lunes, 18 de marzo de 2013

Narrative Foreclosure and Epilogue Time

From the introduction to Mark Freeman's Hindsight: The Promise and Peril of Looking Backward (Oxford UP, 2010):


"Chapter 5, "Narrative foreclosure", tells the story of two artists who each faced a major crisis in their careers. One, a man in his 60s, had become convinced that it was unlikely that he would ever hit his stride as an artist. He was past his prime, or so he thought, with the result that he could not imagine his future as anything other than a bleak repetition of his failures and disappointments.
Narrative foreclosure is therefore about the conviction that one's story is effectively over, that no prospect exists for opening up a new chapter. This phenomenon, I suggest, is a widespread one in contemporary Western culture, where growing old is so readily associated with the end of meaningful, productive activity. As will become clear, there is little doubt but that this man had internalized certain aspects of this cultural narrative, as well as the additional narrative of the struggling artist, striving for greatness, working against the odds, unable fully to measure up to the god-like being he had imagined he might someday become. The challenge, in cases such as this one, is to identify the ways in which these cultural narratives have permeated one's being and, in the process, to break away from them and sap them of their coercive power. This, of course, is easier said than done; it is no simple matter to "restart" a story that feels like it has ended. We thus observe one of the dangers of narrative, one can indeed become nothing less than a prisoner of one's story. but there does remain hope in such cases. As the story of the second artist shows, reimagining and revivifying the past are integral to the process of keeping this hope alive. This person, too, found herself questioning her own viability as an artist. What she came to realize, in hindsight, is that she had become so thoroughly ensnared within the hermetic confines of art-world discourse that her own innermost interests and motives, and her own profound love of painting, had been utterly obscured. Only through identifying and naming the narrative she had unwittingly been living—which is to say, only by discerning the truth—could she break the stronghold of narrative foreclosure and thereby free herself to create one again." (12-13)

 A section in Gary Saul Morson's Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time (Yale UP, 1994) deals with a phenomenon or attitude similar to narrative foreclosure, under the name of "epilogue time". This is the section on epilogue time from chapter 5, "Paralude: Presentness and Its Diseases":

A softer version of epic time might be called epilogue time. When realist novels end with an epilogue, temporality changes. Epilogues are deliberately anticlimactic. In epilogue tie, characters no longer live their lives but live out their lives. The important story is over, nothing essential will change, and so it is possible to describe in a few efficient strokes the unsurprising events constituting the rest of the heroes' lives. The thick description so characteristic of realist novels is therefore replaced by a mode in which mere assertion is enough. A work that may have devoted hundreds of pages to a few years, months, or even days many now give us decades in a short chapter. Whereas in the body of a novel the narrator often draws us close to the character and allows us to feel something of the throb of presentness in which choices are made, epilogues are typically narrated at a distance, as if they were being told from the remote future or (perhaps more accurately) from a position looking down on the whole sequence of characters' lives. We palpably sense the shift in temporality when an epilogue begins, and this shift becomes an effective closural marker.
     Here it might be instructive to consider why the eighth part of Anna Karenina, which takes place after the heroine's death and which is shorter than the other parts, was not written as an epilogue. And why have Tolstoy's critics not discussed part VIII as a sort of epilogue, even though, in some respects, it resembles one? We learn what happens to the characters after Anna's death: Vronsky in his grief goes off to the wars; Levin, forever disturbed by his philosophical questions, finds relative peace and wisdom in family life; Stiva and Dolly continue as they have throughout the book. And yet, there is no shift in temporality; the same time governs these events as governs the rest of the work. Tolstoy chose to present these incidents with the same density of moment-to-moment description as he did the rest of the book.
     In contrast to what happens in most successful epilogues, important events that may change the characters' lives do continue to take place in part VIII, just as they do in the first seven parts. It appears even that, for Levin, life continues with still greater intensity than it had before and it is here that he makes his most important discoveries. Throughout part VIII there is no sense that nothing substantially different can happen. To be sure, Vronsky chooses to live as if, after Anna's death, the rest of his life is mere epilogue to a tragedy, but the reader apprehends that this way of living is a falsity and a self-indulgence. It is a pose adopted as in imitation of Anna's constant self-casting as a tragic heroine. 
     Through Vronsky, Tolstoy uses the final part of his novel to show the dangers of epilogue time. We see its moral cost not only in the anticipation that Vronsky is going to an early and futile death but also in his abandonment of his daughter to do so. On Anna's way to suicide, when Tolstoy uses a technique approaching stream of consciousness to describe the progression of her thoughts, we note that she never once thinks of her daughter and what will happen to her when left motherless. And now the girl's father also abandons her to be brought up by her legal but not natural father, the near-crazed Karenin. We are likely to conclude that Vronsky should heed the call of the present and that he is morally to blame for embracing the consolations of epilogue.
     (...) Epilogue time presumes that all important incidents have already happened and that further changes are mere extensions of what has gone before. 
     Real people sometimes live as if their lives were set in epilogue time, so that no present actions could make any real difference. Such lives are often suffused with a delicious nostalgia, a poetic sense of constant distance from a beautiful and irrecoverable past, or a painful recognition of changeless regret (as with Vronsky). The master of such states of soul was Chekhov; his drama measures the wasted potential and missed opportunities they entail. 
     In the opening scene of The Cherry Orchard, the play's only active character, Lopakhin, fails to meet the train with the arriving family because he—he, too—has fallen asleep. It is as if even he cannot resist the estate's temporality of missed opportunity as soon as he sets foot on it. We find him sitting in what the first stage direction refers to as "a room that is still called a nursery." He dozes in a place that, like the whole estate, is still consecrated to an outmoded function and is now frozen in a constant provocation to nostalgia or the contemplation of loss:

LOPAKHIN: The train is in, thank God. What time is it?
DUNYASHA: Nearly two. [Blows out the candle.] It's already light.
LOPAKHIN: How late is the train, anyway? A couple of hours at least.  [Yawns and stretches.] I'm a fine one! What a fool I've made of myself! Came here on purpose to meet them at the station and then overslept .... Fell asleep in the chair .... It's annoying ..... You might have waked me.
DUNYASHA: I thought you had gone. (ChP, 315)

Anyone who knows Chekhov recognizes scenes like this as his trademark. He specializes in actions that fail to happen. The Cherry Orchard in particular dramatizes moments when action is needed but is not performed because the present is deemed vulgar in comparison to the poetic past. One reason that Chekhov's plays consist largely of nonactions is taht so many of his characters live in epilogue time, when, they feel, nothing they could do would change anything essential because the essential is long since over.

This play requires no epilogue and probably could not sustain one becaue it is pretty much all epilogue. In the last scene, the superannuated and senile servant Firs, who incarnates the play's temporality, has been left behind because each person thinks that someone else has attended to him and that at some time he has already been provided for. The family's unwitting but nonetheless inexcusable cruelty to the old man takes place because they must help him in the present, but at each moment they all prefer to think it has all been done in the past. In their temporality, action is always already over and so is never taken. As the play ends, we contemplate Firs's approaching death and wonder at its needless loneliness after a lifetime of faithful service. When we reflect that the cause of his death may prove to be starvation, our sense of the poetry of nostalgia is tempered by a realization of its horror.


To understand one's situation, it is often helpful to imagine the rest of life as if it were only an epilogue. But it is usually dangerous to forget that such a projection is only one of many possibilities; and that every moment will have options, accidents, and sideshadows. The straight line is the rare exception. The laughable results of past predictions and of superseded futurologies should warn us, more often than they do, that contingeny reigns. 
     Thus a wise novelist, while giving us an epilogue, may also choose to qualify it with a cautionary note. fo the alert Russian reader, the epilogue to War and Peace gives only a temporary vantage point sure to be superseded by Pierre's dangerous activities in the capital. And in the famous "Finale" to Middlemarch, George Eliot, before explaining what happened to her characters, reminds us that projections are as uncertain as they are attractive:

"Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending. Who can quit young lives after being long in company with them, and not desire to know what befell them in their after-years? For the fragment of a life, however typical, is not the sample of an even web: promises may not be kept, and an ardent outset may be followed by declension; latent powers may find their long-waited opportunity; a past error may urge a grand retrieval."

There is no guarantee that after-years will be a mere extension. The web is never even. Eliot suggests that novelistic time, with all its density and contingency, governs even after a narrative achieves a satisfactory closure, and so closure itself may mislead. "The expected was not fulfilled / And god found a way for the unexpected," Euripides repeatedly reminds us in his tragedies; in novelistic time, the role of the gods is played by quotidian life and the prosaics of sideshadowing.


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