and Fictional Points of View (Cornell UP, 1996). He was Editor of the British Journal of Aesthetics from 1995 to 2008.

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The Opacity of Narrative

By Peter Lamarque

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2014 Peter Lamarque
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-018-0


Opacity, Fiction and Narratives of the Self

There is no need to start with a definition. That can come later and the difficulties explored. At the beginning, it is sufficient to think of narratives as stories. This can be helpful because there is much less pressure to find a theory of stories. Stories vary immensely from one to another, in kind and quality, in length and complexity, in genres — novels, histories, poems, songs — and in degrees of seriousness, from bedtime stories to the Story of Art or the Story of Civilisation. But on the whole, we know a story when we see it (or hear it). To seek to define "story" could seem unduly pedantic. In contrast, "narrative" has become a technical term used across multiple academic disciplines and also in journalism, politics and elsewhere (the "narrative of welfare", the "narrative of human rights"). It even has its own branch of enquiry: narratology. As such, it cries out for a definition because it is far from clear what is meant in these different contexts: narratologists themselves disagree. It might well turn out that there is no single concept that spans every usage. The view I shall advance in this book is that the best way to proceed in so complex a topic is to settle on a common core of meaning that is minimal in its commitments and then account for differences as they emerge in terms of enrichments of the core for different purposes and in different practices. That common core need be little more than the intuitive notion of a story. What is that notion? Minimally, just this: the representation of two or more events, real or imaginary, from a point of view, with some degree of structure and connectedness.

In fact, the focus in what follows will be less on trying to nail down a definition and more on finding satisfactory ways of drawing distinctions between items that all would agree are narratives: those of history, philosophy, biography or the novel, for example, as well as those simple conversational narratives that animate social interactions and those more elusive narratives that individuals create for themselves to help make sense of their lives, perhaps to justify actions, enliven memories or aggrandise mundane existence. Distinctions can be important here because the purposes, achievements and norms of evaluation can differ radically in these contexts and to blur boundaries that matter can have serious consequences both in understanding and at a disciplinary and even personal level. Just how the appropriate distinctions should be drawn can be a subject of contention, in particular that between "fiction" and "nonfiction". A central aim of this book is to propose a basis for how to draw lines here that are not arbitrary or gratuitous.

The place where a definition of "narrative" might be useful is not in drawing distinctions between narratives but in distinguishing narratives from modes of discourse that are not narratives. Again, it is only in some cases that disputes might occur. Historians can agree that annals that merely list facts by date are not examples of "narrative history" (White 1980), and no one supposes that botanical classifications, mathematical proofs or Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus are narratives. But sometimes what is and is not a narrative is not so clear. As we shall see, in discussions of personal narratives or narratives that supposedly shape or constitute our identity as selves, there is unclarity about just what counts as a narrative. Can lives be narratives? Can thinking be a narrative? We shall return to this issue.

If narratives are first and foremost stories, it is not unreasonable to attend to stories that stand out as exceptional or of the highest quality. It is not that value judgements as such will be prominent in what follows, but particular focus will be given to narratives that aspire to be works of art: narratives that we call "literature". Needless to say, "literature" is a contested term itself, no easier to define than "narrative". But again, definition is not the exercise that matters. It is better to take works that are uncontroversially works of literature and ask what distinctive features they possess in virtue of being literature. In fact, the enquiry will be even narrower than that because the works to be examined are works of fiction, in contrast to those literary works that are nonfiction (such as history or biography). It is important not to beg any questions, and these terms will need to come under scrutiny, as will the distinctions themselves. Nor is there any implication that works of so-called "imaginative literature" or of "literary fiction" are of a higher quality or more worthy to be classed as works of art than their nonfiction counterparts. But it is the combination of their literary and their fictional qualities that is of special interest. What is it that sets them apart as stories or narratives that merit special attention, that seem to reveal the human mind at its most acute and most inventive? Is it the power of the imagination? The fineness of the writing? The skills of plot construction and character delineation? The vision or truths imparted? No doubt bits of all of these. Yet the key to literary fiction lies elsewhere, as we shall see: not least in the kinds of pleasures and rewards that readers gain from them.


A prominent feature of literary fictional narratives, I shall argue, is their opacity, so a preliminary exploration of that notion will be helpful. The idea at its simplest is that the content of literary fictional narratives stands in a peculiarly intimate relation to the manner in which it is presented. Put like this, the point is virtually a truism. Of course, readers of novels are not indifferent to the actual descriptions that present the fictional worlds they are imagining and enjoying. The descriptions matter and novels are praised or denigrated for the quality of the writing, its vividness, power, resonance, expressiveness, clarity, wit and so on, through the familiar multiplicity of positive attributes (different ones no doubt being more apt in different cases). But narrative opacity says more than just that descriptions matter — although it does say that. In the literary fictional case, the events and characters that make up the content are constituted by the modes of their presentation in the narrative. Their identity is determined by the narrative itself such that they are not merely contingently but essentially connected to the descriptions that characterise them. Rather than supposing that narrative descriptions are a window through which an independently existing (fictional) world is observed, with the implication that the very same world might be presented (and thus observed) in other ways, from different perspectives, we must accept that there is no such transparent glass — only an opaque glass, painted, as it were, with figures seen not through it but in it.

Narratives in poetry provide clear examples of the phenomenon. Consider the first stanza of Thomas Hardy's poem "The Darkling Thrush" (1900):

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
(Hardy 1994, 134)

The lines are presented as part of a small but intense narrative: the poem represents a speaker outside on a cold, desolate winter evening who hears a thrush's song ("An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small, / In blast-beruffled plume, / Had chosen thus to fling his soul / Upon the growing gloom") and infers "[s]ome blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware". In this stanza, the mood of wintry melancholy is reinforced in the succession of negative images: "dregs", "desolate", "weakening", "tangled", "scored" (i.e., cut or scratched), "broken". The ghost-like quality of the scene is given in "spectre-grey" and "haunted". Alliteration in each couplet — gate/grey, desolate/day, stems/strings, haunted/household — together with the ballad-like metre and rhyme scheme increases the hypnotic intensity. To bring to mind the requisite images, these epithets must play an essential, not merely contingent, role. It is not as if other ways of capturing the scene would be just as effective, for the scene itself derives its very identity (including its mood and character) through these exact lines.

Of course, many questions about opacity defined in this way need to be addressed. What about fictional narratives that describe essentially the same fictional events — that tell the same story — but in different ways? Should we not say in such cases that there is indeed an independently existing world not constituted by any one narrative but accessed by several? And what about novels grounded in real events, such as War and Peace,For Whom the Bell Tolls, a long list — surely these do not constitute the events they describe? To answer these questions, we need an account of the "content" of a work, in particular some criterion for sameness and difference of content. And is content the same as "subject matter"? What is it for two works to share a subject matter?

Before pursuing these questions directly, it is necessary to sharpen the characterisation of narrative opacity. We need a few more resources to tackle the all-important issue of content-identity. There are two contexts elsewhere in philosophy in which parallels with the relevant kind of opacity can be usefully invoked.

Referential Opacity

The first is with referential opacity, as characterised by W V O Quine (e.g., Quine 1956; Quine 1960, §30; Quine 1961). Quine noted, as Gottlob Frege had done before him, that in certain contexts names or singular descriptions do not act in a "purely referential" or "transparent" manner. In these contexts, an "opaque construction" is generated and this can arise from different sources:

An opaque construction is one in which you cannot in general supplant a singular term by a codesignative term (one referring to the same object) without disturbing the truth value of the containing sentence. In an opaque construction you also cannot in general supplant a general term by a coextensive term (one true of the same objects), nor a component sentence by a sentence of the same truth value, without disturbing the truth value of the containing sentence. All three failures are failures of extensionality. (Quine 1960, 151)

The criterion for a "purely referential position" is "substitutivity of identity" (Quine 1960, 142). Although Quine spread the net of opacity widely, he was most concerned with referential opacity involving singular terms. He offered different kinds of cases. The most familiar arise from propositional attitudes such as belief. Take the sentence "Cicero denounced Catiline". In normal contexts in which the sentence is used to make an assertion, the name "Cicero" is purely referential and substitution of the codesignative name "Tully" for "Cicero" does not, as Quine puts it, "disturb the truth value" of the assertion. Nevertheless, as he points out, we might affirm "Tom believes that Cicero denounced Catiline" while denying "Tom believes that Tully denounced Catiline" under the circumstance that Tom is not aware of the identity of Tully and Cicero. The name "Cicero" in this latter context is not purely referential, so the context itself (following the operator "Tom believes that") is opaque.

It is not just propositional attitude contexts that generate opacity. Quine gives other examples. Thus quotation blocks "pure" reference. In the sentence "'Tully was a Roman' is trochaic", again the name "Tully" cannot be changed to "Cicero" without changing the truth value. And in spite of the identity of Giorgione and Barbarelli, the substitution of "Barbarelli" for "Giorgione" in "Giorgione was so-called because of his size" does not preserve truth. A further example from Quine involves singular descriptions rather than names: "The commissioner is looking for the chairman of the hospital board". Suppose the chairman of the hospital board is, in fact, the dean, but the commissioner does not know this. Then, at least on one way of construing the sentence, substituting "the dean" for "the chairman of the hospital board" seems again not to preserve truth.

We need not dwell on the details of Quine's exposition nor on the complex issues it generates. Suffice it to say that Quine himself sought in his "regimentation" of language to minimise occurrences of opaque contexts and maximise extensionality. His programme was to seek, when possible, paraphrases into extensional formulations. Thus "Giorgione was so-called because of his size" is easily paraphrased into "Giorgione was called 'Giorgione' because of his size", in which the first occurrence of "Giorgione" is purely referential and the second, in quotation marks, refers not to the person but to his name. Extensionality is preserved and opacity removed. Quine was anxious not to follow the Fregean route of postulating "intensional" entities, such as senses, as referents of names within opaque contexts.

For our purposes, only some elements of Quinean opacity have a bearing on narrative. Needless to say, referential opacity in Quine's sense can occur in narratives, just as it can in discourse of any kind. Propositional attitude judgements as well as quotation are not unusual in narratives. But that is not the key to the opacity of narrative as it concerns us. In fact, narrative opacity has little to do with reference and little to do with extensionality. The key lies more in what is and is not preserved under substitution of identities. Something like "failure of extensionality" arises when substitution of alternative means of characterising, or picking out, items in a narrative is blocked because different ways of picking out those items are not equally permissible. Opacity occurs when the narrative is not indifferent to how the items are identified or characterised. In the extreme case of literary fictional narratives, as was suggested earlier, the very content of the narrative is constituted by the linguistic forms used to present that content. If other descriptive forms had been used, the content (and thus the "world" presented) would have changed. I say it is only "like" failure of extensionality because what matters is not preservation of truth under substitution but preservation of the narrative itself. Opacity of narrative occurs when substitutions of co-extensional terms are impermissible if the content of the narrative (in a sense to be explained) is to be preserved. Likewise, transparency occurs when the very same content can be accessed in different ways (i.e., the content is not dependent on some specific mode of presentation). Examples will be given in chapter 8.

Representational Opacity

These points will be consolidated after we have introduced a second philosophical context in which the idea of "transparency" is invoked and which again has a bearing on narrative opacity of the relevant kind. This is a discussion in which photography is compared to painting particularly with regard to the kinds of "representation" involved in each. For want of a better term, I will label this kind of opacity representational opacity.

The idea, in some version or other, that photographs are "transparent" to their subjects has been around virtually since photography was invented. It has been the focus of intense philosophical debate at least since Kendall Walton's well-known intervention.Walton sought to demonstrate that transparency — photography's "remarkable ability to put us in perceptual contact with the world" (Walton 1984, 273) — is the key to understanding photographic "realism". Here is Dominic McIver Lopes's account of transparency in photographs, largely following Walton:

To say that photographs are transparent is to say that we see through them. A person seeing a photograph of a lily, literally sees a lily. She does not see a lily face-to-face, for there is no lily in front of her; nor is the photograph a lily — it is an image of a lily. Rather, her seeing a lily through a photograph of a lily is like her seeing a lily in a mirror, through binoculars, or on a closed-circuit television system. As in all these cases, seeing a lily through a photograph is indirect seeing in the sense that the lily is seen by seeing the image; even so, indirect seeing is seeing. (Lopes 2003, 438)


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Table of Contents

Preface / 1. Opacity, Fiction and Narratives of the Self / 2. Narrative and Invention / 3. On Not Expecting Too Much From Narrative / 4. Literary Narratives and Real-Life Narratives / 5. Fiction and the Non-Fiction Novel / 6. Wittgenstein, Literature, and the Idea of a Practice / 7. Literature and Truth / 8. Thought, Opacity and the Values of Literature / 9. Aesthetics and Literature / 10. On Keeping Psychology Out of Literary Criticism / Bibliography / Index

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