Time and Narrative

Although the title of this work by modern philosophy’s most eminent phenomenologist might suggest that its focus is on literary theory, readers searching for a study of fictional narrative will be disappointed. That task Ricur is reserving for the second volume. In volume 1 of Time and Narrative (published in France in 1983 as Temps et récit), he is primarily concerned with the narrative nature of history. In fact, more than half of the book is devoted to a survey and a critique of historiography, including the philosophy of history, to develop his thesis that the ultimate character of history is indeed narrative. The other half makes use of Saint Augustine’s study of time in the Confessions and Aristotle’s study of plot in the Poetics to develop Ricur’s central thesis that time only becomes human when it is articulated by means of narrative, and narrative is meaningful only when it is mimetic of temporality.

As opposed to the semioticians, who, following upon the popularity of structuralism, seem to hold to the day in modern criticism, Ricur is concerned with the level of meaning beyond the sign. In The Rule of Metaphor (1977), his focus was not on signs but on discourse—that level of language-acts equal to or higher than the sentence, the level which Ricur says is synthetic and cannot be reduced to a combination of signs. In that work, Ricur was concerned with the semantic level of discourse—that is, how metaphor makes meaning. In Time and Narrative, he moves to the level higher than the sentence—to plot—but he is still concerned with semantics, and, as opposed to structuralist theorists of narrative who have struggled with the abstract syntax of narrative, he is concerned with the semantic relationship between narrative and that which narrative takes as its structure and subject: the paradoxical nature of time itself.

Ricur seems to be fighting a rear-guard action against the modernist and postmodernist dogma that has dominated literary criticism and theory at least since the French Symbolists, according to which the primary poetic function of language is the self-referential focus on language for its own sake. Ricur’s study of the semantic nature of both metaphor and narrative is a return to mimesis, a return to the study of art as referential to the external world. This does not mean, however, that Ricur defends a naïve realism which understands imitation as a photographic duplication of external reality. Rather, he is concerned with the ability of narrative plot to reconfigure man’s confused and unformed experience of time itself. “What then, is time?” asks Saint Augustine. “I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.” Plot for Ricur is a means of dealing with what cannot be explained in ordinary discursive language, the temporality of experience.

The critiques of Saint Augustine and Aristotle which make up the first two chapters form an introduction to the basic thesis of the reciprocity between narrativity and temporality, a thesis developed more thoroughly in chapter 3. Ricur chooses Saint Augustine and Aristotle because in both the essential dichotomy between concordance and discordance (which is also the essential tension of time and narrative) is most clearly laid bare. Saint Augustine focuses on the human desire for concordance in spite of discordance in temporal experience, while Aristotle emphasizes the dominance of concordance over discordance in the plot. In his effort to show that narrative deepens and humanizes time, Ricur also battles against the more accepted modernist thesis that the art work dechronologizes narrative or spatializes it and that therefore the critic’s job is to lay bare the logic or rules which the narrative creates out of the merely temporal.

Ricur’s “return to Aristotle” might, at first glance, resemble a similar attempt to resurrect the mimetic nature of plot to combat formalism by the so-called Chicago or Neo-Aristotelian school in American criticism thirty years ago. Ricur’s Aristotelianism, however, is not so thorough-going; he is only concerned here to focus on the implications of the basic Aristotelian notion of emplotment or muthos—that is, the organization of events. He wishes to explore whether the paradigm of order which Aristotle establishes for tragedy can be extended and transformed to apply to the whole narrative field, including history as well as fictional narrative. For Ricur, mimesis aims at the universal reconfiguring power of muthos, not merely the configuring of a particular story. To make up a plot, says Ricur, is to make the intelligible spring from the accidental, the universal from the singular, the necessary from the episodic. The Aristotelian notions of tragic reversal and recognition go beyond tragedy; they are essential to every story or history where meaninglessness threatens the meaningful.

Mimesis, as Aristotle defines it, is not simply the imitation of some pre-existing reality, says Ricur, but rather a creative imitation, a reconfiguring which produces what the Russian Formalist critics call the “literariness” of the work. Since the study of...

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Library Journal. CIX, July, 1984, p. 1330.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, July 22, 1984, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, May 4, 1984, p. 48.