The Post Modern Story

L11739668_882023575186673_1903537469_nast night I was listening to Andrew Solomon’s Ted talk about forging identity. Which is about taking hold of the narrative and creating a point of view. And this morning, on the train, I read an article in Aeon by a professor who disputes the idea that he is a story.

Strawson writes: “Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us. And neither, from a moral point of view, should it.”

I couldn’t agree more. Life never does that. We do. If you have ever held a grudge (an awfully universal human thing to do, I would think), you are clinging to a story, not a sequence of events.

Events happen. [His]Stories are remembered and often told.

Dr. Strawson is a philosophy professor. I’m not. But when he writes:

I don’t think an ‘autobiographical narrative’ plays any significant role in how I experience the world, although I know that my present overall outlook and behaviour is deeply conditioned by my genetic inheritance and sociocultural place and time, including, in particular, my early upbringing. And I also know, on a smaller scale, that my experience of this bus journey is affected both by the talk I’ve been having with A in Notting Hill and the fact that I’m on my way to meet B in Kentish Town.

I can’t help but wonder if he leaves the possibility open that the knowledge he has of his own personal history, that his history perhaps* being rather unexceptional/not in conflict with, while embedded within, the larger cultural history, means that he is unaware of how significant his “autobiographical narrative” is or might be under other circumstances, circumstances under which the disparity between the autobiographical narrative and the culture’s larger narrative bring the former into view.

I’m not sure why he put the term “autobiographical narrative” in quotes, but I do because I think it is just jargon for our sense of identity. Which can be nothing but a history. A story.

Stories are not necessarily Scribe’s well-made plays. In fact, the best ones never are.

Nor are we likely to engage or encompass ourselves in a single story. I am one story with my children. One with my students. One with my lover. I can selectively block details of my personality when responding to situations that are embedded within larger stories. Sometimes my stories change.

Sometimes they involve me changing dramatically: a turning point. I choose to acknowledge and aspect of myself in the story and attempt to change it–I don’t attempt to alter the facts. I find a balm for guilt in the new story of redemption, or growth. And life goes on.

It doesn’t make me insane. It doesn’t even disturb my sense of identity. The very fractured nature of my daily existence is part of my personal narrative. I’m comfortable with that. Strawson repeats Henry James’ description of life as a “great shambles”. That is a story. And at junctures, my story.

Strawson’s article describes in praxis his own story by describing what it is not.

If you were to wake tomorrow in a hospital bed and no one claimed you. You would have to begin to forge an identity. To get to know yourself. And, as much as we want to live in the present, we only know how we fit into the larger story when looking at the past. Even if the past is nothing but a single day, or a matter of a split second and a recollection: “I don’t like peas.”

I am sure if someone disputes Strawson’s standing as a philosophy professor he has a history to bring out as an “official record”. Those are the facts. His narrative, my narrative, each of his students’ narratives–that of his mother–will differ just slightly.

And sometimes slightly is just enough to cause trouble.

Strawson writes: “Salter in Light Years finds a matching disconnection in life itself: ‘There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.’ ”

This, too, is a story.

Not mine.


*I say perhaps because I do not presume to know anything at all about Dr. Strawson’s life, nor do I intend to imply anything. But since he wrote his critique based on personal experience and literary quotes, so will I now: I have found that when stories are told – when people talk about how their experience on a bus journey was affected by a talk they were having, it usually, if significant, reaches back to other talks, connects to other experiences that shaped that person’s personal history. It gave it a significant meaning. Or, “narrative”. This is in no way an attack on his perspective. Just the questions that came to my mind based on general experience, not specific philosophical study. 

(Again, check out Solomon’s Ted talk! That’s my literary quote.)

2 Comments

  1. In philosophy, and in the “hard sciences,” thinkers have defined the narrative fallacy. The narrative fallacy occurs when sentient beings create a pattern or series of connected events (story) where none in fact exists, the events being (in fact) random.

    Awareness of the narrative fallacy is supposed to keep rational thinkers from describing causation where causation may be suspect, or to keep them from confirmation bias or from determining patterns where none (in fact) exist.

    I wonder about all those “in facts.” And I believe the ability to create narrative is, while often dangerous, a marvelously inherent talent we need if we are to operate among other human beings. And perhaps, to “know” ourselves.

    Thanks for the links! I’ll check them out.

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  2. Ren Powell says:

    Thanks for the input, Ann! I know the way narrative is used in therapy – to reconstruct narratives to counter “learned helplessness” – deliberate reconstruction of the narrative to create “survivors” of “victims” etc. I find it all fascinating: especially the fact that if someone does create a narrative that is an invalid linking of random facts, their real-world behaviour has a real -world impact that is not an illusion. Kind of making the validity of a narrative a moot point in some cases.

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