The Second Person Study, Part 14: Wrestling with Monika Fludernik

Why are You doing this to Yourself?

I have been tormenting myself by trying to understand “Second Person Fiction: Narrative You as addressee and/or protagonist” by Monika Fludernik, professor of English literature and culture at the Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg, Germany (she is Austrian).

I can not make sense of huge passages in this paper! There is an entire vocabulary which sometimes has subtle gradations in meaning, and I am unable to decipher it: Histoirediscours – narrational enunciatory plane, – existential (not the philosophy) – actantial roles – metaleptic mode – covert narration – diectic center – phlogiston (no, I made that up, I actually know what phlogiston is, or rather what it is not but once was thought to be).

Is there a narratologist in the house? Hmmm… I did not think so.

So I will try anyway, and maybe along the way I will figure out some of these things.

In the three page introduction to the paper (which took me almost two hours to get through) Fludernik proposes she will do three things:

1. Outline the issues in fitting second person into narative paradigms, and setting up a typology. This is where I had the most trouble.

2. review the discourse types that generate or reflect models for writing or reading second peson texts. This was not so bad.

3. examine the short story “You” by Joyce Carol Oates (first published in Cosmopolitan in 1970 and included in her collection The Wheel of Love to examine the use of second person in fiction. I actually understand some of this! And it is a wonderful story!

First, Fludernik sets up her typology. They involve the function of address – and here I get confused because it seems to me “addressee” refers to the person doing the addressing, not the person being addressed, and that is where I get lost, I think! So I will not even try to parse it out. You can read it for yourself! If you understand it, please let me know! I seem to have particular trouble with who the “addressee” is – I am thinking the narrator is the “addressor” but maybe not! And I am having trouble with planes – narrational, existential, story, and enunciatory planes! I need to do more study!

Second, she lists natural discourse forms that allow for second person fiction to happen at all. One thing she talks about in the first section, that I find fascinating, is that it is very strange “the narrator to tell the addressee’s story” – and this would only happen in Real Life if the addressee had forgotten the events (“You let the dog out an hour ago), or if maybe the narrator wanted to relive them together (“Remember that time you went to the Cape for spring break? You thought it would be fun on the beach but you did not realize it would be so cold so you…).

But in the actual section where she discusses natural discourse, she gives four types of literary predecessors to second person fiction (all quotes):

Conversational storytelling: John Barth’s “Life Story,” B.S. Johnson’s “Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs?”, Stephen Koch’s Night Watch, Hawthorne’s “Main Street.” Such a use of address does not intrinsically resemble second person fiction, but it helps to dangerously subvert the fiction/nonfiction boundary inducing the actual reader to, at least initially, feel addressed by the textual you.

Skaz narrative: A traditional mode of oral narrative in which a bard addresses the community…. Pseudo-oral literature such as Twain and Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone Days; Gogol’s “Overcoat.” And: Second person fiction utilizes this subversive potential for creating an unsettling effect – that of involving the actual reader of fiction, not only in the tale, but additionally in the world of fiction itself, and eerie effect that can be put to very strategic political use. This technique has been widely applied, for instance, in recent black women’s writing where it allows the fictional narrator both to evoke the familiar setting for the community-internal reader and to draw readers from different cultural backgrounds into the fictional world of the black community, thereby increasing potential empathy values and forcing an in-group consciousness on the (factually) out-group reader. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula, third person present tense sections of Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day.

Letter writing: In much second person fiction an address function is motivated realistically by an implicit or explicit letterwriting subtext. The reader, in her attempt to make sense of the situation of address, is led to interpret the address to an absent addressee in terms of an epistolary model. Alice Munro’s “Tell Me Yes Or No” is a good case in point.

Dramatic monologue: The dramatic monologue does not narrate, it is unmediated direct discourse. Yet the ‘point’ of dramatic monologue usually consists in the unwitting revelation of the speaker’s ignorance of (or worse, implication in) not entirely innocent fictional events. The raison d’etre of the dramatic monologue, lies precisely in the uncovering of a ‘story’ which the speaker does not tell but which her discourse reveals to the perceptive addressee. Browning’s “My Last Duchess” Hawkes’s novel Travesty – The text can be argued to be subversive both in terms of neat narratological distinctions and in terms of awarding the actual reader in her interpretive function a prime share in constituting narrative signification. [Note that Richardson specifically excludes Travesty from second-person status, which is why I use the term "person-and-a-half" and also another area of my confusion].

Then she gives four “non-literary antecedants” (again, all quotes)

The Instructions and Guide Book You: we all know this one! (this is not a quote!)

The Courthouse You: The rendering of the defendant’s or witnesses actions and thoughts in a reconstructed narration addressed to the defendant/witness with the aim of eliciting a confession (“you took her home…. You walked her to the door…. And then you killed her”)

The Generalizing You The most common departure point for second person fiction is the linguistic device of generalizing You: “when you have a cold, you feel really lousy”.

The Self-Address You When people in their private thoughts argue with themselves, assuming a dialogue between their egos and superegos…. one novel that makes more than a cursory use of self-address you, Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit: ” Sometimes he felt what he believed the white folks were feeling. Or most of them. Something, you felt against your mind, against all you knew. Against all you believed. Yet, there it was… you’d always wanted to know a white girl. You knew their brothers, you’d played with them as kids, sometimes gone fishing. But you never knew a white girl.”

So from these roots come second person literature!

Third, she discusses the story “You” by Joyce Carol Oates. That deserves a post of its own! But some terminology became evident (I am writing like her!) in the first few paragraphs and I think this is it:

When Monika (after all she has put me through, I think we should be on a first-name basis!) refers to “reflectoral mode” I think that is the “You get up. You feel the need to hurry so you skip breakfast and run for the train” type of thing, such as in “Scordatura.” This means a pretty much invisible narrator, one who does not exist – let me see, this narrator is not in the existential plane, but is in the narrative plane. And the narrator can not be an actant in the story since he does not exist in the story! I hope I am using these terms right. I understand what I mean, but I would just say “invisible narrator” instead of planes! Or call it “standard second person” like Richardson does! I think Monika is a troublemaker. I think the “instruction manual” form of second person would be included here, since there is an “invisible narrator” who is not in the story. I would consider it a separate form – but I am not a narratologist!

Then there is “homocommunicative address mode”, which is what I have been calling “person-and-a-half” – the type of thing in “We Didn’t” or “Once in a Lifetime.” I do not think Richardson considers this an actual second person at all, but I could be wrong about that. It is in fact more of a blend of first and second person – “I held the door and you smiled as you walked past me” type thing. The you is an object as often as a subject! And the narrator/addressor, who is probably a protagonist – to use Mean Monika’s terms – shares the existential and narrative plane of the story with the addressee, who might also be a protagonist! The addressor/narrator is probably an actant in the story, or at least is a person with whom the addressee/protagonist is aquainted. I am not sure if they both must be protagonists, but they are in the two examples! I am not sure how they could not be – I suppose one could be a minor character, but that seems like a silly distinction.

And she also talks about the intimacy and distancing aspects of second person! Wow, I thought I was making that up, I am so happy to find it is real!

First she says: “…excellent suitability of second person fiction for the expression and description of intimacy. This is true especially of the reflectoral mode where the second person creates an even greater empathy than first or third person variants (implicitly, even if only intially, seeming to involve the actual reader in her role as a possible addressee…” So as we read “you” we automatically think, “Who, me?” and are feeling talked about, resulting in more of a relationship with the narrator – an intimacy between the narrator and the reader. At the same time: “Since address combines a distancing factor (foregrounding the non-identity of the I and the you) with the presuppostition of an acquaintance with the person thus addressed, it proves to be a fictional mode adaptible to detailing the jig-saw structure of the mother-daughter relationship.” So it can work both ways! I will go into this more in a future post (it is not that simple, of course) but I was glad to see these concepts are recognized by someone who actually knows what she is doing!

I think I am beginning – just beginning – to understand Monika! This frightens me!

The Joyce Carol Oates story “You” will be next. It is full of interesting second person tricks!

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!