CHAPTER SEVEN: LITERATURE: THE NARRATED ART.
A SLOWING FLOW TO TIME
1. The narration of a story through time
The arts that come next on the spectrum, literature and film, narrate a story through time and space. Painting, the art which follows film on the spectrum, can if it chooses narrate a story, but does so primarily through space and not time. While with a painting narration is optional, in literature and film it is essential. What is significant about narration from the point of view of the spectrum is that it causes a slowing down of time, which is what we might expect of the arts just prior to those in which space comes to predominate over time.
2. Literature is narration via words; film narration via images
When narration in time is done with words I call it literature. When narration in time is done fundamentally through externally presented images, I call it film. Thus by film I do not mean as much the technique of using a movie camera, which can be used to record anything, including any art, but using that technique to tell a story: i.e. making a film of literature.
3. Narration takes time, time apart from the action
An event that transpires during the course of, for example, thirty seconds, can be described by the author in an amount of time that takes from substantially less than thirty seconds to substantially more than that. Even if the narration lasts exactly thirty seconds it does not necessarily keep in step with the action itself. In literature, action loses ownership of its own time, and can only exist through the time of the narration. The basic paradox of narration is that it takes time to describe something that we may have experienced in a single moment. Often it the very desire on the author’s part to remain faithful to that moment that prompts him to extend the description indefinitely: to avoid leaving anything out, or saying anything that can be misinterpreted. This can lead to an endless narration, and indeed this is what occurs in representational painting.
4. The flow of time weakens and bifurcates in literature
While the flow of time in the action provides the original subject for the narration, it becomes accessible to us only through the experience of someone who experienced the action. The narrator is now on the “stage”, and the characters remain silent as he speaks for them. Our time is now at a double remove from the time of the action. The flow of time, which was relatively undivided through dance, and which began to develop a side channel in the historical time of the character in theatre,
now truly splits for good into two channels, in a sense parallel, but flowing at different rates, with the channel holding the narration taking precedent over that containing the action. The latter begins to attenuate.
5. The present tense is weakened
The essence of our experience of time lies in the present tense. Sometimes the person narrating is the person whose activities are being described. In such a case it is logically impossible that the narration is taking place at the same time as the action described, for then the description would include a reference to the act of making the narration. The narrator must be standing at some temporal “vantage point”, or “remove”, from the action (notions that imply space more than time). Usually there is no way to tell the position of this date relative to the date at which the action takes place. Where, then, is the present tense? In the present of the narration, or the present of the action?
6. Literature is an aural art like poetry and music
Reading literature silently from a book is repeating something that already exists in time, versus creating the words out of our own present. Whoever reads a work of literature out loud takes on the identity of the narrator, just as the performing musician takes on the role of the composer in the re-creation of music. The score this secondary narrator is given contains even less information than a musical score. There is no information about timing, tempo, loudness, emphasis or expression. It only provides the basis for verbal
meaning, which in turn allows him to make choices regarding the former.
7. The spatialization of time
We now have four times. There is the time of the narration (1), relative to which the time of the work’s action proceeds in fits and starts, moved ahead then stopped by time of the former. There is the implied time at which the action would flow if we were beholding it in front of us (2). There is the implied time in the past tense of the characters (3). There is the steady flow of time in our consciousness (4) on which the others are projected. Time is one dimensional. The existence of four “separate” flows of time implies a dimensionality more properly belonging to space. Time is manipulated by the author as if space. The flow and direction of each stream is controllable and is coordinated relative to the others.
As we cross the first half of the spectrum, space progressively frees itself from time. In the next half of the spectrum, space comes to dominate and control time. Already in literature, we can be taken from one locale in space to another without any pretext in time. When the shift occurs we have no idea about the “when” of the new locale compared to the “when” of the previous locale, unless or until the author decides to provide clues. Space has become more inclusive of the distance between locales, as against in theatre where different locales are all projected onto the same stage and we can be distracted in our spatial judgments by the everyday space we see on the stage.
In theatre we are limited to having only one perspective on the action unless we take time to change our position. In literature we can instantly change to any position relative to the action. This is because with narration we are looking through someone else’s eyes. We do not have to perform work in our space to affect the shift. Action in theatre is complete even without an audience, but a narrator is speaking to somebody and hopefully somebody is listening.