The Power of Point of View

S.B.L. Book Review Session on “Perspective Criticism” (part 3) – STEVE BLACK

Steve BlackGary Yamasaki’s Perspective Criticism uses “point-of-view analysis” as a means to clarify puzzling passages in the Bible. Through point of view, the reader experiences characters as remote or close. If they are viewed as close, then they are also viewed sympathetically, and this can result in a merger of sorts between reader and character. Even morally deficient characters may be viewed sympathetically through point of view.

An example of this, that Yamasaki gets a great deal of mileage with, is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even though the two heroes in this movie are train robbers, viewers who likely do not approve of such acts of crime nevertheless find themselves hoping they get away with it in the end.

Yamasaki argues that point of view can be used to bring to light the implied author’s unstated evaluation of ambiguous narrative events (pp. 13, 139). He argues that the actions of those characters with whom the audience has “merged” will tend to win approval from the audience. Conversely, the actions of those characters from whom the audience has been “distanced” will tend to win disapproval.

In the dozens of illustrations from cinema, Yamasaki explains how the placement of the camera relative to the various characters, as well as other techniques, such as overdubbed narration, bring the audience closer or farther away from various characters.But what is the equivalent of the camera in written texts?

To answer this question, Yamasaki borrows from Boris Uspensky’s A Poetics of Composition and Meir Sternberg’s The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, noting several ways that texts delineate point of view, including Spatial, Psychological, Informational, and Ideological.

The spatial point-of-view plane concerns the proximity of narration to particular characters or groups. Through which character’s vantage point does the narrator tell the story? Does what is told always concern one particular character? The psychological point-of-view plane relates to the disclosure of interior thoughts, motives, desires, or feelings that the other characters in the story may not be privy to. The informational point-of-view plane relates to the regulation of information. Who knows what? Does the reader know the same or more than a particular character? And the ideological point-of-view plane is the ideological stance taken by a character or group, or perhaps the ideological stance reflected in the work as a whole. Yamasaki believes that the ideological plane is not particularly useful for his purposes.

There is much to like about Yamasaki’s book. It is very easy to read with many movie examples that make the content easy to understand. Unnecessary technical jargon is at a minimum.

Yamasaki focuses exclusively on the function of point of view as it relates to character evaluation and reader-character merging. For the most part I think Yamasaki makes his case. Point of view can be used to determine which character the audience will identify and merge with. For example, the audience intuitively identifies with Jesus at his baptism at Mark 1:10 because they gain access to this event through the eyes of Jesus (“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw – that is, Jesus – the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him”). It is through what Jesus saw that the audience sees the heavens being torn apart, and the descent of the Spirit through. Likewise, in the same passage, the audience is kept at a distance from John the Baptist on the psychological plane. That is to say that his inner thoughts, perceptions and feelings are unstated. Because of this, the audience is guided to view the Baptist more remotely.

Yamasaki’s concern is to relate point of view to character evaluation and reader-character merging, as I have mentioned. Unfortunately, this limits the scope and value of point of view somewhat. While point of view is useful in these areas, one comes away after reading Yamasaki’s treatment with the suspicion that this is point of view’s primary function. Now, to be fair, Yamasaki never claims that point of view’s usefulness is limited to these functions. Nevertheless, there is much that is left untapped relating to point-of-view analysis.

Point of view primarily concerns the audience’s entry point into the narrative, and as such accomplishes many things. It can guide the audience in their attitudes towards characters, as Yamasaki suggests, but it can also serve other ends. For example, it can also serve the plot more directly. One perspective can create mystery, another tension, another anticipation.

It can also serve aesthetics. By granting the audience an unexpected perspective, the narrative is kept fresh and interesting. By providing the audience with an expected and typical perspective, the narrative can gain a traditional feel. When Jesus is baptized in Mark (1:9-11) the unusual point of view (inside Jesus’ mind, as it were) has an arresting, and captivating quality. It can have the effect of gripping the audience’s attention, and perhaps even signaling that something important is happening.

Point of view also helps with characterization. That is, it can help create character traits. An example of this is evident in what the audience gains during the introduction to John in Mark 1:4-8. By distancing the audience on the psychological plane (by refraining from internal representations of thoughts or feeling), the audience not only fails to “merge” with John, but also come to experience something of John’s austerity. Had the narrator told the audience about John’s hopes or fears, then the audience would have “humanized” him more. This, when added to the ascetic tendencies mentioned in v. 6 – that he has Spartan clothing, and eats wild honey and locusts – this all renders John less “personable” and more austere to the narrative’s audience.

A narrator has two ways to indicate character traits: showing and telling. That is, character traits can be inferred through actions and words, or can be bluntly stated by a narrator. Sometimes the most poignant representations are those that the audience must “decode” from actions or words. A character can become more vivid by showing and not telling. However, “showing” – that is, demonstrating through words and action alone – can be interpreted through Perspective Criticism as distancing on the psychological plane.

An example of this is when Jesus, in Mark, cries “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). The narrator could have said, “Feeling desolate, Jesus said ‘My God My God, Why have you forsaken me?’” As it is, using point-of-view analysis, we might conclude that the narrator is simply distancing Jesus from the audience here. But, another way to look at it is to suggest that the unstated emotions implied in Jesus’ words open up a narrative gap that the audience is invited to fill. They are led to ask, “What emotions and thoughts might lie behind such words?” The results they imagine can be more poignant than anything that Mark could have written. The fact that the emotional content was created by the reader, and hence resides directly in the reader’s mind, means that it is more immediately accessible to the reader than anything merely written on the page could have been. These poignant emotions imagined by the reader in this instance create empathy, and thus, intimacy. Hence that which according to a point-of-view analysis is understood as distancing can, with another set of analytic tools, be understood as the opposite – a forging of intimacy. The tools that are chosen often create the results that are determined.

An interesting element of Yamasaki’s book is the discussion of what happens when the various planes of point of view converge, or – and more intriguingly – diverge. Convergence re-enforces empathy and with it audience-character merging. On the other hand, Yamasaki notes that divergence between planes moves things in a different direction altogether. For example, a divergence between the informational plane and the psychological plane – that is, when the reader knows something of the inner workings of a character’s volitional, emotional, or intellectual state, but also knows something factually about the narrative world that that character does not know – with this combination the results are dramatic irony.

For example, the trial of Jesus in Mark is told mostly from the point of view of Pilate. In 15:9 he asks the crowd “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” While contested, I suspect that for the implied author Jesus is in fact the King of the Jews, and what Pilate hence says sarcastically is in fact ironically true. In any event, the narrator continues by moving to the psychological plane and explains that Pilate says this because he realizes that the chief priests had delivered Jesus over to him out of jealousy. In saying this, the narrator lets the audience know what is going on in Pilate’s mind. Hence, the audience is drawn to Pilate on the psychological plane (they know what is in his mind), but diverges from Pilate on the informational plane (they know that Jesus really is the King of the Jews). This divergence between planes brings forth a dramatic irony for the audience. Being privy to the inner workings of Pilate’s mind does not lead the audience toward empathy; rather, the audience is lifted into a position of superiority over Pilate, and can from this position look down with a degree of derision upon Pilate’s derision. In other words, the closeness wrought on the psychological plane, rather than causing the audience to merge with Pilate, actually catapults the audience into a position over and against the Roman leader – a position where the audience can, through dramatic irony, negatively evaluate Pilate.

However, this particular divergence – that is between the psychological and informational planes – does not always have the predictable result of dramatic irony. For example, point of view is a crucial element in recognition scenes. An illustration of this is the story in Luke of the disciples going to Emmaus. The disciples are the point-of-view characters in this story – that is, the characters with which the audience is to merge. On the psychological plane their thoughts and feeling are made known to the audience. But there is a divergence on the informational plane, as the disciples do not know that the stranger is Jesus, but the audience does. The result of this divergence here, however, is not irony as it was with Pilate. Here, the reader “merges” with the disciples even though they diverge on the informational plane. The divergence in this instance between the psychological and informational planes does not create irony, but rather creates anticipation. The audience anticipates the inevitable moment of disclosure when the identity of Jesus is made clear to the disciples. Hence, a divergence between the psychological and informational planes does not necessarily always result in irony.

Point of view is flexible, and various instances of particular techniques result in different outcomes. It limits point of view if we ever get to the point where we assert this or that particular plane or combination of planes will always have this or that predictable result. Each plane, or combination of planes, can be used by different authors to differing effects. I say this lest point of view turns into something wooden and formulaic, rather than something flexible, dynamic and open-ended.

As already noted, modern moviegoers, because of point of view, can positively evaluate and even “merge” with criminals, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Point of view can lead viewers to suspend their normal values – such as the conviction that theft is wrong – and to identify with the criminals, and even hope that they get away with their crime. Unfortunately, I believe that one will be hard pressed to find this same dynamic within biblical literature. In biblical narratives morality, ethics and values often play a somewhat different role from what is found in movies. This is not to say that villains are never point-of-view characters in scripture, as they are, just that the implied audiences do not approve of them in the same way as their modern movie-going counterparts might. For example, Herod is the point-of-view character in Mark 6 where John is killed, and while this suggests a merger between him and the audience, the fact that in the final analysis he is outside of the will of God, they are also distanced from him.

In Mark a fundamental ideological value relates to having one’s mind set on the things of God (8:33). We see in Herod this value violated by a point-of-view character, and it is solely because of this that the implied audience negatively evaluates him. Hence, we see that ideology is finally responsible for the audience’s evaluative stance towards a character. This stands in tension with Yamasaki’s assertion that the ideological point-of-view plane “plays no significant role in the encoding of evaluative signals in the point-of-view crafting of the gospel” (p. 99). With the example of Herod in mind it is difficult to assert that ideology is not important relative to point-of-view evaluation of characters. I suggest that the ideological point-of-view plane can function differently in ancient narratives than it does in some modern examples. One of the more salient differences is that I do not believe the phenomenon of anti-heroes, such as is found in modern movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to be paralleled in biblical literature. In biblical literature the implied audience is never asked to positively evaluate bad characters in the way that modern moviegoers are. Hence, the ideological plane does play a significant role in “encoding evaluative signals.”

The example of Herod also raises against Yamasaki another perhaps more serious issue, and that is that point of view can be used as a clue about how a character’s otherwise ambiguous act might be evaluated. Again, point of view primarily concerns the audience’s entry point into the narrative. It is not primarily about merging or evaluation, even though those things might lead from it. A close proximity between character and audience brought about by point of view may suggest a “merging” between the two (as with Herod in Mark 6), but merging does not necessarily suggest approval. Biblical narrators can bring the audience close to characters such as Herod, and even lead them to approve of some of his actions (he does, after all, initially protect John from Herodias in this story). But his ultimate villainy over-rides all of this on the evaluative level of things. Biblical narrators may draw their audience close to villainous characters like Herod through point of view, and this can achieve many things, but one thing it never does for these narrators is to sanction that villainy.

The fact that Herod is the point-of-view character for Mark’s account of John’s death — as multiple inside views of him in 6:20 and 6:26 would seem to suggest — might win for him a degree of sympathy from the audience, surprising as that may be, but in the final analysis it is not enough to win the audience’s approval. Alternatively, the fact that the audience is kept at a distance from John in the exact same passage does not lead the audience to disapprove of John. Merging with a character does not necessarily imply approval, and being distanced from a character does not necessarily imply disapproval. Non-point-of-view characters can be positively evaluated, and point-of-view characters can be negatively evaluated. This is perhaps my biggest issue with Yamasaki’s use of point-of-view as a methodological tool.

This being said, Yamasaki does those interested in the literary dimension of the biblical texts a real service by introducing perspective criticism. Understanding point of view can greatly help critics come to grips with a crucial aspects of how narratives function. Much of what Yamasaki suggests is impeccable. The dynamic of merging of characters with audience is a helpful one – it enables us to gain important leverage into how the narrator brings the readers or audience into the story. It reflects important choices made by the implied author – choices that reveal what is important to the implied author, and what should be important to the implied audience.


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