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Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of English Dwight Lindley speaks on the hor­i­zontal and ver­tical aspect of nar­rative
Olivia Hajeck | Collegian

A panel of three pro­fessors from various depart­ments spoke at a forum on Feb. 25 about the nature and function of nar­rative in life: the impor­tance of both coherence and tran­scen­dence in nar­ra­tives, the rela­tionship between nar­rative and history, and how nar­rative is both nec­essary and insuf­fi­cient to under­standing life.

The Lyceum, a student group asso­ciated with the Inter­col­le­giate Studies Institute, holds the Liberal Arts Friday Forum during parents weekend each semester, according to Lyceum pres­ident and senior Riley Lindsay.

This semester’s pan­elists included Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of English Dwight Lindley, Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of History Matthew Gaetano, and Assistant Pro­fessor of The­ology Cody Strecker.

Lindley con­trasted a strand of Western lit­erary tra­dition rep­re­sented by Virgil, John Milton, Leo Tolstoy, and George Elliot with one rep­re­sented by Homer, William Shake­speare, Fyodor Dos­to­evsky, and Charles Dickens.

Lindley said Virgil, Milton, Tolstoy, and Elliot focused on the hor­i­zontal aspect of nar­rative, which empha­sizes coherence.

“The nar­rator in that hor­i­zontal con­ception that prizes inner coherence is fil­tering the data that you get in the nar­rative so that it all fits within this coherent arc of char­acter devel­opment moving through the plot,” Lindley said. “The nar­rator gives us what is most essential to that, and care­fully con­trols what is let in so that it all makes sense.”

He con­trasted this with the ver­tical dimension, embraced by Homer, Shake­speare, Dos­to­evsky, and Dickens, which deals with tran­scendent ele­ments of a story.

“The ver­tical dimension of nar­rative is referring to all of the places where the nar­rative makes us feel that the nar­rative is not enough, that there is some­thing desired here which tran­scends any­thing that is said,” Lindley said.

He said both dimen­sions are nec­essary to any great narrative. 

“I think great nar­rative and even good nar­rative — if pressed, I might even say all nar­rative — has both a hor­i­zontal dimension, trying to attain internal intel­li­gi­bility, and yet all nar­rative also has this ver­tical dimension of tran­scen­dence that escapes our capacity for intel­lection, and that both of those together, actually, are what make it good, make it feel real, make us prize it. Certain parts of the tra­dition have swung more towards one axis or the other, but I think we des­per­ately need both.”

Gaetano dis­cussed nar­rative in the context of the dis­tinction between his­toricism and the phi­losophy of history.

“Phi­losophy of history is I think often used when we are talking about some kind of nar­rative for the entire history of uni­versal humanity, say nar­ra­tives of progress — the Whig nar­rative where every­thing has been leading up to Anglo-American freedom, or I think Hegel is an example of a philosopher of history, where every­thing is leading up to the unveiling of spirit and Prussian con­sti­tu­tional monarchy.”

He said this idea of one coherent nar­rative of history, while some­times called his­toricism, is actually in tension with how he would term his­toricism: con­tex­tu­al­izing every­thing to the point of rejecting objec­tivity and transcendence.

“History is the master dis­ci­pline because every­thing has a history, and every­thing is nothing but history,” Gaetano said. “In other words people are just trapped within their own his­torical, cul­tural, geo­graphical con­texts. There’s nothing outside of history; there’s nothing gen­uinely transcendent.”

Gaetano said German his­torian Leopold von Ranke’s view offered a middle ground between phi­losophy of history’s total­izing nar­rative and historicism’s ten­dency toward relativism.

“There is not a path towards a final end, at least in this worldview of history, where progress has finally unveiled what we really are,” Gaetano said. “There’s some­thing vital, a nar­rative char­acter, but not that single nar­rative that some of these other philoso­phers espouse.”

Strecker addressed what the­ology should look like, as the gospels are written as narratives.

Strecker said chronology in nar­ra­tives implies cause-and-effect relationships.

“Tem­po­rally earlier things cause tem­po­rally later things, but not vice versa,” Strecker said.

Strecker said the gospels include at least one notable exception.

“There’s at least one moment in the life, the nar­rative of Jesus,” Strecker said, “that doesn’t fit causally into the whole of the sequence, and that is the event of the trans­fig­u­ration of Jesus.”

Strecker said the trans­fig­u­ration doesn’t fit the cause-and-effect pattern of the gospels in which suf­fering comes before glory.

“Causally we must say that the glory is still fol­lowing the suf­fering, even as it is chrono­log­i­cally pre­ceding it,” Strecker said.

Strecker said one reason for this out-of-place element is that “life is not fully rep­re­sentable in narrative.” 

This point stood out to junior Michael Frost, a Lyceum board member, who attended the event. 

“I par­tic­u­larly liked Dr. Strecker’s point about the insuf­fi­ciency of nar­rative to capture a life,” Frost said. “I thought that was rather pro­found and important for thinking about books that we find hard to deal with or lives that we have trouble fitting into a story.” 

Strecker ended his talk with a question: “Can a life be blessed that ends in vio­lence, suf­fering, fear, and silence?” 

“Trans­fig­u­ration says yes,” he said. “Glory might be found in places that don’t fit our stories but no less indicate a life of blessedness. Cer­tainly nar­ra­tives are important for life, but failures ade­quately to narrate our own lives or the lives of others maybe do not point to an inad­e­quacy of those lives but rather the incom­pleteness of nar­rative in relation to life.”