The whole is greater than the part
I don’t count myself a massive fan of TV series. At times, however, I’ve come upon a phenomenon which returns repeatedly across different series. I’ll try and describe this phenomenon, trusting that you’ll understand more than I’ll be able to write down.
Occasionally, in a TV series, an episode is constructed in such a way that the story is repeated several times throughout the episode itself, each time according to the different perspectives of the characters concerned. This plot device comes as a surprise. The spectator doesn’t grasp it’s meaning at the beginning of the story (at the end of the day, the spectator’s simply watching a new episode), but only when he or she’s seen things, from a different angle, the second time around. The third time around, the attentive spectator has understood the game of repetitions the system is playing.
And it’s here that the skill of the writer comes to the fore. The writer allows every repetition to reach a certain point, a threshold which won’t be crossed until the end of the episode: that episode’s “reveal”, the novel next step that moves the plot of the whole series forward.
We’ve all experienced it: as spectators, this form of writing tends to generate a certain amount of frustration in us. On the one hand, we’d like to know how things finish; on the other, the writer has set things up in such a way that the suspense grows with each repetition, until we’ve finished examining (together with the writer) the point of view of each character. We remain glued to the screen, identifying ourselves with one or the other character, taking on their roles, taking sides: above all because we really can’t wait to understand how everything comes together.
Sometimes, the game of repetitions hasn’t got to do with the conclusion but with the beginning of the story. The question therefore becomes: how did all of this begin? Or it could focus in on that element which seems to be holding the various points of view together.
The answer to these question is what in narratology, a relatively recent science, is called Revelation. It’s a narrative strategy which every form of narrative (oral, written, visual…) has always made us of, yet which was thematized for the first time by Aristotle in his Rhetoric. The point here is that the final disclosure (or “uncovering”) generates in the spectator listening, reading or viewing the narrative, a closure for their frustration and, therefore, satisfaction. Moreover – and according to the quality of the spectator’s emotional participation – the final disclosure generates consent or dissent.
While reflecting on these issues, I wondered (and this is what lead me to set my reflection down in writing and set it before you) whether it would be worthwhile extending the reflection to encompass, for example, the way in which we read the Bible, or even just one of the Gospels. Scripture offers itself to us in the written form, coming towards us with what appears to be the promise of an answer to (Reveal the sense of) those important questions: How does it end? How did it begin? What holds it all together … the whole?
I wondered if the same structure might be useful in understanding (and thus being more ready to save) contemporary (global and local) events which, similar to episodes of a TV series, have a capacity to increase our feelings of frustration, decrease our satisfaction, and – depending on the quality of our emotional participation – generate within us consent or dissent.
And I wondered, finally, if this narrative structure could help us understand more fully the beautiful principle Pope Francis inserted into the encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (§235) which otherwise risks remaining somewhat abstract. He teaches us that “the whole is greater than the part”, expanding on this with a wonderful example: the model “is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness” (§236).