Narrative and Freedom

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2360

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.

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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 depth and form in painting. So too is “foreshadowing” a commonplace device in theater, film, and the novel. But what of “backshadowing”—a foreshadowing ascribed after the fact? Or “sideshadowing”—a lighting scheme which picks out alternative possibilities of action and outcome? These latter two neologisms require much explication. As they are both his guiding metaphors and structuring principles for the book, Morson devotes many pages to this task and to the way these metaphors are both suggested and enriched by an encounter with literature.

As one influenced greatly by Mikhail Bakhtin, Morson wishes to scrutinize alternative accounts of time and history from the viewpoint that both literary and nonliterary realities are replete with “various kinds of temporal openness.” Philosophically, he sides with indeterminists such as William James, for whom belief in a totally determined scheme of universal causation leads to a morally and pragmatically unacceptable “block universe.” In such a world, feelings of regret and shame are absurd, for they imply that things might turn out differently—that other choices and other possibilities could have been realized. As applied to literature, Jamesian indeterminism draws attention to the interplay of author and hero. In Bakhtin’s reading of Dostoevsky, the author “confronts his characters ‘on the same plane’ and engages them in dialogues the outcome of which he cannot foresee.” In an artistic medium, Dostoevsky thus offers a complex account of time: “plot loses its inevitability as structure disappears and ‘rhythm’ yields to ‘loopholes.’ Like real people, characters act into the open future, and not in fulfillment of an overall plan laid down at the outset.”

Given his fascination with this reading of Dostoevsky and of the concept of “time’s loose play,” Morson views both foreshadowing and backshadowing as finally inadequate philosophic and literary strategies. Foreshadowing is an ancient literary device, as familiar to the Greeks as to Biblical narrativists. It invokes a world in which fates, foretellings, prophecies, oracles and omens hold sway. Appropriate to its domain are concepts like inevitability, fatalism, destiny, “the known future,” determinism. Morson provides a marvelous account of the types of foreshadowing that operate in both the literary and historical imagination of the West. He shares with Arthur Danto the conviction that Marxism held an essentially novelistic view of historical processes, one for which the outcome of the plot was known. His discussion contains useful distinctions, such as that between premonition and precognition.

Yet the gravamen of Morson’s account is to show that foreshadowing ultimately rests on what he calls “the bipolar fallacy.” This occurs when historians or historical novelists or other “foreshadowers” seize on two events, or two points of reference, and draw a straight line of necessity between them. Such a tactic obscures the deep truth that “every moment in between may have been as effective as these two, and so the drawing of a straight line is always misleading.”

“Backshadowing” occurs when “the past is viewed as having contained signs pointing to what happened later.” Backshadowing is present when “a past period is treated as if its participants could in principle have seen the future that loomed and was in fact to happen.” The key phrase signaling this view of time is: “He should have known.” Backshadowing involves a set of premises, often concealed from view: that the essential pattern of history is now clear; that history is teleological, directed to an outcome known to us; that signs of history’s inner movement were visible all along and could have been discerned by actors in the past; that, therefore, a timelessly valid standard of what counts as “progressive” is available, “because the same story seamlessly links past and present.”

While Marxist-Leninist historians were of course shameless backshadowers, Morson usefully reminds readers of this tendency’s presence in British historiography, especially as described in Herbert Butterfield’s study The Whig Interpretation of History. (Those who occasionally scan high school American history texts will recognize this particular “chronotrope.”) Whig historians smugly assumed that the system of British liberty—enshrined in the Constitution, the established Protestant church, the gradual extension of free trade—formed the summit of historical development. Thus, says Morson, “They produced a neat story in which progressives advanced and reactionaries tried to forestall the British constitution, saw Protestant-ism as favoring liberty and Catholicism relentlessly opposing it, and, in general, offered a comforting picture of history as the gradual triumph of forward-looking over backward-looking forces.”

Backshadowing produces another version of the bipolar fallacy, for “a more or less straight line is drawn between the past period under examination and the observer’s present.” Yet this strips from intervening temporal points any significant determinative power and ignores “time’s loose play”—the unpredictability introduced by chance, randomness, and the tug on reality exerted by almost-chosen possibilities. To see the wide array of possible pasts (and therefore improbable futures) requires “sideshadowing.” Writes Morson: “Whereas foreshadowing works by revealing apparent alternatives to be mere illusions, sideshadowing, conveys the sense that actual events might just as well not have happened. In an open universe, the illusion is inevitability itself.”

Morson’s central idea, sideshadowing, becomes the protagonist in this critic’s tale of light and darkness. When illumined from the side, objects are often seen together with their accompanying environment. Their existence in a field of phenomena becomes more apparent. Expressed in the language of time, “Along with an event, we see its alternatives; with each present, another possible present.” Morson continues:

Sideshadows conjure the ghostly presence of might-have-beens or might-bes. While we see what did happen, we also see the image of what else could have happened. In this way, the hypothetical shows through the actual and so achieves its own shadowy kind of existence in the text.

Whereas foreshadowing and backshadowing produce the recurrent phrase “little did they know that . . . ,” sideshadowing leads to “what if, if only, had it not been, were it not for—what would have taken place then?” Thus, says Morson, “Sideshadowing restores the possibility of possibility. Its most fundamental lesson is: to understand a moment is to grasp not only what did happen but also what else might have happened.”

Faithful to his conviction that authentic philosophizing takes place in purely literary contexts, Morson proceeds to an extended analysis of Dostoevsky’s Besy (1871-1872, The Possessed, 1913), a text replete with sideshadowing. What attracts him is the aura of radical indeterminacy which surrounds the key relationships and events of the novel. Not only are Kirilov, Pytor Stepanovich, Stavrogin, and Liza Nikolena characters whose actions and motives constantly elude prediction, but the “chronicler” who tells the story is as aware of what might have happened or what could happen as he is of what actually takes place. Further, as Morson puts it, rumor functions as a character in the story, so that both reader and chronicler are held in a state of confusion. There are two interwoven plots, mysteries which are never resolved, reversals of “truths” readers have come to believe of characters, deliberately created gaps in the text, and a scandalous episode (“At Tikon’s”) that was omitted from the first edition but which has been reincorporated into the book as an appendix. As Morson points out, however, “This sensible solution in effect doubles the novel, for we may read it either as originally written or as originally published.” The effect of reading The Possessed is to be delivered from “the domain of actuality to the middle realm of real possibilities. As a result, other novels hover in the wings and wait to seize control of the text.”

Morson examines other works by Dostoevsky, as well as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Borges’ “Garden of the Forking Paths,” the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, and a delightful assortment of other texts. His attempt is to enliven readers’ understanding of sideshadowing and develop the sensibility required to dwell in a sideshadowed world. Such a sensibility, he claims, can help us avoid “chronocentrism and backshadowing when studying the past.” It would, at the very least, reverse the process “of judging earlier ages in our own terms by imagining how people of the past would have judged us in theirs.” Also, we might gradually come to recognize that the present is not the only possible outcome of earlier times. We are thus led to ponder the mystery of time, which springs upon us the new and unexpected just when we are sure we know what, inevitably, must befall us.

While one might have wished that Morson could have more clearly located his own work in the wide-ranging contemporary literature on temporality, the final result is still satisfying. Clearly written, philosophically subtle, and metaphorically rich, Narrative and Freedom will become a necessary book for literary scholars anxious to sort out the meaning of time in narrative structures. In an age of entertainment, when a cornucopia of narratives lure people in a thousand directions, Morson’s work may have advantages that even he has not foreseen.

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