Determine the path – make the choice

So you’re off. On a hike in Vaud. This is where thoughts and conversations about literature meander: decisions in literary texts. Soon the hike becomes an allegory of literature. Because here as there, people act by deciding to leave, sometimes confiding in one another.

The car glides west across the freeway. You’re willing to wander. Past Murten, Payerne and Lake Neuchâtel. Foggy day. Equipped. Water and snacks. Shoes chosen. Change-of-weather clothing. A strategy is needed: It is not a circular walk, but the Via Francigena from Orbe to Cossonay. You park your car in Orbe. Later you have to take the train back. At this point, it would still be possible to change your mind, but once you are on the way, there is little left to choose. Interesting: The decisions get easier the further you go. The evening before, you could have opted for Valais. But just before you reach your destination, about the only decision you have to make is which side of the road to walk on.

A person who writes is never as free as in the first sentence. Fundamental decisions are made quickly: novel or novella, a feature, biography or travelogue. The story begins in the first sentence. There is still a lot of room for maneuver. Maybe figures are invented and structures built up, or a style is set. The scope for maneuver becomes smaller until what is being told continues to tell its own story. But yes, the first decisions are made arbitrarily. There is a plan, an intention, a strategy. Trails have to be blazed, traces covered, arrangements made. Anyone who writes is somewhat in tune, eager to write, and carries equipment with them: Aesthetics, narrative knowledge, language register, a belief perhaps – or even disbelief. Under such influences, the text almost inevitably develops as if one were actually on a hiking trail and had to choose the right path to reach a goal that has long been set: strategically.

In no novel does a character decide

Someone said on the subject of decisions that, as a literary scholar, I could write about major decisions made by key figures in important novels and short stories: Think of the devil’s pact stories such as Jeremias Gotthelf’s “The Black Spider,” Hauke Haien’s lonely heroic battle to save the dyke, and Margarita, who turns down the doctor Augustine in Stifter’s most wonderful novel, at least for the time being. But it’s not true: In no novel does a character decide. The action-loving Christine in Gotthelf’s novella has no choice whether or not she wants to be enslaved by the Green Hunter. The situation has been prepared for a long time in terms of narrative strategy. Can we seriously ask what would have happened if Christine had decided otherwise?

“Narration is the perfect lie.”

Christian von Zimmermann

This would be unlikely in the text. Destroy the narrative conception. Imagine Hauke Haien didn’t sink or Margarita just said “yes” – or Faust conquered his curiosity, because the storyline in drama and film is also strategically laid out. Every decision in the literary text has a first decision-maker as its strategic center: the narrative authority. Gotthelf has the story of Christine, a girl from Lindau, told by a somewhat story-loving grandfather who has a plan, an intention and even a belief he doesn’t hide. The real big decision in literature is the decision to narrate, after which there is a narrowing of scope.

K. chose the hiking route, and I followed it like a trusting reader of the narrative strategy. Such a temptation to hike or into fiction is also appealing. Nevertheless, critical thinking is advisable. The fact that all poets (have to) lie has been known since time immemorial, and narration is the perfect lie; it begins with the first sentence, from which everything else emerges almost causally with apparent consistency and narrowing of scope: right up to the pretended free choice of a figure. “Writers can change the way people think simply by giving them a glimpse of life through their characters’ eyes.” (Lisa Cron, Wired for Story. Berkeley 2012, p. 2.) Stories are strategic instruments of seduction, of persuasion – perhaps even of the “right” values.

Each party that loses an election then does some soul searching and looks for a better narrative.

Instructions for seduction

Lessons learned in recent years: conspiracy tales, pandemic narratives. Do the humanities bear some complicity? Too often, historical works persuade people to agree with their theses by means of stringent narratives. In a surprisingly contemporary way, Gotthelf suggests that what is being told is being told strategically: He should be recognized by his voice. Surprisingly outdated, realistic storytelling that doesn’t reveal itself. “Show, don’t tell” is a maxim used in creative writing courses and is also a guide to seduction. Gotthelf thinks liberally, relies on responsible citizens who critically reflect on stories.

And that is what responsible citizens should do: not get caught up in narratives and decide for themselves when to embark on a journey with confidence.

About the author

Bild: zvg

Christian von Zimmermann

is a lecturer at the Institute of Germanic Languages and Literatures and teaches Editorial Studies at the Walter Benjamin Kolleg of the University of Bern. Since 2015, he has been in charge of the research unit on Jeremias Gotthelf with its publishing project for the “Historisch-Kritische Gesamtausgabe” (Historical-Critical Complete Edition) of the works and letters of Jeremias Gotthelf. In spring 2023, his memories of the pandemic were published under the title “Und wer möchte das nicht …” (And who wouldn’t like that ...?) (Bern 2023).

What was the best decision of your life?

That depends on the story.

Which day-to-day decision do you find difficult?

The choice between the important and the urgent.

Is there a decision you regret today?

No, but some that had to be learned from.


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This article first appeared in uniFOKUS, the University of Bern print magazine. Four times a year, uniFOKUS shows what academia and science are capable of. Thematically, each issue focuses on one specialist area from different points of view and thus aims to bring together as much expertise and as many research results from scientists and other academics at the University of Bern as possible.