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on telling our stories
David Brooks recently asked in his NYT column whether we should think of our lives not as stories but as games (or, more precisely, as series of games). As “a liberal arts type” , writes Brooks, he favors the first option.
Brooks is right that taking our lives to be stories is prevalent among people of a humanistic bent. One reason may be that such a theory helps us explain the importance of literature and other forms of narrative to our lives. If our lives are stories, then getting better at understanding narrative might help us understand ourselves. And it is part of humanistic inquiry - a central part - to understand narratives.
What about the competing unhumanistic perspectives on human life? The game theory of life that Brooks describes, focusing on the work of Will Storr, is social scientific, reducing social interactions, for instance, to negotiations of status. An account of our lives as merely biological – we’re born, we live (and perhaps reproduce), then we die – which also has its modern supporters, is natural scientific. If these alternatives seem unattractive because they are unable to explain central aspects of our experience, then we might seem to be forced into adopting the narrative theory of life.
As a humanist, indeed, as a teacher of philosophy and classics - who wrote in this venue not long ago about the value of humanistic (or liberal) education - it may seem obvious that I would endorse this prevailing humanistic account of our lives as stories or narratives. But in fact I think this humanistic account involves a profound mistake.
Let me explain: Stories require a story-teller. We are not, however, apt story-tellers of our own lives and neither is anyone else. But it makes little sense if our lives are stories that cannot reasonably be told by anyone. So we should jettison the idea that our lives are stories.
That’s the basic argument. Now let me fill it in a little.
We are helped by beginning with the concept of experience. The humanistic account must think of aspects of our experience as something like raw material and the story of our life as something constructed from this material.
We don’t need to think of this process of construction as a form of fabrication or fabulation, but we do need to think of it as some sort of making or fashioning. However, our experiences inevitably outstrip our capacity to make or fashion narratives out of them. Lives have loose ends, while (good) stories should not.
I once wrote about how Julian Barnes’s brilliant little novel The Sense of an Ending turns on this ethical problem about loose ends - as well as a related problem about how unreliable our memories tend to be. Indeed, the very first novel in the modern European tradition, Don Quixote, can also be read as a meditation on the vast gap between Life and Literature. So it is hardly alien to the humanistic tradition itself that there might be something worrying about treating our lives as stories.
Intriguingly, the philosopher Galen Strawson, in his polemic “Against Narrativity”, suggests that the modern consensus among humanists that our lives are stories or narratives comes from a sort of psychological bias. Some people just do experience their lives in this narrative way - Narratives. But others don’t and one needn’t be a Narrative to live a good life. Indeed, Strawson claims, being a Narrative may pose special problems, such as the ones about fabrication and delusion that Barnes and Cervantes explore. Strawson self-identifies (alongside kindred spirits like Montaigne) as an Episodic, someone who doesn’t experience his life in essentially narrative terms, which explains his immunity from the common temptation.
Strawson’s diagnosis of the defenders of narrativity could be true, but we don’t need to go as far as he does. To be sure, narratives are ways of organizing our experience. From this idea, it may not seem a distant jump to think that our lives, as the sum total of our experiences, are narratives. But should we leap thus?
The real difficulty here arises from the fact that our lives are not just a totality of experiences, whether the present ones or the present ones together with all the past ones. This view of life as experiential is common to both Strawson and his opponents, who takes a life to be something we live and experience ‘from the inside’.
But, as Strawson doesn’t mention, our lives also involve other people and not simply as objects that turn up repeatedly in experiences we have. Other people are not the furniture of our lives. In fact, though I can’t make a thorough case for it here, I think that we should regard our relationships as at least partly constitutive of who we are.
In many cases, for those relationships to be or to remain significant to us, we must experience them. But that is not universally true. Each of us had a life before we can remember clearly, for instance, and it was our life. What links that phase of life to now might seem to be purely how it shapes our present dispositions, as Strawson argues. But the continued role of, say, our parents and other caregivers in our lives also links us to that time. Even if we had no contact with these people now, in fact, it would be true to think of them as a part of our lives in an ethically salient sense.
The reason for all this is that a human life is most fundamentally an ethical reality, even before (and perhaps, after) it is a psychological one. There is an important fragment of ethical reality that has narrative features, especially our participation in cultural life, where we try to make sense of one another and ourselves, and in social practices, whose reality over time may be sustained by narratives, both linear and cyclical. But these narrative features don’t in the first instance belong to the lives of individuals, but rather to a shared reality in which they participate.
Only a world such as the post-Cartesian one we seem to inhabit, where we are forced to regard ourselves as essentially separate and isolated minds, calls for the primacy of the experiential aspects of our lives. This view was in the ancient Greek and Roman world a minority position, the province of hedonists like the Cyrenaics and the Epicureans. At some point between now and then - the history of what intervenes, even in a single tradition, is too complicated to relate here - the experiential view came to supremacy. Still, it seems a great advantage for understanding ourselves to overcome it. If our lives have an ethical substance that is more than experiential, we can avoid the danger both of narrative confabulation and of the carefree solipsism Strawson seems to recommend in its stead.
In particular, in leaving behind the idea of our lives as stories, we can, in fact, discover the fullest power of narratives in ethical life. Narratives offer modes of self-disclosure, ways of connecting our experiences to those of others that aspire to truth. In that aspiration, they stand up to challenges, if not often outright refutation. The aspiration is and always remains open-ended.
That is why I take a special pleasure in hearing people relate events from their lives several times. It is not only that the story will inevitably change - with some details emphasized over others, perhaps, or even a different starting point to the whole narrative - but also that people tend to suit the stories to their audiences, at least if they know them. We needn’t be disturbed by this fact if we recognize that the truth of the matter lies not in the original event or even in the original experience of it, but in the joining together of people in communities of self-understanding, that is to say, in friendship.
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