Stories Within Stories

Roland Wulbert said to me the other day, in a casual manner that belied the profundity of his remark, that literary critics use bits of a story they are analyzing to construct another story, which is what they are really up to. That observation strikes me as being true of even the greatest of literary criticism, though not necessarily true of literary theory, as that goes back to Aristotle, who did indeed try to capture what literature did as opposed to making what he would of the text before him. Contrary to some opinion, Aristotle did not distort Oedipus Rex into being something it was not, which was a tragedy as that was defined by Aristotle. It was a tragedy because literary theory had invented the category into which the play fit. Rather, what Wulbert is talking about is one way in which criticism cannot be true to its text. It just about always just generates another story. That is different from the usual reason why criticism is inevitably a reading into or a falsification of a text, which is that criticism is discursive prose, while texts are usually a different kind of thing altogether-- a narrative or a poem-- and so there are different media being employed, just as is the case when an art critic puts a painting into words when a painting, after all, is not a set of words but an image. You can tell students to describe a painting in words but that is not the same thing as what the painting is, which is something to look at, which has a “look” only in the sense that it generates a mood. A consideration of an exemplar of great literary criticism shows why Wulbert is correct.

Consider Erich Auerbach’s “Odysseus’ Scar”. Auerbach takes two of the greatest works of world literature, Homer’s Odyssey and the Genesis story of  Abraham and Isaac, and turns them into a story about two different civilizations, two different ways of apprehending reality. It is fair to say that he provides a story rather than merely an analysis because he proceeds in the way the prose of an essay can become like a story because it creates, in its course, suspense that is then released, that sequence to be regarded as and in fact to be pleasurable. First, Auerbach provides the reader with the world as that seems from Homer’s point of view by focussing down on when his old nurse recognizes a stranger to be Odysseus in disguise because she observes a scar he had as a child. Rather than this just a single fact or a coincidental discovery that the author uses to move the narrative on, it is a set up for Auerbach to comment on the simultaneity of the current event and the time when the scar originated, an amalgam of the present and of memory, and so to allow Auerbach to describe Homeric culture as one in which the background of events, and this extends to setting as well as to memories, informs what is happening downstage, as it were, for the attention of the audience. That is a very satisfying conclusion to arrive at, which is an understanding of how narrative in the West works its way by making the past present.

But then the reader must not relax too long with the satisfaction of this resolution. Rather, the reader is immediately moved into a new kind of suspense. What, in the light of what has just been resolved, will Auerbach do with the Genesis story? He immediately unsettles his reader by saying that this second story has nothing to do with the conventions that underlie the Odysseus story. So how can it be a story at all? This is a question which remains troubling to those so taken with the Western kind of story telling that they do not know what to make of the short narratives of Genesis which are so bereft of description. Auerbach suggests that such an impulse is correct. This is a different kind of story telling. It does not refer to motives, however much those can be read into or presumed to be there as inferences from what the characters do. So these are stories without introspection as well as without detail about the setting, which is very far from the rich description of the house and household to which Odysseus had returned. Nothing is said of the journey Abraham and Isaac take to the altar, only that Isaac queries why they have not taken a sacrifice with them and is told by his father that God will provide, to which Isaac says nothing, the reader left to infer whether Isaac was naive or whether he understood what was going on and had already submitted to his fate. This is a very different kind of reading that a reader has to do with Homer. There, the reader luxuriates in the detail, in the reader’s own knowledge of what is going on and how the pieces of the setting fall into place in the narrative, while here in Genesis the reader is forced to speculate, to surmise, about what is going on. How can this be the same sort of literary satisfaction that supposedly comes from any work of world literature?

Auerbach breaks the suspense, resolves the tension, by introducing another concept, which is the temporality of this Genesis story (and by implication, other Genesis stories). What you learn from a Genesis story is what comes first and what comes next and what comes after that. The sequence of events in time provides the ability to infer meaning, just as the simultaneity of time had allowed meaning to be inferred in Homer. And so, Auerbach concludes, this is a very different kind of consciousness, the one that created Genesis, and yet it meets what might be considered an even more abstract standard for art, which is that it provides for ever afterwards memorable images and meanings. And, I might add, an insight into this god from the Asian coast who is as invisible as time itself and who creates events that occur within time, as memorable events, like the exodus, rather than having an existence as a spirit of place or of an emotion, thereby hovering over human events rather than intruding in them, though, of course, it must also be said that the Greek gods do also intrude sometimes into the lives of people, though it seems to me that they do that as a way to move along a plot, such as when Artemis develops a grudge against Agamemnon and that lets loose the series of events which describe the ways the House of Atreus is always undermining itself, that, rather than the initiating incident, becoming the burden of the playwright’s work, that revealing so much about human nature, the playwright not very much concerned about trying to reveal the nature of the gods . And so Auerbach creates a great bit of criticism because if his readers follow his story they will be awed by how far they have come in understanding not only Western and Hebraic literature but the nature of literature itself. They can see themselves growing.

Now it is to be remembered that the Odyssey is not about simultaneity any more than the story of Abraham and Isaac is about temporality. Rather, the term “about” means of direct and apparent concern, not import. “About” is whatever it is that drives the plot, what are the parameters of the plot, rather than what meaning is to be drawn from the plot. In the case of the Odyssey, “about” means the story of the return home of a war veteran, he undergoing the kinds of experiences that veterans undergo: untoward adventures with the cyclops: dalliances with women outside the bonds of marriage, with the lotus eaters or Circe, whether to forget the past or to taste again a bit of challenge and adventure; greeting and parting with old comrades in arms, such as Menelaus; and then, finally, reuniting with his family and reconstructing his relations with them. Similarly, the Abraham and Isaac story is about obedience to God, even, if one wishes to press it, what that term “obedience” means, something that has been argued about with regard to that story for millenia. But the Odyssey is not a reverie about how literature is related to life as it is nor is the Abraham and Isaac story. That is the invention of the critic, of Auerbach, and so we need to give him credit for an imaginative leap while he seems to occupy the much humbler role of commentator.

Well, we should know by now that commentators, whether within the Talmud or among the Church Fathers, are not ciphers but simply use this vehicle, the literary form of the commentary, to engage in vast and sweeping acts of reinterpretation that turn our heads around if we can bear the insult to our usual understanding of the texts upon which they comment and so they, in their way, become commentators on life every bit as much as the texts upon which they comment already have that station as ways to take note of life from a different angle than we would ordinarily use. In our own time, the role of commentator has been reduced to that of the literary critic, a somewhat superfluous sub-genre of literary and academic life, which could be revivified perhaps only if the texts on which commentaries are constructed are taken to be part of a necessary canon, which was the case with Homer, the Bible, and for a while, from the Nineteenth through the last parts of the Twentieth Century, a designated group of secular and religious literature that college students were expected to learn, but apparently that is no longer the case, students preoccupied with science and engineering and computer studies rather than with literature, and who knows what will follow from that fact.