Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Profane and the Sacred: Novel vs. Short Story

When critics use the term "fiction," they most often mean the novel, and it is in the novel, as E. M. Forster points out in Aspects of the Novel that “story” becomes most embarrassing.  Even as we agree that the "fundamental aspect of the novel is its story-telling aspect," we voice our assent, says Forster, sadly: "Yes--oh, dear, yes--the novel tells a story."

The problem lies, Forster says, in the sense of time, for in addition to the time sense in daily life there is something else, something not measured by minutes or hours, but by intensity, something called value.  Story, qua story, however can only deal with the time sense.  The novel includes the life of values by means of other devices than story, such as character, rhythm, pattern, and plot.  Story, the "naked worm of time" is an atavistic form that presents an appearance both "unlovely and dull."  Yet novelists flout it at their peril.  As soon as fiction is "completely delivered from time it cannot express anything at all."

Gertrude Stein, Forster argues, offers an instructive example of one who wished to "emancipate fiction from the tyranny of time" and inevitably failed.  Forster says one cannot abolish story unless one abolishes the sequence between sentences, which in turn cannot be done unless one abolishes the order of words in a sentence, which then necessitates abolishing the order of letters or sounds in the words.  A novel that attempts to destroy the time sense and only express the sense of value "becomes unintelligible and therefore valueless."  The desire to liberate the novel from time is a noble one, but one doomed to failure.  Thus we say sadly, "Yes--oh dear, yes--the novel tells a story."

Forster's distinction between the novel's double allegiance to time and value corresponds to C. S. Lewis's distinction between story and theme in fiction. The basic internal tension of all fiction is the tension between story and theme, a situation that suggests that the means of fiction are always at war with its end. For Lewis, life and art reflect each other in that both embody the tension between our desire for a state and our despair of ever catching that state in our everyday net of time and event.

This definition of a tension-filled life and art is of course a religious one, regardless of whether we use William James's basic definition of the religious impulse as stemming from a feeling that "there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand" (Varieties of Religious Experience), Mircea Eliade's definition of homo religiosus as one whose desire is to live in the sacred is equivalent to the desire to live in objective reality (The Sacred and the Profane), or Rudolf Otto's definition of the Holy as that "wholly other" that  is "quite beyond the sphere of the usual, the intelligible, and the familiar" (Idea of the Holy).

The tension between the wrongness of "as we naturally stand" and that which would make us "right," between the sense of the objective reality of the sacred and the never ceasing relativity of the profane, between the familiarity of the everyday world and the strangeness of the holy--is this not the same tension between the time sense and the value sense that bothers Forster?  Is it not the same tension between story (time-event process) and theme (state of being or quality) that Lewis says characterizes fiction and life? 

The important distinction that must be made is between narratives that strive to make the realm of value seem temporal and graspable by experience and reason and narratives that strive to transform the temporal into the spiritual.  What I wish to suggest is that the novel is a form dominated primarily by the first impulse, whereas the short story is dominated by the second motive.

The first process requires development in the temporal sense; it requires a slow process of "as if" lived experience in a world of objects, social relationships, and conceptual frameworks; it requires then, as philosophy does, a logical development.  It must have the bigness of the comprehensive theory of the whole man facing the whole world.  The second process, on the other hand, requires only the moment, an instantaneous single experience that in its immediacy challenges social and conceptual frameworks.

There are, it seems to me, two basic modes of experience in prose fiction:  one that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of sensate, and logical relation--a realm that the novel has always taken for its own--and another that involves single experiences that challenge the acceptance of the everyday world as simply sensate and reasonable--a realm that has dominated the short story since its beginnings.

 The novel involves an active quest for reality, a search for identity that is actually a reconciliation of the self with the social and experiential world—a reconciliation that is finally conceptually accepted, based on the experience one has undergone.  The short story takes a character who has reached, or is in the process of reaching, for such a conceptual identity through reason, experience, or a combination of both, and confronts him with the world of spirit, which then challenges his conceptual framework of reason and experience.

Short fiction is a fundamental form because man's earliest stories were stories of his encounter with the sacred.  Narrative in its primal origins is of "an experience" concretely felt, not "experience" generally conceptualized, and the short story still retains that primal aspect.   The encounter that serves as the sacred origin of storytelling is the concrete encounter between the two basic realms of time and value that E.M. Forster and C.S.  Lewis suggests is characteristic of fiction.  As Mircea Eliade suggests, hierophany is a paradox in which the object becomes something else, yet remains itself. 

The problem is to determine how story considered in itself, rather than story considered for the sake of character, reveals the spiritual--how story escapes the "naked worm of time" and embodies the hierophanic principle.  The most emphatic and succinct statement and illustration of this primal nature of story can be found in Isak Dinesen's story "The First Cardinal's Tale."  In telling his female penitent a story to answer her question "Who are You?" Cardinal Salviati explains to her how the story has answered her question.  "Stories," the Cardinal says, "have been told as long as speech has existed, and sans stories the human race would have perished, as it would have perished sans water. (Last Tales)

The Cardinal then goes on to discuss the difference between story and the new art of narration known as the novel.  According to him, the novel sacrifices the story for the sake of the characters in it.  The novelist creates characters who become close to the reader, alive to him because of an interchange of sympathy.  This "literature of the individual" is a noble art, says the Cardinal, but it is only a human product.  "The divine art is the story.  In the beginning was the story."

When the penitent calls this divine art a cruel game that both mistreats and mocks its characters, the Cardinal replies that though this may seem the case, "we, who hold our high office as keepers and watchmen to the story, may tell you, verily, that to its human characters there is salvation in nothing else in the universe.  If you tell them--you compassionate and accommodating human readers--that they bring their distress and anguish before any other authority, you will be cruelly deceiving and mocking them.  For within our whole universe the story only has authority to answer that cry of heart of its characters, that one cry of heart of each of them: 'Who am I?'"

Randall Jarrell also talks about the primal nature of story.  What we ask of the story is that it satisfy our wish, and the wish is the first truth about us, "since it represents not that learned principle of reality which half-governs our workaday hours, but the primary principle of pleasure which governs infancy, sleep, daydreams--and, certainly, many stories."(A Sad Heart in the Supermarket) As Freud well knew, says Jarrell, the root of all stories is "in Grimm, not in La Rouchefoucauld; in dreams, not in cameras and tape recorders."  

As many artists have noted, and short stories will testify, the source of story lies indeed in myth, folk tale, fairy tale, and thus in dreams--not in the concept of external reality that most often constitutes the novel.  In narrative at its purest, says Jarrell, "we do not understand but are the narrative.  When we understand completely (or laugh completely, or feel completely a lyric empathy with the beings of the world), the carrying force of the narrative is dissipated: in fiction, to understand everything is to get nowhere."

If the novel creates the illusion of reality by presenting a literal authenticity to the material world, as Ian Watt suggests in The Rise of the Novel, then the short story creates a similitude of a different realm of reality, that reality of the sacred which Mircea Eliade says primitive man sees as true reality. The short story attempts to be authentic to the immaterial reality of the inner world of the self in its relation to eternal rather than temporal reality.

Although story may only be able to deal with the time sense, as C. S. Lewis and E. M. Forster indicate, the short story does not focus on time in the profane sense as does the novel; rather it focuses on that very tension between the profane and the sacred wherein the world is hierophanically transformed; it does so not by focusing on characters "as if" they existed in the real world but by transforming them into functions of the primitive and recurring fable itself.  It is in this way that only the story has the authority to answer the cry: Who am I?"  And it is for this reason that, as Dinesen's Cardinal insists, "The divine art is the story.  In the beginning was the story."


Matthew M. Robare said...

What complete trash.

Not only is it demonstrably untrue that mythology, folk and fairy tales are somehow devoid of character, plot, action and other story elements common to novels, but the idea that a short story somehow makes use of some sacred dimension of human nature is laughable. The only similarities between short stories and fairy tales is length.

The whole modernist short story is based on the so-called realism of Chekov. And what a sad crew it makes, from that Russian void to the dreary snore-fest of Raymond Carver and the pointlessness of John Cheever. If primal man had dreams like the stories those three wrote, they would never have developed a culture, much less a civilization. If religion were as dreadful as Flannery O'Connor no one would be religious.

There's a counterpoint, too: the richly mythological novels of Tolkein and Lewis, Pratchett and Gaiman and the dreamlike worlds of GK Chesterton and Hermann Hesse.

Charles E. May said...

Thank you for your comment.