Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Nous autres, or: The peculiar semi-circular stare

A short post on narratees to keep my hand in, until I get this cursed review off....

It's difficult to find a vivid way of explaining narratees to students.  Well, to explain the last narratee, the figure who corresponds to the first narrator, the author-as-narrator or impressario of the fiction, the narrator not meant to be ironized -- who, if ironic, is in control of the ironies we readers savor.  Obviously history has its own ironies, and authors are often their butts.  But in the fictional world, the final narrator is not ironized - not necessarily the first person narrator in a first person fiction, but the third person narrator who presents the first person narrator to us, the writer, as it were, of the speech prefix to the whole narration.

So who corresponds to this narrator on the receiving end? What is the narratee?  The narratee is the figure not meant to be ironized either -- who, if ironic, is in control of the ironies the narrator offers him or her to savor.  Just as obviously as with authors, narratees and readers may be the butt of some historical joke, but not in the fictional world.  But it's very hard to clarify the distinction between readers and narratees, partly because the distinction is so obvious.  People see that they're not the narratee, and they regard this as a failure, structural it may, be of the author.  Structural because no writer can know me!  I survive, a jolly candidate for a future that the author could not dream of - if only because of the lag time between her writing and my reading.  The author may have gone cool-hunting, but didn't anticipate what turns out to be cool today.  What a n00b!

But the obviousness is misleading.  All reading is vicarious (even of history, even of letters): only a fictional reader -- the narratee -- reads with direct and perfect interest and absorption.  Only a fictional reader imagines herself the addressee of the fiction.

It suddenly occurred to me, reading Nightwood, that one way to make the distinction clear is to think of narrator and narratee as belonging to the exclusive we -- nous autres, and not nous tous.  The narratee seems to use the inclusive we, but doesn't.  This moment in Barnes will illustrate what I mean -- she is talking about Felix and the disturbing element of Jewishness in his presence:
He was not popular, though the post-humous acclaim meted out to his father secured from his acquaintances the peculiar semi-circular stare of those who, unwilling to greet with earthly equality, nevertheless give to the living branch (because of death and its sanction) the slight bend of the head - a reminiscent pardon for future apprehension, - a bow very common to us when in the presence of this people.
Leave aside the question of how ironic Barnes is being, and how ironic history is being at her expense (that is the question of the nature and extent of her own prejudice against "this people").  The us is what interests me here: that "us" embraces nous autres, those who are of a certain aristocratic class for whom "earthly equality" means something, and who think in terms of familial branches (Felix, like his father, passes himself off as a baron); and also those who are male, and who would bow or bend their heads as a token of respect.  Her "us" makes clear who the narratee is -- who the narratee always is: someone who belongs to the same group as the narrator, plays the same language games the same way.  (Language games: we readers of a chess column and its annotations are credited with the exclusive understanding of the significance of moves that the master writing them has worked out for us.)

That "us" is particularly prominent in Barnes, but is to be found passim in Eliot, in Trollope, in Proust most of all.  ("Quand nous aimons une Gilberte, une Albertine....")  It's a genial, empirically philosophical "us" -- read any page of Hume or of Johnson or of Adam Smith to see what I mean.  In a philosophical context it offers qualified people entry into the circle of nous autres: men, say, or Englishmen, or Scotsmen of leisure.  It can of course be ironized even in such contexts: read practically any sentence of Gibbon.  It can be ironized in philosophy and fiction, but it's always ironized, however lightly, in fiction.

I think, paradoxically, that this is why such sentences, containing any form or mode of the word we, are so vanishingly rare in Henry James, that is in his narrators' addresses to the narratee reading the fiction.  He fictionalizes with such radical assiduity that he doesn't want us to confuse inclusive and exclusive we's, as we might if he used them.  The only real counterexample I can think of is a moment at the end of The Golden Bowl, when James's narrator tells us how Amerigo appears to Maggie as she is approaching her final triumph:
he almost pressed upon her, and the warmth of his face--frowning, smiling, she mightn't know which; only beautiful and strange--was bent upon her with the largeness with which objects loom in dreams.
James's tortured, artificial, metaphysical analogies give way, for this once, to an appeal to the experience of the reader.  Objects loom thus largely in all our dreams, dans les rêves de nous tous.  The narratee knows just what the narrator means, and we readers know just how it is that the narratee would know just what the narrator means.  This is an effect all the more powerful and spectacular because James has held it in reserve for, well hundreds of pages and indeed (it is not too much to say) dozens of years.  James's narratees are in general part of the extremely rarefied society of his narrators, those who can trade anecdotes like Henry James.  That's an exchange among an exclusive us that the rest of us take pleasure in following, as the child takes pleasure in the adult conversation of its parents.

One final example of the uses to which this difference may be put, again not from a fictional context, where the difference is always present, but from a sociological one.  In Stigma (and everywhere, but most obviously in Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity) Goffman distinguishes categorically between "us normals" and the variously stigmatized persons he treats as his categories and examples.  But the point of the book is that "at some point" everyone is stigmatized.  There is no such thing as the "normal" individual (useful, to some extent, only as a medical category), only the stigmatized person's belief in that norm.  "We normals" are normal only with respect to whatever specific stigma is under discussion, but in the end we find that it is only the narratee who is normal.  In non-fiction, like Goffman's, there isn't a fictional narrator (the irony is the author's, not the narrator's); but there is a fictional narratee.  That's his point.  To be normal is a fiction.

And in fiction, the narratee is the figure the narrator takes as normal: the two of them are ordinary denizens, perhaps the only ones, of a non-existent world, looking at it with their peculiar semi-circular stare.


  1. This is great but I don't have a coherent response just yet, other than to say I just quoted Stigma in a paper I'm writing, about something completely different. Goffman was so sharp.

  2. "Mme de Rênal pensait aux passions, comme nous pensons à la loterie : duperie certaine et bonheur cherché par des fous." -- Pléiade R&N, p. 262