Mise en abyme


Lately, I’ve been thinking about stories within stories.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about it for a while– as an art model, I occasionally sees photos of myself looking at a painting of myself (a painting done while I look at the painter and the painter looks at me). It’s bound to come up.

But the real reason I’ve been thinking about nested narrative (mise en abyme, or “placed in the abyss”, if you will)  is Ryan Gossling. And Macauley Culkin. (What’s sacred and what’s profound in this theory/movie star confluence is up to you….).

So for anyone who missed it, Gossling and Culkin have been getting their miss-en-abym on by wearing t-shirts of each other wearing t-shirts of each other. So Gossling was photographed wearing a shirt with Culkin on it, which Culkin put on a t-shirt and took a photo of himself wearing, which Gossling then photographed and… yes, you guessed it…


So, what’s the deal?

Mise-en-abyme refers to a story within a story (or an image within an image), where the stories mimic each other. The term was first articulated by Andre Gide in relation to literature and art, but also in “the device of heraldry that consists in setting in escutcheon a smaller one ‘en abyme'”–that is, when you see a family shield within the family shield continuing into the abyss.

In literature, we might think of a novel as containing “levels” of narrative, each nesting in the other like babushka dolls or brightly coloured measuring cups. You’ve got the narrator (the extradiegetic narrator sitting at a point outside the events occuring in the story) and the  story world (the diagetic level where stuff is happening inside the story world). Within the story world there might also be an extra layer, for instance, if the person in the story is telling a story.

ImageThe narratologist Genette identified a phenomena where these levels were transgressed: the extradiegetic narrator (the story-teller) steps into the diagetic (story) world, or a diagetic character (story world character) steps into a metadiegetic world (the story within the story). He uses the example of Julio Cortazar’s “Continuity of Parks”, where a man who is reading a novel becomes a character in the novel he is reading. Here, the narratives collapse into each other, creating a world that blurs the devision between ontological and narrative levels.

 Genette called this “metalepsis”. In metalepsis, no level of narration is higher than another.

If you’re still thinking nested measuring cups, stop. We’re in serious Escher terrain here, the type of narrative that Jeanette Winterson says “spirals” through a multitude of meanings, with every part of the spiral overlapping.


Now think about this:

Jorge Luis Borges, observing mise en abyme in a number of narratives where characters read stories about themselves, proposed “that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, as readers or spectators, can be fictitious”.

Genette, following Borges, joins his idea of metalepsis in narrative with that of an infinite miss en abyme: “The most troubling thing about metalepsis indeed lies in this unacceptable and insistent hypothesis, that the extradiegetic is perhaps always diegetic, and that the narrator and his [/her] narratives–you and I–perhaps belong to some narrative”.

It’s all rather Stranger than fiction.

But I think what interests me the most is not this pure form of mise en abyme which goes on forever, but the questions that emerge from forms of mise en abyme that deal with erasure. Say for instance, a character keeps falling into day dream and memory. Now say at the level of the extra diegetic, the narrator can revoke parts of the story–say, “no, scrap that last chapter, here’s what happened instead”–but also in the world of the story, the diegetic world, and the story/memory/day dream within that, the metadiegetic world, the character can also revoke or change parts of their story.

It happens all the time with memory, right? As more information comes to us about an event, we change what we previous thought was the memory. Now imagine that happening in a memory of you having a memory.

That there might always be another level hints that there might always be another set of outcomes. A character revoking one version of a story to tells another highlights that the possibility of other versions of events is always already present.

In a way, it’s all kind of early-teen science fiction. But it does posit an interesting technique for writers, who, like myself, are a little squeamish about presenting a story told through memory as if that memory isn’t always changing.

When you’ve got metalepsis or mise en abyme, the pact with the reader is not one of verisimilitude, or suspension of disbelief, but a suspension of belief  in the acknowledgement that any stability is illusionary.

All that aside, it’s kind of awesome to know you’re thinking on the same wave-length as that genius kid from Home Alone….


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