The Shadows of Time: Chronotopic Diversity and Ethical Unreadability in Flannery O'Connor's Tales

By Nadal, Marita | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

The Shadows of Time: Chronotopic Diversity and Ethical Unreadability in Flannery O'Connor's Tales


Nadal, Marita, Papers on Language & Literature


The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.

--Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners

I myself am afflicted with time[*]

--Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being

Mikhail Bahktin defines the chronotope "(literally, 'time space')" as "the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature" (84) and "the place where the knots of narrative are tied and untied" (250). Significantly, the chronotope combines spatial and temporal factors with an evaluation of their meaning "as judged from a particular point of view," as Michael Holquist has observed: "time and space are never merely temporal or spatial, but axiological as well (i.e. they also have values attached to them)" (152, emphasis original). Thus, the chronotope transcends the boundaries of fiction, involving also the perspective of the reader, both in time and space. Interestingly, the notion of the chronotope implies that "the text is always in production" and that the text's time/space relation "will always be perceived in the context of a larger set of time/space relations that obtain in the social and historical environment in which it is read" (Holquist 141). Consequently, we could even speak of a "creative chronotope" (Bakhtin 254, emphasis original) inside which the exchange between work and world takes place and which produces the text's continual renewing and its eternal unfinishedness.

On the other hand, ethical criticism emphasizes two basic premises that articulate the relationship between text, author, and reader: the resistance of the text to be fixed by the reader, and the creative relationship between the former and the latter. In The Ethics of Reading, J. Hillis Miller argues that the text is always subject to an ethical law that cannot be read within the text but remains in reserve: "This law forces the reader to betray the text or deviate from it in the act of reading it in the name of a higher demand that can yet be reached only by way of the text. This response creates yet another text which is a new act" (120). Miller concludes, "The text gives only itself. It hides its matter or thing as much as it reveals it. It could be said that any text falsifies or mistranslates the 'thing'" (121). In this sense, the text "is unreadable" because "it does not transmit its own law or make its own law legible in it"; the text is just an example of the productive force of the ethical law, "not the law nor even the utterance of the law" (121). Therefore, the text becomes the signifier of the ethical law that presupposes an absent signified that can never be reached.

Miller's assumptions about the "ethics of reading," which emphasize openness to and respect for the text, are related to other postmodern ethical approaches that derive from Levinas and insist on the centrality of concepts such as "paradox," "incommensurability," "heterogeneity," "irresolution," "undecidability," "self-difference," "incessance," "desoeuvrement," and "dialogue" (Cf. Andrew Gibson, Maurice Blanchot, Christopher Falzon, among others) that always accompany the ethical encounter. Thus, Gibson understands the ethical significance of the novel "not as a form of unitary cognition, but as a form which works radically to surpass and, indeed, dissolve any given set of cognitive horizons" (91). Significantly, he connects Bakhtin's concept of the eternal unfinishedness of the text with Levinas's notion of ethical incompleteness, which, in turn, evokes Miller's emphasis on the ultimate unreadability of the text.

As we shall see, the ongoing discrepancy that characterizes the criticism of O'Connor's fiction exemplifies Bakhtin's and Miller's contentions: the resistance of the text to be fixed by the critical subject, the productive, performative relationship between text, author, and reader, and, finally, the inaccessibility of the ethical law that is hidden in the text but also revealed through it.

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