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Spring 2016

In Defense of the Narrative Imagination

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Wendy Lesser

I have one myself, in a relatively passive form, which is no doubt why I am so eager to defend it. I can hardly look at two dots without wanting to draw a line between them, and most of the artists I care about seem to feel the same way. I love fiction with a plot, and that goes for anything from Henry James to a good mystery. Even the poetry I like tends to have a narrative of sorts, or at any rate a narrator. If I am looking at a thrillingly evocative painting, of any era, I can’t help but imagine a story behind the image. This is doubly true for a photograph, which usually does have a story behind it. And when I stand rapt in front of one of Bernini’s great marbles—Apollo and Daphne, say, or the Rape of Proserpina —my pleasure owes something to my amazement at the way an ongoing mythical event has been captured, snapshot-like, in cold stone.

Art needn’t be figurative or verbal to have this capacity. Even when I am drawn to an architect (Louis Kahn) or a composer (Dmitri Shostakovich), it is often because I detect in his creations this essential quality, this kind of narrative imagination. At first I may not even be aware of it on a conscious level, focusing instead on a more obvious quality, like Kahn’s intimate grandeur or Shostakovich’s vital sadness. But the more acquaintance I have with my favorite artists’ work, the surer I become that they possess that narrative impulse. It’s often signaled by their preoccupation with timing and sequencing, or anticipation and suspense: the material is being doled out to us in a particular order, to produce a varying but related set of emotions and realizations, and we are responding to it as both recipients and collaborators.

What attracts me to such artworks is the sense they give me that I am going somewhere, and then arriving somewhere. This is not the same as absolute finality. I can live with inconclusiveness—as I do in the work of Penelope Fitzgerald, for instance—if I have enough faith in the solidity of the structure. And I can more than tolerate ambiguity. Ambiguity, for me, goes hand-in-hand with narrative, because in order to be offered two or more pathways for our thoughts, we have to have pathways to begin with.

Let me pause for a moment to say what the narrative imagination is not. It is not the same as story-telling. Music without words can have it, and so can dances without plots. It may take you longer to recognize narrative in an abstract or plotless work, but the tendency can still be there, resting in the twists and turns of the choreography, the rhythms and reversals of the music. We progress from walking to leaping to standing still: that can be the narrative. Or: we go away from the home key and then come back to it, with variations in between. The narrative capacity resides not in the story being told, but in the creator’s manner of telling it.

It’s also essential to realize that narrative is not equatable with meaning. In fact, you might almost say it is the opposite of meaning. A work that knows its own meaning too well generally fails on the narrative level, because it retains no sense of open possibilities and therefore has nowhere to go. It is fixed and unyielding, whereas truly narrative works are filled with movement, even when they are still works like paintings, sculptures, and photographs.

When I say that narrative and meaning are not the same, of course I’m not saying that narrative artworks are meaningless. On the contrary, if they are any good they are replete with meaning, with multiple meanings. But a good narrative artwork (or for that matter a good artwork of any kind) does not tell you its meaning in a direct and translatable way, just as it does not convey to you in explicit form its creators’ intentions. Not that these are the same, either: intention and meaning are two very different things, just as meaning and narrative are. The creator must have intentions for the artwork to succeed, but they will never be identical to a viewer’s experience of the artwork. That is part of the free play by which art becomes something more than even its creator can account for.

The narrative artwork resides, almost by definition, in the viewer’s encounter with it, because a narrative must exist in time. Only when the work is performed on a stage or viewed in a gallery does that essential dynamic come into play. And it happens differently every time, with each new viewer and then with each repeated viewing, so that the narrative remains always open, never closed and finished.

Certain critics seem to have trouble grasping this. I am thinking, in particular, of the kinds of art historians who call themselves iconographers. They too believe in the narrative quality of artworks, but their belief unfortunately relies on the Rosetta Stone approach. If you can just master the key, they insist (and they are invariably the keepers of these keys), you can unlock the meaning of any given painting. A ray of light means knowledge, a coin means greed, an exposed bosom means lasciviousness…by this means all of Vermeer or Bruegel is reduced to the level of a post-mortem report. The critic can then brush his hands quickly and dismissively against each other (“Well, that’s done with!”) and move on to the next victim, with no need to examine the artwork ever again, since it lies dead upon the pathologist’s table.

Even less-blinkered critics can suffer from a similar confusion. I come up against it most often in the critiques, both positive and negative, of Mark Morris’s choreography. It is a given that he has a narrative imagination: everyone, fans and foes, acknowledges this about him, and it is certainly part of the reason I have loved his work from the very beginning. But the fact that there is a narrative quality to his dances does not mean that we are meant to understand them completely. In constructing a narrative, Morris is not giving us “clues” to his “meaning,” as some of his more obtuse critics seem to suggest. The narrative lies in our encounter with the dance, comes alive in our experience of the dance. He puts it there, yes, but not in any fully conscious way, just as we do not take it out in any fully conscious way.

This is not to say that as a choreographer he does not have intentions—of course he does, or the work would not get made. But those are not the same as either meaning or narrative. He wants the steps to go to the music, he wants the stage pattern to vary from symmetry to asymmetry, he wants men and women occasionally to perform each other’s roles: these are all intentions, and he has a million more of them on a local level in every dance. But can any of them be said to reveal a specific, translatable meaning? And can any of them account for the extreme narrative satisfactions granted us by his best works? I don’t think so.

Consider, for instance, a sequence from The Hard Nut, one of Morris’s greatest achievements. I saw it for perhaps the tenth or twelfth time at BAM in December, and though I have been watching this piece for about twenty years now, I see something new in it every time. One of the great pleasures this work gives me is the way it has freed the music of Tchaikovsky (another notable narrative artist) from the confines imposed by sugar-plum fairies and little-girl ballet dreams into something much larger, darker, and more complex. In fact, I never really liked this score until I saw Morris’s version of the dance and realized how profoundly subtle and moving it could be. That is not just a matter of Mark Morris’s famous ability to match gesture with music; it also lies in the way he allows the music, at times, to swell on its own, with nothing happening onstage but set changes.

Still, my very favorite sequence, the end of the first act, does have quite a lot going on in terms of dance. We begin with the first appearance of the young Drosselmeier, who is also the embodied nutcracker toy, the princely figure with whom the young heroine will eventually fall in love. He dances alone onstage, briefly, touchingly. Then, at a crucial moment in the music, he is joined by the initially shadowy figure of the original Drosselmeier, who mimics and reflects (or perhaps dictates and projects) the younger man’s movements from the back of the stage. First seen as a misty figure emerging from behind a scrim, the magician Drosselmeier comes forward and begins to dance with the nutcracker Drosselmeier: gently embracing him with a palm to his chest, lifting his own long legs to match his protégé’s extensions, gesturing upward and outward as if to show the new creature-come-to-life where his future will lie. It is always an emotionally powerful passage, but, depending on the dancers who perform it, it can be profound in different ways. When Rob Besserer (The Hard Nut’s original Drosselmeier, a very tall, strong dancer with a huge presence) performed it with David Leventhal (a precise, wonderfully agile, noticeably shorter dancer), the duet had an almost father-son quality, as if the knowledge of how to conduct oneself in this strange world—their world onstage, and implicitly our world as well—were being handed down through the generations. Now that it is performed with Billy Smith in the older Drosselmeier part and Aaron Loux as the younger man, it has more of an elder-brother/younger-brother feel, with Smith, who is only slightly taller, guiding Loux by virtue of his greater knowledge but not necessarily greater age. Another way of putting this is that they both feel like grown-ups now. As with all cast changes, this one brings both losses and gains, but the dance is no less moving than it ever was (and, interestingly, no more sexual than it ever was: this moment is about partnership of a rarer and more complicated kind).

The minute these two complete their duet and disappear, the music lights up the empty stage with the early strains of what will become the Snowflake Dance, and those of us who have seen it before begin to quiver with anticipation. Slowly at first and then with increasing speed, waves of fleet, barefooted dancers—three, four, then five or six at a time—begin to cross the stage from opposite directions and all angles. They number twenty-two men and women in all, ranging from Morris’s most experienced and accomplished stalwarts to complete newcomers, identically costumed in stiff tutu skirts, midriff-baring bras, and silly hats. At precise moments punctuated by the music, they raise their hands, open their fists, and release gusts of snow-confetti. It is all wonderfully theatrical (the narrative imagination, after all, is not unconnected to a certain amount of showmanship); it’s also a kick, especially the first time you watch it, and there is always a great deal of audience laughter.

But the more times you’ve seen The Hard Nut, the more touching this sequence becomes, as the music builds and the snow-bursts become ever more frequent and the whole thing moves toward some kind of climax. These days I rarely watch it without tears coming to my eyes. The fact that the men and women are dressed alike no longer seems an issue of drag costuming, but of universality across various kinds of bodies. This is a utopia of sorts, a state of mind and body that cannot be sustained — and the music, in its wild ecstasy, tells us as much. By the end, all twenty-two snowflakes are onstage at once, twirling simultaneously, and at this point the older Drosselmeier appears from the left and walks gradually, pensively up through the forest of spinning bodies toward the righthand back of the stage. As he passes each of the turning figures, they slow and then stop, freezing in position; by the time Drosselmeier exits the stage, they are all still. And then the curtain comes down.

This is what I mean by a narrative imagination. It is not about story: the Nutcracker story, like virtually all ballet and opera stories, is essentially a silly one, and by the time we are on our second or third viewing, we don’t really care much about what is supposed to be happening plotwise. And it makes no sense to ask what this sequence means, except in the metaphorical ways in which I have attempted to describe it. The meanings are not fixed (they can change with the casting, or even with the viewer’s mood) and they are not translatable into words, any more than Tchaikovsky’s measures are. If there is meaning here, it is emotional meaning, generally of a complicated and sometimes contradictory kind. That is what the narrative impulse produces, and that is what the grateful audience member recognizes each time—that she is as much a participant as the dancers or the musicians or the choreographer, because the emotional meaning resides in her.

I mentioned that even Morris’s most sympathetic critics can occasionally get confused about these issues, and I will give just a single example. Last fall, the Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU sponsored a conversation between Mark Morris and Stephanie Jordan, the author of a new book called Mark Morris: Musician-Choreographer. It was a friendly conversation, and Morris was notably gentle with his chronicler, but Jordan — an intelligent and respected British dance historian — seemed excessively nervous abut her role as an inside observer. She appeared to feel that, since she had been given access to Morris’s rehearsals and Morris’s instructions to his dancers, she was in danger of giving away the meaning of his pieces in her critical discussions, and therefore she made every effort not to do so.

Here is where the definitional differences become important. It seems unlikely that Jordan could have been given full access even to Morris’s intentions, some of which were bound to remain unspoken despite his thinking-aloud with his dancers; but even if she had been, she would not have had access to his meaning, since that was never his to give away in the first place. Still, she clearly felt burdened by her extra knowledge, and the effect of her anxiety (at least during that evening’s presentation) was to limit her to observations of only the most literal kind. This, in turn, meant that she inevitably gave short shrift to the great narrative virtues of Morris’s work. It was as if she feared that any kind of metaphorical description of what was going on in her mind as she watched these pieces would constitute either secret or irrelevant information. Yet metaphor, the critic’s essential tool, lies at the heart of any effort to convey narrative art. And that goes for the creator too: Mark Morris himself cannot conduct either a class or a rehearsal without resorting to it.

This reliance on metaphor, for both the maker and the viewer, can be seen in the work of another choreographer who is also a narrative artist, though perhaps in a less obvious way than Morris. I’m referring to Frederick Ashton, and in particular to his brilliant, wonderful Monotones. Set to the work of Erik Satie, Monotones I and II (which I first saw in late October on a remarkable ABT program that also featured Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table and Mark Morris’s new After You) consists of two separate dances for trios: a gold-clad trio consisting of one man and two women, followed by a silver-clad trio consisting of one woman and two men. The first piece is astonishing; the second is even better. Afterward, as I was contemplating how to describe the experience of watching the two men delicately and continuously turn the woman upside-down and right-side-up between them, a fellow audience member said to me: “It was like watching a scientific experiment.” And that felt exactly right. It was not that Ashton was coldly and clinically testing the capacities of the female body for its contortionist possibilities, as Wayne McGregor might be accused of doing. It was more that the dance itself gave us the sense of watching a beautiful scientific instrument in action—an elegant gyroscope, say—even as it also conveyed the open, investigative, wonder-filled sensation of disinterested scientific curiosity. The metaphor did not express Ashton’s intentions, and it did not encapsulate the dance’s meaning; it simply described, in an extremely accurate way, the pleasurable effect of the dance on our own narrative imaginations.

Metaphor also entered into the performance that got me started thinking about these issues, way back in the middle of last October, before I had ever seen Monotones or re-seen The Hard Nut. This was a sequence of three Schubert concerts put on at Alice Tully Hall by the tenor Mark Padmore and the fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival. At the end of the third concert—which was, naturally, Winterreise—the two performers stayed onstage to talk briefly about what they felt they had been doing. The very articulate Bezuidenhout, in reaction to a question about the “plot” of Winterreise, said that he didn’t think of it so much as a literal journey through a wintry landscape, but rather as if a person, or a creature, or at any rate a sensibility were trapped beneath the waters of a pond, watching what went on above the surface and longingly wondering what it would be like to participate in that earthly life. The image crystallized, for me, what I had felt during his and Padmore’s marvelous performances: the way they gave us access to something eerie and otherworldly but also vulnerably human in Schubert’s music.

In the course of these three evenings of song, three different yet collaborative narrative imagations—Schubert’s, Padmore’s, and Bezuidenhout’s—joined together to give us something that was stronger and more moving than any one of them could have offered alone. They did it with restraint and precision, so that the emotion was not yanked from us, but was allowed to emerge gradually in response to the piercingly beautiful combinations of words and music. No element predominated: though we were given English translations for the German words on a background screen, the songs were never reduced to their verbal meaning, and while the focus was often on Padmore’s wonderfully conversational yet melodic voice, the fortepiano played an equally important role. Both performers transformed themselves into pure vehicles for these extended, connected sequences of song, written by the young Schubert when he already knew he was dying.

The most obviously narrative of the three evenings was the first, the one devoted to Die schöne Müllerin, a piece which builds on a sustained tale: a young miller’s love for his employer’s daughter, his envy of the huntsman who steals her heart, his sadness and ultimate death. In the music itself we can hear the huntsman’s horn, the pattering of the nearby brook, the serenade on the young miller’s lute, the sounds of his laughter and love-talk — and in the silences that come between the songs, as well as in their changing palette, we can hear the gradual darkening of the piece. Padmore sang all this without excessive gesture, barely with gesture of any kind, though toward the end of the seventy-minute program, between the penultimate and the final song, he crossed the stage and stood on the other side of the piano. “Why did he do that?” said the woman in the seat next to me, when we had regrouped on the following night. “Because he became a different character,” I said. “He was the brook singing about the young miller’s death, rather than the miller himself.” She nodded, as if that were sufficient explanation — though I wished I had also said that she ought only to take my response metaphorically, because it didn’t really explain anything about why the slight action had been so moving.

Winterreise was always bound to be the pinnacle of this sequence of concerts, and it was indeed overpowering to hear Mark Padmore sing its last song, “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man,” in his uniquely heart-stopping, soul-searing way. But it was actually the second concert, which featured the Schwanengesang, that left me most devastated. In this “Swansong” that Schubert didn’t consciously create as a single series—including the last song he ever wrote, finished just before his death from syphilis at the age of thirty-one—one could sense the looming presence of mortality in a way I have rarely heard it in music before. The emotional devastation began, for me, with the song “Farewell,” in which you could feel the animated beat of the horse’s hooves carrying the rider past everything he has loved. The tension between the vitality of the music—its liveliness, its onwardness—and the sadness of the words, as they bid farewell to every little element in the beloved world, was more than tear-inducing; it seemed to reach down to that strange place Wordsworth found, where there are “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

This, I thought, was the narrative imagination in its purest form. It was a performance that possessed the openness, the forward movement, the vitally enlivening pacing that I am always seeking out in art, combined with something implacable that marked an utter stopping-point, invisible yet sensed, just beyond its conclusion.

Wendy Lesser, the founding editor of The Threepenny Review and the author of ten books to date, is finishing up a biography of the architect Louis Kahn.

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