Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Narrative Theory of Semantics

The title of Tim Parks’ latest NYRBlog post was irresistible:  “Do We Need Stories?”  Before reading the post my initial reaction was that this would be a response to Walter Benjamin’s despair that “the art of storytelling is coming to an end;”  but it turned out that the incentive came from Jonathan Franzen’s campaign for the need (in Franzen’s words) “for long, elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.”  Given my current feelings about Franzen and his proclamations, I was all the more curious about what Parks would have to say.

I was glad to see that his focus was more on the stories themselves than on any obsessions about the conditions under which we read them (although it was still nice to see Parks wield Jane Austen as a stick to beat down Franzen’s particular brand of obsessions).  In particular this post explores the extent to which stories provide semantic facilitation in our efforts to come to grips with what William Empson called “complex words.”  Thus, Parks makes his primary point through words that most students of semantics tend to avoid, simply because they constitute the ultimate minefield of the social world:

The only way we can understand words like God, angel, devil, ghost, is through stories, since these entities do not allow themselves to be known in other ways, or not to the likes of me. Here not only is the word invented—all words are—but the referent is invented too, and a story to suit. God is a one-word creation story.

In many ways this approach to semantics reinforces Ludwig Wittgenstein’s proposition that the meaning of a word resides in how it is used.  On the one hand the story provides a “framework of use” for the word in question, while, within that framework, we are likely to encounter how the word is being used by those agents involved in the story.  Parks then advances his own position to accommodate the storyteller as well as the story:

Like God, the self requires a story; it is the account of how each of us accrues and sheds attributes over seventy or eighty years—youth, vigor, job, spouse, success, failure—while remaining, at some deep level, myself, my soul. One of the accomplishments of the novel, which as we know blossomed with the consolidation of Western individualism, has been to reinforce this ingenious invention, to have us believe more and more strongly in this sovereign self whose essential identity remains unchanged by all vicissitudes. Telling the stories of various characters in relation to each other, how something started, how it developed, how it ended, novels are intimately involved with the way we make up ourselves. They reinforce a process we are engaged in every moment of the day, self creation. They sustain the idea of a self projected through time, a self eager to be a real something (even at the cost of great suffering) and not an illusion.

In other words semantic interpretations reside not only in the texts of the stories but in the actions through which those text are related (or, if you prefer, “performed”).  Ultimately, there are more things in Parks’ world of stories than are dreamt of in Franzen’s feeble philosophizing.

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