Cognitive Narratology, Rhetorical Narratology, and Interpretive Disagreement: A Response to Alan Palmer's Analysis of Enduring Love

By Phelan, James | Style, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Cognitive Narratology, Rhetorical Narratology, and Interpretive Disagreement: A Response to Alan Palmer's Analysis of Enduring Love


Phelan, James, Style


Alan Palmer's essay, "Attributions of Madness in Ian McEwan's Enduring Love," amply demonstrates how productive his cognitive approach to narrative can be. His focus on aspectuality and on intermental and intramental thinking leads to many sharp insights into Joe Rose's relationships with Jed Parry and with Clarissa Mellon, and, thus, into McEwan's novel. In addition, Alan's effort to link the cognitive analysis to rhetorical theory's concerns with ethical and aesthetic judgments is not only theoretically sound but also provocative. I find it salutary that Alan talks candidly about his own affective responses to the novel ("I found myself getting angry at Clarissa" [306]) and that he is willing to find fault with McEwan, since that move breaks with the still common assumption that the task of criticism is to explain the writer's success: "the question to ask can be simply put: Does Joe do enough wrong [to justify Clarissa's mistrust of him]? On balance, I would say: no. A more nuanced question is this one: Does McEwan miscalculate in trying to set up a context within which Clarissa's mistrust of Joe can be understood and even forgiven? I would say: yes" (307).

Even as I admire Alan's essay, I find that I disagree with his concluding judgments about Clarissa and McEwan's treatment of her character. In my view, McEwan handles the difficult task of making Clarissa's responses to Jed and to Joe both plausible and sympathetic, and, thus, I make a positive ethical judgment of her and a positive aesthetic judgment of McEwan's handling of this element of the novel. But my high regard for Alan's analysis leads me to one kind of response rather than another. Rather than simply trying to demonstrate that the novel contains more evidence to support my judgments than it does to support Alan's, I also want to delve beneath our interpretive disagreement by exploring two other questions. (1) What is it about Alan's cognitive and my version of the rhetorical approach that would lead Alan and me to disagree as we do? (2) What are the particular elements in McEwan's design of the novel that contribute to this disagreement?

In posing the first question, I do not mean to imply that our different theoretical commitments inevitably lead us to our different judgments. Neither Alan's cognitive approach nor my rhetorical one wholly determines its practitioners' conclusions. Both approaches still regard interpretation as an art that can be performed more and less skillfully on any given occasion. Nevertheless, I do want to suggest that because our theoretical commitments influence our respective conceptions of McEwan's novel, they also play a significant role in Alan's finding fault with McEwan's representation of Clarissa and my finding that representation to be successful. This suggestion also means that, although I accept Alan's point that "we are all cognitivists" (292) in the sense that the findings of cognitive narratology are highly relevant to rhetorical theory, I do not see that acceptance as entailing the methodological consequence that rhetorical reading must start with cognitive analysis. Indeed, I shall try to show that our interpretive disagreement arises in part because we start in different places.

Before proceeding to demonstrate this point, I need to lay out more clearly the basic principles of my rhetorical approach. The rhetorical definition of narrative emphasizes narrative as a communicative act and highlights the roles of tellers, audiences, and purposes: somebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for some purposes that something happened. I also regard narrative as a multi-layered communication, one that typically engages the audience's intellect, emotions, ethical values, and aesthetic sensibilities. Consequently, I am interested in the experience of reading literary narrative and in the ways that authors use textual (and sometimes intertextual) phenomena to guide their audiences to respond to the communication in one way (or one set of ways) rather than another.

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