Three Questions

Recently I’ve been posting on topics in classical philology, but I thought I would switch gears a little and write about another aspect of my work, the philological analysis of literature in general. These new posts will deal with new topics, topics I’m still exploring. This is very much work in progress, subject to revision, so please feel free to write me with reactions and suggestions.

One way to begin the analysis of a narrative is to ask three questions: How is it put together? What does it represent? What does it mean? The composition of a narrative I call the synthetic aspect; representation I call the mimetic aspect; and meaning I call the thematic aspect. I borrow these three terms—synthetic, mimetic, and thematic—from James Phelan, but with some significant changes, which Phelan does not accept; for a detailed discussion of our positions see our recent collaborative book, Debating Rhetorical Narratology, published by Ohio State University Press. In my system, all three aspects interact and they are all simultaneous, so you can take any narrative, or any substantial part of a narrative, and ask these three questions. The synthetic and the mimetic and the thematic are not separate components, they are three different ways of looking at a narrative and what it is and what it does. There are times when it’s useful to focus on just one for analytical purposes, but the end of the analysis ideally should put them all back together.

Here’s an example. In an earlier post I discussed the rhetorical figure congeries, which is a heap of words, usually in no particular order. I gave several examples, including the following passage from Raymond Chandler’s The High Window. Here the narrator, Philip Marlow, is describing a hock shop, where he is about to pawn a valuable coin to keep it safe:

“The hock shop was on Santa Monica, near Wilcox, a quiet old-fashioned little place, washed gently by the lapping waves of time. In the front window there was everything you could think of, from a set of trout flies in a thin wooden box to a portable organ, from a folding baby carriage to a portrait camera with a four-inch lens, from a mother-of-pearl lorgnette in a faded plush case to a single action Frontier Colt, .44 calibre, the model they still make for Western police officers whose grandfathers taught them how to file the trigger and shoot by fanning the hammer back.”

Let’s ask the three questions about this passage. (1) Synthetic: How is it constructed? The construction of a congeries is relatively easy: you heap up a bunch of words in no particular order. An ordered list is not really a congeries, but each instance has to be examined on its own, in its own context. The items in the congeries at the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano are arranged in alphabetical order, but this arbitrary ordering only foregrounds the randomness of the collection. (2) Mimetic: What does it represent? A congeries represents all the things in the heap; in this passage from Chandler, trout flies, a portable organ, and so on. But a congeries doesn’t represent just the individual items; it also represents the whole heap, or sometimes the various parts of the heap, taken together, here as a heap typical of a hock shop; this congeries also represents, perhaps indirectly, certain aspects of the social situation which creates a hock shop. (3) Thematic: What does it mean? It’s not enough to say that the narrator (or the writer) is simply describing what he sees (in his mind’s eye)—the (imagined) reality of a hock shop; the narrator (or writer) can always choose to describe or not. The description should add to the story in some way. The congeries in The High Window adds vividness, and the junk provides a contrast to the value of the golden doubloon Marlowe is leaving in this shop to keep it safe. There’s probably a larger contrast as well, between the wealth of Chandler’s clients and the tawdriness of the hock shop. Chandler’s world, in general, is made up of rich people and poor people, with almost no one from the middle class.

There’s more to be said about each aspect, but even this small example shows that the three aspects are simultaneous; the mimetic and the thematic only exist because of the synthetic, and the synthetic has a point only if it contributes to the mimetic and the thematic.

I’ve written a lot about the synthetic, partly because critics don’t talk about it nearly enough, and also because I think discussion of the mimetic and the thematic has a solid foundation only if it is based on analysis of the synthetic. But when I talk about the synthetic I always have the mimetic and the thematic in mind. In the work I’m doing now, I’m shifting my focus, towards the mimetic and the thematic, but I always have the synthetic in mind.

As I move forward to talk about new work with a new emphasis, I thought I would begin by taking a quick look back at the kind of work I’ve done before. So here’s the Table of Contents of the book (working title: How to Reread a Novel) I finished drafting recently. (Some readers may notice that this looks something like the literary equivalent of a course in music theory; the first six chapters are like a harmony textbook, and the rest is like a book of formal analysis.)

How to Reread a Novel

One: The Language of Fiction                                                                     

            I. Language and Reference

            II. Language and Characterization

Two: Narrators                                                                                             

            I. Storytellers and Storylisteners

            II. Narration Degree Zero

            III. Homodiegetic and Heterodiegetic Narrators

            IV. Focalization

            V. Narrative Norms

Three: Readers                                                                                             

            I. The Narratee

            II. The Implied Reader

Four: The Use and Meaning of Rhetorical Schemes                                  

            I. Epitheton

            II. Congeries

            III. Polysyndeton and Asyndeton

            IV. Chiasmus

            V. Epizeuxis, Diacope, and Extended Epizeuxis

            VI. Doublets, Antithesis, and Tricola

            VII. Anadiplosis and Gradatio or Climax

Five: Rhetorical Schemes in Little Dorrit, Agnes Grey, and Jazz

  1. Rhetorical Figures in Little Dorrit

II. Rhetorical Figures in Agnes Grey

III. Rhetorical Figures in Jazz

Six: Metaphor and Simile in Homer, Chandler, and James

I. The Tropes

            II. A Metaphor in Homer’s Iliad

            III. Some Homeric Similes

            IV. Similes in Raymond Chandler

            V. Similes in Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove

Seven: Figures of Composition in Austen and Woolf

I. Segmentation

II. Divisions of the Whole Narrative

III. Narrative Figures in Jane Austen’s Emma

IV. Narrative Figures in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway

Eight: Figures of Composition in Ford and Heller

            I. Narrative Figures in The Good Soldier

            II. Narrative Figures in Catch-22

Nine: Ring Composition

            I. Small Rings

            II. Medium Rings

            III. Ring Composition in Trollope’s Dr Thorne

            IV. Plot Rings: Ending with the Beginning

Ten: Simple Plot Forms

            I. Plots and Stories

            II. Beginning, Middle, and End

            III. Lack or Need

            III. Departure

            V. Arrival

            VI. Death

            VII. Birth

            VIII. Meeting

            IX. Irregular Beginnings

Eleven: Complex Plot Forms, Part I

            I. Beginning with the Ending

            II. Second Chapter Retrospect

            III. Ghosts from the Past

            IV. Multiple Retrospects

Twelve: Complex Plot Forms, Part II

I. One-Day Novels

            II. One-Year Novels

            III. Mirror Plots

            IV. Alternating Chapters

            V. Simultaneous Narration

            VI. Unnatural Chronology

VII. Non-narrative Elements in Narrative

Thirteen: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer

I. An Overview of The Sympathizer

II. The Beginning of The Sympathizer

III. Style and Rhetorical Figures

IV. Names and Epithets

V. Links and Rings

VI. Nothing

VII. Sympathy for the Sympathizer

VIII. The Ending of The Sympathizer

You can see that most (but not all) of these topics emphasize the synthetic aspect; the mimetic and the thematic are always there, but they are approached through the synthetic. In the work I’m doing now, all three aspects are in view, but I approach them through the mimetic. And the mimetic will be the topic of my next few posts.

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