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October 19, 2012

Pip and the convict in a graveyard, from an 1895 edition of Great Expectations

The word “tempics” promises jargon and obscurity, but Gary Saul Morson’s “Sideshadowing and Tempics” is as clear a piece of writing about an abstract subject as I’ve found. Here’s his argument:

In life, we tend to see time as “open.” The future is uncertain, and there is no reason to assume what happens today anticipates a turning point later in our lives.

But since “narratives, insofar as they rely on structure, are predisposed to convey a sense of fatalism, determinism, or otherwise closed time” (599), readers (and especially scholars, who reread) learn to read stories as if they all were constructed with a particular end in mind, with everything unrelated to that end stripped away. We find instances of foreshadowing in literature where we would not suspect it in life: nothing in the story lacks a purpose, or it wouldn’t be there. However, Morson argues, writers can overcome the natural bias towards closed time in narrative. Critics should overcome their own bias and accept the possibility of open time in narrative, of “processual” narrative.

Case one: Dostoevskii. When you reread The Idiot you find a scene at the beginning with Myshkin and Rogozhin that appears to foreshadow the end of the novel. However, you also find another scene that portends something important between Myshkin and Gania that never comes to pass. Dostoevskii’s notebooks show that he had no idea how to finish the novel well after the early Myshkin-Rogozhin scene had been published. And he left notes to himself to do something with the Gania character, but he never really did. Meanwhile, The Possessed is purportedly narrated by a man looking back after a catastrophe befell his town, but the catastrophe is never specified. It is a kind of foreshadowing that forecloses no possibilities, that makes the events of the novel seem anything but preordained.

Instead of the traditional, closed-time narrative device of foreshadowing, Dostoevskii gives us what Morson calls “sideshadowing.” Sideshadowing emphasizes the contingency of the present, while foreshadowing makes the present and the future seem inevitable. In open time, we see the present as one of many things (not absolutely anything, but several alternatives) that could have come to pass. Dostoevskii’s sideshadowing could mean laying out several scenarios for what Kairova might have gone on to do with the razor in her hand and her rival in front of her. Or it could mean having the narrator of The Possessed fail to give a single straightforward account of an event he ostensibly witnessed; “instead, he typically reports a range of rumors, doubts his own best sources, and obsessively offers alternative possibilities.”

My favorite part is when Morson contrasts Dickens to Dostoevskii (spoiler alert if you’re reading Bleak House):

In Great Expectations, Pip gives a pie to a convict, and the reader assumes that this apparently inconsequential event will in fact be consequential. It will mean something, or it would not be there. The fact that novels have structure justifies this assumption. Events are shaped not only by incidents within the fictional world, which the heroes in principle could know, but also by the need for a symmetrical story and an effective aesthetic artifact, considerations they could not know. As Bakhtin would say, they testify to the author’s “essential surplus” over his characters. This double causation of events distinguishes the temporality of even the most realistic novel from that of life. We do not expect our daily donations to be Dickensian pies. In novels, when bread is cast upon the waters, it comes back manifold, but in life it often just drifts away.

In so many of Dickens’s great novels, we marvel at the author’s pie-baking skill. Characters and incidents mentioned apparently at random—motivated only by previous events and the currently unfolding action—turn out to be tied together in all sorts of complex ways. In Bleak House, the lost love of Boythorn’s life turns out to be the woman who first raised Esther and who was Lady Dedlock’s sister. And so on. Dickens’s plots stand as masterpieces because their design is so artful—and so palpable. They are utterly unlike life. But The Idiot does not resemble Bleak House in this respect. Dickens rarely tells us that some apparently minor incident is a pie, although we usually know. Dostoevsky does seem to tell us unmistakably—and then: no pie. (613)

Why doesn’t Dostoevskii use a closed, Dickens-like plot? He is running an experiment about what would happen if a saint like Myshkin came to contemporary Russia. The outcome of the experiment was unknown even to him. He didn’t entirely like the result, so he reran it in The Brothers Karamazov (621-23).

See Gary Saul Morson, “Sideshadowing and Tempics,” New Literary History 29.4 (1998): 599-624. If this post weren’t so long I’d say something about his comparison of poetics to other fields, especially evolutionary biology (617-19). I was led to this article by Ronald D. LeBlanc, who makes use of the idea of sideshadowing in his article on Dostoevskii and the Kairova trial.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2015 11:18 pm

    What does Tempic mean or imply is it a name or some type of ocurance in time?

    • October 18, 2015 12:02 am

      If I remember right, I think Morson uses “tempics” to mean “the possible attitudes toward time in narrative,” whether the narrative creates the feeling of “open time” — where anything can happen, like in real life, and there’s no reason to think that events today foreshadow important things in the future — or “closed time,” where events may seem natural and realistic but are only described if they serve some purpose in the structured story being told.

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