Narrative Scholarship: Storytelling in Ecocriticism

 John P. O'Grady, "Incurring the Wraith"


We all have our ghosts, I suppose. And because none of us "is an Island" unto ourselves, we often share our ghosts. This whole question "What is narrative scholarship?" is the latest form of a revenant that has been haunting literary criticism in Western culture since at least the time of Aristotle. What is a ghost? I like to think of it as any bit of unfinished communication, a connection that failed to establish. In the web of our conscious relations--both human and non-human--the ghost is a missing strand. To put this in terms of depth psychology, one could say that ghosts are the unconscious and usually invisible weavings of missing strands (of which there are many) in the web of consciousness that forms a world. And a world is always whole, whether perceived or not.

What is the nature of this ghost, which rises up as a question: "What is narrative scholarship?" What tattered dispatch lies behind this query? Actually it's a ghost "in disguise"--perhaps for safety's sake--the same one who haunts all literary critics, who is more familiar perhaps in the form of another question: "What is literary criticism?" All the other questions we might raise on the subject of "narrative scholarship" are subordinate to this. Use casuistry or good manners to deny it and we will be left chewing on that old scholastic chestnut: "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" (Those who call themselves "ecocritics" are already familiar with this ghost, in the form of the debate over whether nature is "essential" or "socially constructed.")

What then is literary criticism? Louise Rosenblatt offers a fine description: "In the basic paradigm for literary criticism, the movement is from an intensely realized aesthetic transaction with a text to reflection on semantic or technical or other details in order to return to, and correlate them with, that particularly apprehended aesthetic reading." Rosenblatt redirects attention back to the experience of reading; literary criticism, according to this model, is itself a dynamic literature of reading experiences. There are as many kinds of reading experiences as there are readings. Notice how I say "readings" and not "readers," for one is not the same reader of Moby Dick in 1995 that one was in 1975. You can't step into the same text twice. In an ideal realm, one could say that a literary critic is a highly self-aware reader. The goal: to know oneself, or at least be working on it. Do you see where all this is leading? "What is literary criticism?"--that question too is a ghost in disguise. "I know you!" we must now say to the ghost, which suddenly reveals itself as another question: "Who am I" Press harder: Who is the "I" that asks "Who am I?" There are many ghosts, but they are all one ghost.

And what about narrative scholarship? It's just another method in our meaning-making activities. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't, just like any other experiment in the extended investigations that constitute a life. The risk we always run is that we might get lost in the haze of our own imaginings. Which is to say the ghosts will hold us in thrall. Narrative scholarship, if that indeed is what I am sometimes perceived as doing, is a way of working with the ghosts.

John P. O'Grady, Boise State University