Unsettling Stories: Disruptive Narrative Strategies in Marina Warner's Indigo and the Leto Bundle

By Propst, Lisa G. | Studies in the Novel, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Unsettling Stories: Disruptive Narrative Strategies in Marina Warner's Indigo and the Leto Bundle


Propst, Lisa G., Studies in the Novel


In her 2002 Amnesty Lecture at the Oxford Sheldonian Theatre, Marina Warner commented that since the 1980s, many women writers had used "Negative Capability" to reconstitute lost histories (Warner, "Who's Sorry" 467). Keats developed the concept of "Negative Capability" in a letter of 1817 to his brothers. Declaring it the highest literary achievement, he defined it as the ability to remain "in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" (Keats 72). He elaborated on his idea in a letter of 1818 to Richard Woodhouse: "As to the poetical Character itself ... it is not itself--it has no self--it is every thing and nothing.... A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity--he is continually ... filling some other Body" (Keats 227-28).

Warner's assertion in the Amnesty Lecture implied that writers who recuperated the voices of silenced people put themselves in the place of their subjects and invited readers to identify with them. She praised Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Louise Erdrich for presenting "lost histories and lost strands of courage" with "empathy and imagination," and she portrayed these writers as models for her own work. Yet she acknowledged that "Negative Capability" has ethical hazards that turn her desire to chronicle lost stories into "a bristling and jagged, intractable problem." She commented, "History can be lost to view when it's personified in a suffering subject;" responding to the emotional impact of one person's story can make it easy to overlook the stories of others and the social structures that led to that person's suffering ("Who's Sorry" 467). Accounts of oppression can create an "economy of virtue" as people reap political influence by claiming to identify with oppressed groups:

   like pilgrims kissing the wounds of the crucified Christ,
   contemporary political subjects seek to touch these springs of
   sympathy, and apologists--by consenting and yielding and admitting
   wrong-strive to reach the same condition of pathos, and
   consequently partake in the currency of merit. ("Who's Sorry"
   468-69)

Warner implied that like politicians apologizing for injustices that occurred before their time, novelists and readers who empathize with persecuted victims may envision themselves as virtuous and innocent, alleviating their sense of responsibility for conditions that cause suffering. In sharing the pain of people abused or enslaved, readers can fail to recognize the particularities of those people's experiences or the limited forms of power those people wielded. Writing that helps people put themselves in the shoes of others can paradoxically be divisive. Nevertheless, Warner insisted, "If history is an agreed fable, as Voltaire said ... then any initiative to change things must begin with stories" ("Who's Sorry" 467).

Warner's most recent two novels, Indigo, or, Mapping the Waters (1992) and The Leto Bundle (2001), explore "this writhing problem," as she calls it ("Who's Sorry" 479), through formal strategies that invite readers to share the dilemma of how to respond to the lives of silenced people. The novels ask how to imagine the stories of the oppressed without risking false empathy or reducing the nuances of history to allegory. Far from claiming to resolve these questions, Indigo and The Leto Bundle position Warner in a community of writers, including Morrison, Kingston, Caryl Phillips, J. M. Coetzee, and many others, whose formal experiments grapple with the complexities of writing about alienation and otherness. Both novels invite readers into the lives of silenced characters yet persistently call attention to the incompletion of those characters' representation. Significant elements of the characters' lives remain untold, and their perspectives on their experiences are often absent. The partial depictions of characters foreground a twofold dilemma. …

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