The Reveal, the Plot Twist, the Turn, the Removal of Ignorance

A significant part of the pleasure of narrative comes from what Aristotle calls anagnorisis, or the removal of ignorance.  In more contemporary language this moment in the story is called a reveal, a plot twist or a turn. Examples are numerous: every foundling from Moses to Neo who realizes he is a savior, and every hero who discovers his society is based on a lie, every family that thinks they are safe and then spots the tracks of a monster is experiencing an instant of anagnorisis.   The best cases of anagnorisis are ones in which the main character learning What it’s All About, also learns Who He Is.  The perfect example is the story of Oedipus, the ur-detective, who searches for the murderer of the king and the source of the plague, only to discover that the murderer is himself, and the source of the plague is his own incest with his mother.   The moment the king discovers the nature of the crime that confronts him is the same moment he understands himself.

Why is it called “removal of ignorance” and not “gain of knowledge”?  Oedipus is culpable for his ignorance.  His mistaken view of himself is a positive substance that needs to be cleared away, like the covering we remove when we dis-cover something, or the Lethe (forgetfulness) that is removed to give us the ancient Greek word for truth: aletheia.

Obviously we are not to blamed for every instance of our ignorance.  We were not actively forgetting the fact that Mars had two satellites for example — we just didn’t know it.  But the most powerful dramatic moments come when we see a character come to a realization about her state and her situation and realize that she was herself the one blocking her own view.  At the same moment as she realizes what the solution to her mystery is she realizes that the villain is herself.

Stories at their best are not just a source of pleasure, like a candy bar, they are tools for achieving self-knowledge.  When we let a story of anagnorisis become a part of our emotional and cognitive lives, we remove our own ignorance just as the character does, but not at the same time.  If the story works, we see who Oedipus is and what faces him, a moment before the king does.  If we know it too soon the tale bores us, if we think we never could have guessed it frustrates.  When the story works perfectly just as the scales fall from his eyes we feel that we knew it already.  This can give us the uncanny sensation that whoever or whatever is living our lives through us is aware of what we need to know and who we are, a fraction of a second before we are.

All we need to do is open our eyes and we will catch up.


7 thoughts on “The Reveal, the Plot Twist, the Turn, the Removal of Ignorance

  1. My favorite part: “Stories at their best are not just a source of pleasure, like a candy bar, they are tools for achieving self-knowledge.”

    Good stories not only help us know what we are, but also what we ought to be. They help us clarify the paths we want to take and the people we want to become. That’s a lot more than just entertainment.

    Though he was talking about something else, Nietzsche’s comment seems relevant: “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Without stories, life would be much harder to navigate and considerably less interesting.

  2. N.S. Palmer says:

    Hadn’t thought of that. Question: where does the story end and the self begin? I’m not sure that there is a clear dividing line.

  3. I think it’s probably more the removal of fear, with that fear coming from the unknown (a known unknown, in the case of the family discovering the monster tracks…before they see the tracks, it’s an unk unk – unknown unknown)

    Sadly that can be the very candy itself – the satisfaction of removing of that fear can easily distract from any other unknowns present. Of which, at any time, there is a butt load.

  4. Mikey says:

    What are the key stories that children need to learn? Children’s stories often seem to be along the lines of: Villain. Hero. Bad thing done by Villain. Fight where Hero loses. Fight where Hero wins. Villain is temporarily defeated to come back next time. I guess it must be an important story for children to hear with its message of “be on the good side” etc. But what are the other stories they should hear? And what are good examples?

    • Good question! I wrote some down in a post. Probably needs an empirical test — raise some kids on some stories and others on different ones and see which ones turn out better.

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