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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, August 20, 2010


"You can't escape rules once you begin any kind of storytelling.-- Tim O'Neil, "An Argument for Rules."

Rather than immediately addressing the conflict of logic and aesthetics mentioned in the previous essay, I'll first cite my two examples of works that don't quite fit O'Neil's concept of rules that apply to "any kind of storytelling."

My first example I draw from this famous pronouncement by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which I last referenced in THEMATIC REALISM PART 1. To a reader's assertion that THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER had no moral, Coleridge wrote:

as to the want of a moral, I told her that in my own judgment the poem had too much; and that the only, or chief fault, if I might say so, was the the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a work of such pure imagination. It ought to have had no more moral than the Arabian Nights tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well, and throwing the shells aside, and lo! a genie starts up, and says he must kill the aforesaid merchant, because one of the date shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the genie's son.

Now, though certain other Coleridge concepts about the nature of the imagination might come into play here, I'll stick with my Langer-influenced concepts of "discursive fantasy" and "presentational fantasy" as apt descriptions of, respectively, Coleridge's own poem, which he says had too much "moral sentiment," and that of an Arabian Nights tale which Coleridge implicitly regarded as being closer to a work of "pure imagination."

To see whether or not this tale stacked up with Coleridge's assessment of its removal from moral sentiment, I read the following online translation here:


To be sure, the story isn't entirely bereft of morality, as Coleridge implies, but its moral point is made in a presentational mode, not the discursive mode seen (and self-critiqued) in RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER. In one respect, MERCHANT and MARINER turn on opposing premises, which may be the reason Coleridge selected that particular Night-tale. In Coleridge's universe, the callous slaughter of an innocent beast calls down divine punishment on the heads of the mariner and his mates. However, in the Arabic tale the merchant is minding his own business, and is sentenced to die by the genie's hands for what would ordinarily be a blameless act, that of shelling dates.

Though MARINER is not a simple poem to explicate, it does take place in a fictive universe with a discursive moral nature. It is, in O'Neil's words, a story that implies some "rules" by its very nature. But MERCHANT has no real rules as such. There may be Arabian Nights stories that discourse more fully on the nature of genies and their place in the cosmos, but here the only "rule" operative would seem to be that the genie exists and that he's perfectly free to kill the merchant for an accidental offense.

However, the genie is not the only presentational entity in the story, though he's the only fantastic character. It wouldn't be much of a story without some turning-point in which the merchant is saved from his dire fate, so after he says his farewells to his family, he is succored by three old men. The old men manage to talk the genie into sparing the merchant if they can tell the genie three fantastic stories that fill him with wonder, much as the extrinsic teller of the Night-tale, Scheherezade, is preserving her own life by telling wonderful tales to a murderous Sultan. The tale ends with a twist, designed to play on the expectations of both the Sultan and the tale's actual audiences, that the third old man's tale is left unsaid:

The third old man related his history to the Genie, but as it has not yet come to my knowledge, I cannot repeat it; but I know it was so much beyond the others, in the variety of wonderful adventures it contained, that the Genie was astonished.

Returning to my distinction between rules and expectations, one can say that MARINER has certain rules, insofar its universe, however strange, has some semblance of ordered logic. But like the folkloric stories from which MERCHANT is derived, there is no discursive logic in the Arabian Night, and thus no "rules" as such. Both threat and resolution are presented as *faits acoomplis* by the author: they happen as they do because the author says they do, even to the extent of his decision to refrain from relating the third old man's tale.

A similar situation, where one finds more expectations than rules, appears in Lewis Carroll's ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND. To be sure, a critic can extrapolate from WONDERLAND any number of discursive readings about what Carroll meant by the Mad Hatter or the Cheshire Cat, and on some occasions Carroll makes references to particular subjects which he openly satirizes for the pleasure of his contemporaries. But dominantly WONDERLAND is not as clearly discursive as MARINER, and its strongest appeal, like that of the nonsense-stories and nursery rhymes from which it borrows, is a presentational one: the audience's expectation quickly becomes that of not ever knowing what to expect from Wonderland, much like the astounded genie listening to the three tales. And again, this kind of storytelling appeals only to one kind of "logic:" the logic of doing whatever it takes to get the story told to satisfy those expectations.

Next time for sure: logic vs. aesthetics.

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