Critical Inquiry 7 (1):201-203 (1980)

Why, then, do we huddle in the dark around the campfires of our flickering narratives? There are obviously many different reasons for doing so. Yet, having heard various récits—whether "stories" or "accounts"—during the narrative conference, I am more inclined than ever to see self-assertive entertainment and self-transcending commitment as two kinds of ultimate motivation for our countless narratives. Stories and histories and other narrative or descriptive accounts help us to escape boredom and indifference—ours as well as that of other people. Those nearly vacant states of mind at the zero degree of entertainment and commitment bring us frightfully close to the experience of nonexistence. Hence our desire to replace boredom by thrilling or gratifying entertainment and to replace indifference by the social or cosmic commitment either to change the world or to change ourselves. In a world of unmixed colors and pure literary genres, tragedy, comedy, satire, and romance might answer distinct needs for thrill, gratification, indignation, and admiration. But, as Roy Schafer and Victor Turner have reminded us, the private and social dramas underlying psychoanalytical and anthropological accounts are even less pure than most works of literature. Couldn't we conclude that life's internal and external dramas stem from a compound desire for self-assertion and self-transcendence—a desire which, in the realm of literary entertainment and commitment, motivates the emergence and appreciation of tragicomedy? Paul Hernadi teaches English and comparative literature at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Beyond Genre: New Directions in Literary Classification and the editor of What is Literature? and What is Criticism? His previous contribution to Critical Inquiry, "Literary Theory: A Compass for Critics," appeared in the Winter 1976 issue
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DOI 10.1086/448095
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