2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism
Walter Benjamin: The Storyteller
With the loosening of the hegemony of New Criticism, we have come to understand that the very notion of the story as an elementary, chronological, closed, rigidly formal genre is a product of the discourse that hails the rise of the "non-narrative" modern novel. The difficulty is that even dissident modern critics, such as Walter Benjamin, who lament the course of history--social, economic, and aesthetic--view the story as somehow out of place in modern culture:
Familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force. He has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant. . . . One reason for this phenomenon is obvious: experience has fallen in value. . . . For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power.
The irony of Benjamin's death knell for the storyteller is that it sounded the same year, 1936, in which Faulkner demonstrated that storytelling could assume the novelistic burden of La Comédie Humaine, creating in Absalom! Absalom! Quentin and Shreve, "both thinking as one, the voice which happened to be speaking the thought only the thinking become audible, vocal; the two of them creating between them, out of rag-tag and bob-ends of old tales and talking, people who perhaps had never existed at all anywhere." More recently, contemporary writers and critics exploring the resources of various oral traditions have discovered forms of storytelling that bear little resemblance to the already written stories of the early "folklore" collectors. Particular attention has been devoted to the "storytelling situation," to the manner in which it deviates from the implicit paradigm derived from Propp's Morphology, which may be imagined as a parent reading to a child from Grimm's Fairy Tales. Critical and literary method has not caught up with these new insights into the complexity of storytelling. But even as they succumb to the formalist version of the lone storyteller rehearsing the chronological events of life, novelists, such as Ernest Gaines, exploring oral traditions pay homage to that which they do not reproduce in a form appropriate to the printed page:
(I should mention here that even though I have used only Miss Jane's voice throughout the narrative, there were times when others carried the story for her. . . .)
There were times when I thought the narrative was taking ridiculous directions. Miss Jane would talk about one thing one day and the next day she would talk about something else totally different. If I were bold enough to ask: "But what about such and such a thing?" she would look at me incredulously and say: "Well, what of it?" And Mary would back her up with: "What's wrong with that? You don't like that part?" I would say, "Yes, but--" Mary would say, "But what?" I would say, "I just want to tie up all the loose ends." Mary would say, "Well, you don't tie up all the loose ends all the time. And if you got to change her way of telling it, you tell it yourself. Or maybe you done heard enough already?"
With the critical romance of the lone storyteller and the notion that narrative's essential act is to speak chronology, falls the notion that the story's power, like the power of ritual, lies in perpetual, unvarying repetition. This conception drives the "folklorist" to formalize and preserve the story as a museum piece likely to suffer contamination if left at the mercy of modern forces its rigid form cannot withstand. To this a Native American writer, Leslie Marmon Silko, replies:
"There are some things I have to tell you," Betonie began softly. "The people nowadays have an idea about the ceremonies. They think the ceremonies must be performed exactly as they have always been done, maybe because one slip-up or mistake and the whole ceremony must be stopped and the sand painting destroyed. That much is true. They think that if a singer tampers with any part of the ritual, great harm can be done, great power unleashed." He was quiet for a while, looking up at the sky through the smoke hole. "That much can be true also. But long ago when the people were given these ceremonies, the changing began, if only in the aging of the yellow gourd rattle or the shrinking of the skin around the eagle's claw, if only in the different voices from generation to generation, singing the chants. You see, in many ways, the ceremonies have always been changing."
To grasp narrative's ability to lead the listener/reader, though its ordering principles be in constant flux, it is necessary to step outside the critical paradigms that interrupt with attempts to "tie up all the loose ends." For, the history of these paradigms indicates that the hegemonic function of New Criticism was never to understand narrative, but to subdue it: to tie its loose ends up in symbols and points of view, or to tie its movement down to a chronometric image of the mythic past.