IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND the ways that plotting and narrative are intimately tied to our sense of the human life-world, Brooks turns to Sigmund Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle, specifically Freud's articulation of man's struggle between the death drive and the pleasure/reality principle. (See, in particular, the Freud Module on Transference and Trauma for a primer on Freud's theories.) Brooks aligns our desire to keep reading with Freud's understanding of desire: "Desire as Eros, desire in its plastic and totalizing function, appears to me central to our experience of reading narrative, and if in what follows I evoke Freud—and, as a gloss on Freud, Jacques Lacan—it is because I find in Freud's work the best model for a 'textual erotics'" (37). Brooks argues that we are driven to read because of our drive to find meaningful, bounded, totalizing order to the chaos of life; however, that drive for order is most fulfilling after the detours or dilations that we associate with plot. If the order of closure comes too soon, it can feel like a short-circuit, as if we were cheated somehow.

Brooks makes sense of these apparently competing desires (for dilation and for closure) by aligning our pleasure in reading with the psychodynamics articulated by Freud. We read because of the mechanisms of sexual desire but that desire is ultimately "subtended by the death instinct, the drive of living matter to return to the quiescence of the inorganic, a state prior to life" (51). The heroes of a narratives could be called "'desiring machines' whose presence in the text creates and sustains narrative movement through the forward march of desire, projecting the self onto the world through scenarios of desire imagined and then acted upon" (40-41); however, the ultimate goal, according to Brooks and Freud, is to fulfill desire, to reach the quiescence of closure. It is this play of forward momentum and ultimate closure, aligned respectively with Eros (the pleasure principle) and Thanatos (the death drive), that structures the "erotics" of narrative. As Brooks puts it, "the paradox of the self becomes explicitly the paradox of narrative plot as the reader consumes it: diminishing as it realizes itself, leading to an end that is the consummation (as well as the consumption) of its sense-making" (52). Narrative desire is, therefore, ultimately, "desire for the end" (52), although any narrative also requires the dilations and transformations of the middle to make such an end desirable. As Brooks puts it, referring to the metaphor/metonymy dynamic I described in the first module, "If at the end of a narrative we can suspend time in a moment when past and present hold together in a metaphor—which may be that recognition or anagnorisis which, said Aristotle, every good plot should bring—that moment does not abolish the movement, the slidings, the mistakes, and partial recognitions of the middle" (92).

In such an understanding of plot, all actions tend to be geared towards an anticipated closure (which Brooks aligns with the quiescence of death), when all loose ends will be tied: "The sense of a beginning, then, must in some important way be determined by the sense of an ending. We might say that we are able to read present moments—in literature and, by extension, in life—as endowed with narrative meaning only because we read them in anticipation of the structuring power of those endings that will retrospectively give them the order and significance of plot" (94). For this reason, Brooks aligns the structural function of narrative closure with the death drive: "All narrative may be in essence obituary in that... the retrospective knowledge that it seeks, the knowledge that comes after, stands on the far side of the end, in human terms on the far side of death" (95).

The same fascination with the ordering power of closure structures our own lives, according to both Brooks and Freud. We are compelled to repeat those events in our lives that we find traumatic, for example, until we are able finally to give them a sense of proper "boundedness" or mastery, as in the child's fort-da game that Freud analyzes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (see the Freud Module on Trauma and Transference). As Brooks puts it, "If repetition is mastery, movement from the passive to the active, and if mastery is an assertion of control over what man must in fact submit to—choice, we might say, of an imposed end—we have already a suggestive comment on the grammar of plot, where repetition, taking us back again over the same ground, could have to do with the choice of ends" (98). As in Freud's understanding of the repetition compulsion, then, the repetitions (often metaphorical) of narrative could be said to perform the work of what Freud terms "binding"—or, as Brooks puts it, "a binding of textual energies that allows them to be mastered by putting them into serviceable form, usable 'bundles,' within the energetic economy of the narrative" (100). For Freud such a drive to repeat is intimately tied to the death drive, which he sees as even more primary than the sexual instinct. What Brooks adds to Freud's theories is to argue that the "binding" of such repetitions is analogous to narrative discourse's structuring of story (particularly the ordering of temporal progress into a satisfying whole, which is particularly reliant on a proper closure). Repetition compulsion and the death drive are, therefore, according to Brooks, crucial to any narrative; however, the deviances of narrative are crucial to create the sense of achieving a proper end and proper boundedness; otherwise, one has a sense of traumatic short-circuit: "The desire of the text (the desire of reading) is hence desire for the end, but desire for the end reached only through the at least minimally complicated detour, the intentional deviance, in tension, which is the plot of narrative" (104).


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Brooks: On Narrative Desire." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, which you can find on the home page. Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <>.






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