Mirror, Mirror: The Contrapuntal Perspective

Posted on the 08 February 2014 by Agholdier @agholdier

In so far as the word “knowledge” has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings.—“Perspectivism.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche; trans. Walter Kaufmann , The Will to Power, Bk. 3, §481

And with the postmodern turn in our culture, the practice of re-approaching a recognizable story from an alternative perspective has become commonplace. We are familiar with the heroes of our fairy tales, fantasy stories, and myths; now we want to see how the “other” side’s account might go.

Mirror, Mirror: The Contrapuntal Perspective
We want a contrapuntal perspective.

Such a tactic offers the reader all the familiarity of nostalgia, with an equal part of novelty thrown in for excitement (and, perhaps, a dash of “fairness” for the otherwise voiceless, as well). We love the story of The Wizard of Oz, but how did the so-called “Wicked” Witch of the West experience those events? Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is magnificent, but what might an Orc say if he could tell his side? Everyone knows that the sleeping beauty was ravaged by a terrible sorceress, but how might Maleficent explain herself?

And this style is nothing new: consider C.S. Lewis’ most brilliant work of fiction, Till We Have Faces—and pay close attention to the subtitle—A Myth Retold, where Lewis presents the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of one of the “evil” sisters. To go much further back, remember who John Milton’s Paradise Lost (first published in the mid 17th century) featured as a sympathy-provoking protagonist: Lucifer, indeed the Devil himself! I should like to think that it would be impossible to find a more difficult character to rehabilitate!

More generally, contrapuntal research allows multiple voices and viewpoints on a topic to pool their collective strengths into a cohesive product. The word came to prominence through the work of post-colonial thinkers (like Edmund Said) who were intentionally fighting to present an alternative narrative to the accepted doctrines of the social sciences that had been based on exclusively outsider perspectives. Today, the method has married our obsession with narrative anti-heroes to produce a veritable cottage industry of contrapuntal stories. (For a particularly interesting example that frames itself as a contrapuntal narrative within its own fictional world, see the marvelous Final Fantasy Tactics, a video game for the original Playstation console.)

Elsewhere, Nietzsche spoke about the value of detaching oneself from a fixed perspective to view the world in a different way for a time:

Alienated from the present. There are great advantages in for once removing ourselves distinctly from our time and letting ourselves be driven from its shore back into the ocean of former world views. Looking at the coast from that perspective, we survey for the first time its entire shape, and when we near it again, we have the advantage of understanding it better on the whole than do those who have never left it.

— Friedrich Nietzsche; trans. Helen Zimmern, Human, All Too Human, Sec. IX, “Man Alone with Himself,”  §616


I’m excited to discuss this approach to storytelling at the upcoming Western Regional Conference on Christianity and Literature in May. I’ll be presenting a paper that considers the failure of the secularization thesis in light of modern Western spirituality that has hybridized Western and Eastern traditions into something new that Christians must understand – and I’ll look at a particularly excellent graphic novel as a case study. I find the concept fascinating  - and I can only hope that the alternative perspectives of the other participants will agree!

The Donkey


When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

photo credit: mikebaird via flickr cc

Tags: C.S.Lewis, Contrapuntal, friedrich nietzsche, G K Chesterton, Maleficent, Paradise Lost, Perspective, Till We Have Faces, Wicked

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