Jul 28, 2022Liked by Dhananjay Jagannathan

One of the reasons I admired Sheila Heti's novel Motherhood is that she subjects her own life to the expectation that it will unfold like a novel--the one she's basically writing--and this leads her to over-read everything, turning it all into clues. The problem turns out to be that she's depressed and needs a little help and time, but what she *thinks* is that she, as the protagonist, must Make A Decision and Use Her Agency (that most important trait of protagonists) and that it must be the single right decision. Which things in her life are foreshadowing of the bad decision she will make; which things are hinge points where she will Make the Right Choice? None, as it turns out. And that's ... how life unfolds, surprisingly often.

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Yes, I enjoyed that aspect of Motherhood, too! For me, the book also raised the interesting question of whether there could be a narrative that is sufficiently mould-breaking to free itself of these problems. I am reminded too of a little existentialist novel by the Swedish writer Lars Gustafsson, "Death of a Beekeeper", which is related as a series of found notebooks documenting the end of the beekeeper's life, including one that is quite literally a set of ephemeral documents. Gustafsson thereby poses the question: which of these materials offers the truer account of these events?

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Finally reading this & appreciating it greatly. I'm skeptical about only one point you make: that our inability to tell perfect stories about ourselves (that's what you meant by our not being "apt story tellers", right?) doesn't seem to me like a reason not to tell our stories as best we can, or to dismiss what value does lie in the incomplete or inapt (or inept?) stories we're capable of telling. I mean, I'm not sure our inaptness as self-narrators is all that important: your argument seems to me to work just fine even if you subtract that point.

As for the rest -- constitutive relationships, persons as ethical realities, friendship -- yes yes yes: well put, and thanks for putting it so well.

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Really good point about Strawson not mentioning others and how relationships form the self. There are stories you have to tell to each new acquaintance that you end up repeating hundreds of times. Not sure if this ends up as constituting a narrative or alienating you from core experiences through the repetition.

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Thanks Dhananjay, I see the navigation now - reducing everything to story is a high road to relativism and undermines the very purpose of narrative.

However, I would want to push a little further up the story track. I suspect they are more than a way of helping us make sense of ourselves. They are the best way to express what we mean by reality. Does this resonate? Keen to understand what you mean by the non-narrative dimensions of life.

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Thanks for this reflection. Yes, it would be strange to suggest our lives are only stories. Still, this is different from the notion that stories may be the best way of framing experience in order to make sense of our lives. Is that fair? I’m invested - I write stories.

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That's definitely fair - but it's not a strange suggestion in the sense of an uncommon one. Strawson has an amusing catalog of people saying that our lives are stories or narratives at the start of his essay "Against Narrativity" as if it were totally uncontroversial.

But I take your point, certainly, that stories help us make sense of ourselves. I tried very briefly here to develop a more nuanced version of this view that accounts for the fundamentally non-narrative dimensions of our lives, by weaving the narrative and the interpersonal dimensions together, when I wrote:

"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."

But it's this point that I intend to begin with when I come back to this topic next. (I seem to have been writing about it for the better part of a decade!)

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"Narratives offer modes of self-disclosure, ways of connecting our experiences to those of others that aspire to truth."

If you search the web for "Unstory – the Greatest Horror Story of them All", you'll find a Halloween essay published at a website whose purpose has since drifted. The essay relates the horror of not having a story to tell, at least not one that others accept. Naturally, it's about the Book of Job. 

Narratives aren't just *a* mode of self-disclosure, they're the socially-obligatory mode. 

"But what if there is no story? What if there’s a huge chunk of your life that doesn’t fit neatly into a story? That fits so poorly into any story that it’s impossible to deny the possibility that any story anyone tells about it is pure confabulation? What then do you have to say for yourself when people expect you to account for your existence? The short answer is: nothing. No matter the intensity of your experience, no matter your IQ or the state of your soul, if you cannot tell a story about it, with few exceptions, it has no social existence. Moreover, the story you tell of it must be a story your audience understands and accepts. No wonder Job got into trouble."

Humans may need narrative bias for memory compression.

"Job was not satisfied with stories. Not even the most sincerely pious of copybook stories. Job had no reason to be. And yet Job remained faithful, the only one even able to repent before God and intercede on his friends’ behalf, despite his friends’ exerting considerable moral pressure for him to 'repent' by fitting his unstory into their plausible but spurious stories. That God permitted Job to have an unstory – to lack any plausible narrative for the most dramatic events of his life – cannot but horrify our nature as chattering chimps with lossy memories, but it’s honest: life really can be like that, even if our memories cannot be."

I am a Christian, Anglican-ish, living without a story. That is, I'm painfully aware of the artifice in any story I tell of myself, since my real existence frustrates satisfying narratives. As the anti-natal philosopher Sarah Perry put it, I'm living in the epilog:


I could say trite Christian things about this predicament, like, "Now I have no story but Christ's." They'd even be true, in a sense. The reality is, lacking a story for myself makes not only social life difficult, but Christian life. Relating one's own story to *The* Story is the ordinary stuff of faith. I still insist redemption is A Thing even without satisfying personal narratives, and can find theological firepower to justify the insistence:

"[David Bentley] Hart remarks that Christians believe in 'a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin,' and 'that the path that leads through nature and history to his Kingdom does not simply follow the contours of either nature or history, or obey the logic immanent to them, but is opened to us by way of the natural and historical absurdity – or outrage – of the empty tomb.' Hart may as well have added that this path need not follow the contours of human memory storage, with its storytelling bias. Even if the only way to get humans to remember to follow that path is… through stories."

But unstory can make Christian life quite lonely, even apparently impossible.

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I really appreciated this post. I often hear my fellow therapists-in-training talk about the models we use to help our clients figure out their lives or sort through the struggles they've been experiencing. As much as I like the idea of Narrative Therapy, which bears some tangential relation to what you're discussing, it's something that I've often struggled with. I have found, however, with responsible disclosure to my clients relating what is relevant to their experience in session, that using an experiential, episodic form of narrative can help them process and understand their own experience with someone relating to themselves, and understand their human struggles in the context of being received by another in what are often very commonplace human issues.

We frame ourselves in relation not just to our experiences of events, but our experiences with others and reaction to their reactions. Through this co-coordinated sharing, we are able to form our concept of self; it bears some similarity to the communication theory of constructivism.

All in all, this was a great read.

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