Time and Narrative – Ricoeur

Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Print.

In Time and Narrative, Paul Ricoeur details how time is an essential component of every narrative. Furthermore, he argues that “time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode, and narrative attains its full meaning when it becomes a condition of temporal existence” (52). To support this argument, Ricoeur divides narrative into three types of mimesis. He refers to these as Mimesis 1 , the poetic composition; Mimesis 2, the mimesis of creation; and Mimesis 3, the mimesis of the spectator or reader. He contends that emplotment is the key to the relation between time and narrative and states the emplotment is the mediator of the mimetic process – it exists between two practical stages of experience (52). To put it in his words, Ricoeur states, “We are following, therefore, the destiny of a prefigured time that becomes a refigured time through the mediation of a configured time” (53). In regard to mimesis1, Ricoeur argues that action should be understood broadly as narrative, “presupposes not just ‘does’ but characters endowed with ethical qualities that makes them noble or vile” (59). Because these actions exist within cultural understandings and norms, they are qualifiable and can be evaluated on a scale of morality (59). Thus, Ricoeur argues that action can only ever be narrative because it is “always already articulated by signs, rules, and norms. It is always already symbolically mediated” (57). That said, action is limited to symbolic mediation – it also brings forth “temporal structures that call for narration” (60). Action exists within time, or time is that from “within which” we act. This within-ness is “something other than measuring the intervals between limit-instants. Being – ‘within’ – time is above all to reckon with time and, as a consequence to this, to calculate” (62).  But time is also a signifier enmeshed in culture and norms. Thus, “to imitate or represent action is first to preunderstand what human acting is, in its semantics, its symbolic system, its temporality” (64). It is from this understanding that both authors and their readers construct emplotment as well as textual and literary mimetics.

Moving from Mimesis 1 to Mimesis 2, Ricoeur refers to Mimesis 2 as “the kingdom of as if” (64). Mimesis 3 helps media plot in three ways: it mediates between individual events or incidents and the story taken as a whole; between story incidents and temporal whole, it brings together factors as heterogeneous as agents, goals, means, interactions, circumstances, and unexpected results; and it mediated temporal characteristics which “allow us to call plot, by means of generalization, a synthesis of the heterogeneous” (65-66). The endpoint of a plot is the locus from which the story can be seen as a whole and which constitutes two understandings of time – one which occurs during the first experience of a narrative, when it cannot be known how the individual actions constitute the whole, and a second in which an “arrow of time” is created precisely because the narrative whole is already known and can be anticipated (67).

Mimesis 3 marks “the intersection of the world of the text and the world of the hearer or reader” (71). Ricoeur here argues that it is the act of reading that actualizes narrative and in this capacity, it is “the reader who completes the work inasmuch as…the written work is a sketch for reading” (77).  Reading is the way action is refigured under the sign of plot.

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