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What Parts of Your Body Do You Speak With?

16496181136_0e392c0835_nWe don’t just speak with our mouths. We also speak with our faces, our eyes, our respiratory systems, our lips, our tongues, our mouths, our brains. Various sayings emphasize the importance of these body parts in the production of language. Making faces. Her eyes spoke volumes. Hot air. Words dripped from her lips like honey. Mother tongue (implying that the language gives birth to the person). Mouthing off. Getting something off your mind. We used to talk about venting the spleen, letting out our angry feelings, but the truth is we don’t use the spleen. Speaking involves only certain parts of the body, so “I” tends to represent those parts.

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Do You Like the Story So Far?: Metafiction in Barthelme’s Snow White

When Donald Barthelme took popular characters (Batman and the Joker) and placed them in unusual, postmodern situations in his short story “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” (1967), he was doing something new: taking an old, familiar story and turning it inside out. He did something as daring when he reinvented the story of Snow White in his 1967 novel of the same name.

The importance of these literary experiments can be seen in the influence they have had on generations of writers. Now reinventions of popular stories (such as the inversion of the superhero comic in Alan Moore’s Watchmen) and retellings of fairy tales (like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked) are as common as a cold, but when my paperback edition of Snow White was reprinted in 1971, the experiment was unusual enough to warrant this statement on the back: “Donald Barthelme’s Snow White is not the fairy tale you remember. But it’s the one you will never forget.”

“She is a tall dark beauty,” the book begins, rather predictably, but then quickly veers off into strangeness, “containing a great many beauty spots: one above the belly, one above the knee, one above the ankle, one above the buttock, one on the back of the neck. All of these are on the left side, more or less in a row, as you go up and down:

*

*

*

*

*

*

The hair is black as ebony, the skin white as snow” (3).

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Merrily, Merrily, Not So Merrily, Love is But a Dream (Says Shakespeare in His Meta-Play A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

restaurant-couple-arguing-opt-400x295In William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the word “dream” appears repeatedly, sometimes referring to actual dreams, the fantastical night in the forest, plays, which are dreams upon a stage, and love, which seems to be a passing fancy.

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A Change of Names, a Change of Destiny: Let People Rewrite Themselves, Facebook

12685304333_e59b519fdd_zFacebook is forcing drag queens, performers, and other self-invented creatures to use their birth names, but such a policy enforces gender, parental expectations, family history, and culture. A name is not a person, nor is it simply a reference to that person; it is a description that influences behavior. Michel Foucault stated that “one cannot turn a proper name into a pure and simple reference. It has other than indicative functions; more than a gesture, a finger pointed at someone, it is the equivalent of a description” (105). If a name, rather than being a “reference” is a “description,” we need to ask ourselves what names describe.

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An All-Encompassing Definition of Reality: The Conclusion to Narrative Madness

The Non-Existence of Nonfiction

narrative-madness-book-ronald-b-richardsonIn my book Narrative Madness, edited by Katie Fox, I showed that nonfiction is an impossibility since every text and utterance requires the invention of a fictional speaker who is never the whole person; it filters meaning through the speaker’s or writer’s name, uses narrative language which influences perception and behavior, relies on man-made symbolic code, necessitates the selection of subjectively interpreted facts while overlooking vast amounts of information, organizes information in artificial ways, redirects the future through a present discussion of the past,  acts upon world, community and self rather than merely reporting on them, involves imperfect mindreading and empathy games, utilizes preexisting forms and genres which affect content and meaning, channels voices of predecessors who have previously used the language and textual resources, constructs a reader or listener, and requires recreation and performance by the actual reader or listener.

It is all fiction. All of it.

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Liberate Yourself with Meta-Awareness, But Don’t Let It Kill the Romance

Becoming a reader and critic of his own story leads Don Quixote eventually to sanity. Toward the end of the second volume, he slips out of his chivalric role more and more often, even doubting his most fabulous adventure: the Cave of Montesino. When an “enchanted boat” capsizes and gets pulverized in a mill, the bedraggled knight, dripping on the bank, sputters, “Yo no puedo más” (Cervantes Saavedra 752) (“I can’t take it anymore”), betraying a defeatist attitude for the first time. His increased meta-awareness causes our heroic knight to lose faith in his chivalric role, drop the pretense, and return, alas, to sanity.

Don Quixote Dying

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The Constructed Reader

Every text constructs a reader for itself. (You, my friend!) Whenever writers write, it is with the assumption that they are addressing others who do not know what they are explaining. Each time a narrator “recounts facts which he knows perfectly well,” writes Barthes, we find “a sign of the reading act, for there would not be much sense in the narrator giving himself information” (“An Introduction” 260).

Let’s test this assertion by considering a couple of potential exceptions. How about a note to self, like “Don’t forget to call Dad on Father’s Day”? Wouldn’t that be a “narrator giving himself information”? Actually, I would be writing to a future me who may have forgotten, therefore, a constructed reader who does not know.

T310 PL 52-53

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Don Quixote: The Origin of Modern Realism and Metafiction

Tilting at WindmillsAdapting genres, Cervantes created two new ones: realism and metafiction, says Robert Alter in Partial Magic (1979). The “juxtaposition of high-flown literary fantasies with grubby actuality” established realism, while the “zestfully ostentatious manipulation” of the artifice of literary creation set precedent for “all the self-conscious novelists to come” (Alter 3 – 4). Realism and metafiction were born on the same day and became, almost immediately, rivals. Metafiction is the elder brother, however, since realism was a metafictional technique Cervantes created to parody the conventions of romance. Most fiction since Cervantes, says Alter, can be classified under one of these two headings.

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Don Quixote: A Compendium of Genres, a Book of Books

friendship-of-don-quixote

Don Quixote may be the first modern novel, but Cervantes did not pull it out of the air like a magician’s bouquet. The Spanish bard borrowed language, story, form and genre, giving them his own indelible stamp. The stories he borrowed became his own.

Obviously, the principal genre Cervantes plundered was chivalric romance. Romances are the authors of Don Quixote’s madness, they serve as guidebooks for his speech and behavior, and they are the templates for the novel. The book follows the typical structure, story line, chronotopes and many conventions, but the heroic tale becomes a parody as it passes through the hands of multiple authors, some realistic and some rhetorical.

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Collective Memory: The Content and Form of Your Memories are Influenced by Culture

collective-memorySince we humans construct our narratives and memories socially, we could ask, “Do we have a collective memory?” Frederic Bartlett, often called the first experimental psychologist, criticized the concept, since “collective memory” seems to suggest a group brain. Societies don’t have brains. We must understand group memory, then, as distributed in the minds of individuals, in discourse, and in symbolic records. “Collective memory” is just a metaphor and taking it too literally is sign of narrative madness.

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