Narrative Scheme in Personal Stories Interpreting Historical Events (Recurring Motif: Desecration of a Church/Temple)

Olga Levitski, York University

The paper deals with a narrative scheme that underlies universal motifs that have worldwide parallels. Such motifs are traditionally studied from the folkloristic perspective. We suggest that the persistent recurrence of narrative schemes in the various modern texts should be studied from the linguistic perspective as well. Since the processes of information storage in and retrieval from the collective memory occur both diachronically and synchronically, we assumed interdisciplinary approach: methods of comparative folklore and cognitive linguistics were applied. The cognitive foundations of the universal motifs, as well as different levels of discourse analysis (narrative matrixes, macrostructures, and cognitive models) are closely related; the narrative framework is based on a cognitive set of a language user (knowledge, beliefs, opinions, etc.). The reviewed materials vary chronologically and geographically: archive data, legends (i.e., Talmudic tradition describing the destruction of the Temple), rumors, tabloid articles, and interviews we conducted. The comparative method revealed generic resemblance of different narratives, which had been ignored before.

Personal narratives describing church desecrations, which took place after the Soviet Revolution, are widespread in Russia, and are based on a rigid narrative scheme. This scheme (or its explicit or implicit semantic components reconstructed from the variety of texts) constitutes the framework that is well known to all participants of a speech act. For example, there are stories about people who removed the bells from churches, or who transformed the churches into storerooms or clubs, etc. The scheme includes some kind of misfortune that eventually befell the blasphemers, or a curse cast upon the desecrated place. The causal-consequential relationships in this scheme are structured with the help of markers: “as a result,” “later on,” “because of that,” etc. The scheme communicates the general idea of punishment caused by the act of sacrilege. The details and themes of the scheme vary: church / temple; saint / God / Our Lady, etc. The narratives based on the above scheme have been triggered by the historical events. In the past, these narratives were transmitted as legends. Today, they are also told as “real life experience” stories. Similar events may receive similar interpretation in different cultures. Comparative study of the recurring structural and semantic elements helps better understand the formation mechanism of causal-consequential relationships in the narratives based on the universal motifs.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the discussed scheme is an example of a narrative matrix, which serves as an instrument for solving social and psychological conflicts and achieving social justice (universal belief in supernatural punishment of the blasphemers). New events, similar to the old ones, revitalize universal narrative schemes, because human perception of reality is bound to the mental picture of the world consisting of “scripts” and scenarios. Such scripts are part of the mental framework of knowledge; they help people cope with stress. We consider the above scheme a linguistic defense mechanism activated in the times of historical turbulence. When a traumatic episode is being interpreted within the familiar narrative matrix, it becomes more comprehensible and easier to accept.