Tuesday, February 27, 2007

One event before another

“Pulp Fiction” was a highly influential movie, but the majority of narratives, of course, are still constructed in the traditional way. Event A leads to events B and C. Or, alternatively, the movie starts in the middle, with B, which necessarily throws us back to A, which eventually leads past B and onward to C. “The Good Shepherd,” one of the best (and most underpraised) movies of last year, jumps all over the place, but the different time periods—the distant, intermediate, and recent past, as well as the present—are clearly marked elements in a chronological scheme that the viewer eventually assembles in his head as a continuous tale. The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume spent years hoping to convince his readers that sequence does not necessarily imply causality, but I would guess that he didn’t get very far with such contemporary narrative artists as Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson (although Laurence Sterne, the proto-modernist prankster of “Tristram Shandy,” may have been listening). Storytellers, relying on sequence and causality, make sense out of nonsense; they impose order, economy, and moral consequence on the helter-skelter wash of experience. The notion that one event causes another, and that the entire chain is a unified whole, with a complex, may be ambivalent, but, in any case, coherent meaning, not only brings us to a point of resolution; it allows us to navigate through our lives.

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