Narrative and Freedom Summary

Narrative and Freedom

The end of the Cold War and the approach of a new millennium have given increased urgency to one of the central preoccupations of this century: to comprehend the nature of time. Such a preoccupation was the inevitable consequence of Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity and the conceptualization of space as a time-conditioned phenomenon. Yet Einstein’s was hardly the only challenge to inherited notions. Even now, literate publics still strive to grasp the implications of time as described by uniformitarianism in geology. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection presupposed the awesome vistas of time required in the uniformitarian account. Like the limitless space opened up by the Copernican revolution and the invention of the telescope, Darwinian temporal horizons could seem frighteningly distant.

What Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace achieved on the biological level, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels sought in the domain of the historical and economic. Marxists claimed to understand the inner secret of historical development, posing a radical countertheory to the gradualist views held by both liberals and Fabian socialists. Later, Nikolai Kondratiev and John Maynard Keynes offered contrasting theories of the nature and duration of business cycles, while dissenting voices—Dennis Meadows, Herman Daley, and Robert Heilbroner—doubted that either capitalism or socialism had viable answers to the ecological crises. Philosophers of history such as Arnold Toynbee, Carroll Quigley, and William Irwin Thompson provided strikingly different interpretations of the cycles and reverses to which modern societies might be subject. “Future Studies” attained great prestige, its leading lights being such diverse prophets as Herman Kahn, Daniel Bell, Robert Jungk, Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, and Amory Lovins.

One can hardly think of an academic discipline that has not produced important controversies about time in the last two decades. Physics and astronomy—one thinks immediately of the works of Stephen Hawking and Freeman Dyson—have been breathtakingly fertile areas of theorizing. In phenomenology, one finds signal works such as David Carr’s brilliant Time, Narrative and History (1986). Carr reacted strongly to the views of historian Hayden White, for whom the narrative structure of beginning-middle-end is artificial, an arbitrary imposition on historical events. Carr avers that close attention to how we actually encounter the world—how experience itself requires a surrounding environment of temporal horizons—shows that “temporal configurations” are “the stuff of our daily experience.” Thus, the very notion of an “event” has “temporal thickness”; beginnings and endings are inherent, natural phenomena.

Postmodern theory has also contributed to the contemporary discussion of time. For example, Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth’s Sequel to History: Postmodernism and the Crisis of Representational Time (1992) argues that what people take to be incontrovertibly “natural”—the medium of historical time—is a construct and “itself a representation of the first magnitude.” Thus, “history” is itself contingent on a set of conventions.

Gary Saul Morson’s Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time is a brilliant contribution to this somewhat cacophonous conversation about time and “temporalities.” A literary theorist who grounds his work in Russian literature, he has written extensively on Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. His 1991 collaborative work with Caryl Emerson treated the highly influential Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin. An important clue to Morson’s intention appears on the final page of his introduction. “Each of my earlier books, has been, in one way or another, anti-utopian, and the present volume is no exception.” Utopianism, he believes, produces individuals who know the future and how it will arrive. In a thousand subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways they foreclose options and ignore the wide range of possible outcomes that surround all situations. When utopians take power, as they did in Russia, horrors result. Says Morson: “We have seen the unprecedented tyranny practiced by those who, believing they possess the key to history, imagine their values are final. . . . I think there has been too little serious reflection about what is wrong with this style of thinking.”

In providing such reflection, Morson works mainly with the same literary texts which inspired his earlier books. He does so because he finds in them not only “illustrations” of different conceptions of time and history, but also irreplaceably rich, philosophically suggestive original material. Thus, Morson offers a far more European approach than many of his American readers may be comfortable with. Schooled in the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Jorge Luis Borges, and Iris Murdoch, European audiences do not need to be convinced that, in Morson’s words, “Writers explore what it is to live with a particular conception of time, and what consequences, social, historical, and psychological, a commitment to specific temporalities may produce.” While many would argue that philosophy is the proper medium for reflecting on concepts of time, Morson demurs. He holds that “I do not view literary works as applied or sugar-coated or unrigorous philosophy, but as a specific form of philosophic thought in the broad sense.” Not without some irony, he adds: “They philosophize not with a hammer but with a feather.”

Morson’s key interpretive strategy arises from his reading of literary texts with the concept of “shadowing” in mind. His readers are familiar enough with the importance of shadowed areas as revealers of...

(The entire section is 2360 words.)