Academic journal article Style

Narrative Apostrophe: Reading, Rhetoric, Resistance in Michel Butor's 'La Modification' and Julio Cortazar's "Graffiti." (Second-Person Narrative)

Academic journal article Style

Narrative Apostrophe: Reading, Rhetoric, Resistance in Michel Butor's 'La Modification' and Julio Cortazar's "Graffiti." (Second-Person Narrative)

Article excerpt

Narrating with the second-person pronoun is a rhetorical act. Storytellers from "Homer" and Vergil to Laurence Sterne, George Eliot, Michel Butor, and Julio Cortazar have turned to the persuasive force of you to move their audiences. When the narrator addresses characters in his fiction (as "Homer" does Eumaios) or turns to the reader (as Sterne's Tristram Shandy frequently does) or when, as has become more and more frequent in recent fiction, an entire story is told to "you," the protagonist (as in Butor's La modification), there is a departure from the narrative norm. In this article I will focus on one specific type of departure, which I call "narrative apostrophe," adapting from ancient rhetoricians the figure of "apostrophe." After briefly explaining my concept, I will use it to account for historical reader responses to Michel Butor's La modification and to suggest an allegorical reading of Julio Cortazar's neglected short story "Graffiti."(1)

I propose the phrase "narrative apostrophe" to describe anomalous communicative circuits in second-person narrative fiction(2) at the levels of the story and of the reception of the story. I borrow and extend the term most directly from classical philologist Elizabeth Block, who uses it to describe (exclusively) the Homeric and Vergilian narrators' addresses to characters in the epics and to the epic audiences (Block 8, 11, 13). Block and I in turn draw on the figure of "apostrophe," used by rhetoricians to describe the act of an orator turning away (Gk. apo 'away' and strophein 'to turn') from his normal audience, the judges, to address another: whether his adversary, a specific member of the jury, someone absent or dead, or even an abstract concept or inanimate object.(3)

The ancients attributed to apostrophe special powers to move the audience though they did not explain satisfactorily why this should be so. Quintilian, for example, comments cryptically that the apostrophic gesture "mire movet" ("is wonderfully stirring") (3:396, 397); he hints obscurely that to apostrophize a person (or thing) is more compelling than to state a fact about that person (or thing) (2:42, 43). In his treatise on the sublime, Longinus argues similarly that change of person (i.e., the pronominal shift of apostrophe) causes a "vivid effect" (200, 201). Illustrating his point with an example from Herodotus, Longinus suggests that apostrophe turns hearing about something into seeing and experiencing it (200, 201). On the basis of its effectiveness, both Quintilian and Longinus advocate use of apostrophe, offering numerous examples to prove that apostrophe can move the judges and audience in a speaker's favor (cf. Quintilian 2:41-45 and Longinus 200-05) though again they do not clearly explain why this would be so.

In the Western rhetorical and lyric traditions apostrophe has continued to be linked to heightened emotion.(4) It is perhaps for this very reason, that it has also been considered liable to "abuse and open to parody" (Perrine).(5) What distinguishes it most markedly from other figures, which, like rhetoric as a whole, also aim "to carry away the audience" (Barilli x), however, is that apostrophe tropes "not on the meaning of a word but on the circuit or situation of communication itself" (Culler 135).

I suggest that we can now explain the structure of apostrophe - and its efficacy - in terms unavailable to ancient rhetoricians by describing that communicative circuit on which the figure tropes. Communication theory has long accustomed us to think of any interchange as consisting of three main components: addresser, message, addressee, where addresser and addressee normally and regularly switch roles. However, though marked by vocative forms, apostrophe is not dialogue, for even if the addressee is part of the orator's audience and thus can "hear" the apostrophe, conventionally the addressee does not reply. Rather, apostrophe is "short-circuited" communication; messages do not flow in both directions. …

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