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Time and literary genre             




The key (narratological, structural) difference in literary genres is not that of two points of view or the clash of two ideologies (or even two opposed readings of the same faith or ideological formation, although these are important). It lies in the difference between temporality and eternity. However the issue here is not that of the appeal to eternity made by all camps in order to bolster their temporal claims, rather the key difference is that between the rhetoric of eternity that backs up the official or dominant frame of ideas and their embodiment in the State, Sovereign, or other titular head of a socially significant hierarchy, and (on the other hand) the temporal experience of (the) individual(s) caught in conflict with this juggernaut - a conflict with only one, ineluctable, end.  Unless the individual veers, or reality is shown to have been portrayed wrongly, then recognition (if it even occurs) is accompanied by disaster as the face of fate is recognised too late (the formula for tragedy). Otherwise only changes of identity can absolve from putative damnation (the formula for comedy).


 A founding contradiction or clash of interests is a key factor (albeit in different ways as we shall see) to the genre constitution of narrative, lyric and drama. Temporality and its other also inhere in the other traditional genre terms, or differences (as sub-genres of the preceeding definition, or as a genre differentiation which rides across  the three main kinds): tragedy and comedy, in drama, as in the tragic and the comic formulas (respectively unhappy and happy endings); in narrative prose (or narrative poetry) often found clad in such forms such as the Sentimental and the Gothic and their modern progeny. Temporal difference not only holds the key to these clashes, it dramatises the conflict, not least between temporal phases within the self (mourning or anxiety as a result of a division of loyalties), whilst referring it to the meta-frame of human belief, to first and last things (to the outside of time, which Faith and Reason, belief sacred or secular, equally require for their foundation, from a invisible god, through to a universal, or an axiom). With the lyric this conflict appears in its most personal, subjective guise; the exposed experience of the self, the conflict of self-identity, faced with fate; of self thrown in the face of eternity


Drama. With tragedy and comedy we are offered two alternatives which turn not upon recognition or reversal, but upon a change of identity which undoes the knot which would have lead to tragedy. With tragedy we enter the world of high ritual form (or its surviving husk). The individual, their duty, their desire is pitted against the gods; or against the dominant ideology (be it embodied by State, sovereign, family, city). There is, on the part of the audience, the fear of an internal clash, an ostracism or worse, through no conscious fault of ones own (this plot also provides the formula for comedy and all its subsequent genres, as the exorcising of topical and structural fears; but with the sting of disaster removed, its -disaster's-ominous approach is rather that of a gentle spicing-up of aesthetic consumption).

            Comedy, if initially a popular variant of the formulas expressed above, itself becomes high art over time. The indivual, or more often couple (for the essence of comedy is the reproduction plot) are opposed to family and often class. It is the formula for tragedy, with tragedy averted - a different kind of recognition, or identity revalation, effectively changes the path to that leading a happy end (and the marriage plot is the end of the reproduction plot). The potential tragedy of individual versus society (eternal law) becomes the continuance of society under holy writ.


Lyric, by contrast, offers internal time, inner experience, the temporality of human consciousness trapped in wish and loss (in past and future) as opposed to an overbearing or irresistable reality (law) as bearing the sanction of eternity (Law) with the latter portrayed as time, as loss over time, through time, because of the passage of time. Faced with this passage of time, the self finds itself condemned to the trap of memory or loss. In the so-called courtly love tradition, the poetry of abstinent desire; the denial takes place before the Law, before God; and redemption then takes place in time. The eternal 'No' functions as the source aand provocation of an identity confirmation; self-change takes place through denial rather than recognition as the newly discovered identity dissolves the contradiction. (Unlike tragedy, here in the form of narrative romance which often does end in the sacrifice of the hero and heroine in some form - either in death or in retreat from society).


And we must not forget the persistent ubiquity of the mourning or mortality theme (the plaint or complaint, of mourning and the memory of loss as opposed to the poetry of death and the afterlife as religious consolation). The lyric of complaint, a representation that refuses the represented - without recourse to utopian fantasms. Making of poetry the art of remembering - of remembering the refusal of the real and the coming to (provisional) terms with the necessary. The construction of consolation this side of eternity.


So to summarise the key formula for temporal difference in the lyric: many kinds of individual suffering, of transience of self and of the self's relationships, of frailty and loss (by death or other means) is opposed to eternal repetition of the same, the unfriendly, uncaring, nature of reality, and opposed moreover (at least in the first, contradictory instance; the moment of complaint) to eternal succour, to the final answer, of the relation of this loss to a meta-set, to general meaning, a general frame that makes life possible. (The text as the insistence of the rules of a culture remind us that literature also functions as a ritual form of identity – anthropologically speaking this may well be its chief role…).


In the Saint's Life, the genre of martyrdom (passio), a temporal power is negated by an eternal one. In the most massive repudiation and reversal of the fundamental narrative, the marriage/reproduction plot, in history until today's transgressive genres, we witness local power, up to and including the State, as pitched against the individual (often a couple, a saint and his converted female follower, seperated from her pagan husband or betrothed). After questioning, testing and torture (often accompanied by miracles and visions) the individual (or pair) dies. Tragedy functions as redemption, they are reborn to a higher court (the seed of the courtly lyric mood, the denial of marriage secular in favour of the spiritual marriage of belief, may be found here). As with tragedy (in a strange continuity) a sacrifice is made to the gods.


Medieval Romance: from Lyric, with its general theme of denial or loss medieval romance presents us with adultery (in parallel with the popular 'bawdy' genre of the fablieux but in conta-distinction with the Greek or classical romance which is little more than the plot of Greek New Drama narrativised onto an extended geographical plane, from the household front of the 'unities' to the Mediterrenean). Medieval romance is the feudal tragedy (that is the chief genre of social contradition and social anxiety); the genre of the tragedies of Tristan and Isolde and of Lancelot and Guinevere. This genre presents plots with little or denial - until the ultimate denial, the act of tragedy at the end; death. Desire is retried before a higher court. For those left behind there is the function of a ritual transgression fulfilled; a return to order (the be-all and end-all of the tragic formula, of any narrative formula). And so to the novel.


Sentimental. As the reproduction plot with its denouemont announced through the obstacle removed, the same as New Comedy (Greek and Roman) and the Greek Romance (the ‘first’ novel). The laws and ideals of society (guaranteed by religion, and the rhetoric of eternity) are reconfirmed in the face of temporal threats - even in the face of temporal transgessions as in rogue or picaresque versions of the genre. (unless unremittingly critical, ie bleak; then eternal pole switches to contrast to object of criticism...)


Gothic. (Together with the gothic-themed plot and all the myriad genres of the uncanny that follow.) Following a road from out of (ancient and medieval) romance, the individual, with friend or lover, often with desire and marriage (reproduction plot) at stake, take on the forces of Darkness (often a political allegory, the Jacobin novel), which they defeat (accept for in the darkest satire, the darkest night of the human imagination, where we are left with a Gnostic, a Manichean, parable with no glimmer or spark of light for the soul to relive the gloom of the unholy realm, now generalised). In this, the defeat of the supernatural powers (or their agents) this genre is unlike the usual encounter with eternity, where either one loses all or becomes someone or something else (recognition plot, foundling, lost relative, as key to obstacle removed). The Gothic horror offers us the conjuration of the fallen world (Being as Hell with no hope of Grace); it this it is nearer to the normal formula for the rhetoric of eternity in conflict with the temporal.


Noir and Neo-noir (after Baroque Drama and the Saint’s Life). A strange sequence of repetition this; each return marking a half-twist in the spiral of literary evolution. Until finally we have the triangle plot with fallen world only; whence resignation (as in Baroque Drama) with little or no trace of eternity left even as an ideal, except perhaps as a manichean fragment which remains as an opening unto critical force for audience. For within the world of the plot the fallen world itself, like Capital, has become eternal, the source of the only horizon, the tidal pattern of the forseeable future.


And finally. Soaps are the logical end of the reproduction plot of desire. A desire that only knows the eternal present; not needing the seal of eternity on the ritual induction of the next generation (we have enough people in advanced capitalist societies, and if we need more for tax purposes or cheap labour, then there is no shortage of people in the world). Conflict is often the result of the multiple points of view supported by a pluralism of consumers, a pluralism of communities, and their potential clashes, internal as well as external, in the myriad misrecognitions that may result. There may be differing interests regarding economics (the inheritance plot, what to live of) as regarding desire (still the favourite, taking of from the adultery version of the reproduction plot).  This pluralism only further extends the possibilities of the polyvocal, multi-voiced, ideological diremption, or ‘dialogic’ character of the novel (after Bakhtin, even thought his insight was in fact generalisable to other genres). Yet retaining enough of the echo of eternity (the force of last things) to power up the garrison the the law that is the rhetoric of eternity retained (otherwise no frisson, of wrongdoing, of conflict with society as Other, of sin, nor even transgession, mainstay of modern art and culture as of generational politics, feeding the culture of conservation even as it protests its would be iconoclasam). Could it be that only the shadow of non-time survives as the source of the tragic foil?


If the soap is but a serial sentimental romance, then today’s plague of supernatural dramas (ie., Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as their science fiction variant replete with the frisson of the alien threat) are but the up-dated continuation of the gothic theme, with its overwhelmingly negative depiction of eternity. Or is it a question of reversibility: for it would appear that it is only the denizens of Hell that can come back.



                                    Copyright 2003, 2005 Peter Nesteruk.