The Second Person Study Part 2: What are “you” talking about?

"Bright Eyes" by Kristen Caldwell

Photo: "Bright Eyes" by Kristen Caldwell

The Second Person
You are the second person.
You look around for someone else to be the second person. But there is no one else. Even if there were someone else there they could not be you. You try to shelter in imagining that you are plural. It is a dream which the whole of the waking world is trying to remember. It is the orphan’s mother who never lived but is longed for and has been accorded a pronoun that is an echo of your own, since she has no name. Her temple is an arrangement of mirrors. But nothing stays in it. Think how you keep your thoughts to yourself, on your rare visits there. And how quickly you leave.
You are the second person. The words come to you as though they were birds that knew you and had found you at last, but they do not look at you and you never saw them before, you have nowhere to keep them, you have nothing to feed them, they will interfere with your life, you cannot hear yourself, the little claws, meaning no harm, never let you alone, so tame, so confiding. But you know they are not yours. You know they are no one else’s, either.
Sometimes between sleeping and waking you really forget that you are the second person. Once again you have embarked, you have arrived, nothing is missing, nothing. The twilight is an infinite reunion. Then a messenger enters looking everywhere for someone. For the second person. Who else?
Made in the image of The Second Person, you never see your face. Even the mirrors show it to you backwards. Dear reader at times imagining in your own defense that I am the second person, I know more about you than I know about myself, but I would not recognize you. For your part, it is true that you do not know your own story. That it has all been given away. That it lies at the bottom of a river where everything joins it but no one owns it. No one admits to it. Why this elusiveness of yours, like that which lives in an animal’s eye? For you have to be found, you are found, I have found you. You make a pathetic effort to disguise yourself in all the affectations of the third person, but you know it is no use. The third person is no one. A convention.
Can you never answer happily when you are addressed? Do I want you to?
No, you insist, it is all a mistake, I am the first person. But you know how unsatisfactory that is. And how seldom it is true.
–W. S. Merwin, The Miner’s Pale Children, 1970.

Hello, I am Zin! I finally have an academic text I can actually read and (mostly) understand about second person so here I will summarize.

The main text I am using is by Brian Richardson: Unnatural Voices: Extreme Narration in Modern and Contemporary Fiction. The second chapter is devoted to second person: Chapter Two: At First, You Feel A Bit Lost: The Varieties of Second Person Narration. This is a worthwhile book for many reasons, he has chapters on “we” narration, passive voice, and many things I have never heard of: permeable narration, interlocutor narration, impossible narration! But we will stick with Chapter 2 for now. I have found this chapter on Googlebooks so you can follow along!

I have found another work, Second Person Fiction: Narrative “You” As Addressee And/Or Protagonist from 1994, by Dr. Monika Fludernik, an English professor at a German university (she is Austrian but she writes like a German). Reading it makes my eyes bleed. She says things like “Homo- and heterodiegesis simply ‘tick off’ actantial roles and their recurrence or non-recurrence on the narrational plane.” I went to college! I studied linguistics! I read Levi-Strauss! No, not the jeans, the linguist. But Monika defeated me. I think I am too old. And it does not hurt that she uses mostly European fiction as examples. But you can find her paper online and see if you have better luck. I think I will go there some day, but not today. I will start with something simpler, and that is Richardson.

We will need to start with some definitions! This is a whole field, after all, narratology! I learned some new words (Do not be afraid!):
Heterodiegetic and homodiegetic: these are not nearly as much fun as they sound like! “Heterodiegetic” means the narrator is not a character in the story itself. Homodiegetic means the narrator is a character in the story.
Narratee: this may seem obvious, but the narratee is who is being referred to by the narrator. If “he” is Mr. Jones, then Jones is the narratee. If “you” is the narratee, it is more complicated! It can be a character in the story. It can be the reader. It gets slippery.
Apostrophe: No, not the punctuation, the rhetorical device. I used to know these – synecdoche, litotes, all those things, but I have been lazy. Apostrophe is addressing someone who is non-existent, or who is an abstraction, like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, how I wonder what you are” or “O Captain, My Captain.”

Richardson starts off by classifying second person into three categories:
Standard (“You do something and then you do something else.”)
Hypothetical (the “instruction manual”)
Autotelic (This seems to be exceedingly rare, it is like Standard but it addresses the reader)

He also defines what second person is not, because it is not every “you” that comes along:

1. It is not the “Gentle Reader” opening, “the familiar authorial colloquy in which a heterodiegetic [outside the story] narratee (“gentle reader”) is directly addressed, a common practice of Fielding, Thackeray, and George Eliot.”

2. It is not “the monologue addressed to a real or imaginary homodiegetic [in the story] audience, works like Camus’ La Chute and Hawkes’ Travesty.” I think I actually understand this. Travesty apparently (I have not read it) is narrated by an “I” who is driving and informs his companions he is going to crash the car. So while he uses “you” a lot, it is a first person narration.

3. And it is not using “you” as an apostrophe [O Captain], an address to an absent or silent character within the fictional world.

Richardson finally defines second person as: “any narration other than an apostrophe that designates its protagonist by a second person pronoun. This protagonist will usually be the sole focalizer, and is often (but not always) the work’s principle narratee as well.”

And he gently reminds us: “It should also be noted that my account enumerates tendencies rather than stipulates invariant conditions; this is because second person narration is an extremely protean [variable] form, and its very essence is to eschew [avoid] a fixed essence.”

This is a point he makes: second person is “an artificial mode that does not normally occur in natural narrative”. Ok, but I seem to recall from some history of literature class that the novel, the story, the narrative itself was considered unnatural, that drama was the only way to present a story, in ancient Greece and Rome! That can not be right, there was Homer, and Beowulf, but I think there was a lot of resistance to novels maybe because not many people could read but they could go to a play. So is second person unnatural because we are not used to it? Is it used in other cultures – what about Maori and South American places, they tend to do things that are very unusual, do they ever tell “you” stories? Or is it truly un-natural to people to think this way? Is it a brain thing? I should ask my friend Marko, he was looking at a lot of neuroscience texts at one point.

Now he looks at each of his three types of second person narration:

Standard form:

“In it, a story is told, usually in the present tense, about a single protagonist who is referred to in the second person; the “you” often designates the narrator and narratee as well though we will see here there is considerable slippage in this unusual triumvirate. This is the form used in La Modification [Michel Butor], Aura [Carlos Fuentes], Un Homme qui Dort [Georges Perec], A Pagan Place [Edna O'Brien], and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.” This is not a complete list of course, but these are the works he uses to illustrate his points.

The weirdness of second person as he explains it revolves around the slippery notion of who is “you” – the narrator, the narratee, the reader. It is not the reader in Standard mode! But if the sentence sounds like the reader, “You are in your living room on a warm summer day” and I just happen to be in my living room on a warm summer day, he calls that “collapsing.” Then if the next sentence is “You are a twenty-two year old single mother with a broken foot,” well, no, I am not any of those things, so it is a different experience, according to Richardson: “A continuous dialectic of identification and distancing ensues.” I am not so sure. But he seems to feel this contributes to the instability and playfulness of second person, and stories do well to make use of that.

I am not sure I see what he means (it does not seem that unstable to me, I have no trouble keeping the “you” in focus in these examples), but the examples he provides are fascinating, and I now want to read Bright Lights, Big City.

Hypothetical form:

This is the instruction manual style. He uses Self-Help by Lorrie Moore to provide examples. “Here we find three features generally absent from the standard second person narration: the consistent use of the imperative, the frequent employment of the future tense, and the unambiguous distinction between the narrator and narratee.” This is where “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid must fit in, although he does not mention it.

Autotelic Form:

I am most uncertain about this form. “The defining criteria of my third category, “the autotelic,” is the direct address to a “you” that is at times the actual reader of the text and whose story is juxtaposed to and can merge with the characters of the fiction.” He starts with Italo Calvino: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller.” He admits this is sustained only for very brief texts. I am thinking it is not something I wish to spend a lot of time on, it is something I will come back to later. Though I am tremendously amused by the examples and want to read more!

What I have learned most is what is and what is not considered second person narration, and what some of the parameters are. And that this second person, who “you” is, who the narrator is, can be slippery! And the qualities! Playfulness, instability, conscious of itself. Like the opening piece by Merwin! It is so wonderful, yes? I am going to see as I read some of the reading list how these qualities are used, or not. Richardson: “The second person is a playful form, original, transgressive, and illuminating, that is always conscious of its unusual own status and often disguises itself, playing on the boundaries of other narrative voices.”

I am more excited about this study than ever!

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7 responses to “The Second Person Study Part 2: What are “you” talking about?

  1. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 7: “Scordatura” by Mark Ray Lewis « A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 8: Jennifer Pelland – “The Call” from Unwelcome Bodies « A Just Recompense

  3. Pingback: The Second Person Study: Daniel Orozco, “Orientation” « A Just Recompense

  4. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 13: Editors Have Their Say – Ellen Parker (FRiGG) and Joe Levens (The Summerset Review « A Just Recompense

  5. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 14: Wrestling with Monika Fludernik « A Just Recompense

  6. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 17: “Apostrophe” by Randall Brown « A Just Recompense

  7. Pingback: Junot Diaz: “Miss Lora” from The New Yorker, 4/23/12 « A Just Recompense

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