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Cambridge University Press 2002

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Are narratives like arguments?

Here are two views on this question. The first comes from the eminent psychologist Jerome Bruner: "A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness. The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof. The other establishes not truth but verisimilitude."1

The second comes from the American novelist and critic Ronald Sukenick: "All fiction can be profitably regarded as argument. When you define fiction by representation you end up confining it to realism at some level and arguing that fiction, as a form of make-believe, is a way of lying to get at the truth, which if not palpably stupid is certainly round-about and restrictive. My approach frees fiction from the obligations of mimesis, popularly, and most often critically, assumed to be its defining quality."2


Critical reading as narrative negotiation

An important qualification to this argument is that there is not necessarily any single privileged way of reading the conflict in a story, or sometimes even defining what or who it involves. This sounds extreme, but it can be especially true in longer and more complex narratives like the story of Oedipus. The reading of the Oedipus story that I proposed above, featuring the conflict between Oedipus and his fate, is only one (if the most common) among many readings of the Oedipus material. Yet — and here is the main point again - even among highly varied readings of the same story, one almost invariably finds the same underlying orientation, an attention to conflict of some kind and how it plays out. We can, for example, find this orientation in four famous readings of the Oedipus narrative, each of them representing a radically different take on the story from the one I chose above, yet each of them in their very different ways featuring the effort to negotiate a conflict.

Aristotle. In the Poetics (335-322 BC), Aristotle argued that the function of tragedy lay in its primary effect: "arousing pity and fear, whereby to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions" (631). And along the way he singled out the story of Oedipus as a masterful example of this complex emotional end:

The tragic fear and pity may be aroused by the Spectacle; but they may also be aroused by the very structure and incidents of the play - which is the better way and shows the better poet. The Plot in fact should be so framed that, even without seeing the things take place, he who simply hears the account of them shall be filled with horror and pity at the incidents; which is just the effect that the mere recital of the story of Oedipus would have on one. (641)

The puzzle that the combination of pity and fear presents is that these emotions move us in opposite directions. Pity draws one toward the pitiable object in a movement of sympathy; fear drives one away in a movement of self-preservation. Yet, for Aristotle, an overbalance toward one or the other spoils the effect of tragedy. What happens in the Oedipus story is a successful transaction involving these opposed emotions whereby, despite their differences, they are both aroused and spent in a mutual catharsis. Much ink has been spilled in trying to get at the exact meaning of Aristotle's use of the word "catharsis," but it seems implicitly to refer to the arousal and purgation of powerful emotions that otherwise might control us. The point to stress here, however, is that Aristotle features as the heart of the tragic effect, epitomized by the Oedipus story, a successful negotiation of the claims of two contradictory emotions which are allowed somehow to join together. At the most fearful and repellent moment of the story - when Oedipus drives the points of Jocasta's gold brooches into his eyes - what keeps this from, as it were, "blowing us away" is that we grasp through pity the depth of despair that causes him to do this.

Freud. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud situated his reading of the Oedipus story directly against the common interpretation I outlined above. For Freud, the stress on the conflict between the decree of the gods and the human desire for moral freedom is really a smokescreen: "an uncom­prehending secondary elaboration of the material, which sought to make it serve a theological intention."3 The success of the Oedipus story and the reason for its universality "does not depend upon the conflict between fate and human will, but upon the peculiar nature of the material by which this conflict is revealed" (307). In other words, it is not fate that matters in this story but the specific acts of killing the father and sleeping with the mother. And this is because these are two acts that we ("we" meaning "men") all secretly want to do. That both of these acts are treated in the same play is only fitting because, according to Freud, they are the two principal com­ponents of the same childhood yearning. Men are murderously jealous of their fathers because they want the exclusive love of their mothers. These are two yoked desires that most men successfully repress.

King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and wedded his mother Jocasta, is nothing more or less than a wish fulfillment - the fulfillment of the wish of our childhood. But we, more fortunate than he, in so far as we have not become psychoneurotics, have since our childhood succeeded in withdrawing our sexual impulses from our mothers, and in forgetting our jealousy of our fathers. We recoil from the person for whom this primitive wish of our childhood has been fulfilled with all the force of the repression which these wishes have undergone in our minds since childhood. As the poet brings the guilt of Oedipus to light by his investigation, he forces us to become aware of our own inner selves, in which the same impulses are still extant, even though they are suppressed. (308)

Jocasta, trying to comfort Oedipus as he approaches the truth, unwittingly provides internal support for this reading by noting that what he fears is a dream common to men:

For many a man hath seen himself in dreams

His mother's mate, but he who gives no heed

To suchlike matters bears the easier life. (308)

In his reading, Freud has displaced one conflict with another. The conflict between fate and the free exercise of human will is displaced by the conflict between desire and conscience or, in later Freudian terms, between the urging of the libido and the tyranny of the superego. The normal price of this conflict in the everyday life of men, its negotiated condition, is repression and a kind of unlocalized malaise or free-floating guilt. In the story of Oedipus, the price of actually living the wish is self-inflicted blindness and expulsion from home. In the narrative, no compromise is possible, and expiation only ends with the death of the transgressor. For the audience, however, the transaction is more complex. Through Oedipus, the viewer is permitted the wished-for enactment of forbidden desires and at the same time allowed to separate himself (again, it must be male) by observing the punishment of his unacknowledged surrogate. The pleasures of the crime and the satisfactions of punishment are bound up in the same narrative package.

Propp. The Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp, considered by many a founder of structuralism and arguably the founder of narratology as well (though before the term was invented), produced a long paper on the Oedi­pus story in 1944. In this essay, he cast his net widely to cover a great range of variants of the story but all to the end of showing the "hybrid" character of the version Sophocles created in his two plays. Like Freud, Propp relocated the central conflict away from the ostensible struggle between Oedipus and his fate, but unlike Freud he saw the play's conflict in historical terms: "The tale does not arise as a direct reflection of a social order. It arises from a conflict, from the contradictions that occur as one order replaces another."4 Briefly, the two orders were the older one (according to Propp's theory of social evolution) by which rule of the kingdom was determined according to matrilineal descent and the newer order by which rule of the kingdom was determined according to patrilineal descent.

In this reading of history, the older or more "primitive" fairy tales were structured to reflect a matrilineal order by which the throne passed from the father to a son-in-law. The future king is an outsider who comes in and marries the king's daughter. Along the way, however, he must conform to a number of conventional patterns: being exiled or cast adrift in infancy, losing his name and being given another, passing a number of tests, and in some versions heroically killing the old king before marrying his daughter. In Propp's reading of Sophocles's Oedipus, the skeleton of this older genre can be seen. Oedipus is cast away, and his name (which reflects the condition of his exile) is given to him later. Coming to the city, he must pass the test of overthrowing the Sphinx, and of course he kills the father. But this version of the tale has no daughter to marry. Instead, Oedipus is offered the king's widow. Moreover, the king he killed is not his father-in-law but his actual father. In this way and others, according to Propp, Sophocles synthesized a hybrid story that layers the new order over the old.

In the complex negotiation of one social order gaining ascendancy over another, Propp argues that Sophocles's sequel, Oedipus at Colonus, played a crucial role. This is because, in following the pattern of the old order and killing the king, even (and significantly) in doing so unconsciously, Oedipus has overlaid the heroism of regicide with the horrendous crime of patricide. He must not only pay for this crime but in the process he must also achieve some form of apotheosis that in turn validates the new order in which the son succeeds the father. This second stage is what takes place after the years of blind wandering when Oedipus arrives in Colonus at the sacred grove of the Eumenides. He is honored by king and country, his body is blessed, he is called by the gods, and he enters the earth in anticipation of rebirth as a god himself (and Oedipus did in fact have a cult following in ancient Greece). In this way, Propp argues, Sophocles anticipates the pattern of numerous retellings of the story in analogous tales such as those of Gregory and of Andrew of Crete, both of whom became saints despite their crimes of kinship and incest.

Levi-Strauss. When the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss published his classic reading of the Oedipus material in 1955, he was interested not so much in providing a reading of this specific story as in using it to show how all myths might best be read. What was revolutionary about his argument was his shift of focus from a linear reading of myth — that is, the kind of reading (like all four above) that goes from beginning to end — to a struc­tural or "synchronic" reading that focusses on repetitions in the material. Quite literally, Levi-Strauss spatialized the myth to get at its thinking. The repetitions within a set of mythic material like that of the Oedipus story he called "gross constituent units" or "mythemes." These operate on a "higher level" of meaning than the linguistic phenomena (phonemes, morphemes, and sememes) by which we construe them. And when they are "bundled" together, they guide us away from the myth's linear and historical content and toward its timeless content, explaining "the present and the past as well as the future."5 Here is how Levi-Strauss bundled the Oedipus mythemes:

Cadmus seeks

his sister Europa,

ravished by Zeus

Cadmus kills

the dragon

The Spartoi kill

one another

Labdacos (Laios'

father) = lame (?)

Oedipus kills

his father, Laios

Laios (Oedipus'

father) = left-sided (?)

Oedipus kills

the Sphinx

Oedipus = ^ Swollen

-foot (?)

Oedipus marries

his mother, Jocasta

Eteocles kills his

brother, Polyneices

Antigone buries her

brother, Polyneices,

despite prohibition


As you can see, in order to have sufficient narrative material to develop significant bundles of these repetitions, Levi-Strauss drew on the story of Cadmus and Europa that precedes the Oedipus material as well as the story of Oedipus's children that follows his death. This gave him enough material to reorganize the entire narrative, scoring it like music, so that the bun­dled repetitions stand out vertically, like chords. The result is four bundles of mythemes. Each column in the scheme above includes mythemes that share some repeated concept. In the first column, the shared concept is "blood relations that are overemphasized, that is, more intimate than they should be...the overrating of blood relations!' In the second column, the shared concept is the "underrating of blood relations!' The third column features the slaying of monsters who would return us to the earth and therefore features the denial of the idea that we come from the earth (affirming that we are not "autochthonous"). And finally the fourth column features forms of lame­ness that are ancient signs of our having come from the earth (affirming that we are "autochthonous").

Put together, the four columns constitute a kind of thinking about ideas in conflict, for "column four is to column three as column one is to column two":

The myth has to do with the inability, for a culture which holds the belief that man is autochthonous ..., to find a satisfactory transition between this theory and the knowledge that human beings are actually born from the union of man and woman. Although the problem obviously cannot be solved, the Oedipus myth provides a kind of logical tool which relates the original problem - born from one or born from two? - to the derivative problem: born from different or born from same? By a correlation of this type, the overrating of blood relations is to the underrating of blood relationships as the attempt to escape autochthony is to the impossibility to succeed in it. (216)

In other words, with the kind of knowledge that they had at their disposal, the ancient creators of these myths were thinking just as hard and just as well as we do today. Indeed, since there is no privileged version of any myth, and a myth repeats its thinking in all its versions, even Freud's interpretation of the Oedipus story, according to Levi-Strauss, can be absorbed into this reading according to bundled mythemes:

Although the Freudian problem has ceased to be that of autochthony versus bisexual reproduction, it is still the problem of understanding how one can be born of two: How is it that we do not have only one procreator, but a mother plus a father? Therefore, not only Sophocles, but Freud himself, should be included among the recorded versions of the Oedipus myth on a par with earlier or seemingly more "authentic" versions. (217)

To return to a fundamental point in this section, Levi-Strauss, for all his radical reorganization of the way we look at myth — to the point of turning it into something that does not look like narrative at all, but rather a much more static, spatialized entity — still finds at the heart of narrative the effort to negotiate competing claims in a major conflict of ideas. In this extreme structuralist view, then, mythic narrative is still a mode of passionate thought, seeking to negotiate some way out of the contradictions of existence. To summarize, all five of the readings of Oedipus that I have reviewed here are implicitly based on the view that people think through the agency of narrative. In the process, I hope I have shown two additional things as well: 1) how differently people can respond to the same narrative and, at the same time, 2) how persistent through all this difference is the assumption that narrative appeals through its representation of some kind of conflict.

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