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Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics

Telling in Time (I): Chronology and Narrative Theory

Author(s): Meir Sternberg
Source: Poetics Today, Vol. 11, No. 4, Narratology Revisited II (Winter, 1990), pp. 901-948
Published by: Duke University Press
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Telling in Time (I):

Chronology and Narrative Theory
Meir Sternberg
Poetics and Comparative Literature, Tel Aviv

All I wish is, that it may be a lesson to the world, "to let
people tell their stories their own way." Laurence Sterne,
Tristram Shandy

1. What's Wrong with Chronology?

My main title has two bearings on narrative, one necessary, the other
optional, one directed to the medium and the other to the object of
narration. On the one hand, telling in time is telling in a temporal
medium, where all items and structures and effects must unfold in an
ordered sequence. Whether viewed from the transmitting or the receiving end, communication there proceeds along a continuum. This
is evidently a sine qua non for verbal storytelling, as for all literature
and discourse in language, but not for them alone. It applies no less
necessarily to a variety of syncretic, multimedia forms of discourseextension in space yet combines
dance, theatre, opera, cinema-whose
with an irreversible progression in time. Whatever the grouping of
their signs at any given moment, it cannot so much as freeze, let alone
develop or regroup, except from moment to moment along the communicative process. Nor is this because they signify a narrative-which
rather because, like narrative, their signifiers folthey usually do-but
low a line even in their least narrative moments, as when describing a
place or a state of affairs. Temporality in the sense of discourse sequentiality (linearity, directionality) thus controls an assortment of media,
art forms, representations. And the straining against the "tyranny of
time" throughout the ages, in modernism, for example, only reaffirms
and redefines the tyrant's power with each abortive rebellion.
On the other hand, in a sense limited and optional to narrative
(factual, fictional, epic, dramatic, operatic, cinematic) as the represenPoetic.s Today 11:4 (Winter 1990). Copyright ?

Poetics and Semiotics. (:(:( 0333-5372/90/$2.50.

1990 by The Porter Institute for


Poetics Today 1 1:4

tation of an action, telling in time also means telling in chronological

sequence: according to the order in which events have (or, if fictional,
are supposed to have) occurred, so that the discourse marches in step
with the world. The telling follows, reflects, imitates, if you will, the
line of the happening-from
earlier to later, from cause to result.
The temporality imposed on the signifiers by art forms an icon of the
temporality built into the signifieds by nature.
This pinpoints the relation between the two senses of telling in time,
the communicative as against the mimetic or iconic. If the first sense is
necessary but not peculiar to narrative, the second is peculiar but nonnecessary. For narrative must tell about the workings of time (events,
developments, changes of state) in some time-medium, verbal and/or
otherwise, but not perforce in their original order of time. The first
sense opposes temporal to spatial media, as conditions of discourse
arrangement; the second presupposes both a temporal object and a
temporal medium-a narrative, in short-so as to oppose two options
for sequencing the one along the other: chronological versus nonchronological narration.
Equally available in principle, the two rival options have indeed been
practiced and elaborated throughout the history of narrative. Some of
the great practitioners in either tradition even fall into pairs, as with
the Bible and Homer, Gibbon and Fielding, Trollope and Dickens,
The Rainbow and Ulysses.This makes it all the more remarkable that
narrative theory knows so little, and finds so much to complain, about
telling in step with time.
Chronological ordering has long suffered from a bad name as an
inferior method of arrangement, if artistic or viable at all. Backed by
the prestigious practice of Homer and Greek tragedy, Aristotle's Poetics already ranks the "simple" plot, plodding from beginning through
middle to end, below the "complex" plot with its unexpected reversals
and discoveries. And if Aristotle does not explicitly condition artistic
form and effect on temporal displacement, his successors have done
so in no equivocal terms. Renaissance and Neoclassical criticism doctrinally opposes the "natural" or "historical" to the "poetic" order,
elevating the jump in medias res into a distinctive feature of epic and
literary storytelling in general. So do the Russian Formalists, with their
numerous Structuralist progeny and kindred spirits to this day, by appeal to a more sophisticated distinction: the orderlyfabula underlying
the work must be disordered in the finished sujet for the sake of aesthetic "making strange." Again, E. M. Forster (1962 [1927]) laments
the necessity of the low and atavistic "story,"forwarded by "and then?"
as against the intelligent "why?"of the "plot," which reaches its height
in the mystery-novel plot through inversions of the time sequence.
Modernism in the Jamesian tradition will have the writer deform

Sternberg * Telling in Time


and ambiguate the objective order of happening into a subjective order

of perception, discovery, reminiscence, thought. From yet another
quarter, Joseph Frank (1963, 1981) and his followers have celebrated
(post)modernism's shift from temporal to so-called spatial form by
means of similar disarrangements.
All this, culminating in the shift from time to space, reveals another
curious disparity between the two senses of telling in time: a secondorder disparity, to be exact, concerning attitudes to the element of
choice. On the one hand, the demands of temporal discourse ("one
damned thing after another") have often exercised artists, along with
their partisans in criticism, most vocally those modernists bent on
imaging and shaping simultaneity against the grain of the medium.
On the other hand, the option of assimilating the discourse to a chronology would seem to figure among theorists (the spatialists definitely
included) as a regrettable freedom, one not to be exploited on pain
of losing the name of art. The two objections, to the constraints on
spatializing and to the license of chronologizing, appear at variance.
Except that, if you look harder, they do share a significant feature,
namely, a distaste for time regarded as the line of least resistance. By
such a valuation, chronological narrative toes not just a line-literally speaking-but a double line: the medium's and the world's, both
given beforehand. What could make a softer option, as it were, than
aligning words in conformity to a line of events, aligning events in the
groove of the medium? I
To be sure, nobody who has thought about narrative structure and
interpretation is likely to deny that for narrative to make sense as narrative, it must make chronological sense. For if the events composing
it do not fall into some line of world-time, however problematic their
alignment and however appealing their alternative arrangement, then
narrativity itself disappears. From early to late is, moreover, not only
the order of nature but also the order of causality, hence of plot coherence. Being chronological, the sequence of events is followable,
intelligible, memorable, indeed chrono-logical. So much so, the critical approaches I have instanced might say, that it becomes too akin to
the way of the world, too mimetic and transparent for art. To qualify
1. The two lines have even been correlated or, still more incredibly, identified at
the hands of antilinearists. For example, "It is obvious that the closer the structure
of a narrative conforms to causal-chronological sequence, the closer it corresponds
to the linear temporal order of language" (Frank 1981: 235). Or, "We read narratives one word after another, and in this sense all narratives are chronological
sequences" (Smitten and Daghistany 1981: 13). (Cf. the definition of "the sign as
well as the sentence and all larger units of discourse" as "primarily narrative" in
Scholes [1974: 17].) To the background of such tie-ups (the norms behind the
fusion and confusion of linearities) we shall return; see for now Sternberg (1990).


Poetics Today 11:4

for art, chronology needs to undergo such deformation in the telling

as to be only gradually reformed or reconstructed in the reading, trialand-error fashion, with appropriate delays and twists and surprises en
route, if not pockets of darkness and ambiguity to the end.
This is what the antichronologists might say, and at best do say after
a fashion, yet a sadly poor best it remains. By speaking of its poverty
I do not just mean that the case has seldom, if ever, been seriously
argued-the rule being quick dismissal in opposition to the favored
telling out of time. Not to put too fine a point upon it, all the stances
against chronology known to me (and I have searched high and low)
are riddled with weaknesses, usually compounded. None achieves anything like coverage, and with it explanatory power, in regard to the
facts of temporality in narrative practice: genres, canons, repertoires,
features, variations synchronic and diachronic within the overall system. Most involve errors in reasoning as well, from plain non sequiturs
(see note 1) through equations of form with role or effect (e.g., chronologizing with copying, dechronologizing with defamiliarizing) down
to specious reversals of pro into con, as though whatever motivates
and recommends one ordering must count against another. Further,
hardly any of these approaches will come under scrutiny without betraying (here and there, flaunting) some absolutist view of art and/or
reality, complete with bias, a priori ranking, designs on canonization,
judgment in the guise of statement. With flaws of such magnitude aggravating one another, the case should have been discredited by nowif not long ago, then at least in our own age, unprecedented for its
investment and advances in the study of narrative time. Only, it hasn't
been: quite the contrary, in fact, so that one may well wonder why.
What's wrong, then, with chronology? Nothing in principle, I shall
argue, any more than with nonchronological strategies of narration;
but there is something wrong with narrative theory-a few things,
actually, which for convenience I will divide below into empirics, logic,
ideology, and, crosswise, methodology. Faced with such manifold as
well as multivoice antagonism, the poetics of orderly storytelling must
in a way begin from less than scratch. Hence the constant movement
in what follows, under the rubrics indicated, between metatheoretical
and theoretical inquiry, between matters of principle and of fact, between received images or formulas and dynamic operations, between
negative findings and positive proposals or counterproposals. I hope
to show that those different tacks of analysis join forces to point in
the same direction. But I have no doubt that they point away from
the established premises, prejudices, practices-all formalist in the
sense of reifying and ranking narrative sequences without regard to
communicative (generic, historical, ideological, purposeful) context.
Negatively speaking, the dismissal of chronology would seem inde-

Sternberg * Telling in Time


fensible on the old or old-new formalist grounds, often even on its

own terms; the only question is what to substitute for it and them,
and to my mind the answer lies in a functional poetics. To put it in
a nutshell, chronology is what chronology does, and its doings not
only have their rationale but also surprisingly vary with the operative
norms and choices. The uniform-looking, early-to-late sequence thus
comes to perform multiple as well as distinctive roles, which inform
and in effect transform it from one context to another. So much so
that the sequence may generate what theory is traditionally least able
to envisage and accommodate: functional deformation (of norms, responses, world views, expectancies) in chronological formation. Thus
the recourse to telling in time against the dominant convention of arrangement, or a chronology linked, propelled, begun and/or closed
in an unexpected fashion. And if disorder lurks below the surface
of temporal order-which would also entail the converse-then the
very notion of (dis)ordering needs to be redefined accordingly. Still,
even readers left uneasy about this positive thrust of the argument
should at least find enough evidence for the need to reconsider the
issue together with its implications. Any alternative would be an improvement on the present state of unquestioning consensus.
Such rethinking becomes all the more urgent once we appreciate the
range and weight of the implications. For the set of ills to be discussed
(under empirics, logic, etc.) does not conspire against chrono-logical
telling alone. By a virtually forced chain reaction, such ills affect all
other arrangements of sequence-dechronologizing
itself included, if
further result
that the temporal panorama shrinks into polarity. It could hardly be
otherwise within a binary approach, so current among theorists, where
to privilege one (dis)ordering term is to throw the rest out of value,
focus, even sight. Along with the devaluation of chronology vis-a-vis
anachrony, for example, goes the neglect of multilinear narrative or of
linguistic sequence or of cognitive dynamics, which reduces to neither
pole of ordering. Since these are all staples of narrative as a time art,
their fate becomes another, wider measure of the logic of polarization. Unless we manage to encompass and interrelate those multiform
absentees within a single frame of analysis, along with the traditional
extremes and to the redefining of their extremity, we cannot hope for
a theory of sequence-not even of narrative temporality proper.
Less immediately and homogeneously, yet nonetheless consequentially, the trouble stretches beyond time to intersecting narrative
dimensions: space for one, point of view for another, to cite two
generic essentials and battlefields. Further, the calls for promoting
either dimension at the expense of time-for breaches in event order
to build up spatial or perspectival form-make it doubly revealing that


Poetics Today 11 :4

the theory of these forms has suffered from much the same omissions
and commissions as that of time.
For instance, take the loaded contrast between "spatial" and nonspatial narratives, or its equivalent in the antithesis, attacked by Booth
(1961) but lately drawn anew, between what Jamesians called narratives with and without a point of view. Given that in narrative something happens somewhere as well as sometime, could any narrative
(even if it would, or however orderly) do otherwise than extend its
referents and meanings in space? If so, doesn't the restrictive use of
the term "spatial"just express a preference for a certain, supposedly
antitemporal mode of spatiality? Likewise, since narrative entails subjectivity, the talk about the presence or absence of point of view-or,
more recently, of the narrator-boils down to the favoring of a certain
narrative stance, duly polarized. Indeed, why should space, or perspective, stand opposed and rise superior to time at all? Why ally them,
conversely, with telling out of time? Again, is it an accident that, like
chronology, omniscient narration is both the least valued and the least
explored mode in its field-regardless of their currency among storytellers old and new? Is it an accident, further, that omniscience looks
most compatible with chronology, if only because the all-knowing narrator has timely access to the whole truth, so that he can tell without
gaps? Or, how is it that the theory of reported discourse echoes temporal theory in package-dealing form and function? Thus, the widespread but false claim that direct quotation merely serves to reproduce
("copy") the original event, while the free indirect style operates to the
higher ends of irony or ambiguity, is a precise counterpart to the roles
and values generally assigned to the orderly versus disorderly forms
of telling.
This will suggest the magnitude and the unity in variety of the problems left or created along the broad front of narrative. Yet their very
family resemblance also argues for a different kind of theory, which
has actually withstood some of the tests and promises to meet others
by treating narrative notjust as a rule-governed but as a role-governed
discourse, a flexible interplay of means and ends in communication.
Here is not the place to detail the methodology or its history, which in
certain respects goes as far back as the implications of Aristotle's Poetics. For the moment, let me say only that the cumulative results of my
own earlier inquiries into the cruxes mentioned above (e.g., on space,
see 1970, 1978: esp. 203-34; 1981, 1984; on narrative models and omniscience, 1978: 246-306; 1985: 58ff.; on reported discourse, 1982a,
1982b, 1986), as well as into time proper, would seem to invite extension and integration in terms of an overall functionalist approach.
So would certain new developments and ongoing reorientations in
other fields concerned with discourse, though not (or, optimistically,

Sternberg ? Telling in Time


not yet) in the mainstreams of literary theory. In particular, one can

no longer expect anything of the kind from literary Structuralism,
a movement best known perhaps for its attempts to systematize the
analysis of narrative, but also most encumbered with the preconceptions and coincidences just illustrated. As practiced since the 1960s,
Structuralist narratology turns out, on the whole, a formalism in disguise, often contrary to its professions and its textual analyses alike.
A strange mixture results-and differently mixed in different hands,
phases, even performances-but almost invariably with a strong element of form reified, instead of related to a network of synchronic
and diachronic relations as part to whole. Structuralism at variance
with the idea of structure? No wonder that, despite the fine synthesis in Culler (1975), at times verging on transformation, Structuralism
has recently lost so much of its appeal and impetus. The question is
not how to restore them but how best to draw the lesson and turn it to
account within some other framework.
Much the same question arises (as we shall see) in regard to various
other formalisms, old and new: the ways of generalizing from narratives to narrative via ready-made poles, for example, have changed in
essentials far less over the ages than may appear to modern eyes or
even in the light of the many genuine achievements and refinements
since the Greeks. This remains to be argued, of course, and against
opposition. But supposing those paradigms have not changed, or not
consistently and for the better, where do we go from here?
Here, therefore, my specific focus does multiple duty. The following
argument carries no special brief for chronology, except as a junction and symptom of larger issues, that is, as part of a whole on
which its treatment both depends and reflects, for better or worse.
Indeed, having already made one plea for it in the context of expositional ordering (1978: 183ff.), I do hope to develop the matter
further toward a poetics, but with one important shift in emphasis. If
this strategy cries out for notice and justice, denied it from Aristotle
to yesterday, then its revaluation cannot but present a mirror and a
challenge to our theorizing about narrative.
2. EmpiricalCoverage, or: What Are the Facts?
2. 1 Chronology Missed and Dismissedvis-a-vis Anachrony:History, Fiction, Value

As a rule, the practice of chronology has received the scantiest attention, to the point of judgment in absentia. Geared to disorder, theory
traditionally leaves out of account the how's and why's of chronological narrative, its range and fortunes, sometimes its very existence. This
produces the largest single hole in the study of temporality, one that
modern developments have only widened by altogether refusing it


Poetics Today 11 :4

notice and interest-let

alone parity-except
of a negative kind. Even
in empirical terms alone, the failure to cover one of the two primary
ordering options throws the whole picture into imbalance. And any
attempt to gloss over the omission only brings out its magnitude and
For this line at its most extreme, as well as its most explicit, we had
best turn to recent narratology. Consider Gerard Genette:
Narrative anachronies(as I will call the various types of discordance between
the two orderings of story [histoire]and narrative [recit]) implicitly assume
the existence of a kind of zero degree that would be a condition of perfect
temporal correspondence between narrative [recit]and story [histoire].This
point of reference is more hypothetical than real. Folklore narrative habitually conforms, at least in its major articulations, to chronological order, but
our (Western) literary tradition, in contrast, was inaugurated by a characteristic effect of anachrony .... We know that this [Homer's] beginning in
mediassres, followed by an expository return to an earlier period of time, will

become one of the formal topoi of epic, and we also know how faithfully
the style of novelistic narration follows in this respect the style of its remote
ancestor, even in the heart of the "realistic" nineteenth century. (1980:
In virtually denying the reality of the chronological order, this statement is extreme,2 none the less so because it sounds moderate. Its very
appeal to the facts is rare enough (a welcome change from judgment
by deduction or implication), while its shrewd hedging even appears
to guard against overstating the case. Note how the qualifier, "in its
major articulations," actually maximizes the strength of the claim by
discounting all slight or local or forced departures from the "story's"
chronology. The refusal to load the dice by promoting and adding
these to the ranks of genuine ("major") anachrony makes good sense.
After all, even the most orderly narrative in folklore and elsewhere (if
there is an elsewhere) will double back in time to introduce new characters or to enact a simultaneous occurrence or just to glance at some
antecedent, with no perceptible effect of disordering. (In visual terms,
this would correspond to the difference between the small and the
large departures from the straight line in Tristram Shandy's diagrams
of temporality. There are "common ins and outs," he says in laughing away certain squiggly peccadilloes, "incident to the lives of the
greatest ministers of state; and when compared with what men have
2. Even relative to the position in the earlier (and, significantly, less theoretical)
context of Genette, where he is satisfied to affirm that "the order long considered natural is nothing but one order among others" (1969: 221). The line strikingly hardens in time along with the theory; and it undergoes further hardening
at the hands of disciples, fellow Structuralists, or even outsiders (see notes 3 and
18, below).

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done-or with my own transgressions at the letters ABD-they vanish

into nothing" [Sterne 1940 (1759-67): 474].) To lump together such
"minor" adjustments with, say, in medias res, would therefore be to
weaken and trivialize the empirical claim against chronology, almost
to the point of vacuity.3
But Genette's good sense makes it all the more incredible that he
should go so far as to deny the "real" existence of chronological narrative, reducing it to "hypothetical" status or zero-point. The stronger
the claim, the easier its refutation and the stranger the disregard for
the massive evidence to the contrary.
Most conspicuous for its absence here is the entire range and tradition of history-telling in the largest sense, contrasted with fictiontelling by its drive to factuality and governed by the arrow of time.
Chronicle, historiography proper, biography, autobiography, diaries,
news items, documentaries, travelogues, official and scholarly reporting, perhaps half of the narrative corpus in all: these genres of discourse do not receive here so much as passing mention, still less reasoned dismissal. I say "perhaps half" only to be on the safe side. It is
not just that the proportions have over the ages increasingly changed,
along with culture and technology, in favor of historical (as against
fictional) discourse. They have always favored it, if only due to the
pervasiveness from time immemorial of everyday storytelling, much
3. Such weakening is actually to be found even in related and derivative accounts.
For example, Todorov (1966: 127, 139) bases a similar empirical position on the
disparity between linear discourse and the multiple story-threads rendered by it.
So does Rimmon-Kenan, a disciple of G(enette's, who repeats the master's words
but misrepresents his claim by grounding it in the pressures of multilinearity rather
than in the preference for anachrony (1983: 16-17, 45-46); another follower, Bal,
likewise speaks of chronology as "a theoretical construction" absent from "nearly
all novels" and "most short stories," owing to the exigencies of narration (1985: 51,
53). (Genette himself shows admirable consistency in postulating "major articulations" alone as the criterion for distinguishing text-length sequences. If anything,
this criterion is pushed too far. Narrative Discourse (1980) thus leaves aside the whole
issue of simultaneity, on the grounds that the "heterodiegetic" shift in time (unlike the "holnodiegetic") supposedly "does not entail real narrative interference,"
hence no real anachrony (ibid.: 50, 71). In a later work, he even goes so far as to
retract his own reference here to the Iliad as an in-medias-res narrative, indeed as
the paradigm of anachrony in "(Western) literary tradition." Arguing against himwill not take the belated Catalogue of Ships
as it happens, myself-he
and the retrospections of Nestor as sufficient evidence for major disarrangement:
"C(ela n'autorise pas a appliquer a l'Iliade ... la formule in medias res. On ne peut
pas serieusement assimiler la structure temporelle de l'Illade a celle de l'Odyssee"
( 1983: 21, n. 2). The Iliad accordingly becomes chronological, the Odysseyalone remains anachronous. One need not agree about these particular cases (and I don't)
to see that Genette is right in principle: better to limit than indiscriminately widen
the scope of anachrony. Where simultaneity comes in and how to tell major from
minor inversions are problems to which we shall return.


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of it historical in the sense of making a truth claim and following

the appropriate sequence. (With children, as experiments made by
psycholinguists have established, this sequencing is even the rule, both
in the production and the comprehension of stories.4) All the more
so if we throw into the balance the forms of "minimal narrative"Genette himthe petite histoire, so to speak, at its most petite-which
self elsewhere allows as a matter of principle.5 The more minimal the
narrative, of course, the more chronological, if for no other reason
than because its mini-sequence leaves less room (if any) for disordering. And it is equally evident that the mini-histories produced every
single day in ordinary talk outnumber the fictions in all the canons
and annals of literature put together. So whatever the margin of safety
terms of numbers, genres,
and however one considers the field-in
extent of the omission is nothing
media, activities, developments-the
short of staggering.
These facts being for the most part hardly new, if to some inconvenient, how come the narratives of real existence are all denied real
existence in narrative? Like everyone else, of course, theorists have
their specializations, their likes and dislikes and indifferences, their
4. For some discussion and references, see Clark and Clark (1977: 506-8). One
might arguably extend this rule so far as to build it into narrative competence

at large. Among other support, take the conclusion drawn in Labov (1972) from
an empirical study of adolescent and adult as well as preadolescent narrators.
Throughout their performances, he finds, "the clauses are characteristically in
temporal sequence," reflecting "a linear series of events which are organized in
the narrative in the same order as they occurred" (ibid.: 360, 378). This would be
less characteristic of literary than of the oral-spontaneous narration with which
Labov is concerned. Still, such findings are applicable to a large part of the overall
narrative corpus (system, activity), and also, less simply, generalizable about the
rest as a presumption of narrative discourse in the telling and the reading. As it
stands, of course, Labov's idea of limiting narrative by definition to orderly narrative (spelled out in Reinhart [1985]) goes to an extreme comparable, though
opposed, to Genette's.
5. "I walk, Pierre has come are for me minimal forms of narrative, and inversely the
Odysseyor the Recherche is only, in a certain way, an amplification (in the rhetorical
sense) of statements such as Ulysses comes home to Ithaca or Marcellbecomesa writer"
(Genette 1980: 30; see also 1983: 14-15). Within this single-clause / single-event
minimum, obviously, all manipulations of order are ruled out. More often, the
minimum postulated by scholars rises to two events. But their sequential mobility
some would even conremains at best limited, in fact as well as in principle-and
sider this an understatement about the minimum anld well beyond it. Thus Labov,
generalizing from his body of evidence, would introduce orderly sequence into
the definition itself: "We can define a minimal narrative as a sequence of two clauses
which are temporally ordered: that is, a change in their order will result in a change
in the temporal sequence of the original semantic interpretation" (1972: 360). For
other discussions of minimal narrative, see Prince (1973: 16-37; 1982: 1-4) and
Scholes (1974: 95-96).

Sternberg * Telling in Time


horizons of reading and reference, let alone their lapses of memory.6

But such relatively innocent, accidental reasons do not quite explain
the size and persistence of the hole. As one might predict from this recurrence, the imbalances of individual theorists have their origin and
sanction in a variety of limits (limitations, delimitations) institutionalized by narrative theory-or in the absence of a unified narrative
Unhappily, the narrative field is parcelled up among several disciplines, which tend to work in casual or even studied disregard for one
another's very subject matter as well as methods and findings. Thus
the inquiries into so-called artistic/literary, historical, and everyday
narrative all too often go each its own institutional way: a division of
labor with little interdisciplinary feedback and synthesis. So little that
(say) between a Genette's disposal of narratives articulated by chronology and a Labov's ruling out of narratives based on anachrony, the
entire field of narrative vanishes. This is doubtless an extreme case, yet
not atypical nor restricted to empirical self-isolation nor unparalleled
outside poetics and linguistics. Among the disciplines involved, again,
the modern poetics of narrative is not only the best equipped and
least shut-in but comparatively also (under the influence of semiotics,
above all) the most ambitious. It alone shows occasional aspirations to
inclusiveness of coverage, to generalizing the play between unity and
diversity, narrative and narratives (as in the introductions to Barthes
[1977] or Genette [1980] or the Poeticsitself). Even then, however, the
project is liable to obstruction or deflection from the slanted choice of
materials, within as well as without the poetic sphere. Nowhere does
the scientific drive to generality give way before traditional isolationalisn and prescriptivism as in the handling of time. Behind the special interest in anachrony, it would appear, there is something like a
vested interest: the relevant corpus gets delimited, established, indeed
canonized by fiat.
If history-telling is passed over in silence because its temporal norm
6. Including lapses with regard to their own statements about the corpus as well
as to the corpus itself. For example, in excluding chronology from the picture, historical manifestations and all, (enette forgets two of his own inclusive moves. One,
already noted, is the principled insistence on the mini-(hi)stories of everyday life
as not only a part but even the basis and model of narrative. Yet, among the features extrapolated from this minimal paradigm, sequence finds no place, except
obliquely, under the incongruous category of "tense" (1980: 30-31). The other
move shows up in the recurrent formula "real or fictitious" (e.g., ibid.: 25, 27, 87,
161, 198), likewise designed to subsume the whole of narrative under the theory
but never going much beyond a gesture. In fact, so far from gaining anything like
equal attention, let alone equal status, the "real" branch occasionally appears to
make the "fictitious" stand out by contrast (e.g., ibid.: 208, 213), and usually, as
here, just disappears.


Poetics Today 11 :4

involves "correspondence between narrative and story"-because its

discourse as well as its action adhere to the line of chronology-then
the argument falls into a vicious circularity, a victim to its own conceptual and terminological premises. The conceptual circle leaps to the
eye. Why is no temporal correspondence to be found?-Because narrative, realistic as well as epic, departs from story order. And why does
historical narrative get excluded, failing to qualify, perhaps even to
come to mind?-Because there is to be found in it such temporal correspondence. Ergo, chronology leads only a "hypothetical" existence
in the story, as reconstructed along the zigzag sequence of reading,
not a "real" existence in the discourse written and read. (Q.E.D.)7
Only thus can the empirical facts be made to lend support and respectability to a normative preconception about order-to a bias for
disorder which Genette shares with most of his predecessors and,
above all, contemporaries, not least his fellow Structuralists. Of these,
a few likewise seek, while others spurn, the cover of objectivity.8 But
partial coverage is partial coverage.
In either or both senses of the word, this partiality goes back to
the very opposition of "story" and "narrative," which is value-laden
rather than purely descriptive. Along with the opposition itself-as
I began by indicating and will later specify-such valuation constitutes neither a rarity nor a novelty. It is as old as classical dealings
with action sequences, and it resurges within a diversity of twentiethcentury movements, from Jamesianism and Impressionism to current
7. Compare the opposite exclusion of the fictional (and less explicitly, of written
and nonverbal narrative even where factual, like history writing) by (socio)linguistic
fiat. "We define narrative as one method of recapitulating past experience by
matching a verbal sequence of clauses to the sequence of events which (it is inferred) actually occurred" (Labov 1972: 359-60). Narrative is natural narrative,
natural narrative refers through language to actual events, and actual events
(re)appear in proper sequence. Of these different restrictive postulations, that concerning "actuality" is the most arbitrary because least motivated even by the empirics and logic which govern the discipline itself. Not only do we tell one another
fictions as well as lies, but they may well meet the rest of the criteria postulated:
naturalness, verbalization, sequentiality. And if they do vary from recapitulated
actualities in sequence, it would surely be important to know the extent, the manner, and the reason of the variance-as
important as it would be for students of
fiction to learn the reverse and for students of narrative to work out the overall
8. For example, as Barthes does in his open contempt for "readerly texts," predictably characterized by their insistence on "internal chronology ('this happens
beforeor after that')" and subjection to "the logico-temporal order" (1974: 16). This
despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that "they make up the enormous mass
of our literature," while the "writerly," properly reversible text would give one "a
hard time finding it in a bookstore" (ibid.: 50, 52).

Sternberg * Telling in Time


experimental writing. Throughout, breaking time counts as making

art, chronological ill-formedness (discontinuity, ambiguity) equals aesthetic well-formedness. All these movements sound dogmatic and exclusive, of course, but then they do not really pretend otherwise. None
aspires to a general theory of narrative, as often do their narratological equivalents in recent poetics and semiotics, which are accordingly
our immediate concern now. By the terms of his case, a Jamesian will
spurn everyday storytelling as beneath artistic notice (or as anything
except raw material for art, "germs" in the language of James's own
Notebooks and Prefaces). With relative impunity, he will also rule
out history-telling, if only because its factual constraints set it apart
from the art of fiction. And fictional chronologies themselves (like
narratorial commentary or omniscience) will be found wanting by his
modernist standards of presentation, sense-making, rhetoric, epistemology. Obviously, however, a narratologist can indulge in the old
luxuries of choice and prejudgment only at the cost of the new, allinclusive, interdisciplinary ambitions. This makes the recent attempts
to have it both ways, not always deliberately, so self-defeating and
so in need of acrobatics. Like much else, beginning with the idea of
"real" versus "hypothetical" sequence, the contradiction is generally
found to originate in Victor Shklovsky's theory of prose (1965: 3-57;
1966), where a refreshing breadth and pluralism coexist with a rigid
formalism in doctrine as well as in name. Thanks to the former, the
door has at last opened to noncanonical genres. Due to the latter,
we have inherited a recipe for defamiliarization of sequence: to imitate the course of events (as given in the fabula) is to lay out a dead
form, while telling out of time has the supreme merit of deforming the
fabula materials into perceptual life. Once you adopt this formula, in
whatever variant, trouble ensues-even regarding areas that it ought
to cover and by reference to the very criteria (from artfulness down
to specific effects) that it exalts. Above all, even supposing that the
stories we tell one another are lacking in craft, permanence, development, hence in value, and supposing that they lose thereby all claim to
equality and synthesis with the rest (two big if's), then what becomes of
the crafted tradition of chronology? Inescapable, the problem is also
irresolvable by any half measures: either free sequencing or forced
theorizing for and from one model of sequence.
As usual with Russian Formalist and French Structuralist narratology, Genette's "story" thus bears the same relation to "narrative" as
(mimetic) content to (poetic) form, signified to signifier, what to how.
The terms for the first pair of concepts widely-e.g., the Formalist fabula vs. sujet, Barthes's (1977: 79-124) fonctions-actions vs. narration, Ricardou's (1967) fiction vs. narration, Todorov's (1966) histoire


PoeticsToday 11 :4

vs. discours-but their antithesis persists and so does their loading or

scaling.9 For anything like artistic status, "narrative" must supposedly
break away from the lifelike "story" because art works by deviance and
disharmony. By the same token, "narrative" must allegedly far outrank "story" because art privileges the signifier, the form, the howthe set toward the message, as Jakobson (1960) defines the poetic
function, crucial but not at all restricted to literature. Hence the imperative need for dislocating story into narrative, so that the one will
be pushed underground and the other pulled to the foreground. Only
by such inversion of temporal into higher priorities (world into discourse, imitating into making-strange, transparence into self-focused
opacity) can tales generate on or through their time-axis the differentia
specificaof poeticity, literariness, art at large.
Just another manifestation of the old quarrel between "form" and
"content?" So it may look, especially in view of the terminology to
which some of the exponents themselves resort, combined with their
slogans and practice. But this is not necessarily, nor invariably, the
issue in question. One encounters the same antithesis even among
9. With the partial exception of Todorov (whose terms reappear in Chatman's
Storyand Discourse[1978] along with the attitude): he does regard histoireas an
artistic product, yet not by virtue of its chronology but of its cross-temporal features and operations. On this point he repeatedly takes issue with the Shklovsky
orthodoxy, following instead the lead of certain other Formalists.Notable among
them is Propp, who lays it down as a law of the morphology of the folktale that
"the sequence of functions is always identical" (1968 [1928])-in flat rejection of
Shklovsky's argument that "it is precisely the sequence of events that is distorted
most of all" (ibid.: 21-22). But then Propp and his heirs, due to their anchorage in
a homogeneous corpus or at least a uniform sequence of action, give precedence
anyway to the narrated fabula over the narrative sjuzet (but see ibid.: 107-13). A
shift more in practical emphasis than in theory, this still involves a definite imbalance (radicalized in a contemporary assault on Formalismby Bakhtin / Medvedev,
who would scrap the distinction altogether: "The material is artistic through and
through.... Although we can separate story from plot as the Formalists understand it, the story itself is, nevertheless, artisticallyorganized" [1985 (1928): 113]
and better left unseparated.) So a two-levelor multilevelanalystlike Todorov might
rather trace his descent further back to Aristotle, for whom value is a matter of
degree: a "whole" (or "simple" plot) fulfills the artistic minimum of causal linkage,
while a "complex" plot rises to the maximum through the chrono-logical disordering of the "whole" with a view to startling discovery and/or peripety. Finally, having
myself adopted the fabula/sjuzet pair in my work since the 1960s (e.g., 1978),
it may be well to repeat that its use there implies no endorsement of even the
moderate ranking affirmed by Aristotle, let alone the Shklovskian extreme. On the
contrary, the need to resist temporal normativism already makes part of the thesis,
though the focus is admittedly on the then more pressing (and still underexplored)
dynamics of the "crooked corridor." For clarity, however, I will try here to avoid
this doublet, except in the context of Formalism.

Sternberg * Telling in Time


theorists and critics whom nobody would otherwise blame or praise

for "formalism" in the sense of "anti-contentualism," as one might
Aristotle, Shklovsky, etc. Ian Watt'simportant study of Conrad (1981)
is a case in point, oriented by any standard to meaning, world view,
ethics, psychology, sociocultural environment. Observe how, in applying Genette's time-apparatus, Watt echoes the familiar dualism,
empirics and all, with a strong thematic-semantic (as well as overtly
evaluative) accent of his own:
In most of the shorterand simplestforms-the fairytale and the ballad,for
instance-the wordsusuallyfollowthe presumedchronologicalsequenceof
events in the story;one thing happensand then anotherand then another,
and the narrativefollowsthem in that order. But in longer and more complex fictions it is difficultto make the events of the story and the order of
their telling in the narrativecompletelycoordinate;the weightierthe story's
burden of meaning,the greaterthe tendencytowardsa disjunctionbetween
the original chronologicalorder of the fictionalevents and the order in
which they appear in the narrative.This distinctionis presumablyrelated
to the fact that though the mere forwardprogressionof the story may hold
the reader'simmediateattentionthroughsuspense, it cannot satisfythe refective mind when it comes to ask why an event occurred or what is the
moral significanceof a character. (Watt1981: 286)
Deeper and more widespread than may appear, then, the polarity
concerning sequence will not lend itself to translation into others. As
throughout my argument, the problem is not only or even mainly the
opposition of form to content but the marriage of form to function: of
dechronologizing to the poetic extreme (role, status, canon, meaning,
interest) and of chronologizing to the nonpoetic. Disordering accordingly comes to figure as an automatic marker, even a measure, of
properly narrative behavior and value.
That is why historical and history-like ordering presents such an
awkward fact to theorists of this stripe (whether or not raising their
sights to narrative in its full range and extent). Unless willing to question, if necessary to abandon, their very basis and value scheme, they
are in effect compelled to deny (or forget or at least minimize) either
the art, literariness, poeticity, narrativity, etc. of such ordering or its
existence. As chronological content, signified, inert matter crying out
for formation by way of deformation, how can it be valuable or, empirically, how can it be?
Among the leaders of French Structuralist narratology, for instance,
Genette (1980) takes the empirical line of denial, Barthes (1977) the
overtly normative. However far apart in coverage, the two procedures yet converge in (de)valuation. For Barthes does take account of
history-telling, often beyond cursory glances, only to force it into a


Poetics Today 11 :4

Procrustean bed of signification that leaves no room for mimetic adherence to time, or for hard reference in general. He will even half
admit that such wrenching finds its motivation in the premises of the
approach (norms, methods, interests) rather than in the specifics of
the discourse on which they are brought to bear. "Analysis today," we
hear in his best-known programmatic essay, "tends to 'dechronologize'
the narrative continuum and to 'relogicize' it" (1977: 99). Not surprisingly, like every narrative continuum, historical narrative comes either
to manifest the twin operations of "relogicizing" and "dechronologizing" or to suffer the consequences. In Barthes's hands, it actually
undergoes now one fate, now the other.
If recalcitrant, that is, historical ordering supposedly dooms itself
to an inferior status, outside the pale of "logic." According to the programmatic essay just mentioned, "Aristotle himself, in his contrast between tragedy (defined by the unity of action) and historical narrative
(defined by the plurality of actions and the unity of time), was already
giving primacy to the logical over the chronological. As do all contemporary researchers (Levi-Strauss, Greimas, Bremond, Todorov), all of
whom . . . could subscribe to Levi-Strauss's proposition that 'the order
of chronological succession is absorbed in an atemporal matrix structure'" (ibid.: 98). But this generalization fails both in theory and in
fact. In theory, because it divorces "logical" from "chronological" patterning. Surely, the logic of causality does not oppose (break, override,
replace) but presupposes and tightens the line of chronology. Within
or without history, how a movement from cause (as chronological antecedent) to effect (as consequent) is "atemporal" passes one's understanding. If anything, time then only grows more directional, more
salient, more unabsorbable by any other matrix. To Barthes's rhetorical question, "Is there an atemporal logic lying behind the temporality
of narrative?," the short answer is therefore, no-or at least, not insofar as the underlying alternative (and superior) to time relates to causal
So much for the principle involved, whether in the
context of fiction, historiography, or natural storytelling (which typically disappears here from view after the introductory fanfare about
the diversity of narrative, and no wonder, considering its resistance to
being absorbed and so redeemed "in an atemporal matrix structure").
Regarding historiography proper, moreover, the statement proves empirically untenable in reducing "historical narrative" to the form of
episodic chronicle that Aristotle had in mind. As Barthes knows perfectly well, historians have since given "primacy to the logical over
the chronological" no less than fiction-makers, or more precisely, have
been concerned to fill out and weld the chronological series of events
into chrono-logical, hence meaningful, plot. By this standard, granting for the sake of argument the inferiority of chronicle, all plots

Sternberg * Telling in Time


would enjoy the full artistic honors of "logic" even amidst chroniclelike temporality.10
Elsewhere, perhaps because Barthes does know better," his treatment of this corpus switches emphasis (from "relogicizing" to "dechronologizing"), along with tactics (from missing one feature to discovering another), and accordingly value judgment (from minus to plus).
His essay on "Historical Discourse" (1970) thus celebrates the "friction
between two time-scales-history's and the history book's," predictably
featuring the historian's urge "to desimplify the chronological Time of
History by contrasting it with the different time-scale of the discourse
itself (document-time as we may for brevity call it); to 'dechronologize' the historical thread and restore, if only by way of reminiscence
or nostalgia, a time at once complex, parametric, and nonlinear, resembling in the richness of its dimensionality the mythical time of
ancient cosmogonies, inseparable from the word of the poet or seer"
(ibid.: 148). Examples would be the harking back to the antecedents
of a new character, or prefatory glances forward by way of announcing the work (ibid.: 147); or for that matter (to liven up the rather
tame, almost anticlimactic illustration offered in the argument here),
the new, "deep" perspective given by Butor's Mobileon American history through "mixing ex abruptoIndian narratives, an 1890 guidebook,
10. In fact, the chronicle itself (or the likewise plotless annal) is not an inferior
but just a different mode of organizing reality: for some attempts to trace the difference see White (1980), Danto (1985: 149-82), and, diachronically, Butterfield
(1981). But most recent students of historiography,not least the literary-minded
ones, still view this intrageneric divergence in the normative terms institutionalized
since Aristotle-just
as they diminish the role of chronology within the plotted
history. Whatever else may separate them, for example, Ricoeur follows Barthes,
and allegedly Aristotle, in opposing the logical to the chronological and insisting
on "an achronological notion of narrative temporality" (1984: 38ff., 239, n. 20),
with predictable consequences for chronicle, the dynamics of chrono-logism, and
the dividing line between history and fiction.
11. For example, "For Voltaire, there is no history in the modern sense of the
word, nothing but chronologies" (Barthes 1972: 86). In discussing Michelet's La
Sorciere as a work of novelistic history, Barthes even inverts the hierarchy of time
vs. logic and attaches both to the sequence of events. "Causality is precisely what
his narrative permits him to omit, since in fiction the temporal link is always substituted for the logical link," and it is just this "primacy of the event over its material
cause . . . which it is the narrative's function to display" (ibid.: 111). Here, causality figures as temporality plus logic, temporality (and value) as narrative minus
logic. Nor is this the end of the story. By another change of mind, S/Z (1974) repeatedly criticizes the "readerly" or "classic" text for following "a logico-temporal
order" at the cost of reversibility. Accordingly, time and logic retain their attachment to action sequences-with
the difference that they have now lost their value,
together ("logico-temporal") or apart, and the substitution of the one for the other
no longer characterizes, far less recommends, fiction. By implication, however,
historiography (like readerly fictions) still follows a logico-temporal order.


Poetics Today 1 1:4

and today's automobiles" (Barthes 1972: 178-79). In principle, however, these instances of "zigzag progress" or "dechronologizing" count
for little since they are forced, optional, and idiosyncratic, respectively.
Barthes makes much ado about variables and accidentals at the expense of the essentials of historiography, so as to assimilate factual to
fictional discourse, rule-governed ordering to licensed disordering.12
Again, the tendentiousness leaps to the eye, particularly because the
would-be assimilator needs no telling where the generic difference in
arrangement resides. "Is La Sorcierea work of history? Yes, since its
movement is diachronic, since it follows the thread of time from the
death of paganism to the dawn of the Revolution" (ibid.: 103).
This goes to show how, under normative pressure, extremes meet.
The attempt to cut off historical from fictional narrative in terms
of logic meets their yoking together in terms of anachrony. So do
Genette's oblivion and Barthes's manipulation of the historical genre,
and on the same ground: the refusal to admit chronology, with or
without causality, as a viable arrangement. For all the aspirations
to scientific or semiotic descriptiveness-comprehensiveness,
evenhandedness, pluralism-the old stock response to form assumes at
most a novel guise. Going straight is going wrong; a mirror to the
way of the world (or, worse, to history, or, worst of all, to personal
experience) entails a bare, transparent discourse. Given such common
ground, the only question is whether to disregard the offender, spell
out his offense, or plead for him by appeal to redeeming (S/Z would
call them "writerly") features, however occasional, like discontinuity
and arbitrariness in narration.
In semiotic terms, this is tantamount to excluding the icon from
the category of signs, or at best relegating it a priori to the bottom of
the signification hierarchy, on the grounds that its signifier (e.g., the
portrait, the ideogram, the onomatopoeic sound) mirrors its signified
(e.g., the portraitee). The comparison is far from random because, in
certain quarters, the icon has actually suffered invidious distinction
(just as in others it has gained honorific status) on various grounds:
for example, that the relation of similarity which defines it is problematic, or that iconicity mixes with other relations and needs to be
decomposed. (Eco [1976: 191-217] offers a critical, indeed hypercritical, survey of approaches to the icon in semiotics; on its fortunes in
literary and art criticism, see Mitchell [1986]). The fact remains that
12. For an opposite but nonreductive approach-from or through history to
novel-see Kermode (1977). Contrast also Prince's view that narrativity depends
on the categorical presentation of events, whereby "their occurrence is given as a
fact (in a certain world) rather than a possibility or probability. The hallmark of
narrative is assurance. It lives in certainty: this happened then that" (1982: 149).

Sternberg * Telling in Time


even such misgivings do not, and certainly need not, carry over from
the icon as individual sign in the lexicon or as spatial sign-group to the
icon of time as a sequential combination, a narrative syntax. Thus, the
likeness between the orders of happening and telling makes a simple
and single relation, one so well defined that it would be a pity to blur
it through figurative and indiscriminate stretching to sequences other
than chronological. Further, as indicated by the wide currency of the
notion, most experts nowadays see no reason for demoting or banishing the icon in the first place. That hardly any semiotics-minded
narratologist, least of all a Genette or a Barthes (e.g., 1968), would
dream of such a thing-which is still short of denying that icons existthrows into relief its occurrence in regard to chronology. The icon is
as much a sign, as much dual, as much versatile, as much governed by
convention and effective in communication, as the arbitrary symbol;
it just rests and works on a different logic within the overall system.
But then isn't that precisely the case (only more so) with the iconic
syntax of chronological telling? Though I have never found the question voiced, it surely imposes itself regardless of whether one actually
makes the comparison.
At this awkward juncture, Genette's terminology plays into his
hands, as it were, insidiously abetting the denial and oblivion of the
facts. The argument's circularity-cum-bias is both deepened and veiled
by an unfortunate ambiguity in the French term histoire: between
"history" (as a finished product, a genre of narrative discourse) and
"story" (as a reconstructed chronology, the Formalist fabula), hence
between "real"and "hypothetical" sequences of events.13By its (con)fusion of modes of existence, the terminology itself comes to invite, and
apparently legitimate, a policy of wholesale exclusion. Quite literally,
the narratives of real existence are denied "real" existence in narrative because they are denied even nominal existence as "narrative."
How can history (histoire) count as narrative, even in name, where
the approach presupposes and privileges an opposition of story (histoire) to narrative (recit)? How can the signified "story" double as a
signifying (let alone significant) history? For that matter, how can the
13. As if this montage were not enough, Structuralistshave also adopted and often

misapplied the histoireldiscours opposition in Benveniste (1971: 205-15),

which re-

lates to the axis of objectivity vs. subjectivity. The results have been set forth in
Culler (1975: 197-200) and Bordwell (1985: 21-26). I would only add that once
Benveniste's axis is yoked together (or, worse, identified) with the Formalists' as
well as with common usage, histoiretakes on no fewer than three references or
modes of existence: as a genre of factual discourse, as a chronology behind nairra-

tive discourse, factual or fictional, and as a plane of narration divorced from the
context of its utterance. The French term, of course, also denotes what its English
equivalent, "history," no longer does: a story of any kind.


Poetics Today 1 1 :4

histoire (petite and otherwise) of everyday life gain admittance, or the

imaginative mimesis of history in due sequence?
Whether cause or effect or (probably) both, the slippage in reference is another revealing measure of the preconception and the price
built into the approach anyway. Regardless of nomenclature, what this
entire tradition will not (indeed, given its premises, cannot) recognize
is that history or history-like telling also involves a choice to narrate
in a certain manner: to bring the narrative and the narrated order of
events into correspondence. Provided that the choice might have gone
the other way, and it always might, the two orders remain in principle as distinct (textual vs. reconstructed, or if you will, signifier vs.
signified, form vs. content, how vs. what) in "iconic" harmony as in
"arbitrary" disharmony. Within the system of ordering and discourse
as a whole, each might-have-been plays ground to the actual figure
disorderly to the orderly as well as vice versa-and
one cannot even know in advance which interplay will turn out the
more effective, perceptible, aesthetic, and the like. About this larger
claim, more soon. At present, it is enough to see that the two temporal
forms are equally dual, equally available, equally relational, equally
referable to temporal norms of (dis)arrangement by or against which
they operate in context.
Failing this principled awareness, one is liable not just to miss the
viability and variety of chronological narration but even to mistake its
duality for unity. The "real" chronology then gets reduced or assimilated to the "hypothetical," the signifying discourse to the signified
events, the form to the content. Telling in time is all "story," as it
were, to the exclusion of "narrative." No wonder that the same assumptions breed the same reductions in related issues. For Genette,
among others, even ("isochronous") pacing thus marks the "hypothetical" zero-point of duration; or, outside time altogether, direct quoting
allegedly "copies" the original utterance so that, again, "one cannot
speak here of narrative" (Genette 1980: 86-88, 169).14Of these rulings out of narrative, take the two most assorted-looking, the first and
the last. They find their common denominator in a bias that offends
against the plurality and very make-up of signs: all icons in discoursewhether in arrangement or in citation-would then not so much reflect as replace, not stand but substitute for, the object in the world.
The signifier (the order of telling, the quotation) must either formally
diverge from the signified (the order of happening, the original utter14. The latter equation of image and object has in effect been since withdrawn
by Genette (1983: 39), who assents to my argument (Sternberg 1982a) against
the copy theory of direct discourse-but
apparently without drawing the same
conclusions about the rest of the "copies" and copy-making in general.

Sternberg * Telling in Time


ance) or merge into the signified to the vanishing point. Either arbitrary signification or no sign but zero-sign.
The twofold reference of histoire, then, pinpoints a conceptual
blind spot, whose implications for narrative theory not only reach beyond time but also range from empirics to logic, methodology, even
ideology. To the latter trio we shall have occasion to return. Having
glanced at their common source or juncture, let us now proceed with
the facts of chronology that have been ruled out of existence as well
as of significance. Once the varieties of history-telling enter, anything like Genette's empirical claim (less far-fetched versions included)
breaks down under the weight of the evidence-and
with it, at the
very least, the basis for a comprehensive theory of narrative ordering.
I say, at the very least, because the rule of noncorrespondence
ordering does not even govern artistic, as distinct from historical, narrative. The distinction itself is fuzzy, growing more and more so with
every new insight we gain into the little-known arts of history-telling.15
By any standard, the historical genre boasts some of the masterworks
of narrative: the Bible, Herodotus's Histories, Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War, Tacitus's Annals and Histories, Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla, Froissart's Chronicles, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire come readily to mind. Hardly anyone will rank them below
yesterday's novel, and, on closer inspection at least, not so much despite as owing to their mimesis of sequence. However inclined or conditioned to the contrary, the attentive reader will often discover that
their very artistry benefits rather than suffers from the adherence to
the arrow of time. Beyond mere taste and intuition, moreover, the history of historiography anchors such discoveries in a bedrock of fact,
including a dynamics of form. It takes vision and craft to make largescale icons of time or, once made, to redesign and reanimate their
15. Better known now, though, to students of historiography than to those of literature. This is not the place to go into that body of work, except to say that it
has undergone notable developments in recent years and that a closer interworking with the poetics of fiction would benefit either inquiry. For some approaches
to historiography, see Gallie (1964); Scholes and Kellogg (1966);
Braudy (1970);
Mink (1970); Hexter (1971); Momigliano (1977); White (1978, 1980); Butterfield
(1981); Ricoeur (1984); Sternberg (1985); see also the bibliography in Canary and
Kozici (1978). The same holds true for the study of so-called natural or every-

day narrative by linguists, sociologists, psychologists, cognitivists, most of them

working in complete isolation from literary material and methodology. Typically
enough, to repeat, Labov (1972) excludes by definition (not just, like the standard
work on historiography, by training) the whole realm of the fictional, as his
opposite numbers in poetics do that of the factual: this symmetry of exclusion,
over to the sequences and the media posited, reflects in miniature the
state of the art.


Poetics Today 11 :4

This manifests itself as early as the originators of historiography

proper, the Bible and Thucydides. Their very alignment of events into
grand chronological-causal design marks a revolution in plot structure, world view, realism, rhetoric, all at once. Among other strategic
departures, the Bible opposes its purposive and irreversible course
under God to the cyclical ("Myth of Eternal Return") temporality of
Oriental narrative, while Thucydides explicitly rejects Homer's poetic
license and opens ab ovo with the causes of his war. In either cultural
framework-and in diametric contrast to the Formalist/Structuralist
key premise-the sense and art of distortion themselves arise from
straightening out the form of time. The apparently harmonious formation reverses or transforms into perceptible deformation because it
works against some conventional norm of ordering, whether cyclical
return in the way of the world or in medias res as a topos of epic discourse. Each reversal thus brings out the exercise and the range of
choice behind what looks like simple mimesis by way of recording, the
distance that in principle always separates the option for chronology
(as well as anachrony) from the automatic, the familiar, the line of
least resistance.
Nor have the genre dynamics launched by its originators ever come
to a stop. Long institutionalized in turn, and never quite rivalled, these
pioneering novelties of the ancients have yet been adapted, reshaped,
even challenged by numerous models and variants of truth-telling
since, with fiction either a contrastive background or a fellow traveller.
The more changes introduced over the ages-often accompanied by
vocal historiosophic polemics about appropriate form-the wider the
range of choices available to each historical (or history-like) narrative. And as change and choice ramify, so of course does the multiformity in the apparent uniformity of telling in time. Like all other
representation, iconic plots of history are made and remade by art
(culture, invention, convention) for a purpose, not found, much less
given ready-made, in nature. Even Aristotle, though both a doctrinal
mimeticist and no friend to history-writing, shares neither the copy
theory of mimesis, nor the dismissal of temporal mimesis as artless,
nor the equation of artistic form with fictive material. What he objects
to is the weak or absent causality of the chronicle, rather than the
events and the sequence of history as such, which enable and demand
causal shaping at the artist's hands.
The poet or "maker" should be the maker of plots rather than of verses;
since he is a poet because he imitates, and what he imitates are actions. And
even if he chances to take an historical subject, he is none the less a poet;
for there is no reason why some events that have actually happened should
not conform to the law of the probable and possible, and in virtue of that
quality in them he is their poet or maker. (Aristotle, Poetics: 145 la, 27-34)

Sternberg * Telling in Time


Imitating is plot-making, not copy-taking; and even finding counts as

such making because one finds in history only what one seeks for artistic imitation. Or, as the variation on Aristotle in Gombrich (1969) has
it, making always comes before matching.16 Therefore, except for the
norm of early-to-late movement, itself exhibiting protean implementation under the cover or common denominator of iconism, everything
in historiography remains as open to arrangement as in imaginative
(pace Aristotle or Barthes [1977]) the option between loose chronicle and fast chain.
Further, the room left for making is still larger than may appear,
because the historical teller works not only along chronology, as he
must by rule, but also below its surface. There he is free to compose
and interpret the march of time through other (including otherwise
sequential) patterns or to manipulate artless-looking exigencies and
fractures (including what Genette would consign to "heterodiegesis,"
among other "minor articulations" out of story-time) in the best novelistic manner. Actually, the process began and the precedents were
set long before the rise of the novel. One should bear this in mind
because the novel is associated with fiction and fiction (much less justifiably) with the glory of artistic disordering, associations that have
produced in literary circles a sense of superiority to factual narrative and, correspondingly, a need for apologetics or emulation among
literary-minded studies of historiography, though rarely among practicing historians. Without any sense of inferiority, let alone crisis, the
practitioners have always gone about their proper business: to realize
and explore and stretch the distinctive possibilities of their craft, the
latitudes amid constraint.
Even in the age of Fielding, with his Aristotelian "complex" plots,
Gibbon evolved his own art of nontemporal and supratemporal sequence: antithetical, parenthetical, hierarchical, climactic, and de16. In terms of ideology, again, the creative force of all making as pattern-making
and sense-making resurfaces in the critique of Russian Formalism by Bakhtin /
Medvedev: "Life, the aggregate of defined actions, events, or experiences, only
becomes plot [siuzhet],story [abula], theme, or motif once it has been refracted
through the prism of the ideological environment, only once it has taken on concrete ideological flesh. Reality that is unrefracted and, as it were, raw is not able
to enter into the content of literature" (1985 [1928]: 17)-or, for that matter, of
historiography. In fact, when it comes to the question of chrono-logical ordering
as making, the negative attitude to history and history-like telling rests on two
opposite grounds: that, artistically,the tale is ill made or not made at all (because
a simple mirror or replica of given continuities), and that, ideologically, it is too
well made (because too orderly to be real, realistic,or anything but made-up). This
belongs to a later part of my story; yet need I point out how extremes meet again,
only to highlight afresh the curious drives behind the theorizing about time in
narrative, time and narrative?


Poetics Today 1 1 :4

scending ("falling"), all joined rather than opposed to the official order
because they promote the thematic sense of what happened or happens in time. Millennia before, however, we find Thucydides crosscutting, in the guise of simultaneity, between different events of the
same winter or summer to counterpoint, say, Athens with Sparta; or
modelling their struggle (as Cornford [1971 (1907)] has brilliantly
shown) on Aeschylean tragedy. Again, consider Herodotus's digressions, as strategic as Homer's, whether in their leisureliness and timing
amidst conflict, their intercultural lights, or simply the pleasure they
take and give in the wide world. Not least impressive is the Bible's
management and orchestration of its grand chronology from Genesis to Kings, which I shall trace in a sequel as a generic paradigm, a
canon-length icon of time from Creation to Exile, devised by a poetics
anything but transparent within a culture otherwise hostile to images.
However diverse, such master narratives all exemplify the rule of
history-telling, even at its more conventional and businesslike. And
because of their diversity, they also suggest the range of variation behind or below the rule. To the extent that art thrives on difficulty or
that ars est celare artem, one might even raise the question of whether
these interplays of unity and variety-constraint and freedom, textual and subtextual design-are not potentially subtler, more artistic,
than the open ruptures of anachrony. But it is certain that they have
their own manner as well as matter of composition, which would repay
study apart from all judgment and labelling. That study has nowadays become more urgent than ever, due to the intersection of the
old antichronologism of narrative theory, pushed to the limit, and the
new loss of confidence in historiography, with a predictable shift of
interest from historical truth to poetic issues, such as narrativity, inventiveness, figuration, rhetoric. A recent article thus bears the title
"The Challenge of Poetics to (Normal) Historical Practice" (Berkhofer
1988), not without reason, yet in an overtrusting spirit, as though
"Poetics" had all the answers or even all the questions relevant to the
structure of historiography. On the whole, the questions and answers
it has best developed so far are fruitfully applicable to the cinema, for
instance, but least suited to the historical genre-along with historylike mimesis-and themselves require adjustment in its light. To look
to them for guidance by way of application, here of all places and now
of all times, is to ask the one-eyed to lead the way on his blind side.
Rather, the challenge also needs to go in the opposite direction, so as
to establish a two-way traffic between the fields. And regarding the
crux of arrangement, the few examples just cited will suggest, I hope,
the gains that this traffic promises. Far from an obstacle to properly
artistic narration, as "poetics" would have (hi)story-tellers believe, such
chronologies, with their hidden workings, can teach poetics a good

Sternberg * Telling in Time


deal about the scope and repertoire of ordering available to narrative

art at large.
As with narrative art, so with literary art itself (if you want to make
the distinction) and not only because the devices just instanced have
equivalents in literature or a claim to literariness. The point rather
lies in a wider set of facts, synchronic and diachronic, about the system of discourse as a whole. Given the variety of features defined
or valued as literary, including their ups and downs over the ages,
it becomes as gratuitous to contrast literature with historiography
as to equate it with fiction. Such dichotomies and/or equations have
often been proclaimed, especially over the last centuries. "Real incidents, not fictionalized by an author, may make a story [fabula]. A
plot [sujet] is wholly an artistic creation": thus the Russian Formalist Boris Tomashevsky (1965 [1925]: 68) doctrinally privileges free
invention ("fictionalized" vs. "real")along with freely disordered combination ("sujet" vs. "fabula"). Nor is he the first or the last to draw
this charged double line. So, needless to repeat, do his Structuralist
followers, possibly with a difference in emphasis, whereby the literariness of narrative gets explicitly attributed to its distortion of materials
whose imaginativeness is more or less taken for granted. What else
lends itself to such free play? (This is also why Genette's inclusivesounding phrase "real or fictitious" recurs to so little practical effect.)
Reversing the emphasis or the criterial feature, others settle for fictionality alone, which looms large in modern definitions of literature. This
has its mirror-image in the attempts to infiltrate fictionality into factual discourse itself, divesting historiography of its generic truth claim
so as to invest it with literary or quasi-literary dignity. I have already
mentioned Roland Barthes's double-pronged attack on the boundary
line separating the genres: he would both impose "friction between
two time-scales-history's and the history book's" and convert historical reference into artful reality effect. What with its hyperbolism and
inconsistency, this exercise in assimilation might appear to be another
Barthesian jeu d'esprit, except that its fictionalizing drive reappears
among some of the most professional analysts of history-telling. To
Hayden White, for example, historical narratives are "verbal fictions
the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of
which have more in commonwith their counterpartsin literature than they
have with thosein the sciences"(1978: 82). All such arguments, I believe,
incur at least one category mistake between history and fiction (for reasons discussed in Sternberg [1985: 23-83, 99-128]); but my present
business is the still deeper assumptions-about literature, value, rankthey share with the opposite side, as
ing, compartmentalizing-that
represented by Tomashevsky. Extremes meet once again. Whether invoked against or for historiography, whether joined to or disjoined


Poetics Today 11 :4

from the manipulation of sequence, fictionality takes on throughout

the privileged status of literariness.
As always, however, the privileging reveals more about the terms
and limits of the critical discourse in question than about the flexible
realities of discourse itself at work. After all, what is there to condition
the literary on the presence or absence of a truth claim? There is nothing to enjoin such absolute conditioning, I suggest, except art-for-art'ssake aesthetics, fiction-centered canons and narratology, antihistoricist
ideologies and methodologies. Certainly not what really happened in
culture, much less what happens across cultures. Literature and historiography are here not mutually exclusive but intersecting categories,
which share, change, and exchange populations within the overall system of discourse. Recall that Hesiod's Muses "delight / With song the
mighty mind of father Zeus / Within Olympus, telling of things that
are, that will be, and that were" (1976: 24), all matters of fact, past,
present, and to come, as would befit the daughters of Memory (Mnemosyne). When the Muses later assume individual roles, the goddess
of history, Clio, still figures in their midst, side by side with epic's Calliope. But then Homer's very epics, considered by Genette (and who
not?) the beginning of "our (Western) literary tradition," were actually
revered by the Greeks as inspired history, just like the Bible among
the ancient Hebrews; while Gibbon's Decline and Fall or Boswell's Life
of Johnson has come to occupy a place of honor in English literature
(without relinquishing its historical titles and affiliation), side by side
with Fielding's contemporaneous TomJones (typically entitled, in full,
The History of TomJones, A Foundling).17And whatever the reasons for
such dynamic, shifting, or joint membership, they cannot attach to the
handling of chronology. On the contrary, the fact that each of these
pairs, the ancient and the Neoclassical, consists of one orderly and
one notoriously disorderly member goes to show how literariness cuts
across all forms of temporality.
Indeed, speaking of origins, we might trace back either of the temporal formations to an ancestor and paradigm in remote antiquity:
the orderly to the Bible's grand chronology-and to the Greek cofathers of history-the disorderly to Homer's epics. Alternatively, we
might even use Genette's change of mind about the Iliad (see note 3,
above, and Delasanta [1967: 45-46]) to locate their roots in the di17. The point emerges even more dramatically in a cross-cultural perspective.
One striking example, discussed in Plaks (1977), would be the Chinese tradition of
narrative, where "it is rather fiction which becomes the subset and historiography
the central model of narration. In effect one might say that historiography replaces
epic among the Chinese narrative genres" (ibid.: 342). No wonder, therefore, that
the Chinese narrative system tends to present "a mimesis of temporal flux," with
rich manipulations of speed rather than order (ibid.: 355-56).

Sternberg * Telling in Time


vergence within Homeric epic itself. For the Iliad would then have
inaugurated the chronological line of arrangement in "our (Western)
Either way, oriliterary tradition," the Odyssey the nonchronological.
gins and later fortunes would combine with the results before us, as
they have steadily accumulated from antiquity to modernity, to establish the empirical conclusion: that literature (or literariness) no more
inheres in twisted than in straight deployment. Like all attempts of
this kind to fix the unfixable, within or without narrative, the erection
of disordering into a formal marker (locus, constant, guarantor) of
poetic discourse is doomed to failure.
What is more, this still holds true if, for the sake of argument, we
restrict the corpus to (literary) fiction alone. Strangely, when looking
round for narrative that "conforms, at least in its major articulations,
to chronological order," Genette comes up with a single, hence "exceptional" branch of fiction-folklore-and
apparently forgets the rest.18
A wonderful act of amnesia, this, because the rest so abounds all round
written as well as oral discourse, in canonical and popular art,
in literary and dramatic and cinematic narrative-so
much so that it
is hard to say offhand which of the two fictional groups, the "conformist" or the "nonconformist," outnumbers the other. Whatever the
ratio, it would surely be unthinkable to disqualify either group wholesale (or otherwise downgrade it, if only to the status of exception vs.
rule or zero-point vs. significance) by the mechanical application of a
18. But then even his one-item list (an exception probably noted in deference to
Propp's law of sequence [see n. 9]) would be and has been regarded by some as
conceding too much to chronology. Those include doctrinal antagonists as well as
allies and followers. Thus, in direct response, Barbara Herrnstein Smith: "It can
be demonstrated not only that absolute chronological order is as rare in folkloric
narratives as it is in any literary tradition but that it is virtually impossible for any
narrator to sustain it in an utterance of more than minimal length. In other words,
by virtue of the very nature of discourse, nonlirnearity is the rule rather than the
exception in narrative accounts" (1980: 227). Actually, she omits to demonstrate
either the specific "rarity" or the sweeping "virtual impossibility," but the grounds
for both claims would presumably corresponid to those adduced by the hard-liniers
on the opposite side, i.e., the exigency of multiple threads and related "minor
articulations" that Genette firmly discounts for good theoretical measure (see n. 3).
So once again extremes meet in the denial of chronology. Like much else in her
counterargument, however, Smith's objection to the underlying value judgment,
and to the entelechy it would impose on narrative history, has a point. "'There
is reason," she says, "to question the propriety of that contrast between folktale
and literary tradition, especially the implication of a literary-historical progression from some presumably prehistoric naive narrative synchrony to a subsequent
more sophisticated narrative anachrony" (ibid.). The point holds, though, for a
"reason" contrary to the empirical and general premises just cited: not that folktale is so anachronous, but that so much of the literary canon isn't-all part of the
tribulations of telling in time.


Poetics Today 1:4

Just by way of a reminder of what such polarizing would involve:

Are we to opt for Xenophon's Ephesian Tale, straightforward in its
main articulations, or for Longus's Daphnis and Chloe, another Greek
romance but with discovery scenes? For Boccaccio's Decameronor for
Spenser's Faerie Queene? For medieval and Elizabethan or for Greek
and Neoclassical tragedy? The Pilgrim's Progressor The Princess of Cleves? Defoe or Fielding? Gulliver'sTravelsorJacquestheFatalist?Trollope
or Dickens? Warand Peace or TheBrothersKaramazov?WashingtonSquare
or Daisy Miller? Alice in Wonderlandor The Black Arrow? The adventure/picaresque story or the detective novel? The Rainbow or Ulysses?
And within Ulysses,the clocking of external events or the scrambling
of internals? Evidently, the choice lies not between such fictions but
between the polarizing-privileging approach and the facts whose richness it leaves unrecognized, uncoordinated, unexplained.
2.2 From Poles to Parameters and Processes of Sequence: An InterimOutline

Taken together, then, all these empirical holes and imbalances have
far-reaching theoretical consequences for any account that perpetrates
them, whether through oversight or doctrinal exclusion. (Both being
acts of belittling in a sense, it is not always easy to tell the missing
from the dismissing of facts. And the same applies, symmetrically, to
the extreme pro-chronologism outside poetics: Labov's or the history
manual's.) The most immediate consequence is a drastic shrinkage in
scope: from a theory of ordering in narrative-or even artistic or literary or fictional narrative-into a partial classification of disorderings
("anachronies"); and partial, as is already beginning to emerge, for
more than one reason and in more than coverage.
Given the one-sidedness of the picture, synchronic as well as diachronic, generic and strategic as well as quantitative, what is left out
must distort the perspective on what remains. Even anachronies hardly
lend themselves to adequate treatment and placement in isolation,
still less so when mistaken for the standard norm, in disregard of the
alternative-or rather the set of alternatives along various dimensions.
For future reference and development, let me quickly outline the Big
Five: (1) chronology; (2) simultaneity; (3) nontemporal sequentiality;
(4) functional sequentiality; (5) suprasequentiality ("spatiality").
Telling in chronological time, needless to say, heads these alternatives, and itself reveals, or conceals, much diversity and latitude under
its apparently uniform "iconic" syntax. Even its better-known flexibilities have not received full theoretical credit or notice, largely because
they have been divorced from the operations of sequence (by which I
mean narrative sequence in general, if not all sequence, including the
anachronous as well as the rest of the logics mentioned above). But
chronology's popular image, having suffered most from the divorce

Sternberg * Telling in Time


for its ostensible lack of resources, it would only be just to discuss the
crosscutting factors involved with special emphasis on its workings.
Take the variations in the linkage of events between the chronological and the chronological-causal (chronicle vs. historiography, picaresque vs. "well-made" novel, parataxis vs. hypotaxis), or in their specificity (among scene, summary, silence). Both inherited as such from
the Greeks, Aristotle and Plato, respectively, neither distinction has yet
been sufficiently appreciated as a resource for linear dynamics, in and
out of chronology. Each, that is, needs to be carried over or projected
to the axis of narrative communication as well, along which the telling
and reading proceeds-not least where the discourse seems artless.
For example, what becomes, in the reading, of the official minimum
linkage given in the text? It makes quite a difference to sequential processing and effect whether the paratactic line of events told (a, then b)
remains a loose series after being interpreted, as in chronicle, or requires tightening and plotting into a "hypotactic" chain (a, therefore b)
for intelligibility, as do chronicle-like surfaces from the Bible to Hemingway. Again, the very extent of the time-span covered by a narrative
will have repercussions of all kinds on the sequence of its coverage:
the greater the represented length, the heavier the exigencies of establishing, molding, and sustaining the long temporal perspective. This
is where one might expect the composition of the short story to vary
from the novel's; the lyric's or the ballad's from the long poem's; the
minimal from the elaborated narrative; a (real or imaginary) biography from a family saga; an account of a battle, a reign, a conspiracy,
an uprising from a universal-national history like the Bible's or from a
survey of those immense slow-motion processes that the contemporary
Annales school of historians (e.g., Braudel 1980: 25-54) calls la longue
duree. (As early as the Poetics, chapter 5, we find a generic distinction
between tragedy, which keeps within "a single circuit of the sun," and
epic, whose action has "no fixed limit of time.")Just as the represented
length by itself makes a difference to the workings of communication
in time, so does the representational length. It is enough to think how
the problematics of connectivity and memory escalate with the shift
from a life by Plutarch or an obituary notice to a book-size version
of the same events in the same order. All the more so, clearly, with
the proportions betweenrepresented and representational time. A succession of scenes makes one reading experience, in anything from
tempo to focus-building, and alternation between scene and summary
another: selection itself doubles as a combinatory force, duration and
its proportioning always affect the sense of direction.
But then the features that still need to be recognized or integrated
as parameters of sequence, even at its most orderly, include some that
are combinatory or directional in the first place. For example, con-


Poetics Today 11 :4

sider the implications of the question with which Odysseus, urged by

the Phaeacian king to recount his adventures, prefaces his narrative
odyssey: "Where shall I begin, where end, my tale?" His posing of
the question implies a dual choice at least (in or out of event-order?),
which underlines his opting for the former with respect to both narrative limits. The choice in favor of telling in time reveals itself as no
less than double because it applies to "Where shall I begin?" and, independently, to "where end?" Neither choice entails the other. Even
if the teller plunges into the heart of his matter, he may still finish
either with the chronological terminus or resolution (as most do, e.g.,
Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice,Gully Jimson in The Horse'sMouth),
or with a retrospect on some earlier point, antedating that terminus,
as when The Good Soldier doubles back for the last time to uncover
the horror of Ashburnham's suicide. Conversely, where the narrator
begins with the chronological beginning, he is yet free to end nonchronologically. (Lazarillo winds up by opening a gap about his wife's
relations with the priest, and Gulliver by looking back on his travels.)
Two variables, in short, make four possible combinations. So Odysseus's decision against opening and closing in medias res becomes
doubly, indeed multiply, significant: his is the one pattern of the lot
that accords with time at either extreme.
In the process, however, Odysseus has made yet another, third
choice, regarding the middle. For he not only starts and finishes
chronologically but also proceeds so in between the limits, and in a
fairly continuous manner too. Contrast the twists encountered in David
Copperfielden route from "To begin my life with the beginning of my
life" (chapter 1) to "now my written story ends" (chapter 64); or the
jumps from one highspot to the next along Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, stretching between the infantile "once upon a time" and the adult
"now and ever."
Beginning, middle, and end, then, form a set of independent
components of temporality, with numerous permutations in theory
and practice. These range from the all-chronological, like Odysseus's
ordering, through the variously mixed (whether in Austen's fashion
or Lazarillo's or Copperfield's) to the threefold anti-chronological,
compounded in TristramShandy or The Good Soldier. Chronology in
discourse, and symmetrically anachrony, is therefore never one and
indivisible but always a multiphase line: its extension relative to eventorder involves multiple choice at every single point and forms a matter
of more or less (as opposed to all or nothing) even in strategic terms.
Further, as if to highlight the availability and the thrust of Odysseus's choice, it runs counter to Homer's own plunge in medias res.
The epic goes one way, the individual block another way. With a reversal of terms, this also happens in the Bible, where it is the internally

Sternberg * Telling in Time


disordered episodes that pull against the grand chronology from Creation to Exile, or in the tension between the workings of mind and
clock throughout Bloomsday. In either case, whole and part stand
diametrically opposed in mutual questioning, foregrounding, illumination. This makes quite a difference from their marching hand in
hand, whether clockwise or counterclockwise. Hence chronology, and
correspondingly, anachrony vary afresh with the relations between
macrosequence and microsequence, down to the level of the sentence
and the phrase.
Nor does the problem of ordering, either Odysseus's or Homer's
behind him, resolve itself with the decision to follow time. Where
precisely to begin along the chronology, where to end, still must be
determined. And here choice widens into an indefinitely large set of
possibilities, so that the actual cut-off points gain salience from all the
might-have-beens: the less predictable the cutting, the more perceptible. For instance, Odysseus's autobiography could run between any
two points along his career, some no less, even more, appropriate
than the limits actually fixed, hence focused and in need of motivation. Why not launch the tale from the point where the teller's career
of hardship and achievement originated-the muster for the Trojan
War, if not the Helen scandal that triggered it? -Only because, we
infer, such general textual considerations as roundness have given
way before contextual motives and designs. Considering Odysseus's
anxiety to impress his Phaeacian audience, it does make sense for him
to start as late as his departure from Troy, crowned with the glory of
the Wooden Horse and destined to awe-inspiring adventure, rather
than with his departurefor Troy under the pressure of Agamemnon.
(He would hardly want the Phaeacians to learn, and they never do,
what Homer later discloses through Agamemnon: that the expedition
against Troy wasted a full month in Ithaca, "so hard did we find it
to win over the man who now is styled the Sacker of Cities" [Homer
1969: 354]). Just as Odysseus starts at a point later than might be
expected, so he finishes earlier: with his arrival at Calypso's island,
rather than at Phaeacia. This appears an abrupt stopping place, especially since it leaves the Phaeacian audience (except the royal house) in
the dark about all that intervened, the narrator's very presence there
included. Why, then, cut the narrative short instead of rounding it
off? As Genette observes in another connection, "The pretext is that
he told it briefly the day before to Alcinous and Arete (Book VII); the
real reason is that the reader knows it in detail by the direct narrative
in Book V. 'It liketh me not twice,' says Ulysses, 'to tell a plain-told
tale': this reluctance is, to begin with, the poet's own" (1980: 232). The
norm of economy overrides that of formal roundness.
In a larger perspective, synchronic and diachronic, such boundary-


Poetics Today 11:4

marking on either side often assumes more than local importance,

perceptibly but not exclusively so where reinforced by novelty and
shock value. In the chronological line, examples range from the Bible's
opening with the creation of the world ex nihilo to the preliminary
disclosure of the crime and the criminal in a subgenre of modern
detective tales (anticipated by Crime and Punishment): each flouts the
operative convention, the latter to the point of reversal. Endwise, it is
enough to recall the decline into which "poetic justice" and neat unravelling fell with the rise of realism, or the variations on catastrophe
in tragic closure, or the fortunes of resolution-by-wedding in the history of comedy from ancient Rome to Hollywood. There is little to
choose in principle between the more revolutionary of these segmentations and TristramShandy's,say, which greets us with the hero's begetting rather than his birth and finishes with a cock-and-bull story. The
effect is equally startling, and in keeping with the whole, regardless
of whether the cut-off points appear in or out of temporal sequence.
Likewise with more conventional equivalents, such as the immemorial cradle-to-grave formula of biography, real or fictional, vis-a-vis
the riddle/solution boundaries codified in the detective-story genre.
Either way, the segmentation remains both integral to the sense of
ordering and irreducible to the formal terms of orderly versus disorderly progress.19
19. Much the same assumptions underlie the two classic studies of closure, Smith
(1968) oni poetry and Kermode (1967) on narrative. Both approach the ending as
part of a whole that may differ in form, linear or otherwise, but not necessarily
in value: along with the openness to culture (genre, history), this makes quite a
change from stock responses to sequence. In Kermode, though, the change is not
always apparent, largely because his emphasis falls on the sense made of sequence,
without much regard to the play of narrated and narrative sequence. Consider
how the absence of the latter distinction, which had not yet (re)gained currency at
the time, may obscure matters: "The story that proceeded very simply to its obviously predestined end would be nearer myth than novel or drama. Peripetia, which
has been called the equivalent, in narrative, of irony in rhetoric, is present in every
story of the least structural sophistication" (Kermode 1967: 18). As regards the
loaded opposition of orderings, this key statement looks like an Aristotelian twin to
my earlier quote from Genette (or from Ian Watt), with "myth" replacing "folklore"
as the simple, concordant antithesis to the twists of sophisticated fiction. Except
that Kermode's "peripetia," unlike Aristotle's own, does not require a distortion of
chronology in the plotted sequence: an early withholding of story-stuff with an eye
to late disclosure. It only borrows from Aristotle the element of surprise, not the
device for producing it, which shifts from the disarrangement of plot-time to the
disappointment of expectations about plot by unsettling conventional paradigms
of time and reality in general. By this standard, though Kermode does not make
the point explicit, there is little to choose in principle between telling in and out of
time, since either may range all the way from conformity to novelty, from "simple"
advance towards an "obviously predestined end" to "sophisticated" reversal. So the
contrast of predictable vs. peripeteic sequence intersects rather than overlaps with

Sternberg * Telling in Time


Chronological arrangement, then, no more escapes the problematics of beginning and ending-or forgoes their profits-than any
other discourse in time. The appearance to the contrary arises only
if we lump together the parameters of delimitation and direction in
sequence: where to cut and how to move along the chosen cut. This
explains why the White King's grave advice in Alice, "Begin at the
beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop" (Carroll
1963: 158), is easier said than done, or if you like, easier offered to
readers than practiced by writers. In the absence of any given cut-off
points at which to "begin" and "stop," they must always be supplied
and motivated by the discourse. No matter how natural the choice to
chronologize events, the delimitation of the segment to be chronologized yet remains variable, purposive, artificial, at best (or, depending
on the value scheme, at worst), natural looking. Precisely here, the beginning and the end stand opposed to the middle. For it is only when
the sequence has been delimited by art, to whatever effect, that its
initial and terminal points lend themselves to lifelike, chrono-logical
bridging (following, "middling") from early to late and from cause to
result. Odysseus, indeed, realizes this option; Copperfield declines it
in favor of intermediate gaps; cut-off-point anachrony, from Homer
to the overall dislocations of TristramShandyor The Good Soldier, precludes it by twisting the narrated beginning and/or ending themselves
into the narrative middle, hence the narrated middle into narrative
beginning and/or ending.
This ascending scale of variation discloses afresh the multiplicity of
factors and therefore choices involved throughout, notably in imposing limits on time without limit. No theory of sequence can afford to
pass over the two strongest and most strategic points along any line,
however straight, in the belief that they arise from its directionality
as a narrative line. But then every formalist, deviation- or distortionbased theory of sequence mustpass them over entirely or in large part,
by its very terms. In a straight sequence, how can any formalism register the two points at all, when they manifest no distortion on the
surface to be registered? In a twisted sequence, how can a formalist
theory go beyond registering them as formal distortions to registering
(let alone measuring or explaining) their distortive force between, say,
novelty and conventionality? In intermediate cases, how can it register
the undistorted extreme or the distortive value of the distorted? To
handle all such variations, you need a functional theory whereby to relate each temporal form of cutting (all-orderly, all-disorderly, mixed)
to the appropriate temporal norms and effects.
that of chronologized vs. dechronologized sequence. (Small wonder that Kermode
proceeds to oppose chronos to kairos, not to anything like "anachronos.")


Poetics Today 11 :4

Again, Odysseus gives no reasons for his multiple ordering choices

-duration, direction, delimitation, except for the pretext about the
end-nor does Homer behind his back, though he constantly invites
the reader to supply them. The reasons are inferable from the discourse, whether in the shape of narratorial, dramatic motive (e.g., to
impress the audience) or of authorial, aesthetic motivation (e.g., economy); whether specific, like those we have touched on, or more global,
like the policy of marking off the character's inset narrative from the
poet's frame. Elsewhere we find the implications made explicit, or
even generalized into a rule or norm, something like a teleology of
Such explications are not very abundant relative to their numberless
implicit counterparts, the silent opposition to the vocal establishment
of fiction criticism. The wonder is rather that this opposition has not
been silenced altogether into practical dissent but here and there finds
its spokesmen among the practitioners themselves. Let us therefore
give a hearing to a few tellers in life and art who favorably contrast
orderly with disorderly telling. For variety and typicality, the three
dissenting voices I have picked out are those of an eighteenth-century
historian, a nineteenth-century novelist, and a twentieth-century historical novelist whose best-known work also fictionalizes a historian as
narrator, each with his own line of argument in the common cause.
In response to Hurd's 1757 commentary on Horace, Edward Gibbon puts received opinion about ordering to the test of reason and
experience. Writing in an age when the in-medias-res jump has long
been codified as the properly artistic start, Gibbon reopens the issue:
"A poet may either tell his story in the natural historical order, or rushing at once into the middle of the subject he may afterwards introduce
by way of Episode the events previous to it. Which method should he
observe?" (1972: 31). In weighing the alternatives, he no more yields
to the historian's automatic preference than to the literary establishment's, but keeps his eye on the essentials and operations of storytelling. Nor indeed is he affected by any of the pressures for "literariness" that, in a similar climate of opinion, we encounter at work among
present-day analysts of historiography. Gibbon exhibits no defensiveness about "the natural historical order," still less any minimizing of
time's role in arrangement, least of all any recommendation of anachrony as the inherently superior "method." (Gibbon would accordingly
not thank his own analysts, e.g., Keast [1956], for dissociating the
art of Decline and Fall from its chronology.) On the contrary, he sees
no reason why the in-medias-res rule should govern epic composition
itself. And, hard as moderns will perhaps find it to believe, his main
argument is from pleasure, "which ought to be the great aim of every
writer" (1972: 32).

Sternberg * Telling in Time


Thrown without preliminaries into the middle, Gibbon argues, the

reader can experience only "surprise and perplexity": effects that are
for him inferior in themselves, if pleasurable at all, detrimental to the
interest and involvement generated by that part of the narrative read
in ignorance of the antecedents, and finally dissipated not in favor of
a quick movement toward the conflict and the unravelling ahead but
of a dilatory retrospect on the past. "At the instant we are impatient
to know the event, and expect the poet should hasten to it, we are
entertained with a long recital," about which "we have little or no curiosity" by then. As with the balance of interest between progression
and regression at such a juncture, so with that between chronologizing
and dechronologizing as a whole. "For in every operation of the mind
there is a much higher delight in descending from the cause to the
effect, than in ascending from the effect to the cause" (ibid.: 32-33).
A century later, and in novelistic asides as well as in discursive writing, Anthony Trollope makes further and larger claims for "straightforward, simple, plain story-telling," from preliminary exposition
through the crisis that occupies the middle to the final resolution.
Behind his modest, often self-deprecating tone lurks a firm sense
of purpose that impelled him throughout his career to swim against
the current of Victorian taste in novelistic temporalities. He does not
argue from pleasure, not at least in the sense of narrative tension
and release, as opposed to "higher," less ephemeral interests of art
(which Gibbon likewise may partly have had in mind when referring
to "higher delight"). Nor does Trollope, like Gibbon, speak as though
dechronologizing alone presented obstacles to such pleasure. Instead,
he frankly redresses the balance. Having begun a novel with "two
long dull chapters full of description," for example, he hastens to declare himself "perfectly aware of the danger of such a course. ... It
can hardly be expected that anyone will consent to go through with
a fiction that offers so little of allurement in its first pages" (Doctor
Thorne:chapter 2). But then the opposite procedure of in medias res or
of detective-story juggling, whereby "one is constrained by mysteries
and hemmed in by difficulties, knowing, however, that the mysteries
will be made clear and the difficulties overcome at the end of the third
volume," all wonderfully ingenious, "give me no pleasure"-perhaps,
he wryly adds, "from fault of my intellect" (Autobiography:220-21). In
either ordering, then, one reader's boredom cancels out another's delight. What tips the scales, in Trollope's opinion, is rather chronology's
distinctive power to meet a (or, for him, the) set of artistic exigencies,
ideals, goals.
Intelligibility stands high among these: "The story must be made
intelligible from the beginning, or the real novel readers [shaped, of
course, in his own image] will not like it"-the less so because jumping


Poetics Today 11:4

at once into the middle still demands retrospection on the beginning

for comprehensibility, but the narrative can then satisfy it only by
doubling back in midstride, at the cost of momentum (Is He Popenjoy?: chapter 1). Intelligibility ties in with the "naturalness" of gliding
from cause to effect: "I cannot make Mr. Gresham hem and haw and
turn himself uneasily in his arm-chair in a natural manner till I have
said why he is uneasy. I cannot bring in my doctor speaking his mind
freely among the bigwigs till I have explained that it is in accordance
with his usual character to do so" (Doctor Thorne: chapter 2). The
emphasis on "natural manner" links up in turn with the high ranking
of lifelike portraiture above plot contrivance, rounded and comprehensible psychology above mystery entanglements. Such orientation
to character translates, again, into a scale of presentational measures:
fullness above gapping, preparation and even anticipation above startling retrospection, natural development in time above arbitrary delay
of motive and circumstance with a view to their disclosure behind
time. To distort the ordering is to distort the understanding of what
goes on from moment to moment in the interpersonal drama, and
distort it to no, or no worthwhile, purpose; to present the cart before the horse-in a favorite metaphor of Trollope's-is to reverse the
proper hierarchy of elements or interests, and the proper confidence
between author and reader, along with the proper time-relations. In
narrative, artistic and temporal priorities march in step. "Therefore,"
as the opening of Dr. Wortle'sSchoolwarns the reader just as it is about
to foreclose the crucial plot gap, "put the book down if the revelation
of some future secret be necessary for your enjoyment. Our mystery
is going to be revealed in the next paragraph" (chapter 4). From all
directions, then, the ends sought by Trollope converge to radicalize a
poetics of lucidity, flatly against Fieldingesque or Dickensian, let alone
modernist, ambiguity. (For details, see Sternberg 1978: esp. 183-203,
In recommending chronology, Gibbon goes with the rule of his
craft and Trollope against the dominant (i.e., Dickensian) norm of
his culture. As a historical novelist, writing in the heyday of modernism at that, Robert Graves maneuvers between the two stances in I,
Claudius (1962 [1934]) and Claudius the God by preaching and practicing straight narrative through the mediation of his (real) hero cum
(imaginary) narrator, the emperor-historian Claudius. The reader's
pleasure in the straight telling, dear to Gibbon and double-edged with
Trollope, comes last in the hierarchy of Claudius, a professional historian of the no-nonsense school, who puts orderliness above frills
and thrills and rhetoric. He accordingly begins by tracing his origins
several generations back, "unavoidable" if "tedious," proceeds to his
earliest childhood, and goes through his life story year by year to

Sternberg * Telling in Time


the eve of his assassination (1962 [1934]: 20,35).20 If the performance

betrays lapses (occasionally highlighted by way of apology) from the
rage for order, the principle itself is in force throughout, at times aggressively so. Thus the favorable self-comparison with the sloppiness
incurred by epic license:
Like all honest Roman histories this is written "from egg [ab ovo] to apple":
I prefer the thorough Roman method, which misses nothing, to that of
Homer and the Greeks generally, who love tojump into the middle of things
and then work backwards or forwards as they feel inclined. Yes, I have often
had the notion of rewriting the story of Troy in Latin prose ... beginning
from the egg from which Helen was hatched and continuing chapter by
chapter, to the apples eaten for dessert at the great feast in celebration of
Ulysses's home-coming. (Ibid.: 35)
Under this cover, or mimetic motivation, Graves would have the best
of all worlds: unfolding events and social panorama in his favorite
order, lending the tale an air of authenticity, while throwing the blame
for any possible failures of interest, complete with irony, on the official
teller. Yet the order remains his favorite, rationale and all, similarly
deployed in Count Belisarius or Wife to Mr. Milton in the absence of a
fictional historian for scapegoat.
Pleasure, intelligibility, naturalness, character-focusing,
thoroughness: the arguments are different in thrust, variable with genre and
period, representative rather than exhaustive, even open to challenge
(though not to refutation) through counterargument and counterexample. But all this only reinforces their cumulative point. On the one
hand, each argument does invoke some legitimate teleology of chronology and does call for investigating in empirical action and interaction, often richer than the official doctrine. On the other hand, those
teleologies join forces to establish a common denominator-a
dynamics of narrative communication as a movement in time. All press for a
stage-by-stage advance from past via present to future, whereby each
stretch along the road gains its due share of notice in turn, as against
20. In case the motivation sounds idiosyncratic, even for the procedure justified by
it, here is a real-life equivalent in the voice of Rousseau as autobiographer: "Before
I go further I must present my reader with an apology, or rather a justification,
for the petty details I have just been entering into, and for those I shall enter into
later, none of which may appear interesting in his eyes. Since I have undertaken
to reveal myself absolutely to the public, nothing about me must remain hidden or
obscure. I must remain incessantly beneath his gaze, so that he may follow me in
all the extravagances of my heart and into every least corner of my life. Indeed, he
must never lose sight of me for a single instant, for if he finds the slightest gap in
my story, the smallest hiatus, he may wonder what I was doing at that moment and
accuse me of refusing to tell the whole truth. I am laying myself sufficiently open
to human malice by telling my story, without rendering myself more vulnerable by
any silence" (Rousseau 1965 [1781]: 65).


Poetics Today 11 :4

a free shuttling through time, with constant reference and orientation

to the multigap past. It is amidst or beyond this strategic unity that
variety comes in to effect particular roles and emphases and scalings:
chronology itself, even if taken as uniform, is far from univalent and
For a fuller appreciation of this common denominator, it is also helpful to see where it does not lie, that is, in any intrinsic value attached to
the form of chronology as such. The point needs stressing, and maybe
some elucidation, for the claim to the contrary has in effect been made.
"In our typographic and electronic culture," Walter Ong asserts, "we
find ourselves today delighted by exact correspondence between the
linear order of elements in discourse and the referential order, the
chronological order, to which the discourse refers. We like sequence
in verbal reports to parallel exactly what we experience" (1982: 147).
This "we" must be in the nature of pluralis majestatis,because the shoe
is surely on the other foot. To judge by the record, including the threevoice advocacy just cited, Ong constitutes a minority of one. But, if he
clashes head-on with the entire antichronological tradition, his divergence from our prochronologists is less obvious and may escape notice
altogether vis-a-vis a motivation like that advanced by Gibbon.
Reconsider, therefore, how Graves's Claudius himself apologizes
for the tedium of expositional preliminaries and genealogies; how
Trollope admits the "danger" of opening with "long dull chapters,"
which offer "so little of allurement" compared with the in-medias-res
strategy, or with detective-story mystification, that the appeal to pleasure may lose him the argument and the reading public. Even Gibbon
does not say that we are "delighted by exact correspondence"-as
though the very text/world accord involved a remarkable achievement
and attraction-but rather by its uses for the experience of time. We
find pleasure, then, not in but throughthat correspondence, which generates distinctive interests and effects, such as the descent from cause
to result (or, for that matter, intelligibility, portrait-drawing, thorough
coverage, and the like). The difference between "in" and "through" is
radical, being exactly that between chronology as form reified, once
and for all, into value and as form functionalized, hence also amenable within limits to variation and transformation (witness our three
exponents, on top of instances cited earlier). Form with versus form
without functional autonomy, if you will, or with functional autonomy
versus instrumental possibilities alone.
In a larger perspective, this is also the difference between antichronologists old and new, who find disharmony inherently valuablebuilding a plus sign into it, if only in the role of artistic advertisementand prochronologists, who typically count harmony in ordering as a
means to some end(s) beyond itself. Disharmony makes a poetics, or

Sternberg * Telling in Time


at least signals one, in the eyes of its adherents, while harmony is taken
to make or this or that variant of a poetics of lucidity.21
Most generally, in inter-art terms, much the same difference separates the icons of time from the icons of space. With spatial icons, the
visual kind above all, there is indeed no end of evidence for the "delight" given throughout history by "exact correspondence" in the form
of mimesis, realism, naturalism, illusionism. Ancient Greece, where
the mimetic revolution arose, has bequeathed us the legend about the
birds that pecked at the grapes in the paintings of Zeuxis; or the Aristotelian law, pointedly illustrated from the spatial arts, that "universal
is the pleasure felt in things imitated," so much so that even "objects
which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when
reproduced with minute fidelity, such as the forms of the most ignoble
animals and of dead bodies." In the light of experience across the
millennia since, Aristotle would indeed seem to have formulated here
a universal law of humanity at beholding, shared by many beholders
who otherwise incline toward arbitrary or disharmonious representation-as Aristotle himself does in ranking the twisted ("complex")
above the orderly ("simple") sequence. (A modern equivalent would be
Roland Barthes, fascinated and inspired by the photographic image
[e.g., 1977: 15-78], hostile and blind to the chronographic.) The imbalance or inversion of the attitude to mimesis between the two arts
reflects not only the prejudgment that chronologizing comes easily, but
also the better-founded inverse: that capturing the visible (or "true"
visible) world comes hard, with merit and pleasure attached to the
achievement as such. Here, in some measure at least, mimesis remains
self-directed and self-justifying vis-a-vis the rest of poesis.
In this respect, even the domain of the iconic interestingly subdivides in functional terms, according to the extension of the twofold
sign(s) in time or in space. The rule that making (designs, interests,
sense) comes before matching (the signifier with the signified) governs
plot-making in chronological order to a considerably higher degree
than it does image-making in exact likeness-which may well resolve
the apparent paradox that the Bible originates both the art of historiography and the rage for iconoclasm.
21. Or a pragmaticsof lucidity, if we extend the rationale to orderly everyday
(hi)story-telling, even at its least artful. A case in point would be the narrativescited
by Labov (1972), who stresses and codifies their adherence to the order of events
without providing any motivation for it-as though the combinatory (or syntactic)
rule had no communicative (or pragmatic)role to play.This failure manifests anew

the tendency to invest departures or disharrmonies alone with significance, no matter whether chronological harmony counts as the "hypothetical" (Genette-fashion)
or the "real" (Labovian) standard. Actually, the most canonical form of telling in
life and art is still informed by some function (like those we have been discussing)
or else it would remain pointless and would indeed hardly become canonical.


Poetics Today 1 :4

Accordingly, as the viewpoint on chronological narrative widens

from its own models and practices to its relations with anachrony and
with iconology at large, its common denominator grows more salient.
Chronology is what chronology does: its value turns not on the concordance formed in ordering but on the motivation(s) for this concordant
ordering, from lucidity down.
As I said, moreover, such motivating arguments are possibly open to
challenge, certainly to adjustment and elaboration, but not to refutation-no more and no less than their opposite numbers in anachrony.
And if our trio lay themselves open to challenge, this happens insofar
as they overreach themselves by making in turn absolutist claims at the
expense of the opposition, as though theirs were the privileged value
scheme, with time-tactics to match. In regard to pleasure, at least,
Trollope himself senses that more than one way (e.g., straight and zigzag telling) may lead to the given end, so that every author and reader
must choose his own route. But no route leads to the adjudication
between ends, each with its appropriate means. Polemical heat and
dogmatic fiat apart-and there has been enough of them to confuse
an issue otherwise simple to the point of truism-how can one decide
between extremes like intelligibility and ambiguity, naturalness and
wonder, orientation to character versus intrigue, or to present and
future versus past? Obviously, there is no disputing about tastes, that
is, interests, values, rankings, teleologies: no logical, but at best teleological and ideological, disputing. More strictly, to anticipate the thesis
of my next section, an argument for chronology is not yet an argument
against anachrony, and vice versa. Only within a given strategy does it
make sense to weigh pros and cons regarding tactics.
As to tactics, furthermore, our advocates are equally notable for
what they omit to say. In grinding the axe of their favorite ordering, they do it much less than justice by giving it an air of uniformity
in univalence or, when confronted with each other, in multivalence.
Chronological narrative is really as flexible and wide-ranging in means
as it is variable in ends and scales, even beyond what has emerged thus
far. We may now in conclusion divide its resources for multiformity
into three categories, all tellingly symmetrical rather than diametrical
to the options in or behind the disorder of anachrony.
There is, first, the gradation all the way between the poles of chronology and anachrony, as already exhibited by the independent maneuverability of beginning, middle, and end. Second, within the limits
of overall chronology-as of the wildest anachrony-there remain
multiple freedoms in determining the shape of temporality: closer or
looser modes of linkage and transition, length of discourse or of span
and perspective, representational ratios and pacing, cut-off points, homology or disparity between macrosequence and microsequence (not

Sternberg * Telling in Time


to mention the interaction with the rest of the text's components, from
language to theme). Third, narrative may bring to bear or converge on
chronology, as it may on anachrony, a range of ordering forces other
than either. Whether the convergence proves to be harmonious (and
so mutually reinforcing) or disharmonious, it is always enriching and
revealing because always held among alternative patterns of sequence.
Principled yet generally neglected (and the one exception, suprasequential or "spatial" form, misunderstood), these alternatives or
complements to the two master strategies all deserve far more attention than I can give them here. Some have been developed elsewhere,
though, and most will be taken up at various places below. (For example, the issues of functional sequencing and of suprasequentiality
will reappear soon under the rubric of narrative logic; that of simultaneity or multilinear narration, in a later part of this series devoted
to the Bible as a case study.) What immediately follows is only meant
to round out my empirical argument a bit by mapping those forces
onto the agenda for a general theory of ordering.
The narrative of simultaneity gets typically consigned to insignificance, if not silence (e.g., Genette's dismissive reference to "heterodiegesis," presumably another of the "minor articulations"), as though
its sequencing were unsystematic, undistinctive, unvaried, and just a
matter of multiplying by the number of its parallel lines the essential features of a single line. In fact, it could hardly occupy a more
remarkable position, and not by virtue of statistical frequency alone.
That frequency, verging on omnipresence, is itself an index of the extent to which multilinear action finds its mimesis in narrative because
it attaches to the way of the world. And once we consider the mimesis,
it shows itself peculiar in the form as well as the object of sequencing,
in matter and hence in manner.
Where an occurrence-series lends itself to either chronologized or
dechronologized narration at each point, a concurrence eludes both
renderings by nature. Given the multiple object to be narrated, the
narrative then falls between chronology and anachrony-or rather
forms a tertium quid with a logic of its own, namely, the system
or strategy of arrangement by turns. Within a linear (e.g., verbal)
medium, you cannot tell multilinear actions in time, but only one at a
time; but neither can you throw their telling out of time, because that is
how they run in the happening anyway, side by side rather than early
before late. In short, simultaneity amidst the dynamic world, like the
description of the static, is a law unto itself in sequence-making: narrative discourse must order but cannot disorder what nature itself leaves
unordered. Only what is ordered in the happening (chronology) is
disorderable in the telling (into anachrony); what remains unordered
in the happening (simultaneity, a fortiori the statics of description) is


Poetics Today 1 :4

orderable in the telling (into a sequence of parallel threads) without

being disorderable as such, except where subject to order (e.g., within
each thread by itself).
Along with the resultant constraint of sequencing by turns, however, simultaneity presents the discourse with equally distinctive latitudes for maneuvering and inventiveness. Given two lines of action,
for example, whose turn comes first in the plot made and read about
them? (A choice bristling with sequential effects, this, due to the power
of first impressions: consider how Pere Goriot inflicts on us Madame
Vauqueur's sordid boardinghouse before cutting across to the beau
monde and then shuttling between the two milieus until their apparent
polarity veers around into similarity.) Whichever line comes first,
again, should its turn last down to the resolution and then juxtapose
with the other's, or should they regularly alternate? If the latterwhich offers such advantages as retardatory sequence or interlinear
how are the lines to be chopped up into
play of equivalence-then
manageable or multifunctional turns? Would it pay to look behind
(e.g., for continuity) in resuming a suspended line? To forge ahead
with one line beyond its proper turn (if only till the nearest stasis)
before returning to the other? To spell out or rather to make ambiguous their time-relations? Coming on top of all the openings for
manipulation along either line, these are enough to suggest the wealth
of resources betweenthe lines-and in every sense, because the very
exigency of linearizing the multilinear serves as a cover (almost too
effective, to judge by the record) for interlinear strategy. There is an
art of ordering in simultaneity as well as in chronology, both arts being
no less determinate and varied, though more hidden, than the surface
disorderings in anachrony.
The same applies to a group of sequencing mechanisms which
are essentially outside world-time altogether because they all operate
neither by the logic of events nor necessarily on events alone (Sternberg
1981, 1983; cf. Enquist 1981). Narrative, accordingly, shares them
with linear discourse at large. But wherever and however invoked,
each logic manages to render sequence coherent and its violations perceptible. Each works to this effect, moreover, in or on units ranging
from the microsequence of a phrase to a text's macrosequence. Each,
finally, runs across (parallel, even counter to) the lines of chronology,
anachrony, simultaneity, as well as those of its own nontemporal mates.
Very briefly, what I call the hierarchicalmechanism relates a series of
items (things, states, qualities, characters, occurrences) to some scale
of importance, whereby they emerge in "rising" or "falling" order. By
this conversion of scalar into serial priority, a panorama may unfold
from low to high life, a household from junior to senior members, a
concurrence from weak to strong action, a record from the least to the

Sternberg ? Telling in Time


most impressive achievement. Or-without forfeiting the sense of priority and the sensitivity to its disturbance-the other way around in
descent. Hierarchy, then, generates a sequence with order but without
direction. Having order, the sequence resembles chronology in motivating and tightening a series of items. Not having a direction built into
it (a property reserved for early-to-late arrangements), that sequence
varies from chronology in being freely reversible; that is, deployable
from either end (bottom-to-top or top-to-bottom) with no necessary
effect of disordering. And given a sequence that may run in two directions, the set of parameters outlined earlier within the framework
of unidirectionality re-forms under a new and newly flexible logic.
Most immediately, the cruxes of beginning, middle, and end assume a
very different bearing, less constrained or motivated by nature, more
oriented to the diversity and decorums of culture. But the variance
also manifests itself elsewhere, from the abeyance of causality, with
other reality-like sequential forces, to the strengthening and baring of
(social, artistic, communicative) teleology. Much the same intersection
of factors thus yields novel possibilities of interaction in ordering the
process of discourse.
Likewise with the perspectivalmechanism, whereby items fall into
a subject's order of experience, perception, recollection, association,
or indeed, as in Ford Madox Ford, "impressionistic" narration. An
immemorial device, perspective reaches its apotheosis in the inwardturning literature of modernism. The deictic reference point, again,
appeals to the order of discourse roles, as when a string of pronouns (complete with the states or events clustering around them)
moves "politely" from "you" to "he" to "I." The linguistic resources
for ordering, finally, go beyond grammar to what grammar (as well as
nature) leaves unordered. We thus find the most heterogeneous items
sequenced by their verbal make-up, such as from short to long ("from
Dan to Beer-sheba") or from a to z, acrostic fashion, extended to
poem-length as early as Psalms and to novel-length in Michel Butor's
Least oriented to reality, the linguistic mechanism best demonstrates
the autonomy enjoyed by all in both observance and breach. Once
posited-and though reversible-each nontemporal logic throws even
divergences from it into relief and question in a way reminiscent of
the chrono-logical. Each equally operates along, athwart, and against
the objective line of chronology. So does suprasequentialpatterning-the
so-called spatial form to be discussed-whose elements still undergo
sequential processing and integration in narrative, from one phase to
another. Insofar as this form consists in the mimesis of space, it enjoys its own ordering conventions, such as the descriptive movement
from right to left, up to down, animate to inanimate, or the reverse.


Poetics Today 11 :4

Alternatively, if it turns on equivalence-links (straight analogy, opposition, comparison), spatial patterning may unroll in thesis-antithesissynthesis order or according to some musical or music-like code of
variations on a theme. In either instance, moreover, its deployment
also remains subject to other mechanisms of linearization. As we read
Pere Goriot, for example, the initial contrast between its two worlds
gradually transforms into similarity under the combined pressure
of disclosures about them (behind time) and developments in them
(along time): the retrospection on the past and the action moving
toward the future, both logics of sequence, join forces to invert the
relation of equivalence.
Throughout, the relative position of the items along a (given) series
makes sense in terms of their relative position within some (inferred)
order other than world-time. In this reference of textual to contextual
arrangement, each mechanism performs in its own way the minimum
role peculiar to logics of sequence as such, chronology included: the
role of providing the series in question with linear continuity and with
meaningfulness in discontinuity. But their contribution may well exceed the minimum. Thus the thesis-antithesis-synthesis march can not
only organize but also thematize the plot dynamics from exposition to
closure. Perspectival sequencing, especially where idiosyncratic, clockwise or otherwise, will often yield an insight into the reflector's mental
processes, even his sense of order as a whole. Hierarchical movement
carries much the same implications with regard to an entire society
or ideology or culture, whose world-picture reveals itself in the tiniest
microsequences. One might easily reconstruct the order of priorities
known as the Great Chain of Being, for instance, from the chains of
discourse forged by Renaissance and Neoclassical writers in their pursuit of completely different matters. Further, hierarchy translates into
large-scale experiential (affective, cognitive) movement, as when a dra-

matic process "ascends" toward a climax or "descends" to resolution

or anticlimax. Here, even with nothing sequenced by any formal scalar
criteria, everything is definitely sequenced in effect, up to the entire
zigzag contour of a conflict. In this aspect, the logic of scaling intersects
with the group of purely functional regulators of narrative dynamics,

like the order of suspense or surprise (Sternberg 1978: 45ff.; 1985:

259ff.). As the next section will indicate, these are orders that work by

and for nothing except sequential effect, orders that determine and
explain the (dis)ordering of events by appeal to master teleologies of
interest. Without their sense of purpose, narrative makes no sense as
a generic artifact.
The various ordinal parameters and forces gradually outlined here,
from duration

to direction

(or sequence

minus direction)

to delimi-

Sternberg * Telling in Time


tation, from physical length all the way to pure teleology, demand
careful study. So do the key questions of where and how and why
they interact among themselves-the telling in or out of time included among the rest-during the process of communication. Narrative theory can least afford to neglect them, on pain of dooming itself
to scratching the surface, nor can it handle them by way of reduction
to its favorite (and favoritist) dualism of chronology versus anachrony. The repertoire of options for making or breaking the sense of
narrative discourse as process is just too multiform, too interrelated,
too principled and powerful to undergo either fate, neglect or reduction, without reprisals. Across the entire field, there is much more
to time than sequence, more to sequence than time, more to temporal sequence than departures from chronology, more to departures
from chronology themselves than automatic violation-and-value, more
to each and all of these than any typological, let alone ready-made,
binary scheme can ever cover or discover in narrative.
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Sternberg * Telling in Time


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