Ben Hania 1

Narcissistic Narrative: the narrative and its diegetic and
linguistic masks

Abstract
This paper examines the theoretical underpinnings of narcissistic narratives or
metafiction. This form of narrative foregrounds an intense awareness of the literary alteration
of paradigms as well as the theoretical problematization of the narrative ontological status.
This kind of texts is aware of itself as narrative or artifice, and of its functioning and its
mechanisms of construction, of its past conventions and its mutation, and of the contentious
processes of production and reception of fiction. The metafictional text follows critically and
self-consciously the tracks of the overall history of literary composition and criticism and of
its own metamorphoses from the past till the present moment taking as its main challenge and
aim the exercise of self-exposition, self-criticism and self-evaluation. One of the main
premises of narcissistic narrative is tracking the literary trajectory from "art conceals" to "art
reveals" through mainly making recourse to parody and parodic strategies. All the previous
diegetic and linguistic masks have become not only exposed and dropped down but also and
more importantly questioned and criticized.

and then to examine critically such impulses” (19). language. Soon after. first to create fictions. to designate a type of fiction that “includes within itself a commentary on its own narrative and/or linguistic identity” (11). To admit its fictiveness. It is a theoretical project that lies under the postmodernist widespread metafictional corpus.Ben Hania 2 The emergence of literary narcissism is due to an incremental need for fiction to reconsider its paradigms and to identify its stand in regard to the numerous suspect literary concepts such as reality. The label “Narcissistic narrative” was first suggested by the postmodern Canadian literary theorist Linda Hutcheon in her book Narcissistic in1980. Finally. narcissistic narrative bears within it most of the postmodernist’s issues and paradoxes. and representation. this paper will attempt to perform a theoretical contextualization of metafictional narcissism at first stage. narcissistic narrative goes through a long process of inward self-investigation and mask-revelation overtly declaring what it is and what it is not. In Narcissistic Narrative: the Metafictional Paradox1. Linda Hutcheon explains that “the drive toward self-reflexivity is a three-step process. Through the lens of postmodernist and poststructuralist approaches. it studies narcissistic criticism of the masks of realism and explains that metafiction does not emanate to the death of the novel as much as it declares its rebirth in an openly mask-free environment. as a new need. then to admit their fictiveness. the use of such a label has become more common among other critics and theorists like Robert Scholes. then a determination of its poetics and taxonomies. Lucien Dällenbach has invested heavily on the study of the . In her study of textual 1 2 Henceforth referred to as Narcissistic While Robert Scholes has performed a thorough study on metafiction labeling it an “antinarrative” or “stillborn literature”. Being primarily postmodernist in its grounding and aspiration. Lucien Dällenbach. and Patricia Waugh2. Basic to this study of novelistic self-consciousness is the awareness that narrative narcissism is neither a literary genre nor a thematic concern.

Narcissism has. its practice has long preceded the theory though its use was ways less important and explicit than it actually is in the contemporary context. rendering narcissism a prime determining feature of most postmodernist fiction (4). with works such as Don Quixote. It is noteworthy that postmodernist texts are not altogether metafictional. is a figurative adjective that is “rather descriptive and suggestive as the ironic allegorical reading of the Narcissus myth”. In a nutshell. here. . nor do all metafictional writings restrictively range under the postmodernist corpus. and Vanity Fair (44). Accordingly. Studying narcissistic narratives that is fiction reflecting on its own genesis and mirroring the strategies of fictional writing and fictive world’s construction entails a movement inward to the recesses of the work itself. Narcissism. This analysis is chiefly based on Linda Hutcheon’s study of poetics. equating hence its theoretical approach and strategies with the metafictional narcissistic phenomenon . through the use of authorial intrusions in the narrative level and direct allusion to the reader. Patricia Waugh published her meticulous study on the theory and practice of metafiction. one is “diegetic narcissism” occurring at the level of narration and narrative techniques and the other is “linguistic” “mise en abyme” as a literary device basic to doubling the narrative structure. a period that witnessed the swift growth of numerous literary theoretical discourses and the heyday of postmodernism . and is allotted to the work itself and not to the author (1). It is. surfaced from the very rise of the novel tradition. it is worth noting that such a strategy has become rampant in the 1960s in Europe and the United States.Ben Hania 3 narcissism. In 1984. Hutchon starts from the assertion that the term has to be approached in a neutral way as devoid of any pejorative or psychological connotation . the fictional work which is exposed to its linguistic and diegetic double. Tristram Shandy. “In the criticism of the 70s the term ‘postmodernism’ began to appear to refer to contemporary self-conscious texts”. thereby. politics and narcissism of postmodernist texts. Hutcheon outlines two levels of metafictional underpinning. While narcissism is mainly a form of writing not restrictive to one particular period or literary genre. in fact.

as Hutcheon outlines. Theory of Parody 31). This continuity is marked mainly by the use of irony which signals out that this return is not . conforms to the very nature of narcissistic narrative. Hence metafictions cannot mirror their own mechanisms of construction while ignoring previous literary productions since their own emergence is due to their dialogic relation with the past in general. Parody. Overt narcissism is palpable diegetically through the fictive self-awareness of the narrative status as a literary artifice and the laying bare of its fiction making processes using self-reflective devices such as parody. and covert linguistic narcissism” (23). since it enacts self-reflexivity through the double movement of “appropriation” and subversion (128 my emphasis). Thereby the four main categories of narcissistic texts are as follows: “overt diegetic narcissism. mise en abyme and intertextuality. The dual ontological status of the narrative is pointed out through parody which works to background a given convention in an attempt to foreground the “new creation” and the way in which it may be “measured and understood” (Hutcheon. and of its power as well as its limits (Narcissistic 23). “is both a deviation from the norm and includes the norm within itself as backgrounded material” (50).Ben Hania 4 indicating an awareness of the medium used in fiction which is language. overt linguistic narcissism. there are two varieties of narcissism: “overt and covert modes” (56). Henceforth emerges the view of parody as a “prototype of the pivotal stage in that gradual process of development of literary forms” (35). “Parodic art”. covert diegetic narcissism. Such a dialogue is given legitimacy through the employment of parody which is “both a personal act of suppression and an inscription of literary-historical continuity” (35). New literary conventions evolve in fact from previous ones and postmodern texts in particular acknowledge such a give-take movement through setting a dialogue with these conventions and criticizing them in order to aspire to new forms of literary construction. In relation to both levels. one of the major literary devices in postmodernist writing.

this writing device works on the level of the diegesis exposing the narrative to “its mirrors” as Lucien Dällenbach calls it. On the other hand. is depicted through the “thematization of language” and linguistic issues in the narrative. The reader is no longer a passive agent who reads in order to decode the message that the author has encoded in the text. covert narcissism can either be structuralized or “internalized” within the text and necessitates “actualization” on the part of the actively participating reader (7). Using Genettian terminology to account for the meaning of mise en abyme.Ben Hania 5 an innocent “nostalgic return”. the use of parody reflects a consciousness of the mechanisms of literary constructions and their evolvement in accordance to each other and never in isolation. and the self-consciousness at the core of postmodernist fiction as well as to place the reader in a bewildering space where he is overtly taught his or her contributory role through the thematization of the act of reading itself (71). “the dyadic interaction” that relates the aesthetics of production and response are triggered in order for meanings to be “optimized” (85). “concretized” (178). the mysteries of language and language use. and “actualized” (66) through the reader’s interactive response to “the verbal structure” of the text. on the other hand. Such implicitness requires an active response to itself through the “process of actualization” that takes place at the act of reading and transforms words into fictive and literary worlds (Iser 20). Palpably. he is rather an active force which 3 In order to determine the narrative level to which an event relates. yet it is rather triggered by an intensive “critical awareness” (3). Overt linguistic narcissism. it has to be considered that “any event a narrative recounts is at a diegetic level immediately higher than the level at which the narrating act producing this narrative is placed” ( Genette. . This explicitness works to position fictionality. Here. Narrative Discourse 228). It does not conceal as far as it reveals past conventions in its formation of a new poetics. Hence. it can be said that the latter device refers to the embeddedness of a “second degree narrative or metadiegesis”3 in the “first degree narrative” or diegesis (Narrative Discourse 231).

self. This pragmatism puts into consideration what Benveniste calls “language put into action”. in Hutcheon. reshaping. that is the contextual and situational underpinnings of language (qtd. highly criticized in a center-free postmodern context. Iser opines that “the pragmatic nature of language” which depends on the act of enunciation as such “has developed concepts which. The trajectory of meaning actualization has shifted from the enoncé to the act of enunciation. Wolfgang Iser’s theory of “aesthetic response” or “dyadic communication” which treats the text as a performative act and Wayne C. from langue to parole. The aim of literary language here does not revolve around “what it says” that is the content itself. The authorial intention and objectivity are no longer tenable in a postmodernist self-critical and discursive context and hence the assertion of the centrality of an “enunciating subject” is overtly denounced. but rather “what it does” that is how it affects the receiver and constructs meaning (Iser 26). Poetics 82). from the product to the process. and from semiotization to pragmatism. it could be subject to pragmatic interpretation. from fixed codes and conventions to ever-changing performance. which is the focal point in narcissistic narratives.Ben Hania 6 participates in the process of meaning construction (41). for instance. and subjectivity are. although they are not meant to be applied to fiction. The concept of subject. views literature as an imitation of a speech act (60). therefore. For instance. Since literary language operates in the same way as everyday speech and implies a performative function. transforming the text from a mere aesthetic object to an elaborate performance (Hutcheon Narcissistic 145). “Page by page the reader creates the meaning of the text. Searle. Enunciation. and reordering former unities into new ones as he proceeds”. Booth view of literature as an “art of communication” seem to be the closest and the most relevant to the needs of metafictional . requires an enunciating producer and a Brechtian receiver. can nevertheless serve as a starting point for our study of the pragmatic nature of literary texts” (54). and the communication between both parts in a contextdependent situation.

Subsequently. Laconically. progress. The work of art acquires its importance from its being an aesthetic product originated by an artist who takes upon his shoulder the exercise of representing “reality as it is”. in fact. therefore. One of the major strategies of action of postmodernist narcissism is its critique of realism. rely on both productive-responsive aesthetics in order to “concretize” its meanings and in the “endless unfixed systems of signification” to construct its open uncontrollable processes. gone beyond being a defining feature of a particular literary genre . chronological plots. Such a view has its own repercussions in the definition of art. continuous narratives relayed by omniscient narrators. Realism has. Narcissistic texts. or better say “a slice of life” (McCaffrey 12). Since no performance can be repeated in the same way. and universalism as underlined in Hutcheon’s A Poetics of Postmodernism (26). This paradigm has allotted cardinal substantiality to the artist who is treated as the meaning-initiator and truth-mediator. the center who holds all the threads leading to the ultimate meaning of the novel. in fact. and reality in general. literary criticism. According to this view. The artist becomes. Narcissistic 147). One of the major premises of realistic literature is the mimetic view of art which accords to the latter the quality of being “representational” of a pre-established transcendental truth (Abrams 7-8). “literature turns out to be an item for consumption” in which the sole role allotted to the reader is the passive reception of a “hidden meaning” (Iser 4). to write in the traditional realist vein is to uphold criteria as “the order of the narrative. the realistic novel reached its apogee in the eighteenth century and is said to be the offspring of the Age of Reason that is the age of logic.Ben Hania 7 criticism (Hutcheon. To read is “to act” and consequently to perform thereby opposing any claim to a fixed structure or a unilateral kind of response (Iser 62). each reading becomes an antirepresentational force in the sense that it cannot proceed in a similar unique way making from the end of one reading the beginning of another one. [and] closed endings” (82).

It advocates the mimetic view of art as representational of life and universal truth. and of language as transparently mirroring the world (Abrams 33).. Far from being escapist and unreal.Ben Hania 8 or movement or a historical period to becoming a characteristic mode of thought governing or better say monopolizing Western literary discourses until the end of the nineteenth century (Hutcheon. or what Barthes calls “the germ of the universal” and John-François Lyotard classifies under the category of “metanarratives” or “grand narrative”. etc.. realist fiction focuses mainly on the work of art as a product that works faithfully to aesthetically reproduce an extraneous universal and orthodox reality (qtd. and referential in the sense that the words it uses have actual referents as objects in the real world that is they refer to an external heterocosm transforming fiction to a mirror that reflects the outer world (Hutcheon. food. furniture. in Barthes. The adoption of this role led to detailed reportage of the physical minutiae of everyday life -clothes. plausibility. Narcissistic 18). Postmodernism is to be considered as one of the contesters of 4 Verisimilitude is “an attempt to satisfy even the rational. of reality as pre-existing language. skeptical reader that the events and characters portrayed is very possible. Based on conventional premises like verisimilitude4. Its claims to the universality of truth and values. This reductive view of language and its functions is the central tenet behind the humanistic universalizing insight into literature as being “realistic” and “referential”: realistic in the sense that it represents a transcendental reality as it is. “The Discourse of History5” 3).the cataloguing of people into social types or species and radical analyses of the economic basis of society. . Narcissistic 10). the novel was uniquely capable of revealing the truth of contemporary life in society. . authorial authenticity and on beliefs in the objectivity and truthfulness of the historical discourse or “the chastity of history” as Fustel Coutages describes it. The virtues pursued were accuracy and completeness of description” (Childs and Fowler 198-9). are put under ruminative scrutiny (34). The attack on such foundationalist and essentialist ideas is an attack on the whole ethos of the Enlightenment humanistic philosophy which was the leading force behind rooting such stances in literary criticism until the mid-nineteenth century (35). 5 Henceforth referred to as “Discourse” .

and factual knowledge (Hutcheon. only interpretations”. Similarly. Frederick Nietzsche’s assertion that “there are no facts. foundationalism. it relies upon the mechanics of signification rather than those of imitation. “On the level of discourse. and disbelieves the essentialist claims to orthodox truth. in fact. facts. sheltering behind the apparently all-powerful referent” creating no more than a “realistic effect” (“Discourse” 6). the product of the referential illusion” and “the ‘real’ is never more than an unformulated signified. especially the claims to objectivity. This postmodernist metafictional self- . paved the way for such findings through initiating the questioning of notions of truth. teleology. a skeptical attitude towards language. Deconstructive in intent and critical in impulse. It is hence related to the idea of meaning and fiction as “constructs” rather than as having “representable essences” (Currie 15). The critical return to the past shows the metafictional critique of the classical view of reality. Modern philosophical thinking has. metafictional narcissistic texts veer towards a provisional view of realities. constitutes a battle cry that has marked the shifting trajectory of philosophical and literary paradigms and the move towards a more relativistic view of reality and universals. and transcendentalism (Lyotard 37).Ben Hania 9 such a view. a focus on the processes of literary production and reception rather than on the final aesthetic product.” as Roland Barthes argues for. Poetics 89). The term was first introduced in 1960 by William Gass who sought a label for recent fiction that thematizes its own fictionality (4). universal values. For instance. “objectivity appears as a form of imaginary projection. Metafiction is defined by Patricia Waugh as “a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to question the relationship between fiction and reality” (3). It is an “incredulity toward metanarratives” working to subvert them and highlighting that what realism has always presented is not reality but only its “guise or illusion” since it overtly “masks art’s own conventionality” (Lyotard xxiv). and representation.

Its inscription in discourse implies its being socially and ideologically loaded (112). a textualized space that is inscribed in discourse or “semiotized” (97). documents and texts (81). as suggested by Mikhail Bakhtin in his study of the novelistic discourse.Ben Hania 10 reflexivity is further problematized by its alliance with historical grounding and referencing. Bakhtin opines consequently that the dialogic process of language constitutes a constant and simultaneous play between “centralizing and decentralizing forces of language” or what he terms as “centripetal” and “centrifugal” forces (Bakhtin 272). since what it nominates as fact has no more than a “linguistic existence” in “the shell of signifiers” (148).e. Therefore. History creates a “realistic effect” and not transparent reality. Therefore. . The past becomes. Once again. i. Each literary discourse is grounded in a context and simultaneously uses a metatext to divulge this grounding. The knowledge of the past is only textually possible since the past is palpable in the present through its “traces” like records. “even the most self-conscious of contemporary 6 “Dialogism” is a term suggested by Bakhtin to describe the fictional language. and plotting in its construction (147). Part of the postmodernist fictional narcissism revolves around the works’ awareness of “the presence of the past” which it critically rethinks and consciously reworks (Hutcheon. an imaginary elaboration” that depends on the narrative mechanisms of selection. consequently. Each word is thus loaded with different voices and ideologies that stratify it from within. the “dialogism”6 that characterizes the fictional discourse. The historical discourse is nothing more than “a form of ideological elaboration. which he sees as “inherently heteroglot”. ordering. as Hayden White accounts for it. As Roland Barthes notes in “Discourse”. Poetics 24). challenges any assertion about the objectivity and the transparency of the historical discourse. speeches (glossia)”. Poetics 12). Historiography that is the “narration of what happened”. is a highly problematized process in narcissistic narratives which openly acknowledge the past’s “own discursive contingent identity” (Hutcheon. the historian is not so much a “collector of facts” as he is a “collector of signifiers” or a fabulator (147). essentialism. factuality and truthfulness prove to be fallacious and hence put under question. The language of fiction becomes a form of hetroglossia where “different discourses dialogically encounter”. formed of “diverse (hetero-).

Poetics 30). It never refrains from posing all kinds of queries about its ontological status aiming not at clear-cut answers or compromises but rather at exposing its ambivalences and “problematizing” the nature of all forms of writing and knowledge in general. of the aesthetic and the theoretical. in fact. of powerholders and eccentrics. Narcissistic narratives foremost revealed criterion is that it is “art as discourse”. The blurring boundaries between “popular art and high art”. Hence. It is. As a miscellaneous site of “dialogic encounter”. nor ceasing to pose endless questions about them. its ontological doubts. social. The narrative self-consciousness alludes to its own perpetual selfquestioning and self-evaluation. which is intensively related to the ideological and even the political spheres (35). Such a narrative occupies the borderline through positing itself on the edges of many oppositional poles. postmodernism goes on in its exercise of mixing and blending contradictory scopes and fusing them into an all-encompassing dialogic literary paradigm. Narcissistic texts attempt to reveal all its literary problematics. never favoring or prioritizing one to another.Ben Hania 11 works do not try to escape. It does not seek in any sort of way to camouflage these ontological lines as it really endeavors to highlight them. one can refer to the “problematics” of narcissistic narratives rather than to its “poetics” (222). of “poetics and politics”. of old and new . a patchwork of numerous and contradictory elements. The “interdiscursivity” of narcissistic texts flashes the mounting awareness of their cultural and ideological inscription and of the impossibility of determining definite lines of separation between the numerous discourses of a given culture (130). but indeed foreground the historical. of what it is and what it is not are distinctive features of narrative narcissism which heighten its commitment to “duplicity” and “double-coding” (Hutcheon. of “history and fiction”. . ideological contexts in which they existed and continue to exist” (25). which explain its owing the label “the literature of unrest” par excellence (42).

and sincere because it denounces any pretention to disguise its own fictionality. It should be noted that narcissistic texts stipulate a narcissistic reading fully aware of its unattainable partiality for fixed. resistant since it defies any inclination towards conformity and subjugation. a form of resistance. monolithic. narcissism in fiction is a stage of maturity. Thus.Ben Hania 12 and its byzantine literary constructions. It is mature insofar as it self-informingly places its own fictional mechanisms in the position of self-exposition and evaluation. The overt and covert self-exposition of metafictional texts does not emanate to the death of the novel as much as it declares the rebirth of the latter in a mask-free environment where the narrative decides not only to drop its masks silently but also to parody them and to criticize its past and even present masquerades. and an art of sincerity. . and closed parameters of interpretation.

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