A Temporality of Contradiction

Jeff Love, Clemson University

The identity of time becomes a central issue in the emergence of the modern novel; the underlying concern is whether narratives are mimetic, being derived from some primordial intuition of time, or in fact the founding of the forms of time. This concern may seem spurious from the outset since time is an immediate fact of existence; to suggest that we can invent or create time is equivalent to suggesting that we can invent or create the seasons or suspend them at will, a state of affairs flatly contradicted by all human experience. But to dismiss the concern in these terms is to veil its difficulty, the curious fact that time can only become “visible” from a perspective that must in some way transcend it. The identity of time is dependent on a source that must be outside it – time is not some “x,” some “thing in itself”; rather, it has a particular and deeply phenomenal texture. There can be no notion of a “present” other than one whose being arises from a mediating structure that exceeds it.

This mediating structure is narrative, a specific instantiation of the desire to wrest form from inchoate experience by imposing on it a temporal identity. Narratives are struggles for mastery over the abyss of the present – they are daring explorations of the untapped openness of experience that must otherwise remain utterly silent. Narratives both exploit and give shape to the relation between particular and general, between immediate experience and the construction of that experience that allows it to appear in the first place – in a word, a narrative is the product and outline of a certain relation of contradiction between subject and object, the openness of individual perception and the closedness of the forms required to bring coherence to that perception.

Few novelists have confronted this relation with more intensity than Tolstoj, whose formidable “non-novel,” War and Peace, is in fact one of the great explorations of   narrative possibility in the short history of the novel.  In my paper I wish to examine several temporal signatures in the novel to reveal the common conflict in which they are enmeshed; a conflict between what I might call the “putative present,” that immediacy whose reality is only preserved by form, and the kinds of mediation that permit immediacy to shine forth while also, in a paradoxical and vexing manner, ensuring that immediacy must remain a peculiar ideal, an impossible possibility of experience. I then wish to place this conflict within a broader context, that of the question of authority, of narrative mediation as dynamic mimesis or sovereign invention, a question whose importance for grasping the manifold audacities of War and Peace merits closer attention.