CHINESE-BOX WORLDS 113
and over again, each time operating on the product of the previous operation.For example, take a film, which projects a fictional world; within that world,place actors and a film crew, who make a film which in turn projects its
fictional world; then within
world place another film crew, who makeanother film, and so on. This, as Douglas Hofstadter has demonstrated, is a basic structure of thought, occurring in mathematics, computer softwareand, of course, natural language. In Hofstadter’s exemplary recursivedialogue, “Little Harmonic Labyrinth” (from
Gödel, Escher, Bach
), Achillesand the Tortoise distract themselves from a tense predicament by reading astory in which two characters called Achilles and the Tortoise enter an Escherprint, in which they read a story in which two characters called Achilles andthe Tortoise are lost in a labyrinth.
We can describe this recursive structuremost easily in terms of the metalanguage of narrative levels which GérardGenette has taught us to use.
Hofstadter’s dialogue projects a primary world,or
to which Achilles and the Tortoise belong. Within that world theyread a story which projects a
diegetic world, one level “down” fromtheir own. The characters of
world, in turn, enter the hypo-hypodiegeticworld of the Escher print; and so on, an additional “hypo” being prefixedfor each level as we descend “deeper” into what Hofstadter calls the “stack”of narrative levels.Each change of narrative level in a recursive structure also involves achange of ontological level, a change of world. These embedded or nestedworlds may be more or less continuous with the world of the primary diegesis,as in such Chinese-box novels as
Wuthering Heights, Lord Jim,
!; or they may be subtly different, as in the play-within-the-play of
or even radically different, as in Hofstadter’s dialogue. In other words,although there is always an ontological discontinuity between the primarydiegesis and hypodiegetic worlds, this discontinuity need not always beforegrounded. Indeed, in many realist and modernist novels, such as
!, it is rather theepistemological dimension of this structure which is foregrounded, eachnarrative level functioning as a link in a chain of narrative transmission.Here recursive structure serves as a tool for exploring issues of narrativeauthority, reliability and unreliability, the circulation of knowledge, and soforth.So if recursive structure is to function in a postmodernist poetics of ontology,strategies obviously must be brought to bear on it which foreground itsontological dimension. One such strategy, the simplest of all, involves
: interrupting the primary diegesis not once or twice but
withsecondary, hypodiegetic worlds, representations within the representation.
with its single interruption by the play-within-the-play, isunproblematic in its ontological structure; the relatively frequent interruptionsof the primary diegesis by the film-within-the-film in
The French Lieutenant’sWoman
make it somewhat more problematic; while still more problematicare such postmodernist novels as Claude Simon’s
(1979), or Italo Calvino’s
If on a winter’s night atraveller
(1979), where the primary diegesis is interrupted so often, by nestedrepresentations in such diverse media (novels-within-the-novel, films-within-