(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Based on a series of lectures given at the University of Bologna, this modest little book breaks no new ground for cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner. He covered the material in chapter 1, “The Uses of Story,” in much more detail in Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (1987). The ideas in chapter 2, “The Legal and the Literary,” are derived largely from the more complex book he cowrote with professor of law Anthony Amsterdam, Minding the Law (2000). Chapter 3, “The Narrative Creation of Self,” is based on current theories of a number of thinkers, primarily James Olney (Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life Writing, 1998), and Paul John Eakin (How Our Lives Become Stories, 1999). The final chapter, “So Why Narrative?” is a brief summation, reemphasizing the seriousness of narrative in law, literature, and life.

Bruner begins by justifying still another book about stories by reminding readers that intuitions about how stories are made or understood are so implicit that people do not know how to explain them. The purpose of his present book, he says, is to get beyond implicitness, something he says most theorists have previously failed to do. However, when he begins his explanation, he returns to the earliest known effort to explain the structure of narrative, Aristotle’s concept of peripeteia, elucidated in the Poetics (c. 334-323 b.c.e.)—that sudden reversal in circumstances that turns a routine sequence of events into story.

Bruner’s list of the characteristics of story have been discussed by narratologists ever since Aristotle. First of all, “story” differs from a sequence of actual events by having a sense of ulteriority, some purpose or intentionality frequently concealed beneath the mere sequence of events. An important implication of this characteristic of story is that, contrary to common sense, story is not merely a transparent glass through which the reader perceives external reality, but rather a highly convention-bound, thematic form that shapes and alters external reality.

One of the most important theoretical sources of Bruner’s theories are the Russian formalists of the 1920’s, who argued that the purpose of story was to make strange or defamiliarize ordinary reality by transmuting the declarative into the subjunctive, focusing not on what is, but on what might be or could be. Narrative is a dialectic between what is expected and what actually happens, for without something unforeseen taking place, there is no story. Consequently, one of the chief purposes of story is to forewarn the reader, to prepare the reader for the unexpected, give the reader the ability to cope with the new. Echoing the Russian formalists and the literary theorist Morse Peckham in Man’s Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behavior, and the Arts (1965), Bruner says that story is thus a way to “domesticate” human error and surprise by conventionalizing the common forms of human mishap into genres, such as comedy, tragedy, irony, romance, and so on.

Bruner begins his chapter on the relationship between the law and literature by comparing the formalist literary notion of conventions clustering together to create genres with the legal concept of precedent, for tradition is embodied in both literary conventions and legal precedent. Lawyers (whom Bruner likes to call legal storytellers) appeal to a similarity between their own interpretation of the facts in the present case to similar cases in the past, much the same way a writer or reader creates or interprets a present literary work within the context of previous similar works. A law story therefore prevails not just by its rhetoric, but also by making it clear that there are precedents that match it. Another important element common both to literature and law, says Bruner, is ritualization, for ritual makes the message seem incontestable, suggesting that the message is inherent in the way things are and is therefore beyond debate. Rituals are so deeply embedded in a culture as to seem completely at one with common sense.

Although law often seems to be based on logic and reason, with lawyers and judges trying hard to make their stories seem factual rather than storylike, by “pleading” their case, lawyers often create drama. Moreover, law stories are more like literary stories than logical arguments in that they focus on the particular. Common law, says Bruner, looks for continuity in particulars rather than for universality by deduction from abstract rules, and this, he says, is why law cannot do without...

(The entire section is 1857 words.)