From St. Augustine to Salman Rushdie:
Time and Narrative in Postcolonial and Pluralist Literatures

Randy Boyagoda, Boston University


The first sentence of every novel should be:
“Trust me, this will take time but there is order here,
very faint, very human.”

Michael Ondaatje,
In the Skin of a Lion


Literary critics have, thus far, responded to works by authors writing against dominant cultures through the filters of twentieth-century Western thinkers who are themselves explicitly antagonist to the Western tradition. Consider, for example, where Edward Said’s critique of the coercive structures of Orientalist knowledge paradigms would be without Michel Foucault. Or consider Homi Bhabha’s interest in the split enunciation of colonialist discourse and the ambiguity of signifiers of colonial power without Jacques Derrida. As Bruce King and Aijaz Ahmad have each perceptively noted, postcolonial criticism has been co-opted into the Western academy, thereby fracturing any connections its adherents may have (or claim to have) to the social realities expressed in the literature under consideration.[1]

Instead, perhaps fittingly for a field dominated by post-structuralist assumptions, contemporary postcolonial criticism and critics are decidedly self-referential and, I would submit, far less stimulating to read that the Eliots, Leavises, and Trillings of yesteryear, their predecessors in the Western academy.[2] How then, are we to ameliorate the present situation? To do so requires a return to what must be the first and most important element and focus of any intellectual project: the acting and suffering human being. More specifically, we ought to consider this individual as he responds through literature to the difficulties of understanding and regaining a past distanced from him by defeat and dispossession. As Guyanese writer Wilson Harris explains in a slightly different but related context, “present day historians in the second half of the twentieth century, militant and critical of imperialism as they are, have fallen victim, in another sense, to the very imperialism they appear to denounce … [because] the history they write is without an inner time” (Harris 159). Harris’s “inner time” elegantly suggests the effacement of the human being’s personal experience of history, the consequence of an intellectual response founded almost exclusively on political, sociological and philosophical categories. Contemporary critical terminology, especially in the postcolonial field, is self-demonstrative of this point — “diversity,” “the people,” “subaltern,” “hegemony,” “power and discourse” — these are terms empty of any direct, personalized human value.

          Consider the vast different of intention and indeed reception between the now-formulaic calls in the academy for reading postcolonial and minority literatures and the following statement of Paul Ricoeur’s, from the first of his three-volume work, Time and Narrative: “We tell stories because in the last analysis human lives need and merit being narrated. This remark takes on its full force when we refer to the necessity to save the history of the defeated and the lost. The whole history of suffering cries out for vengeance and calls for narrative” (Ricoeur 1: 175). Throughout his career, Ricoeur has maintained a constant interest in the acting and suffering human being as the final standard by which all artistic and philosophical endeavors are to be measured. Ricoeur’s work constitutes an important development and departure from twentieth-century phenomenology because of the integrated vision of the human being that constitutes its underpinning (a philosophical system perhaps surpassed in depth and rigor only by the neo-Thomist systematic personalism of Pope John Paul II). As his biographer and astute commentator Charles Reagan explains, “Ricoeur believes that analytic philosophy of action has created problems for itself [because it] has been preoccupied with the question of ‘What-why?’ to the exclusion of the question ‘who’” (Reagan 80-81). This unfortunate emphasis in analytic philosophy on action over actor finds a parallel in postcolonial literary criticism; for example, Bhabha’s interest in postcolonial strategies of narration inadvertently replicates the features of colonialist discourse that he critiques. In “DissemiNation: Time, narrative, and the margins of the modern nation,” individuals are regarded insofar as they stand as the object of national history, or as subjects in a vaguely Marxist, collectivist sense, as a single people searching for mastery over their masters. Such is made possible, according to Bhabha, through the dual times implied by the object/subject split position central to the temporal experience of the modern nation.

Bhabha is widely commended for his sensitivity to the intertwining of time and narrative in postcolonial experience. As we shall see, however, Ricoeur’s primary hypothesis in Time and Narrative — “between the activity of narrating a story and the temporal character of human experience there exists a correlation that is not merely accidental but that presents a transcultural form of necessity” — will offer us a more substantial foundation for understanding the postcolonial experience of lost or burdensome time and the poetic response it demands (Ricoeur 1: 152). A Ricoeur-inspired discussion of narratives concerned with the dispossessed and subjugated can also ensure that study in this field maintains a regard for authentic human feeling and genuine human action, elements particularly integral to affirming the inherent dignity and value of stories of history’s victims.

Ricoeur’s monumental study of the relationship between temporality and narrativity, devoted to how human beings reconcile themselves to the former through the latter, finds its impetus in a question posed by St. Augustine in the Confessions’s famous Book XI meditation on time. Ricoeur quotes Augustine: “‘What then is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled’” (7). Ricoeur’s attempt to explore the human need to understand time and our relation to it involves a three-way conversation between the fields of literature, history and phenomenology. His work stretches from Aristotle’s Poetics through twentieth century narratology; involves writers from Homer and Sophocles through Joyce and Proust; responds to thinkers from the pre-Socratics through Heidegger ‘and his children.’ A cursory summary here cannot do justice to the scope of Time and Narrative, and my intention is not simply to provide a critical commentary on Ricoeur; instead, I propose to focus on elements of his work that obtain particular value in analyses of literature by postcolonial writers such as Wilson Harris and Salman Rushdie, and by minority writers such as Ralph Ellison – writers whom we can understand as attesting to the transcultural necessity of representing through narrative the temporal experience of individuals who find themselves in subordinate positions, within pluralist cultural and historical contexts. 

My present aim is thus threefold. First, I will outline the central tenets of Ricoeur’s study, 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, author’s emphasis). These interrelated premises are rooted in Augustine’s temporal paradox and Aristotle’s concept of emplotment, as Ricoeur responds to the former with the latter in Time and Narrative, Volume I. Secondly, I will illustrate and modify Ricoeur’s concepts of “Games with Time” that are possible through the fictive experience of historical time in literature, from Volume II; though Ricoeur contends that the need to respond to the aporias of time through narrative is a universal feature of the human condition – in literature, history and our everyday lives – such a response is felt especially by individuals emerging from colonial situations, or living in the present or aftermath of historical and cultural dispossession. Thirdly, having demonstrated the validity of Ricoeur’s concept of the interweaving of history and literature – which, I shall argue, is no more apparent than in the postcolonial person’s experience of time – my attention will turn to the relationship between the world constructed by the literary work and the world of the reader.  

The fusion of these worlds is necessary, indeed is written into the human condition itself in Ricoeur’s vision, since he is convinced that at the heart of human identity is the need to narrate, which in turn underwrites every literary and historical work. Again, that need becomes more urgent for individuals whose very acts of telling narrate something restorative about their lives as they seek resolution of the past and its legacies. In addition, readers of such works have an ethical responsibility to recognize the inherent dignity and significance of individuals struggling under forms of oppression. To read, for Ricoeur, is to validate one’s own humanity, that of the writer, and that of the peoples written. It is a humanist, virtue-ordered interest in the human being acting in time with and for others, which Ricoeur finds first in Augustine and Aristotle. 

Ricoeur’s key premise in Volume I is that time and narrative are interdependent, reinforcing each other through the mimetic mode of action presupposed by any attempt to narrate. Ricoeur explains that “ultimately at stake in the case of the structural identity of the narrative function as well as in that of the truth claim of every narrative work, is the temporal character of human experience. The world unfolded by every narrative is always a temporal world” (3). Our narrative impulse, therefore, is inspired by our awareness of time. To begin illustrating this principle, Ricoeur guides us through Augustine’s anguished attempt to understand the difficulties posed by his awareness of time coupled with his failure to explain adequately its nature. In Ricoeur’s analysis of Book XI, the contradictory pair distentio animi (distention of the soul by time) and intentio (intention) best represent the temporal aporia that constantly frustrates Augustine. The former represents the soul’s passive subjection to time, literally the soul distended by the weight of the past; the latter represents the individual’s capability to act freely in time. The Augustinian paradox arises because of the unavoidable complicity of intentio in distentio animi. Because intentio occurs in time, its effects inevitably pass — once an act is completed — into the store of the past, further weighing the individual with a sense of past-ness and simultaneously inspiring further intentio, to evade this burden.

Ricoeur responds to the unavoidable paradox of discordant concordance as Augustine describes it — that time’s cumulative effect upon an individual motivates him to seek escape from it in a future that will inevitably pass into and augment the temporal burden — with the central component of Aristotle’s Poetics, muthos (emplotment). The writer’s act of composition, specifically evident in tragedy, seeks to include the discordant – chance events – in the overall concordance of a unified plot; thus it is “the active sense of organizing events” which constitutes the “inverted figure of the Augustinian paradox” (33; 38). Aristotle bases his concept of emplotment on a mimetic relationship between the action of drama and the daily drama of human action, culminating in and proven by the cathartic conclusion of Greek tragedy. It is then that narrative achieves its full meaning in being “restored to the time of action and suffering” as experienced by the audience (70). Having established this point, Ricoeur then offers his important statement on the narrative impetus at the heart of all literary experience, indeed, at the heart of all human experience: “We tell stories because in the last analysis human lives need and merit being narrated” (75). Ricoeur employs Aristotle’s poetic resolution of discordant concordance as a response to Augustine’s “aporetics.” Indeed, more than simply responding, Ricoeur argues that “the poetics of narrativity … corresponds to the aporetics of temporality,” suggesting that these two elements depend upon each other for a total awareness of time and the human response (84, emphasis added). Michael Ondaatje offers an incisive meditation on this very point in In the Skin of a Lion: “Only the best art can order the chaotic tumble of events. Only the best can realign chaos to suggest both chaos and the order it will become” (Ondaatje 146, author’s emphasis). Ondaatje’s statements dovetail with Ricoeur’s interests; he contends that the written work mediates chaos and order, it “leads us from one side of the text to the other,” and in so doing, augments the worldview and life experience of the reader (Ricoeur 1: 46).

To explain more specifically how the elements of literary textuality encourage reader identification, Ricoeur emphasizes a distinction between “statement” and “utterance” in Volume II of Time and Narrative, literature’s “capacity of being divided into the time of the act of narrating [statement] and the time of the things narrated [utterance]” (5). This distinction is of vital importance to understanding literatures of the dispossessed; it suggests the gap between remembrance and that which is remembered. Resolving oneself to the latter through the former constitutes the framed narrative contexts of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, for example. Both are works in which narrators attempt to determine how past events have resulted in present circumstances – living underground, living in a chutney factory – and, more important, how remembering and narrating these past events (utterance) in the present narrative moment (statement) allows for a recuperation and resolution, towards future action. I will return to both Ellison and Rushdie on this past point, since Ricoeur’s explanation in Volume III of how the worlds of literary text and reader meet is related to the possibility for future action. More germane at this point would be a discussion of how the fictive experience of time, the major focus of Volume II, is particularly important to postcolonial works.

Ricoeur provides in-depth readings of three novels that he chooses because they are “tales about time,” rather than merely “of time”: Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (101, author’s emphasis). To be “about time” is to explore the differences between cosmological, historical and personal times, specifically, the reconciliation of the third category with the other two. As Ricoeur explains in Volume III, fiction is freed from the conventional need to connect phenomenological to cosmic time — the charge of history — and instead can explore imaginative variations on temporal experience. To do so is of undeniable significance in postcolonial contexts, where the call for non-authoritative visions of history is answered by the writer who reveals “Other” times that were at work within a formerly-colonized land during its period of oppression. The motive behind such an action must be understood as twofold. First, it demonstrates the human experience of time and the narrative response in which postcolonial writers participate; secondly, it localizes the experience, bringing into focus the value of life-stories effaced by the “master-narratives” of imperialist rulers. This second motive sounds decidedly conventional, possibly in agreement with Bhabha that the “aim of cultural difference is to rearticulate the sum of knowledge from the perspective of the signifying position of the minority that resists totalization” (Bhabha 162). There are two important ideas to engage in this statement of Bhabha’s, in order to avoid the sterile agon that he celebrates. To do so, I will employ Ricoeur’s study of the fictive experience of time in a brief discussion of Wilson Harris.

Any attempt to map out the chronological structure of Harris’s Palace of the Peacock immediately suggests the novel’s status as a work that re-articulates colonial experience from a postcolonial perspective. A primary feature of Palace is how Harris explodes the singular temporal experience of the Elizabethan explorer and brigand Donne, a figure whose individual actions allegorize the colonial endeavor itself. Harris’s own comments on his intentions with Donne and the novel’s meaning offer a valuable justification for his repeated re-temporalizing of the character:

Donne dies many deaths in Palace of the Peacock. He relives the terminal moment of history in the uncertainty of his own demise as portrayed and re-enacted by his nameless twin brother who dreams him back to life. Life becomes a relived, terminal, but paradoxically regained threshold into rhythmic space or nuclear turning point between times past, present and future. Such is the trial and rebirth of community encompassing intimate strangers. (Harris 54, author’s emphasis)

By reworking Donne into timeframes subsequent to his original appearance in the Guyanese jungles, Harris stresses the necessity of admitting outsiders into an indigenous history and shows us how doing so enables the rehabilitation of the community harmed by Donne’s first appearance amongst them, its “trial and rebirth” (my emphasis). The final focus, admirably, is the improvement of the community and not merely a constant critique of the pain inflicted upon it by a colonial power, a constant refrain in postcolonial criticism. Bhabha’s call for repeated, multiplying re-articulations from a subaltern position is an end in and of itself; Harris’s re-articulation is a means to a finer, more socially responsible end. Additionally, Harris very naturally endorses a totalizing perspective with his focus on the entire community — the indigenous people and Donne together — true to historical experience, because it includes the “intimate stranger” of the colonial encounter. Bhabha warns that any act of narration that attempts to go beyond mere contesting results in homogenous calcification, but Harris’s temporal innovations avoid such a consequence, and instead offer a fuller representation of Guyanese experience.

Exploring how and why postcolonial narratives participate in the fictive experience of time, specifically through the emplotment practiced by Harris in Palace of the Peacock, leads back to a central theme of Ricoeur’s: the relationship between history and fictional narratives. Volume II of Time and Narrative acts as a necessary companion to the second half of Volume I, where Ricoeur engaged twentieth century historiography and its “nonevent,” “anti-narrative” tendencies. Not surprisingly, there Ricoeur sought to suggest the reliance of history upon emplotment for shape and sense, concluding that there exists “a deeply hidden tie that holds history within the sphere of narrative and thereby preserves the historical dimension itself” (Ricoeur 1: 230). The significance of this conclusion becomes readily apparent near the end of Volume II, where Ricoeur explains his intention to juxtapose narrative fiction’s configurations with those of history. Taken together they constitute the total act of composition, always “preceded [and, for understanding, dependent upon] the use of narrative in daily life” (Ricoeur 2: 156). From this claim, Ricoeur proceeds to make another — possibly the most innovative thus far in his study. He explains that his thesis on time and narrative “does not separate the claim to truth asserted by fictional narrative from that made by historical narrative but attempts to understand each in relation to the other” (160). The individual implied by such an attempt will soon become Ricoeur’s concluding focus, as he determines how we are affected by the works we read, shifting his interest from world-of-the-work to the world-of-the-reader. The interdependence of fictional and historical narratives, their “interweaving” in Ricoeur’s sense, represents the central component of works of literature devoted to historical suffering and to the experience of suffering (through) history, and reveals the nature of our response and responsibility to them.

In the third and final volume of Time and Narrative, Ricoeur returns to Augustine and Aristotle, arguing that the former offers only a psychological response to the aporia of time while the latter, only a cosmological. He celebrates literature again because it can explore temporal experience freed from the conventional responsibilities of history to the past – a central premise of Volume II – but his praise is necessarily limited. At best, a work of fiction only “reveals an aporia and conceals its aporetic character under an ideal type of resolution [poetic/narrative], which is brought to light … only through imaginative variations on the very theme of the aporia” (Ricoeur 3:139). Yet these imaginative variations, to be successful, must maintain a certain subsequent interior standard of reality, since “fiction is bound internally by the very thing that it projects outside itself” (177). Because Ricoeur is convinced of literature’s dependence upon history for its sense (and vice-versa), he suggests that these imaginative variations require the ability of a writer to create a believable world and a willingness on the reader’s part to believe in the fictive past posited by it. Such a compact is accepted whenever we open a book: “Recounting something can then be said to be recounting it as if it were past” (189, author’s emphasis). Ricoeur supports this claim by virtue of his earlier study of grammar and narrative in Volume II, and our own experience readily confirms his position. Since a work of fiction is necessarily told in the preterit tense, it acts as if the events narrated are from a past. We agree to this important as if based upon our historical understanding of the past, which means:

Fictional narrative is quasi-historical to the extent that the unreal events that it relates are past facts for the narrative voice that addresses itself for the reader. It is in this that they resemble past events and that fiction resembles history. (190)

The general applicability of Ricoeur’s hypothesis — which demonstrates mimetic understanding, maintains the narrative impulse in responses to time and reminds us of the reader’s active part in endowing literature with (historical) meaning — is readily evident. What fruitful complications arise though, if the “unreal events” narrated by the voice addressing the reader are undeniably, historically real? What are we to do with a fictional narrative whose meaning depends simultaneously on the Thousand and One Nights and the modern history of India?

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children confirms the validity of Ricoeur’s position on the interweaving of history and fictional narratives. Saleem Sinai begins his story by drawing attention to the two modes of narration synthesized throughout the novel: “I was born in the city of Bombay … once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947” (Rushdie 3). We are given two beginnings for Saleem’s story — the archetypal fictional beginning, “once upon a time,” and the archetypal historical beginning, the first day of a nation’s independence. Each beginning is dependent upon the other. From this moment onward, through his narrator, Rushdie constructs for us a fantastic journey through the history of modern India, witnessing its victories and more often, its disappointments through the words of a single, representative voice for the nation. Ricoeur’s suggestion, that “fiction resembles history” because of its quasi-historical past, attains a far more intense feeling in Rushdie. From the 1919 Amritsar massacre to the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 and beyond Indira Gandhi’s 1975 Emergency, Rushdie shows us history through fiction, from a perspective that confirms Ricoeur’s merit of telling stories as most evident in “the necessity to save the history of the defeated and the lost.” Midnight’s Children is a retelling of India’s story by a man “buffeted by too much history” and able only to respond to time’s unceasing march by announcing “[he has] resolved to confide in paper” his, and his nation’s narrative (36). Throughout the novel, Saleem repeatedly refers to his fear of time’s effects upon him and can respond only by continuing to tell his story. The narrator suffers from an aporetic anxiety that is absolutely bound up with historically-charged concerns of dispossession and victimization; the author offers a poetic solution that constitutes a foundation work of postcolonial literature.

As Midnight’s Children draws to a close, the focus widens from postcolonial concerns to a general awareness of the passage of cosmological time. The final image of the novel — of the entirety of India’s past marching over the Thousand and One Children of Midnight — grimly conveys the final inability of literature alone to overcome the ever-increasing, ever-encroaching past. And yet, we keep narrating; in Rushdie’s scheme, there is always, indeed there must be  “one empty pickle jar” awaiting future contents, future history (531). This paradox of “future history” should remind us, obliquely, of the Augustinian paradox; it also segues into Ricoeur’s closing contention that narrative, at best, “consists less in resolving these aporias [of time] than in putting them to work, in making them productive” (Ricoeur 3: 261). Making productive the aporias of time is the accomplishment of Harris and Rushdie, who respond to the difficulties of colonial history with their re-writing of this history from the perspective of the defeated, the lost, the victims. It is a similar response to that which emerges in the works of Derek Walcott, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Anne Michaels, and Michael Ondaatje. Characters in these writers’ works confront the aporias of time — burdensome and lost pasts — while attempting to live in a distended present, where oppressive experiences encourage them to imagine versions of their life-stories alternative to their pre-established location in dominant narratives.

My initial intention in this article was to suggest how Ricoeur’s ideas of time and narrative illuminate postcolonial writing. I also wished to offer a more direct and practical vision of how this writing can affect, provoke and inspire action in the real world. We recall the Aristotelian emphasis on how and where a Greek tragedy achieves its full meaning: in the catharsis experienced by the audience. Ricoeur makes a gainful modification of Aristotle in his own vision of narrative meaning and the relationship between the world constructed by a literary work and the world of the reader. He argues that to “give full scope to the theme of interaction [between writer, work and reader] the phenomenology of the act of reading requires a flesh-and-blood reader, who, in actualizing the role of the reader prestructured in and through the text, transforms it” (171). Literary texts imply readers as well as authors, and require reception by individuals who refigure the text by their very act of reading. The meeting of the world of the work and the world of the reader constitutes “the fusion but not confusion of the horizons of expectations of the text and those of the reader, [uniting] these two moments of refigurations in the fragile unity of stasis and impetus” (179). The ending of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man offers an intense illustration of Ricoeur’s points on the interaction of the mimetic triad, and in turn will allows us to see how relevant action can arise from a literary work and is, indeed, demanded by it.

The narrator, having offered a jarring tale of his disillusionment about improving conditions for African Americans, then questions whether it time nonetheless he left his self-exile from the world:

I’m shaking off the old skin and leaving it here in the hole. I’m coming out, no less visible without it, but coming out nevertheless. And I suppose it’s damned well time. Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play. (Ellison 581)

The process of telling the story assists Invisible Man in reconciling himself to the past; the bitterness he displays at the beginning has been resolved by the end of the novel, as we realize with the closing of the frame. We can in turn gainfully read a dual applicability into this statement: we have hibernated along with the narrator (Ricoeur’s “stasis”) in reading this work and we are to take a cue from him as he plans to re-enter the world of action (Ricoeur’s “impetus”). The novel’s final paragraph confirms our seeing the reader prefigured in this statement, where the speaker imagines our response to his call for socially responsible action: “‘Ah,’ I can hear you say, ‘so it was all a build-up to bore us with his buggy jiving’” to which he responds, “what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through?” (581). And then we are given that final, shocking line, with which Ellison forces us to refigure his work in the context of own lives: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” (581).

The connection between the narrative voice and readerly ear, and the fusion of two worlds therein achieved, occurs on an explicitly personal level. In response to Invisible Man’s closing question, we reconsider the entirety of the novel, consciously in search of how it has potentially represented our own experience. In performing this act, we refigure its meanings, and potentially recognize connections between the protagonist’s experience and our own, which transcend cultural, historical and racial contexts. Thus do we transform a literary work, as Ricoeur suggests, by endowing it with the fullest meaning through our experience of it. But we are called to do more.

Ellison will not let us linger in a sense of retrospective victimization. If we find resonance with a voice that has spoken for us throughout the novel, we find it as well in the final call to leave the hibernation experience of the literary work and re-enter the real world, with an eye to social responsibility.  

Contemporary postcolonial criticism suffers from disabilities of abstraction, despite its claims of practical engagement, as becomes clear in a comparison of Homi Bhabha’s vision of the relationships between narrative, history and the everyday lives of readers and writers, with that of Paul Ricoeur. The value in Ricoeur results from its fealty to the natural rhythms of the human condition, and its attendant human-centered focus. Conversely, Bhabha stresses that the “perplexity of life” he sees in the postcolonial experience of time and narrative suggests neither a vacuum-sealed present nor a vague “primordial presence of the people” (Bhabha 157, author’s emphasis). Rather, in the construction of this discourse of “living perplexity” that Bhabha attempts

to produce we must remember that the space of human life is pushed to its incommensurable extreme; the judgement of living is perplexed; the topos of the narrative of history is neither the transcendental, pedagogical idea of History nor the institution of the State, but a strange temporality of the repetition of the one in the other – an oscillating movement in the governing present of cultural authority (157, author’s emphasis)

Where, in this formulation, is the acting and suffering person who experiences the perplexities of life? If narratives only move back and forth from History to State, and writers in minority positions in pluralist social and cultural contexts can only contest these narratives by assuming positions antagonistic to both, there is little sense of the direct value of trying to regain a dispossessed people’s past, for themselves. Bhabha’s focus is misplaced. His vision of postcolonial time and narrative serves its purpose only insofar as it allows the critique of the powerful, which essentially maintains them in a dominant position. To take our lead from such a theory is to accept a necessary state of constant agon between amorphous groups – hegemonic ruling class and subaltern ruled – and also, ironically, to efface the individual stories effaced by History and State in the first place. With Paul Ricoeur’s sense of narrative identity, we can descend to Ellison’s “lower frequencies,” where the relationship between time and narrative finds its full human value.

In his conclusions to Time and Narrative, Ricoeur makes explicit the claim that has underwritten his entire study, that the human response to time in any context is narrative. He argues for the centrality of narrative to his argument because of its centrality to our understanding of human identity:

What justifies our taking the subject of an action, so designated by his, her, or its proper name, as the same throughout life that stretches from birth to death? The answer has to be narrative. To answer the question ‘Who?’ as Hannah Arendt has so forcefully put it, is to tell the story of a life. The story told tells about the action of the ‘who’ (Ricoeur 3: 246)

The final focus, then, is on the “who”: human identity is narrative identity, “the fruit of an examined life” nurtured “by the works of a culture that it has applied to itself” (247). Ricoeur asks us to see the individual life in works of literature, buffered inevitably by too much history, but nevertheless, as individually of value, rather than a potentially recalcitrant siphon of the forces of History and State.

Ricoeur envisions narrative identity working on a communal level as well, insofar as “[individual] and community are constituted in their identity by taking up narratives that become for them their actual history” (247). The very act of reading Midnight’s Children or Palace of the Peacock makes those narratives part of our lives, because of the narrative components that are shared across the divide of artifice and reality, as the former augments, resolves, and redeems the time and history of the latter. Real action occurs on a one-to-one, personal level between the acting and suffering human beings who write books, the acting and suffering human beings mimetically-conveyed in them, and the acting and suffering human beings who read them. To quote Ricoeur once more, “We tell stories because in the last analysis human lives need and merit being narrated. This remark takes on its full force when we refer to the necessity to save the history of the defeated and the lost. The whole history of suffering cries out for vengeance and calls for narrative” (Ricoeur 1: 175). To answer this challenge is the natural impetus of every writer, and particularly those who find themselves minorities in pluralist societies, or chroniclers of colonial and postcolonial experience. To respond with humane analysis in the tradition of Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative is the responsibility of contemporary literary scholars committed to moving beyond mere contestatory polemics. The literature under consideration needs readers and critics willing to listen to Ellison’s lower frequencies, where human voices reach us, and we live.



See the introductory chapters of Bruce King’s The New National and Postcolonial Literatures (1996), and Aijaz Ahmad’s In Theory: Classes, Nations and Literatures (1992).


I follow Ahmad’s general comments on the relationship between Western intellectuals and Eastern thinkers currently feted by them. Said’s calls for action have resounded primarily with an Anglo-American liberal academy in search of means for self-flagellation for its complicities with the Western hegemonies it seeks to critique but from which it draws comfortable salaries. The same charge is equally applicable to Bhabha and his proponents. Questionable is the final value of a decision “to rearticulate the sum of knowledge from the perspective of the signifying position of the minority that resists totalization … that results in political and discursive strategies where adding to does not add up but serves to disturb the calculation of power and knowledge, producing other spaces of subaltern signification” (Bhabha 162). How does the constant production of subaltern positions ameliorate the real condition of subaltern peoples, those decidedly distant from tenure opportunities, rather than perpetuate an abstract version of the condition?

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi. “DissemiNation: Time, narrative and the margins of the modern nation.” The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. 139-170.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Harris, Wilson. “New Preface to Palace of the Peacock.” Selected Essays of Wilson Harris: The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination. Ed. Andrew Bundy. London: Routledge, 1999. 53-57.

Harris, Wilson. “History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas.” ibid, 152-166.

Michael Ondaatje. In the Skin of a Lion. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Reagan, Charles E. Paul Ricoeur: His Life and Work. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative. Volume I. Trans. K. McLaughlin and D. Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Ricoeur, Paul. ibid, Volume II.

Ricoeur, Paul. ibid, Volume III.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.