Wednesday, March 31, 2010

H. Porter Abbott: Hayden White on the Etymology of "Narrative"

Hayden White pointed out in his book The Content of the Form that the word “narrative” goes back to the ancient Sanskrit “gna,” a root term that means “know,” and that it comes down to us through Latin words for both “knowing” (“gnarus”) and “telling” (“narro”). This etymology catches the two sides of narrative. It is a universal tool for knowing as well as telling, for absorbing knowledge as well as expressing it. This knowledge, moreover, is not necessarily static. Narrative can be, and often is, an instrument that provokes active thinking and helps us work through problems, even as we tell about them or hear them being told. But, finally, it is also important to note that narrative can be used to deliver false information; it can be used to keep us in darkness and even encourage us to do things we should not do. This too must be kept in mind. (10-11)

Abbott, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Literature. 2nd Edition. Cambridge UP, 2008.

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