Looking at everyday linguistic interaction as an icon of narrative activity, Nair rigorously disputes, relocates and rediscovers the site of her subject in Narrative Gravity, says GURUPDESH SINGH.
BEFORE anything else, the title Narrative Gravity requires explanation. But before that we will have to explain narrative, for Nair conceives of narrative in terms of conversation. Well, if you think you know your Grice, Austin and Hymes, you only know half of what Nair means by them. The question is not what we know about narrative or its gravity or for that matter its absence; the question is how rigorous and demanding she can be in order to dispute, relocate and rediscover the site of her subject.
Rukmini Bhaya Nair, you know, is a poet well decorated at that. She can weave a complex yarn rich in mythological and historical references (remember The Ayodhya Cantos). This book is a theoretical and philosophical treatise on the bone dry subject of narrativity, yet, unlike many, she chooses not to abandon her poetic self. The text is resplendent with her compulsive metaphorical sorties, exuberant phrasing and impish playfulness with technical language (see those alliterative names of the chapters). That is refreshing, no doubt, but it leaves you groping for intertextual references and intricate patterns of her arguments. The book, for all its linguistic flamboyance, is a difficult read, for it deals with one of the rarely discussed topics of narrative interest.
At the heart of the narrative gravity lies a "self", which has been made by the narrative itself. Instead of exploring the influence of individuals on their narratives, this book seeks to explain the complex phases of evolution that individuals go through while the narrative grows between them. Nair views narrative as a compulsive human trait, which affords an inbuilt mechanism for the essential processes of socialisation, enculturation and cognitive development. For this reason, she considers narrative as a form of natural theory.
The narrative Nair has in mind is not always the one linearly spread out on a page in the third person form. It includes all genres old and new, oral and written, factual and fictional, authored and authorless, the proto-form of which is the ordinary day-to-day conversation. The underlying structural congruity in all these forms obliges her to take up face-to-face linguistic interaction as an icon of the narrative activity.
The book revolves around three major questions of paradoxical nature. The first is whether it is the narrator who controls the narrative or vice versa. Narratives, according to Nair, have a socially autonomous status like that of language beyond the control of an individual. The authority that a narrator seems to wield is only an illusion. The narrative self is ephemeral and gets restructured with every new response from the interlocutors (read post-modern crisis of identity). Narratives also, like conversation, are socially constructed entities with multiple voices and selves. Narrators are mere selves drawn into the vortex of narrative gravity.
The second question is whether the language of fiction means the same thing as of ordinary human intercourse. In what way, the conditions of Sincerity (Searle) and Truth (Grice), perceived as felicitous to ordinary conversation interfere to make our narratives fragile. This is one of the fundamental issues in the book that anchors its proceedings for most of the chapters. Nair raises some intense debates with leading pragmaticians to fit narratives within the ambit of conversational analysis. She presents us with revised versions of felicity conditions, cooperative maxims and inferential rules for processing meaning. For Nair, it is the principle of plausibility and interest that prevents a story from being fragile.
The third paradox relates to the effect that narratives have on their readers/ audience. How is it that a story deceives us with its deliberate motive of telling lies, yet entices us, enchants us with delight and relief? Nair finds the answer in the typical structure of all narratives and the culturally cooperative inferential procedures of listeners. Actually a story does not happen in the mind of the narrator, it does in that of the listener (shades of reader-centred approach). Nair has substantiated her case with the analysis of a number of one-line stories, and real-life conversations.
The book engineers a highly solid ground to build bridges between two streams of thinkers language discourse analysts and literary theorists. Nair has very strongly promoted studies in the field of ethnography of speaking, speech act theory and cognitive linguistics, which have been working on speech as human behaviour without launching themselves onto the patent literary genres like narrative. If only Nair had given equal hearing to the narratologists from the literary mainstream, this text would have made a wonderful interface between the two approaches. Nevertheless, by liberating utterances from the truth/falsity burden, eliminating distinction between routine conversation and sophisticated narratives, denying differences between ordinary language and literary language, and centring narrative as against the narrator, she has presented a supremely postmodernist perspective.
Narrative Gravity is a truly international effort and a path breaking theorisation. It is going to inspire a legion of studies in the interpretation of narratives as cultural texts.
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