gérard genette's time

review of
GENETTE, Gérard,
discours du récit, essai de méthode
Editions du Seuil, Paris,1972


In the wake of Günther Müller and Eberhard Lämmert, who coined the terms 'Erzählzeit' (narrative time) and 'erzählte Zeit' (narrated time), Genette discerns 'le récit' and, 'l'histoire'. He adds a third level: that of 'la narration' . In his 'Discours du récit', reviewed by me below, he wants to study the relations between 'récit' and 'histoire', and between 'récit' and 'narration'.

Genette resolutely understands the relation between 'récit' and 'histoire' in terms of semiosis: to him, it is just a relation between 'signifiant' and 'signifié'. It seems to escape him that there is a fundamental difference between the non-narrative use of words - their duplicating in view of the imitation of characters, like in theatre or film - and their narrative use as signs that conjure up image in the mind (see unmediated and mediated mimesis). Actors duplicate the dialogue of characters with their real voice and their real visual appearance, whereas a narrator conjures up the representations of the characters and their dialogues in the mind of the readers. That Genette does not distinguish both modes, is apparent from the fact that he descries the difference between 'récit' and 'histoire' not only in 'la narration épique', but also in 'la narration dramatique' and foremost in 'le récit cinématographique' - wherewith he equates narrative words with the play of actors in the theatre and images in the film.


Because he, not otherwise than Thomas Mann and Günther Müller and Eberhardt Lämmert, does not make a proper distinction between image conjuring words and conjured up images, he fails to notice that there are two kinds of temporal relations in narrative literature: that between the image conjuring words and the conjured up images on the one hand, and that between the chain of conjured up images and chronological time on the otherhand. In my analysis of Thomas Mann's 'Schnee', I described the diverse kinds of temporal relations between image conjuring words and conjured up images: images are seldom synchronous with the words that conjure them up, but are often supposed to appear before of after they were conjured up. And there are many segments in the chain of image conjuring signs that do not directly conjure up images: that is the case with images or pure discursive fragments that contribute only indirectly to the production of images belonging to the story as such. Whoever does not discern the domain of the relations between image conjuring words and conjured up images, threatens to conflate them with relations that narrative literature has indeed in common with theatre and film: the diverse temporal relations between the story as a sequence of sensory appearances and the chronological story: phenomena like prolepsis (flash-back) and analepsis (flash-forward) and their combinations on diverse levels, as properly analysed by Genette.

Such conflation is fatal to the analysis.

To begin with, Genette overlooks the difference between instrumental images and instrumental discourses on the one hand, and genuine images on the other hand, so that he cannot discern them from genuine ruptures in the flow of images. Next, he regards real interruptions as a kind of condensations ('ellipses'), whereas, in reality, interruptions - except then for 'qualified ellipses' (p. 139) ' - are not part of the story at all: they appear only in noumenal time, and it is only when we are dealing with uncompleted mimesis that the impression arises that something happened nevertheless - for instance when we would compare'A la recherche' with the extra-artistic 'real life' of Marcel.

Further, Genette cannot grasp the difference between a real analepsis and and an apparent 'analepsis' on the level of the relation between image conjuring words and images, as when two narrative lines come to converge, or when an auditory and an visual image, that have been presented successively, merge into one single audiovisual image (p. 102)

But, above all does he not realise that a discrepancy between the duration in phenomenal and noumenal time can only emerge when words are image conjuring words that conjure up images that, otherwise than abstract events in noumenal time, have a duration as an appearance. Such discrepancies are unthinkable in theatre or film, precisely because the images are directly perceptible here. Whoever takes the image conjuring words for the conjured up images, cannot understand how the pure duration of the pronunciation of these words can be an analogous sign for duration of a time within a given suggested time scale (see Schnee). Confronted with that problem, Genette resigns from analysing examples on the micro-level, and contents himself with a crude investigation of the relation between the number of pages and large 'parts' of Proust's 'A la recherche'. But, he cannot escape the problem there. For, whatever division of 'A la recherche' in whatever parts, there will always be (also external) prolepsis or analepsis and ellipsis, not to mention purely discursive passages that are not part of the story at all - so that the number of pages cannot be compared with the duration of time in nounemal time (l'histoire') like that. Apart from that, Genette cannot explain how phenomena like acceleration or deceleration can be realised, let alone phenomena like layers with different tempi. Instead, Genette can only conceive of a very crude classification in four terms: pause, scène, sommaire and éllipse (p. 129).


A second consequence of the misrecognition of the difference between theatre or film on the one hand and narrative literature on the other, is that Genette does not grasp the true nature of the difference between direct and indirect speech. With direct speech, we are dealing with words that are comparable to the words of the actor on the scene, although, in a narrative context, they are executed by the reader (or the narrator). With the different kinds of indirect speech, on the other hand, we are dealing with the conjuring up of a monologue or dialogue in the same vein as the conjuring up of visual of tactile appearances or of events in general.

In his 'Kratylos', Plato opposed the 'mimesis' of direct speech from the 'diegesis' of indirect speech. Otherwise than Aristotle, Genette concludes that indirect speech is no mimesis, although indirect speech conjures up an - albeit often merely suggestive - image of what a character says. To Genette, then, who repeats his anti-mimetic credo: 'Le language signifie sans imiter' (p. 185), there is a contrast between 'mimesis' and 'diegesis': whereas in drama, we are dealing with mimesis, in 'le récit' there can only be talk of an 'illusion de mimésis': une 'illustration détaillée, précise, vivante'. To him, there are only 'récits de paroles', in the same vein as 'récits d'événements'. At best, he can conceive of 'degrés de diégésis' (p. 186) - wherein we immediately recognise the familiar continuum between image and sign summoned up by all those who are out at subsuming the image under the sign. The reader may convince himself of the theoretical impasses to which this construction leads by reading the paragraphs 'Recit d'événements' and 'Récits de paroles'.

Ignoring the problems that arise when "la narration dramatique' and 'le récit cinématographique' are not properly discerned from 'la narration épique' ;Genette thus opposes 'récit' and 'drame', without conceiving of the possibility that both forms seldom appear in a pure form, but are mostly combined with each other: in a drama, there are many narrative passages, whereas, conversely, in most narratives, dramatic (or lyric) passages are common: dialogues that, when narrated aloud, are executed with a different timbre and intonation, although that is less evident when they are read silently.

That Genette does not descry the real difference between drama and narrative as a mimetic difference between immediate and mediated mimesis, and that he, on top of that, also cannot conceive of mixtures of drama and narrative, brings him in real trouble when he has to analyse what he calls 'narration'; the different 'voices'. The introduction of such a third level is superfluous when a proper distinction is made between drama and narrative: the voice of a narrator only conjures up images and is not an image itself. Genette's problem arises only when drama and narrative are mixed - when the actor becomes a narrator or when the narrator becomes an actor - as is the case when Odysseus becomes narrator himself in chapters IX to XII of the Odyssea, or with Defoe's Robinson, but above all in '1001 nights', where an increasing number of narrators are staged in a telescopic construction.


It remains a mystery how such anti-mimetic stance is still popular after nearly half a century, notwithstanding the serious problems raised by such approach.

Stefan Beyst, April 2013.

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© Stefan Beyst, april 2013.