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What Is The Nature And Characteristics Of Narrative?

What Is The Nature And Characteristics Of Narrative?


Borges in 1951

An Original Interpretation On The Nature Of Narratives

Borges’s short story Funes the Memorious explores a facet of human life that is often considered untrustworthy while fundamental to our experience of the world— memory. A sudden fall from a horse paralyses Funes but also grants him a photographic memory. He can since recall details as minute as the appearance of clouds from even “the most ancient and trivial memories” (Borges).

Trapped by his photographic memory, Funes is depicted as a mechanical recounter of events while missing out the essential experience of human life. Borges’ lament of the great memorious and his unexpected isolation indeed puts pressure on our preconception about truthfulness being a necessity of self-narration. More specifically, limited meaning would be offered both to authors and readers if we set truthfulness as the standard to evaluate a work of self-narration. Letting go of the duty of being an inspector of historical accuracy in autobiographical writing allows readers to explore the imagery, reflect on their experience and to deal with issues important to them. 

Prior to the exploration of the more profound meaning of a piece of self-written text, it needs to be established from the onset that we are fundamentally constrained by the unreliability of human memory. Consequently, we have to reconcile with the limited freedom in recounting the past. As is addressed by Georges Gusdorf in his Conditions and Limits of Autobiography: “One must choose a side and give up the pretense of objectivity, abandoning a sort of false scientific attitude that would judge a work by the precision of its detail” (42). Similarly, Joan Didion not only makes her explicit confession of such cognitive difficulty, but further emphasizes her purposeful lack of effort in pursuing such truthfulness in her writing. As she states in her essay

On Keeping a Notebook: “The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is  it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking” (Didion 22). Nabokov shows his awareness of this fact as well in his autobiographical  text Speak, Memory by describing memory as a “slippery hold” (2). 

Realizing that absolute objectivity is unachievable due to epistemological reasons, maybe we should go beyond to take advantage of such a limitation. Both Didion and Nabokov extend from this cognitive difficulty to experiment with the fuller aspects of self-narration. According to Nabokov, imagination is a privilege wholly enjoyed only by the “immortal and the immature”, since people tend to approach objectivity with a natural tendency. He stands firm with a rebellious posture against this: “I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature.

Over and over again, my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life” (Nabokov). In this sense, he gratefully accepts the inaccuracy of human memory, as is stated in the text: “I may be inordinately fond of my earliest impressions, but then I have reason to be grateful to them. They led the way to a veritable Eden of visual and tactile sensations” (Nabokov).

Adolfo Bioy Casares, Victoria Ocampo and Borges in 1935

Given that life is just a brief flash bracketed by the endless unconsciousness at both of its ends, Nabokov conceives his writing as an active imagination to carve out some personalized marks, rising against the triviality of life. Likewise, Didion uses the honesty towards her feelings to gaze inward and carve out the pathway for a “truer story” (Didion).

By making it an authorial intent to keep a blunt record of what it feels to her, she enters a journey that forces constant questioning of her experimental perceptions and instant feelings. As is made explicit in the essay: “Maybe no one else felt the ground hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bask in it, but that was how it felt to me” (Didion). 

In the context of self-writing, the authors of autobiography would often use concrete objects to compose images, which, once infused with their consciousness, are then endowed with private meanings and become profound to both its creator and perceiver.

Diary entries from John Didion’s private journal consist only of a seemingly random juxtaposition of images which can at best be counted as bare descriptions of scenes without figurative explanation. Those lines, however, have the power to revive the past memory even to the most nuanced details. At the beginning of her essay, Joan Didion throws an erratic quote at readers mildly depicting a breakup drama: “That woman Estelle … is partly the reason why George Sharp and I are separated today.” It is then followed by a series of image fragments which only make sense to the author: “Dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper, hotel bar, Wilmington RR, 9:45 a.m. August Monday morning” (Didion, 21). An instant later, the author’s mind flees to the past and she remembers herself at the hotel bar and the woman in the dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper.

However, the recollection doesn’t just stop there.

The scene expands to include the author talking to a cat, then further, to the sting she felt forecasting a bleak future of her coming long-distance relationship, being slightly irritated by not finding a safety pin, and a fleeting wish to befriend a companion under the same dilemma whom she could share her self-pity with. A scattered remark on a stranger becomes meaningful only when itself is exploited as a private holder of consciousness, reminding its creator an episode of memory vigorously full of emotions that is ready to come alive. 

The imagery in the Speak, Memory is even more well-constructed in a precise way: “Judging by the strong sunlight that, when I think of that revelation, immediately invades my memory with lobed sun flecks through overlapping patterns of greenery, the occasion may have been my mother’s birthday, in late summer” (Nabokov).

The image depicting trees casting their shadow when the sun glitters through the leaves is a gentle reminder of a random afternoon of a late summer, a birthday, the day that little Nabokov was intrigued by the increment in his mother’s age. His effort to explore the mysteries concealed in this word, age; the instant in which Nabokov suddenly perceived the vastness of time; the thrills he was bathed in marveling at the power of such grand continuity to connect separate individuals, arranging them in a neat chronicle order under the name of age… Extending from a frame of late summer, these are the precious flows of consciousness that witnessed the birth of a sentient life. The way how this image is constructed is, in itself, a piece of private interpretation offered by the author about his past experience.

Furthermore, the indication for us readers could be subtle and devious.

But to some extent, it provokes us to examine some fundamental questions that are often left unscrutinized: What is the source of our own consciousness? How have we been dealing with our relationship with time? In what ways could we possibly transform our lives from an insignificant flash restrained by its limited span into something more substantial? The answers are certainly very difficult to find. But it will aid us in the development of individuality, serving as an encouragement for us to offer experimental interpretations of our past and draw attention to the very conception of “I”. 

Nabokov in the 1960s

Apart from the imageries drawn from daily life, those (semi-)fictitious ones may contain even greater significance. Besides the blurred truthfulness of self-narration, the visionary nature of those mentally constructed imageries makes their meanings especially obscure and the writer’s intention uncertain. But consequently, we are granted more freedom to interpret their symbolic meanings. The abstract scene placed at the very beginning of the whole autobiography Speak, Memory particularly arouses my interest: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” (Nabokov).

Moreover, the uncommon juxtaposition of a cradle above the edgy of an abyss renders us multiple ways to make sense of it: a life that is yet to be unfurled from the  prenatal darkness towards death, another infinite unconsciousness; or a prelude to Nabokov’s life journey which consists of a series of questions regarding time and  consciousness; or a lament of transient human lives and their doomed oblivion into timelessness; or maybe it is a reminder of how much we are restrained within our life  span from leaving remnants of greatness… It is then followed by Nabokov’s endeavor to put himself in relation to this image, which adds even more intriguing ambiguity for our interpretations: “This darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness” (Nabokov).

I see the figure of a proud rebellion tirelessly fighting against the predetermined boundaries of time in which we are only allowed to survive with limited imagination. 

At age 16, Nabokov inherited the Rozhdestveno estate from his maternal uncle; Nabokov owned it for one year before losing it in the October Revolution.

The construction of such an image may be just a refusal to accept that human existence is too trivial to have significant weight in history or an attempt to arbitrarily add some meaning to substantialize one’s short span of life, but either of them is respectful. It is something fully embodied with personalized sensations while leaving great space for the future perceivers to interpret and resonate with, conveys an exceeding human power to connect across the grand flow of time and penetrate into the unentered void. 

In summary, the author of an autobiography, especially who carries an intention to substantialize his existence, tends to approach the writing process in a highly personal manner. Given that absolute objectivity is unachievable due to cognitive difficulties, maybe we should fully exploit the advantage of distorted memories. Staying away from truthfulness renders us the beautiful potential to explore the significance of imagery, which directs our attention to the inner self, forcing us to interpret our past experience and impose questions on some neglected, while fundamental issues. 

Written by Rilyn Han

What Is The Nature And Characteristics Of Narrative?
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