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Momentous Events and Turning Points

martes 20 de octubre de 2009

Momentous events and turning points

A thread in the Narrative-L—"narrative question about triggers for revised life narratives". Elizabeth Stone wrote:danceme15

> In narrative theory, is there a term for a specific event in one's experience or memory--a death, a betrayal--which then becomes the prism through which earlier events or memories are then regarded and which then prompts such a mammoth reassessment of one's memories that the result is a revised narrative of one's life? I'm thinking of narratives ranging from St. Augustine's to Joan Didion's /Year of Magical Thinking /where the signal event alters the meaning of many of the earlier memories
> Thanks in advance for any suggestions here.
> /Elizabeth Stone/
> Professor of English, Communication and Media Studies
> Fordham College at Lincoln Center

My own answer as follows—

David Pillemer wrote a book on the subject:

Pillemer, David B. Momentous Events, Vivid Memories. Cambridge (MA): Harvard UP, 1998.

---it is written from the standpoint of narrative psychology, and on personal life histories, not fiction. The term in question, of course, would be "momentous event", although "signal event" as you suggest would do very well. In classical narrative poetics, Aristotle speaks of "turning points" which have some common elements with what you say. And of course these signal events would be among the "kernels" in a life story, using the terminology of Barthes/Chatman, but the emphasis on revision and retrospection is missing here.

Jose Angel García Landa

Other proposals include the concepts of anagnorisis (Tony Jackson), reversal (Davi Richter), epiphany (James R. Fromm). And no doubt these concepts may intersect with the momentous event, which may assume the form of an anagnorisis, a reversal, or an ephiphany, but the essence of the phenomenon is in the perspectival transformation and the retroactive reworking of the past, which may or may not take the form of an epiphany or an anagnorisis. Reversal is closer. Irene Karpiac proposes "'the prototypical scene' that William Todd Schultz describes in a paper, 'The Prototypical Scene: A Method for Generating Psychobiographical Hypotheses' in the edited book, Up Close and Personal, by Josselson, Lieblich,and McAdams".

H. Porter Abbott's answer:

It may come as a dull thud, but "life-changer" is a term that is often used in the news, as in: "It was a life-changer, I wasn't the same afterward." An interesting sub-category is the life-changer that is so powerful it is only allowed to appear in fragments, like the assassination of Nabokov's father in Speak, Memory. And then there's the possible category of the trauma that goes unmentioned yet inflects the whole book -- a role some have argued the suicide of Henry Adams's wife plays in The Education. In fiction (if it counts for what you're after) two excellent but hugely painful books in which the loss of a child weighs throughout are Ian McEwan's The Child in Time and Stuart O'Nan's Songs for the Missing.

Such turning points, associated to a radical change in perspective and outlook, are what in Spanish is sometimes termed "un antes y un después"— given that temporal experience is reorganized around them; they are the fulcrum points on which narratives, especially life narratives, rest. Quite often they are seen as the point where the speaker's present self, character, outlook or perspective originated or emerged as a dominant cognitive mode. David Vanadia suggests the term "breakthrough" used in group awareness training sessions and motivational industries; Robert Scholes suggests the Pauline "revelation". The turning points, however, may be traumatic, or illuminating and life-enhancing, as they are usually linked to a positive and/or negative evaluation of the subject's preceding and subsequent life. One might specify, of course, whether we are referring to a narrator's autobiographical evaluation, or to a third party's interpretation of the subject's biography.

Studies of hindsight and hindsight bias are also of general relevance to this issue. I would recommend once again Gary Saul Morson's
Narrative and Freedom, which does not use the term "hindsight bias" but is all about it. See also my own articles about catastrophism, hindsight, retrospection and perspectival retroaction collected in Objects in the Rearview Mirror May Apppear More Solid Than They Are.

Out of Character

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