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Cambridge University Press 2002




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Narrative negotiation



This chapter balances the last. Both are about ways in which we think with narrative. But where in the last chapter we focussed on the chemistry of narratives in combination, here we are looking at a chemistry taking place within narratives (or, more accurately, in our interaction with them). Where in the last chapter, we looked at the ways in which narratives are used as armament in a larger contest of narratives like a trial or a political race or an intellectual controversy, here we are looking at narratives as structures made up of contests, the claims of which they may or may not negotiate successfully. In part, this chapter brings us back to the agon — the contest or conflict, which is so often the life of narrative. More broadly it brings us back to the observation I made in Chapter Five that larger cultural, psychological, and moral conflicts are at play in narrative, some but not all of them represented by the opponents in the agon.

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Narrative without conflict



Conflict is such a powerful element in narrative that there are those who make it a necessary defining feature of the term "narrative." But given the inclusive definition of narrative that I have adopted for this book - the representation of an event or events-conflict is not a necessary component for something to qualify as a narrative. There are many short narratives, by my definition, in which conflict is nonexistent. The opening frames of Leni Riefenstahl's film documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party Conference, The Triumph of the Will, create a smooth narrative entirely without conflict. It opens with the sound of a plane hidden in the clouds carrying the Fiihrer to the party conference and then moves by a series of brilliant strokes to culminate in the roar of an enormous crowd hailing Hitler's arrival. As is frequently the case in propaganda, the power of narrative in this instance, at least in the intentions of Leni Riefenstahl and in its impact on sympathetic German viewers in 1934, is exclusively rhetorical. In fact, the kind of thinking narrative that I will be discussing in this chapter would seriously undermine the effect Riefenstahl worked hard to create.

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Narrative negotiation



Here is the well-known story illustrating the wisdom of Solomon: Two harlots appear before King Solomon with two baby boys, one dead and one living. One of the women tells what happened (in the larger story, her story is analeptic — it covers what happened in the story up to the point at which they come before the king). The two women had lived together in the same house and, within three days of each other, each of them gave birth. The other woman, according to the speaker, rolled over in her sleep and smothered her newborn child, killing it. She then "arose at midnight and took my son from beside me, while thine handmaid slept, and laid it in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom." When she, the speaker, awoke and discovered the other's dead child in her bed, she demanded her own back, but the other claimed the living child was hers. And so they took their dispute to the king. When the woman finished speaking, King Solomon called for his sword and ordered that the living child be cut in half and the two halves be given to the two women. You know the outcome:

Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it. Then the king answered and said, Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof. And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.

(I Kings 3: 26-28)

Here is a story with an agon, a conflict between two women, and it doses powerfully with Solomon's brilliant ploy. Ordering one outcome to the story, the splitting of the child, he generates another, the discovery of the true mother and the reuniting of her with her child. It is a powerful story and it turns on Solomon's understanding of psychology. So, in the resolution of the agon, the story adjudicates the difference between true and false mothers. This distinction and how it is weighed rides on top of the agon involving the two women. But at the same time, the working out of the agon negotiates the claims of other opposing ideas. One is the opposing claims of possession and love. It shows through the true mother's reaction that, in the extreme case, mother-love trumps the need to possess. So this is also part of the narrative's work of negotiation. Through the action of the narrative, we are shown how these two strong human passions fall into a natural hierarchy, so that the love of a mother for her child will take precedence over the keen desire to possess the child. Another conflict in this narrative is that between harlotry and mother­hood. Both of these women are harlots, degraded figures at the bottom of ancient levantine society who make love for money. Yet the narrative implicitly works out a scheme of redemption. In the same figure, the harlot is displaced by the mother. Through her behavior in the working out of this story, the woman's harlotry is almost forgotten. She instead becomes The Mother.

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How plausible must a story be?



"All Israel" was persuaded by this story. Yet when you start to think about it, how likely is it that any false mother is going to say, "All right, go ahead. Cut the child in half"? Who wants a dead half-baby? Certainly not, one would think, someone so desperate for a baby that she is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to secure a live one. There are two points to be made here. One is that there is room for further narrative discourse to fill this gap. Such extension of the narrative might feature the history of these two women, their intense rivalry, and the bitterness of the false mother that could lead her to make her extraordinary statement: "Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it." But the other point is that, even with an explanatory gap like this one, a narrative can still have immense power and do major work in the negotiation of cultural conflict, and this work can persist over the centuries, as in the case of this story.


The ostensible function of this short narrative is to show the wisdom of Solomon. This is the note that it ends on: "they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment." Yet what gives energy to the narrative, as to all narratives, is the conflict that works itself out over the course of the story The fuel for that energy is brought to the story in the form of our concerns as readers, concerns that are catalyzed by the conflict. In this way, narrative is a form of passionate thought. The greatest masterplots are narrativized over and over again because they engage conflicts that seem to be a permanent part of our circumstances as human beings. Here is a famous one:

Laius, the king of Thebes, and his wife, Jocasta, are childless. Wanting a son and successor, Laius consults the Oracle at Delphi who cautions him that should he have a son, that son will kill him. Laius heeds the warning until one night, drunk, he conceives a child with his wife, and Jocasta gives birth to a boy. Hoping to avoid his fate, Laius has the infant's feet pierced with an iron rod and orders a shepherd to abandon the child on Mount Citheron. Unknown to Laius, the shepherd takes pity on the child and through a friend delivers him to Polybus, the king of Corinth, and his wife Merope, who are themselves childless. They bring the child up as their own, naming him Oedipus, or Swellfoot, because of his wounded feet.

Later, when he is a young man, Oedipus is told by a drunken acquaintance that he is not really the son of Polybus and Merope. This and other rumors cause him to set out for the Oracle at Delphi to see what he can find out about himself. There he is told to his dismay that he is fated not only to kill his father, but also to marry his mother. Horrified, he determines to avoid this fate by never returning to Corinth. On the road, however, he encounters a traveler who is none other than Laius. In some versions, Laius is also on his way to the oracle to find out if his son had died of exposure long ago on Mount Citheron. Oedipus, as strong-willed as his father, though of course not knowing that this is his father, refuses to move out of the way for him. Laius strikes him with a whip, and Oedipus, enraged, kills Laius and all his retinue, except one who escapes.

Oedipus eventually comes to Thebes, a city in terrible straits. Not only has its king been slain (news travels fast), but it is oppressed by the Sphinx, a powerful creature, part human, part animal, who devours citizens of the city each time they fail to answer her riddle. The riddle is this: what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening, yet speaks with one voice? Creon, the brother of the widowed Jocasta, has proclaimed that whoever answers the riddle of the sphinx and frees the city from her tyranny will be made king and given his sister's hand in marriage. Oedipus, with his native brilliance, answers the riddle: it is man (who walks on all fours as an infant, then on two legs, and finally, with a cane in old age, on three). Her riddle answered, the Sphinx throws herself to her death from the walls of Thebes. Creon in gratitude unites Oedipus with his sister, Jocasta, making Oedipus king of Thebes.

As the years pass, Oedipus and Jocasta have four children: two boys, Polyneices and Eteocles, and two girls, Ismene and Antigone. But eventually a devastating plague falls on Thebes. Oedipus sends Creon to the oracle to find out what he can, and Creon returns with the news that the city is polluted because it harbors the slayer of Laius and that the plague will only lift when that man is expelled from Thebes. Oedipus now trains all his power of intellect and command on solving this mystery. Thanks to his persistence, together with the testimony of the now ancient shepherd who passed him in his infancy to Polybus and that of the servant who escaped his wrath when he killed Laius, Oedipus learns that the cause of pollution is none other than himself. In their despair, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself by plunging his wife and mother's gold brooches into his eyes.

Oedipus sends himself into exile, leaving Thebes and spending many years wandering as a beggar, accompanied only by his daughter Antigone. At last he finds shelter at Colonus in a grove sacred to the Eumenides, remembering that long ago the oracle that had told him his fate had prophesied also that he would end his days in the safety of such a grove. Meanwhile, his sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, disputing the crown of Thebes, have gone to war. Each sends to his father for his blessing and support, but Oedipus curses them both. Oedipus then goes off to die, bidding farewell to his daughters. At the end, only King Theseus is present to see Oedipus disappear mysteriously into the earth with the assistance and the blessing of the gods.

I have cobbled together this narrative rendering of the Oedipus story out of at least nine different versions from the ancient Greek, though I have relied most heavily on Sophocles' classic treatment of the story in two plays, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus (Fifth century BC). There were surely many more than nine versions, each of them necessarily different from the others. Since that time, the story has reappeared in numerous lan­guages throughout the world and in hundreds of analogue versions. This is clearly the signal case of a gripping masterplot, dealing with tough contra­dictions, that human beings have repeatedly used to think with in successive narrative renderings.

The agon at the heart of this story is most often regarded as the conflict between Oedipus and his fate. Struggle as he may to avoid the fate he learns from the oracle, he cannot escape it. Indeed, it is his very effort to escape that makes escape unavoidable. The narrative reinforces the centrality of this agon by having Oedipus's struggle with fate anticipated and doubled by the conflict between Laius and his fate that sets the story in motion. But why should such a story grip us? Few people in the West believe in the existence of a fate so particularized that it can specify that a man will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Why should we care for people in a world so governed? The easy answer is that we suspend disbelief. Coleridge created this phrase to account for why we allow ourselves to get wrapped up in a play even though we know it is only acted. Thus we can allow ourselves to be transported to Thebes or Colonus by a play while knowing all the time that we are seated in a theater. But why should a twentieth-century audience allow itself to go along with this Greek notion of fate?

In this case, the most likely answer is that, though we may not believe in fate the way many did in ancient Greece, we all know what it means to struggle with constraints that in one way or another govern our lives. If you are born black where black is the minority, it is a foreordained fact that you will experience racism, both directly and indirectly. The combination of your unchangeable physical features and the mindset of millions would make this an unavoidable condition of your life. This is a kind of fate. If you are deaf, or misshapen, or schizophrenic, or parentless, or in some other way deeply marked by genetics or environment, constraints are laid down ahead of you that are very much like a destiny - as unavoidable as they are deeply affecting. But there are also conditions that are as inescapable as these and that lie in wait for almost all of us. All those who survive childhood go through the changes of adolescence, most will fall in love at least once, and the majority will know what it means to lose love. If we live past our young adulthood, we will experience the loss of physical and mental power that comes with aging. And, of course, there is one fate that none of us escape. Early on, we learn the way our story in this life ends, a conclusion that we see anticipated in the deaths of others, including many whom we love.

It is the struggle between this certain knowledge of how lives are de­termined and the need to assert a freedom and dignity that in some way overwrites this helplessness that is the larger conflict, riding on the agon contained in the story of Oedipus. In other words, his particular strug­gle against his fate catalyzes the general need to control what cannot be controlled, just as his self-punishment and later wandering are a way of thinking through the effort to come to terms with the crimes he com­mitted in spite of his best efforts. The general point is that the narrative, in negotiating Oedipus's dilemma, negotiates at the same time the gen­eral conflict between determinism and the freedom to act. An ancillary point is that different narrative renderings of this tale make for different thinking about its issues. In the version of Diodorus Siculus, for example, when Laius has his fatal encounter with Oedipus, he is seeking informa­tion about his son from the same oracle that tells Oedipus he will kill his father. This ironic coincidence heightens the sense that, in the case of both father and son, the very effort to avoid one's fate makes that fate inevitable. A bleaker reading than that of Sophocles of the whole issue of human dignity in such a world, this version has Oedipus end his days in thrall to his impious sons. Sophocles, in contrast, works the narrative differently and in the process throws the balance between fate and freedom in the other direction. In his version, Oedipus at the end of his days is presented as one whose strength of character allows him freely to reject his sons. His capacity to persevere and to grow in wisdom earns him the reverential awe of King Theseus and the chorus.

Here again, in this last chapter, I am making a "foundational" proposition about how we relate to narrative. That is, before we are Marxian or Freudian, psychoanalytic or feminist, structuralist or post-structuralist, we all share common elements in the way we relate to narrative. To make this particular case, though, it is important to stress that I am not saying that we necessarily find in narratives successful negotiations of differences. Far from it. But insofar as we share in our own lives the larger conflicts of which these narrative conflicts are particular examples, we are moved by the narrative, drawn into it, and become alert to how these conflicts play out. And this, I am arguing, is an important form of thinking, whether or not the negotiation of conflicts is seen to be successful. Moreover, in contrast to more abstract modes of thought, this is passionate thinking. That is, in narrative our thinking is intimately tied to the emotions aroused during our narrative journey.

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