The Paradox of Narrative (415)

I think it was Justin who pointed out a perplexing passage on page 154 of The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Here Abbott gestures at some fairly dense ideas about the nature of representation and the status of “‘fictional truth'” (153). At the beginning of the section he notes that readers of fiction or audiences of feature films will sometimes praise a (verbal or visual) text as “true to life” or “so true.” Yet if the text in question is a fiction– if, in other words, it’s made up– how can it be true? Abbott argues that fiction’s “truth of meaning” is of a different order than the truth of fact. Put another way, truth and the facts don’t always coincide. Someone might, for example, hurt the one she loves, but is this the truth of her love? “Yes, I know that I yelled at you,” she might say. “This is a simple fact. But I love you. You know that. You know (the truth of) how I feel.”

To read or screen fiction is to enter a virtual world. That world may seem to be real, it may possess verisimilitude, but our experience of a fictional text as realistic is a carefully created illusion, one generated from formal conventions. One instance of this phenomenon is indicated by Abbot when he references Roland Barthes’s concept of the “reality effect,” which is the product of specific details that serve no other function than to enhance our sense that the fictions we consume are “true to life.”

But the core of the passage cited in class is this:

“[T]he world we seek to get to with no hope of finally arriving is, paradoxically, the actual world we inhabit and the life that goes on in it. To put this in narrative terms: if narrative discourse always mediates story, both story and [narrative] discourse in turn mediate how we view the world. Narrative, with all its powerful and distorting rhetoric, comes between us and the world.”

I interpret this to mean that in struggling to understand or experience the truth of our world we turn not to the world itself but narratives which represent it. Yet those narratives are not neutral or innocent. They are partial and situated. They may contain falsehoods. The paradox of narrative is that it simultaneously connects us to and deprives us of the “truth” of the world we live in.

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