Today I snuck away from all the things I should have been doing to re-read one of David Antin’s essays on narrative. A great deal of the theoretical writing I’ve encountered about narrative seems to me either blindingly obvious or abstract to the point of uselessness. But Antin’s comments feel spot-on and incredibly insightful; reading them is the kind of ah-ha! moment that comes when someone manages to articulate clearly what we’ve intuited all along but never quite been able to grasp.
From his essay:
If a beggar wishes to become a king and there is a chance of his becoming one, there is also the possibility that the change will annihilate him….
Any transformation, no matter how promising, contains the threat of destroying its desiring subject in the magnitude of fulfillment. But what the beggar wants is to remain the beggar inside the life of the king, or to hold on to that subject position from which the life of a king would be a sufficient satisfaction to at least offset the gravest problems of statecraft, which the beggar has most likely never counted on. And it would be in the interest of the king, who is suffering from all the anxieties of kingship and in whose state of mind the beggar remains only in threads of nostalgia and anxiety, to build a bridge from his present life to his past. As it would be in the interest of the beggar to build a bridge from his present to his possible future, to imagine the speculative consequences of his transformation.
This bridge building across change is what I would suggest is the central human function of narrative.
(from Poems and Poetics)