Why Literature Matters: Some Presuppositional Considerations (Pt.2)

Russian literary theorist, Mikhail Bhaktin

Russian literary theorist, Mikhail Bhaktin

[Continued from Pt.1]


Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher and literary theorist, believed that “the authors’ relations to their characters are akin to the relations of God to humans.” Authors are creators, in other words, of worlds governed by laws they establish for their creatures/creation. Postmodern novels are no exception to this rule, for insofar as they communicate anything, they are functioning semiotically, as signs. The individual psychology of the narrator, for instance, signified via his diction (i.e. his peculiar word choice and cadence), frame the world in which he dwells as narrator. He is inhabiting the world he relays to the reader, while also exegeting that world to the reader.

Depending on how complex the text is, however, the narrator may or may not be reliable. If he is an omniscient narrator, then the reader is to take him at his word. If he is an unreliable narrator, then he will contradict himself or be contradicted by the events he relays. The ontological concerns of the text, therefore, are at this level implicit. They are, nonetheless, vitally important for underscoring just how deeply ingrained the knowledge of God is in all men. Briefly, if a text’s narrator is to be taken as omniscient, then he creates the world of which he writes; but if the narrator is contradicted by his own words (e.g. Dostoevsky’s underground man) or by the world in which he lives, then the reader knows that the narrator, at least epistemologically, inhabits the same world as the reader. In both instances, the author assumes that man is subject to laws governing reality. The omniscient narrator and the unreliable narrator reveal that human existence is limited to existential constraints that are out of the control of moral agents. In the former case, the narrator limits the actions of the moral agents of whom he writes; in the latter case, the unreliable narrator exhibits his own subjection as a moral agent to the already existent world in which both the reader and the unreliable narrator find themselves.

Probing further than this, moreover, it becomes evident that the author assumes a particular ontology, for semiosis (i.e. the process of communicating by means of any signifying system) presupposes that the transmission of meaning from one subject to another is possible and, more than this, achievable. The author’s ontological presuppositions, then, ground the creation of literary texts addressed to moral agents capable of receiving meaning transmitted via the means of any signifying system (i.e. any symbolic system of communication – gestural, graphical, numerical, discursive, didactic, aesthetic, and so on).Thus, while the creation of literary worlds may seem to imply ontological and, therefore, epistemological and moral relativism, insofar as literary worlds function semiotically they imply a single world in which the creator (of a text or of a narrative world in the text) creates existential constraints which establish possibilities and impossibilities for his created moral agents.

[Continued in Pt.3]


3 thoughts on “Why Literature Matters: Some Presuppositional Considerations (Pt.2)

  1. Nadine says:

    Exactly, and how could a reader even make sense of a text if it existed in a semiotic vacuum.

    One could also add the language of the text itself to the list of signifying systems a reader relies on when reading a book.


involve yourself

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s