Academic journal article Style

De(ar)ranged Minds, Mindless Acts and Polemical Portrayal in Kleist and Canetti

Academic journal article Style

De(ar)ranged Minds, Mindless Acts and Polemical Portrayal in Kleist and Canetti

Article excerpt


In this paper, I aim to deal with the representation of normality and insanity in third-person narration. As a point of departure, I will briefly sketch the quarrel between narratology (Dorrit Cohn) and New Historicism (John Bender) on the (debated) functional analogy between the "impersonal, disembodied matrix" (Bender 28) engendering the normality of modern subjects and third-person narratorial agency in (non-)fiction. Whereas recent cognitive approaches tend to highlight the experiential and mental nature of the narrative representation of madness, I aim to bring into play a more social and historical dimension of the attribution of normality by focussing on the exterior dimension of the representation of madness. In my view, this necessitates a rhetorical approach to narrative and in particular to its stylistic expressivity. Third-person narration can be conceptualized as a flexible relay of information that does not simply rely on readers' cultural routines and expectations, but that gives a performative, creative twist to the inferential activities of narrators and readers.

In order to illustrate this approach, I will discuss the role of narratorial agency and polemical portrayal in texts by Heinrich von Kleist and Elias Canetti. Both authors share an emphasis on the external constitution and attribution of an apparently mental and internal phenomenon like madness. The broader ambition is to present a feasible framework to link the rhetorical-narratological interest in formal and stylistic characteristics with the study of the historical construction of normality across media and genre-related speech positions.

Narratology, Madness and History

The question whether the narratological discussion of the representation of madness can be aligned with historical issues regained attention in the context of New Historicism. In the debate between Dorrit Cohn and John Bender that took place in New Literary History in 1995, some of the fundamental challenges and options of a possible historical narratology were thematized. Cohn took issue with Bender's historicization of narrative form on two accounts. Bender's first claim was that "the penitentiary [that is, the prison built on the model of Bentham's Panopticon] stages impersonal, third-person presence ... so as to represent ah actual character and conscience as fictions capable of alteration" (Penitentiary 203, qtd. in Cohn, Distinction, 169). Secondly, the fictionalization of the panoptic model finds its reflection in third-person authorial fiction (e.g. Fielding), whose "authoritative presence" is dispersed and obfuscated "into the very third-person grammar and syntax through which the illusion of consciousness is created" (Bender 29), namely in Free Indirect Discourse (FID). According to Bender, third-person narration cannot provide a genuine insight into the performative constitution of subjectivity, since it basically copies the panoptic, controlling dimensions of institutional authority engendering the subject in Foucault's terms.

Bender's account is in contradiction with Dorrit Cohn's description of FID in Transparent Minds. According to Cohn, FID is not a form of disciplinary control or disembodiment. On the contrary, Free Indirect Discourse, as paraphrased by Fludernik, signals a willingness to "incorporate otherness" (Fludernik, 'Natural' Narratology, 368). Mounting the positive example of Defoe's homodiegetic narration against Fielding's authorial narrator, Bender claimed that only "first-person narration limits power to regulate the implications of stories in any container of narrational authority" (Bender, Imagining, 121). Strikingly, in her Transparent Minds, Cohn challenged the view that direct quotation and sustained internal view should be the most appropriate approach to the representation of the workings of a deranged mind. Cohn highlighted the importance of third-person narration in this register by stating that in particular "[m]odern novelists who know their Freud, therefore, would be the last to resort to direct quotation in order to express their characters' unconscious processes" (88). …

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