The Oneiric Structure in Literature

At least a century before Aristotle penned the first known Western treatise  on literary theory in Poetics, Confucius wrote his theories on literature which, roughly translated, stated something to the effect that “what is written does not give the fullness of what is said; what is said does not give the fullness of the concepts in the mind” and thus concepts of literature must be transmitted via established imagery, or to adopt a more Western terminology, through signs.

What Confucius seemed to have been communicating since before the time of Aristotle seems to be that there is a dissociation between the signifier and the signified, a disconnect between the fabula and the syuzhet. These are structuralist and post-structuralist concepts: Ideas that Western literary theory did not come up with until the latter half of the twentieth century.

If what Confucius called the underlying concept within the mind is equivalent to the fabula, then the story told by a fallible and unreliable narrator is equivalent to the syuzhet. Now, syuzhet, which is the construction by the story teller and not the exact replica of the fabula, can come in distorted forms. This is how you can have a flashback narrative or a backwards narrative, because a syuzhet does not have to follow the chronological time line of the fabula.

Aristotle started backwards (or Confucius did, depending on your perspective) in breaking down the concept of narrative structure. He started with a three act structure, the beginning, the middle, and the end; a setup, a confrontation, and a resolution; each connected with causality. He did not realize that the causality may have been artificially contrived and juxtaposed on the fabula of the story. But this contriving and juxtaposing became the basis of the inductive method of theology throughout the Middle Ages.

Even today, when scientists try to communicate their discoveries and future directions to the public, they study classic narrative structure. There is almost a religious belief that classical narrative structure assist in more accurate communication and clearer deduction. I must admit, I spent years trying to get my colleagues in medical research to adopt this method.

However, the inductive method and the narrative structure that goes with it, can lead to some embarrassing errors in science, one of the most notable examples is the concept of dietary cholesterol as a risk factor for ischemic heart disease. You cannot argue with the story. Arterial plaque is made primarily out of cholesterol. High levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream is associated with the prevalence of arterial plaque. And high cholesterol diet is associated with high levels of cholesterol in the blood stream. Tie these elements in a story line and you come to the conclusion that eating less cholesterol should result in lower incidence of heart disease. Except dietary cholesterol consumption in North America has been in steady decline for the past four decades and the incidence of heart disease is still on the rise. Meanwhile, the dietary cholesterol consumption in Japan has been steadily increasing in the past four decades which coincided with a steady increase in heart disease, though at a level still lower than in North America. Meanwhile, the French eat more cholesterol than the Americans, but suffer fewer cases of cardiac arrest.

This and many other examples illustrate the constricting nature of narrative structure and how it can confine us to a way of thinking that may or may not be accurate reflections of reality. Climate change denial actually makes a better narrative than orthodox climate change theory.

Oriental narrative structure studies started from the bottom up (or top down, depending on your perspective) and cast suspicion on all perceived causality in story. Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure proposed the basic idea of a disconnect between “what you say” and “what you mean” in the late 19th century, but it was not until Michel Foucault adopted the concept to literary criticism that the idea really took off. It developed into a branch of study called “structuralism” (and eventually “post-structuralism“) which was later adopted into film theory.

The idea of structuralism, which started with the disconnect between “what you say” and “what you mean” developed into the idea that causality may or may not be the illusion of the story teller. The idea that the initial event, the middle event, and the concluding event are connected by causality – like a row of dominoes – may (or may not) be something the story teller conjured up to make the story easier to tell. The underlying reality may actually be a complex web of a million cause-effect associations, or may not be connected at all.

This realization has lead to new developments in narrative structure in literature and cinema, such as multiple timeline structures and hyperlink structures, that layer seemingly unrelated story lines and flashbacks on top of each other, some of which are connected by causality and others only by emotion.

But it did not stop there. If the syuzhet is not a reflection of the fabula, and the causalities that connect the acts can be the fabrications of the story teller, then what is to say that the fabula exists at all? When we dream in our sleep, we see the imagery but we do not register the story. There is no coherent story to identify. Therefore, the syuzhet exists without the fabula. The same applies to our childhood memories. There must have been a fabula sometime in the past, but we only see glimpses of the imagery in the deepest recesses of our minds. What we see are mere shadows of a story long lost.

In film theory, such a form where a series of images are presented without a narrative plot is called “oneiric“. Movies that adopt this form, such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror”, is hard to understand and (dare I say it) rather boring. Novels that adopt this meandering-of-consciousness style, such as Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto“, are not to everyone’s taste.

Still, such pieces can succeed. Not every story needs to follow the Star Wars structure, the hero’s journey, or have a chain of conflicts and resolutions in every scene. It is not as easy as fitting a story to a template, but clearly there is more to narrative structure than composing a causality-connected string of conflicts and resolutions.


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