A helpless newborn is far from being fully realized person. Our self-awareness emerges soon enough, but only as our large, initially inchoate, brains develop in context.
This has a profound and bewildering consequence. At first, like fish in water, we have no meta-view of our existential predicament. By the time we are old enough and clever enough to ponder who we are, what we are, and where we might be going, we are in medias res; unable to unbootstrap ourselves from a lifetime that is already unfolding.
Andrew Brown (2005) Figure. Oil pastel, inks and charcoal on paper.
JEROME S. BRUNER
American educational psychologist [1915- ]
American philosopher, English translator of the works of French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur
In medias res, is Latin for “into the middle of things.” It is a literary technique where the narrative starts in the thick of the action.
To be a walking, talking, healthy human child is to have been the recipient of at least a minimum threshold of parental care. We are born almost entirely helpless. Even minimal interaction, that which is essential for mere survival, ensures that a given individual has experienced formative learning in a specific linguistic, historical and social context and—only too literally—has lived to tell the tale!
Andrew and Mara Lea Brown (1996) Emma Baby. Oil on canvas.
SOURCES FOR IN MEDIAS RES
Ricoeur’s translator, Kathleen Blamey (1989: 580-581) observes that “our knowledge, our world of experience our existence are always situated in medias res.” She informs us that “[p]oetics knows no absolute beginnings.” Furthermore, it:
traditionally teaches that the work opens in the thick of the action. The beginning of the story is not the first point on a linear story line but is better described as the center of a constellation, that refers both forward and backward, drawing upon what has already occurred, and which will be revealed directly or indirectly as the story progresses, and stretching ahead, projecting courses of action onto the future, with unrealized possibilities forming a sort of lateral thickness.
If all starting points are contingent, or contrived by the teller of a story, then what of endings? In her self-referential trace of Ricoeur’s philosophical itinerary entitled From the Ego to the Self, Blamey (1989: 600) concludes that “The end of a story is a function of a point of view. It is where the story stops, this time.”
Blamey, Kathleen. (1989)From the Ego to the Self: A Philosophical Itinerary. In The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur. (1995) Edited by Lewis Edwin Hahn. The Library of Living Philosophers: Volume XXII. Chicago: Open Court.
Bruner (1996: 147) writes that “[w]e live in a sea of stories,” and like the proverbial fish who will be the last to discover water, “we have our own difficulties grasping what it is like to swim in stories.” In Life as Narrative, Bruner (1987: 31-32) may be revealing his true colors when he concedes that “[t]he fish will, indeed, be the last to discover water—unless he gets a metaphysical assist.”
Bruner, Jerome (1987) Life as Narrative. Social Research 54:1. Spring 1987, (11-32).
Bruner, Jerome (1996) The Culture of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.