Narrative Unity

Narrative Unity

I like using metaphors. One time, I was preparing a lecture at the State University of New York. I planned to use metaphors to evoke different types of narratives in one of my classes there.

Suddenly I realized I was facing a dilemma. One of my students was 90% blind. What would be the point of using verbal metaphors, referring to objects he may never have seen? Perhaps I could find a way to use tactile metaphors, which he could hold in his hands. This called for a creative experiment.

I took a ball of string out of a cupboard at home. I went to the dollar store, and bought a shiny sky blue ball. I had just returned from a documentary series in the Sahara, so I brought along a sand rose. These were my metaphors.

When class started, I told the students we could imagine three different kinds of narrative structures.

A ball of string

First, I handed the student the ball of string. I suggested a linear narrative structure was like a piece of string, and as he stretched it out, he noticed it proceeded from A to B to C, in a long chain of causes and effects, one thing leading to another.

Then I handed the student the shiny sky blue ball. I suggested an idealized narrative structure was like a sphere, polished, without imperfections, projecting an impression of the world the way we wished it could be. He noticed this sphere was a perfect shape; nothing could be added to it or subtracted from it; every point on its surface was equidistant from its centre. Just how perfect was the sphere? While he held the ball, I explained that in ancient Greece, the sphere was considered to have a magical and even a supernatural character. According to Anaximander (610-546 BC), the Earth was a cylinder, freely floating in space, and heaven a sphere; Pythagoras (582-507 BC) held that the Earth was a perfect sphere, rotating around a central fire; and Xenophanes (570-475 BC) believed there was one god, coextensive with the world, and god was a sphere. These beliefs about heaven, the Earth and god were based on idealized projections, not on direct observations!

A sand rose from the Sahara

Then I handed the student a sand rose, and he found it really intriguing. He noticed it was a massive, sharp-edged riot of gypsum crystals, facing in every direction. I suggested this was like a complex narrative structure, multi-faceted, trying to be true-to-life, and representing personalities and events with layers and depth.

The blind student said he understood these tactile metaphors perfectly, so the experiment worked. And in describing the observations he made with his hands, he offered insights to the class. He turned out to be one of the top students in the class, and got an A minus at the end of term.

I told the class that authors choose between linear, idealized and complex narrative structures, sometimes combining and rearranging them, since narrative unity is all-important. I think my personal preference is somewhere between the sphere and the sand rose. I picture the sphere as something like Shakespeare’s little worlds – in each play, he creates a perfect, make-believe, self-contained microcosm out of nothing – and as long as the play lasts, we are cast under a spell – we inhabit that little world along with the players. And the sand rose? Well, life is complex, and some things are hard to explain. But the idea of a riot of crystals facing every which way appeals to me!

The feature image at the top of this blog was taken by G. Cardinal, of Norway.


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