Sunday, February 15, 2015

Notes on Place and Narrative Order in Three Texts

In the course of my current session (about the nature of stories and the discipline of literary criticism) Per Aage Brandt brought my attention to his paper, Forces and Spaces – Maupassant, Borges, Hemingway. Toward a Semio-Cognitive Narratology, in which he outlines (to quote from his abstract) “a model of the constitutive architecture of narrative meaning as manifested by ‘good stories’, stories that make sense by conveying a vie& of the human condition.” In this model he proposes that actions move back and forth between “a canonical set of narrative spaces, each encompassing and contributing a significant part of the meaning of a story” and that these narrative spaces are typically “staged as distinct locations” in the physical space depicted in the narrative. He labeled these four spaces: Condition, Catastrophe, Consequence, and Conclusion.

That something like this is going on seems plausible on the face of it. As Brandt noted in a comment over at the session, “spaces and behaviors are regularly linked, in human cultures as in many animal behaviors.” Thus humans and animals typically has a nesting space or den where they sleep and a daily routine the moves through the same spaces in a regular circuit where they satisfy their various needs. I note further that, as all animals have to navigate through the physical world, the neural machinery for guiding us through space is phylogenetically very old, reliable, and sophisticated.

However, for the purposes of this post, I want to set the abstract narratology aside and simply concentrate on the physical places in a small set of narratives. Furthermore, those narratives share a common narrative form, known as ring composition. In the next section I describe that form with a simple example and then, in successive sections, consider three texts: Tezuka’s Metropolis, Honda’s Gojira, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A final section has links to other materials.

Let’s Take a Journey

Let us start with a very simple narrative, one with no remarkable features. It is a story about how I leave my apartment to get a quart of milk at the local King’s grocery store and then return to my apartment by the same route. This story, as you will quickly see, had the canonical form of a ring; that’s why I’m telling it.

Here is that story, told in a telegraphic way.

A: Leave Apartment
B: Exit Building, turn left to 13th St.
C: Walk East on 13th St. for a block, cross Hudson
D: Turn right, walk so many yards to the door of King’s
E: Enter King’s and purchase milk
D’: Exit King’s, turn right and walk so many yards to 13th St.
C’: Cross Hudson and walk one block on 13th to Washington St.
B’: Turn right and walk to the door of 1301 Washington St.
A’: Enter building and return to my apartment

This story has a center point, my purchase of milk, and the events in the story, such as they are, are arranged symmetrically around that central event.

That story interests me because the ring-form is incidental to my intentions in telling the story. In telling the story I didn’t intend it to have a ring form. All I intended was to tell the events as they happened or, to be more precise, as I remembered them happening. My memory stream has the events ordered one after the other and that’s how I told them.

Where, then, did the narrative symmetry come from? It came from the material conditions of the narrated events. The story was simple. I started at one place, when to another to do something, and then I returned to my starting point. Because returned by the same route I used when going to the goal place, the symmetry was a natural consequence of geography. Had I returned by a different route, the symmetry would have been broken.

Tezuka’s Metropolis

Now let us examine a “real” story, Metropolis, the 1949 manga by Osamu Tezuka. It’s interesting for a number of reasons. For one, Tezuka is a seminal figure in Japanese popular culture and this is an early text. For another, the central figure, Michi, is an “artificial being” (as opposed to a robot) with fluid gender, switching back and forth between male and female.

The story is fairly complex and involves two interlinked strands of action. The ring-form that I have identified doesn’t exist at the level of those individual events. It exists, rather, at the level of the general settings in which those events occur. Furthermore, the story exists inside a brief narrative frame that consists of words and accompanying images (remember, this is a graphic narrative) spoken by a secondary character from the main narrative.

Here’s the ring-form:

A: Prelude (frame)
B: Greater Metropolis
C: Underground
D: Child’s World
E: Central Scene: A room in a large house; snapshots from around the world
D’: Child’s World
C’: Underground
B’: Greater Metropolis
A’: Coda (frame)

Several things. Neither Greater Metropolis nor Child’s World is a single simple setting. Child’s World encompasses a home, a school, and the schoolyard. Greater Metropolis has many different locations and, in the second part, even includes an island out at sea some distance from the city. Both narrative strands involve events in Greater Metropolis, but only one narrative strand takes place in Child’s World.

Second, the narrative thread that takes place Underground (C and C’) is different from the one in Child’s World and the center (D, E, and D’). At the very center we have two things: 1) one of the central characters reads a document that tells the nature of that artificial being, Michi, 2) we get panels showing anomalous events from around the world. So that event is at one and the same time located at a specific space in one of the narrative strands and all over the world.

Third, I went looking for the ring-structure because I’d noticed a temporal anomaly. The first set of underground events ends at a certain moment in time, a “cliff-hanger” where a major character, Mustachio, is in danger of losing his life. We then move to another strand of events, located in Child’s World, that place at roughly the time of the events in Child’s World. We then follow those events to the Central Scene and then once again into Child’s World. When the narrative focus returns to Underground we go back in time by a couple of days, something that’s explicitly signaled in one of the panels. We then see Mustachio save himself.

This is a far more complicated situation than my simple story of a walk to the grocery store. And yet I would like to believe that the ring-composition was incidental to Tezuka’s intentions. He was not deliberately trying to bring about a ring. He was just telling a rather complicated story in the most direct way he could. How is it that things arranged themselves in his mind so that a ring was a straightforward result to telling his story in the “natural” order?

Finally, I note that, as set forth above, the story moves through five spaces counting the frame, four without it. Brandt’s model calls for four spaces. One could, of course, question that analysis in various ways. Perhaps it’s a mistake to treat Child’s World and Greater Metropolis as individual homogeneous spaces. In particular, one might be included to single out Long Boot Island (in Greater Metropolis) as a special location because that’s the source of the radiation that is a crucial condition for most of the events in the story.

Honda’s Gojira

Let us take another Japanese story. This is a film, Gojira directed by Ishiro Honda; it came out in 1954, a few years after Metropolis was published. And, while the story is not so complicated, it involves two interlinked plot lines. One is the monster story centering on Gojira, an irradiated monster living in Tokyo Bay. The other is a love story involving the principle human actors in the Gojira plot.

Here’s how the story lays out:

A: Tokyo Bay / Tokyo
B: Laboratory of Scientist B

C: Tokyo
D: Living Room of the House Scientist A

C’: Tokyo
B’: Laboratory of Scientist B
A’: Tokyo Bay / Tokyo

Tokyo Bay/Tokyo (A and A’) is not a simple uniform place. It involves several different settings, some are on the water, some are under the water, and some take place on land. Of those that take place on land, most are oriented toward the bay itself in some way. Similarly, Tokyo is not a simple uniform place. But almost all the action takes place in Tokyo rather than in the bay. At the beginning of these sections Gojira leaves the water and attacks Tokyo and he returns to the water at the end of these sections.

The Laboratory space (B and B’) is a compact space as is the Living Room (D). That house appears elsewhere in the film. The Laboratory appears only in those two sections. However, there is a complication. The events that happen in the first Laboratory sequence a not all narrated in that initial section (B). Some of them are told in flashback at the time of the second Laboratory sequence (B’). Again, as in the case of Metropolis, we have temporal anomaly in the narration.

Thus, like Metropolis, this is a somewhat complicated narrative situation. The ring-form is not thus a direct consequence of following events as they unfold in time and space. A complicated network of events has had to be ‘prearranged’ so as to yield a ring-form.

Finally, I note that the above account locates events in four spaces, as called for in Brandt’s narratology.

Heart of Darkness

Let’s leave Japan and return to the West and look at Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902). This is a fairly straightforward story about a trip. There’s a frame tale set in London. The main story starts in London and may well end there, the final location isn’t clear. However, we start out in London, go to continental Europe, though the exact locations are not specified; and then we travel to an unnamed African country where we go up an unnamed river and then return. Note however that the goal of the river trip, the Inner Station (of the unnamed trading company that’s footing the bill for the river trip), is not the structural center of the narrative. Rather, we pass through the structural center before we get to the Inner Station.

Here’s how it lays out geographically:

A: London, on the Thames (frame)
B1: London
B2: The Continent
C1: On a steamer bound for Africa
C2: Africa, on and along the river (Congo)
D: On the river, attack: digression
C2’: At the Inner Station, the goal of the trip
C1’: On the river (Congo)
B2’: Europe
B1’: House of Intended
A’: London, on the Thames (frame)

The central event, F, takes place on the river. During this attack a man gets killed. The narrator, Marlow, inserts a long digression into the account of that man’s death. That digression is a précis of the life of the other central character, Kurtz. The contents of that digression aren’t well ordered in space and time; it’s rather impressionistic. Other than that, the general spatial layout of the story is moderately clear.

There’s a lot that happens in segment E. Generally, it’s a trip up river; but there are several landings, people get on and get off the boat. We see things. The corresponding segment on ‘return leg’ is not on the river, but rather at the Inner Station, which was the goal of the trip. While it is clear enough when the narrative returns to Europe, which it does so rather quickly, it is not clear just where in the Europe we are. Are we on the continent or are we in London? The final scene is a long conversation in a house, but, as I’ve indicated, the location of the house is not clear. These things-that-are-not-clear, that is certainly an aspect of Conrad’s craft.

Again, four spaces, including the frame story. But one can easily question that analysis.

Further Reading

Here’s an older blog post in which I mention Brandt’s paper in the course of discussing some work Steven Ramsay did on patterns of locations in Shakespeare’s plays:
Patterns: Ramsay on Shakespeare, and Beyond:
Franco Moretti discussed narrative locations in the middle essay of Graphs, Maps, Trees, which was the subject of symposium at The Valve back in January of 2006:
In his first set of comments, Moretti replies to those who are skeptical about his work on maps, Moretti Responds:
In my own contribution, Maps, Iconic and Abstract, I discuss the method of loci, an old memeory technique based on memorizing a set of locations:
I have a working paper in which I discuss the texts from this post in more detail; that working paper in turn references my original analytical and descriptive work on those texts:
Ring Composition: Some Notes on a Particular Literary Morphology:

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