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Narrative and Freedom

Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time

Gary Saul Morson
Copyright Date: 1994
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 348
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  • Book Info
    Narrative and Freedom
    Book Description:

    In this important and controversial book, one of our leading literary theorists presents a major philosophical statement about the meaning of literature and the shape of literary texts. Drawing on works by the Russian writers Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, by other writers as diverse as Sophocles, Cervantes, and George Eliot, by thinkers as varied as William James, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Stephen Jay Gould, and from philosophy, the Bible, television, and much more, Gary Saul Morson examines the relation of time to narrative form and to an ethical dimension of the literary experience.Morson asserts that the way we think about the world and narrate events is often in contradiction to the trulyeventfuland open nature of daily life. Literature, history, and the sciences frequently present experience as if contingency, chance, and the possibility of diverse futures were all illusory. As a result, people draw conclusions or accept ideologies without sufficiently examining their consequences or alternatives. However, says Morson, there is another way to read and construct texts. He explains that most narratives are developed through foreshadowing and "backshadowing" (foreshadowing ascribed after the fact), which tend to reduce the multiplicity of possibilities in each moment. But other literary works try to convey temporal openness through a device he calls "sideshadowing." Sideshadowing suggests that to understand an event is to grasp whatelsemight have happened. Time is not a line but a shifting set of fields of possibility. Morson argues that this view of time and narrative encourages intellectual pluralism, helps to liberate us from the false certainties of dogmatism, creates a healthy skepticism of present orthodoxies, and makes us aware that there are moral choices available to us.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16177-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Note on Punctuation
    (pp. xii-xii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Time is of the essence. Intellectual models—whether pertaining to the natural or the social world, to history or psychology, to ethics or politics—implicitly or explicitly depend on a specific sense of time. Some of our schools of thought seek to transcend time, others to reveal the temporality of all things, but in one way or another our interest in time is chronic.

    A headline on the front page of today’sNew York Times(May 24, 1991) reads, “ETHIOPIANS REJOICE AT FALL OF RULERS / Crowds Celebrate in Capital as Lenin Statue is Felled.” Accompanying the story is a...

  7. Part I: The Shape of Narrative and the Shape of Experience

    • CHAPTER ONE Prelude: Process and Product
      (pp. 17-41)

      For better or worse, people tend to think of time in spatial terms. We speak of passing through it, of its flow, and of its vast expanse. Events are said to happen at specific points in it. These metaphors are so natural, so commonplace, and so widely shared among languages that we often do not reflect upon the fact that theyaremetaphors.

      It is possible to survey a great deal of space at a glance, but our direct perception of time is limited to at most a few seconds; beyond that, we consult memory.¹ Perhaps we turn to spatial...

    • CHAPTER TWO Foreshadowing
      (pp. 42-81)

      To some great nineteenth-century writers, the novel must have seemed a place of refuge. Faced with a culture in which determinism seemed validated by science itself, they recognized that life could be meaningful in human terms only if time is open. For choice to matter, for the present moment to have real weight, and for creative effort to be more than “the extraction of square roots,” the world had to be imagined as an eventful process capable of leading to many diverse futures. Such a vision could be most readily projected, if it could be projected at all, in the...

    • CHAPTER THREE Interlude: Bakhtin’s Indeterminism
      (pp. 82-114)

      Bakhtin must surely be regarded as the most remarkable modern thinker to examine time in narrative. In his hands, literary theory became a vehicle for understanding the possible existence of human freedom and ethical responsibility. If God created a universe in which these qualities are real, then what sort of creator was he, and what sort of time did he make for us? Could God create people, and an author create characters, who are, in a meaningful sense, free, and what would be the nature of such freedom? For Bakhtin, who took seriously the analogy between a literary work and...

  8. Part II: Sideshadowing and Its Possibilities

    • CHAPTER FOUR Sideshadowing
      (pp. 117-172)

      What is open time? We now come to the core concept of the present study: sideshadowing, a way of understanding and representing the plurality of possibilities.

      Foreshadowing robs a present moment of its presentness. As we have seen, foreshadowing lifts the veil on a future that has already been determined and inscribed. Somehow, a specific later event is already given at the time of an earlier event. Thus the sense of many possible futures, which we experience at every present moment, is revealed as an illusion. Whatwillbemustbe; events are heading in a single direction; time is...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Paralude: Presentness and Its Diseases
      (pp. 173-233)

      In a running gag on the old television show “Magnum, P.I.,” Magnum, who lives in Hawaii, can never watch a live game with his favorite team, the Detroit Tigers. When the Tigers are in the World Series, he sets his VCR to record the game and locks himself away so he can watch it before anyone can tell him the final score. He wants to recreate the sense of being a fan at the ongoing game, where cheering makes sense, where the winner is uncertain, where “it isn’t over till it’s over.” Sports events lose an awful lot—not everything,...

    • CHAPTER SIX Backshadowing
      (pp. 234-264)

      Backshadowing may be defined as foreshadowing after the fact. The past is viewed as having contained signs pointing to what happened later, to events known to the backshadowing observer. Visible now, those signs could have been seen then. In effect, the present, as the future of the past, was already immanent in the past. A more or less straight line is drawn between the past period under examination and the observer’s present (bipolarity).

      Alternatively, backshadowing may be based on three significant times: the period under examination; the outcome of that period; and the present, in which the backshadowing observer passes...

  9. Conclusion

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Opinion and the World of Possibilities
      (pp. 267-282)

      The world of opinion is the world of possibilities. It thrives where there are sideshadows and when people recognize that the future may easily differ from their most earnest expectations. We appreciate it most when we acknowledge that the present, and therefore we ourselves, could have been different. Sideshadowing suggests humility and an awareness that our opinions are just that. It teaches us the contingency of each particular opinion and a “Galilean consciousness” with respect to our own beliefs.

      If the American Revolution had not happened, would we exist? Would I be writing, and you be reading, a book on...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 283-308)
  11. Index
    (pp. 309-331)