Narratives – A Rambling Response to Jay

Jonathan and John Jay say much that is wise about the nature of evil. However, not surprisingly, I have great affection for narratives. It isn’t just because I majored in lit; though I can be mean-spirited, anecdotal gossip helps me arrive at a greater understanding of human nature.   We see conversation as a series of formed narratives – with structure, implicit thesis, tensions & resolutions.  Unfortunately, I have an acquaintance who retells events honestly and factually; she never imposes interpretation – indeed, she has no interpretations, no ends, and no broader applicability to her life or mine. As I listen, I become frustrated, realizing how much I expect a conversation to be a series of narratives.

All of us occasionally perform – seeing self-serving patterns in our lives, connecting dots in ways that may make us comfortable but are too easy, too opaque. We rationalize, we blame others, we shape our narratives to make us look better. Older and not a great deal wiser, I recognize that seeking and defining the initiatory path towards self-consciousness in both autobiographies and fiction makes many suspicious. That I melded the two says something about how I saw life in my youth and still do. When I was writing my dissertation, Lillian Hellman’s autobiographies were in vogue and I read the series. While I added a snarky (a word not available in that dim past) appendix about her, her narrative wouldn’t fit in a study dedicated to women’s growth to self-consciousness. Her persona was opaque, static; she wanted her life to be mythic but it remained flat. When witnesses later pointed to the many fabrications, I wasn’t surprised. Indeed, Hawthorne portrays a greater truth in the psychology of Hester and James in Isabel Archer than Hellman did in non-fiction. I waited for her point – her real point – much as I do with my acquaintance. Hellman thought she was making points but she seemed merely evasive.

The advice we give one another often comes in applicable anecdotes. We could have done better; we survived. That’s heartening to someone about to undergo a similar test. And sometimes simply pragmatic: another’s experience shows options we might be too engaged to see ourselves. Long ago I described in a self-indulgent personal narrative how I chose dots to make up my life as I see it; I’m willing to acknowledge that it may be no more true than some other arrangement. But these give us strength to understand ourselves better, using a pattern formed by the context. Jay links to “This is Your Life and How You Tell It,” it argues such narratives are inevitable: we have that need. He’s right; sometimes we create a narrative that lets us off the hook. Sure, I’ve heard wives & husbands justify themselves in narratives from which they’ve learned nothing. On the other hand, some describe a relationship leading to an epiphany from which they learned much.

One of my friends tells the story of her marriage; at some point, she began keeping a notebook, discussing with herself carefully why she had married the guy and why she felt the relationship was stifling, why she should and shouldn’t leave him. After a year, she made the decision. She threw away the notebook; she didn’t need it, she’d perceived a narrative with which she could live, she could act impelled by self-knowledge. That year she created her story, aiming at objectivity and honest with facts – on introspection as well as observation. She didn’t want her choice to arise from grudges but self understanding; she knew it was a momentous one that would involve many She tried to be true to this project; now she has few regrets because that narrative was grounded not in a moment’s emotional response but a year’s thought and consideration, not in a story created to entertain and gain sympathy but one true to herself and him.

On the other hand, I have a bare acquaintance with another divorcee, who has now remarried. Our husbands had been office mates; our relationship never close but decades long. Passing in a store, she launched into a discussion of her husband’s faults – ones more convincing if I hadn’t know him well, seen him with her, seen him with his second wife. Certainly, the incidents she described might well have been “true” – the breakup of a marriage after more than twenty years can drive both parties to extraordinary and destructive scenes, actions, damaging remarks. But what she was describing could hardly have been the whole truth of the years in which pride of his children had been one of his favorite topics – we’d all seen him do much that was affectionate, dutiful and generous. She stood there, long remarried, and I wondered about this obsession. Whatever truth there was in her narrative, there was certainly falsehood in its proportions. That his children (even at the time of the divorce grown) don’t speak to him means they have chosen her narrative. Well, probably it is true – but much truth has been left out of it. I have memories of his glowing face, loving them, worried about them. Her narrative must have been the overarching one in which those children now put their memories, perhaps a meta-narrative throughout their childhoods when her public self seemed contrived to give a quite different picture. She told me proudly that she “got” the children. Well, yes, but what a sad triumph.

Narratives can be honest and self-conscious – but it takes time and objectivity to reach that level of self-consciousness. It takes humility before the truth and a willingness to acknowledge we are all spotted characters, fallible if not evil. When the narrator blinks at the truth, I suspect the psychological demands of an anecdotal performance leads to a rhetorical situation in which the blink of the teller is lost in the drama of the telling, the drama of the narrative that entertains or surprises or shocks the audience – all of which makes us less critics and more sympathetic. The angry (though remarried and long divorced) acquaintance clearly enlarged, narrowed and made dramatic the moments of her victimhood. And that such narratives can be used to justify actions that move from the silly to the evil is also true. In this case, the estrangement of children from their father seems to me a good deal worse than silly. On the other hand, my friend with the notebook, while retaining some irritation with her ex-husband, has been facilitating her children’s closer relationship with their father, her ex-husband, as he nears life’s end. The third alternative, though – seeing our experiences as chaotic or without purpose – is also not useful in defining ourselves

I would also argue a writer’s own failings need not mean we can’t learn from his works. Most were terrible spouses; many terrible parents. It is hard not to fault Rousseau who wants to tell us how to raise our children when he was himself such a terrible father, but does a writer’s ability to understand and portray human nature necessarily reflect his own flawed life? We know next to nothing about Shakespeare’s life, but we don’t test his characterizations against him but against character as we have come to know it. The children of many great writers committed suicide; they were probably driven by the same demons that led their parents to write out their compulsions. Still, Melville, Frost, and Hemingway were not ideal fathers. But each understood human nature, some part of the great truths we always seek. I admit, though, I am quite willing to believe Flaubert’s biography is unattractive because I find the conclusion of Madame Bovary not a skillful scene but a smug one. When I say I don’t like an author, it may be because the biographical facts are too irritating to forget. However, those facts have weight with me because I don’t like the “implied author” – the tone and voice, the values and perceptions, the generalizations and psychology that that author presents in the works I’ve read. The reality they construct is not congruent with the reality I know. Generally these come from writers whose biographies or at least ideologies I don’t like (perhaps for reasons others would find idiosyncratic).

I suspect that how people stood on communism (considered with time and place, what they knew and how they knew it) are going to affect later critics of our time. Hellman’s airy communist elitism – the stance of so many of her period and her world – is behind much of my discomfort. And I readily accepted Jay’s complaint about Updike, his opinion reinforced by a single Updike word – “supposed” set before “spies” in describing Alger Hiss. If these guys can’t even bring themselves to face that little fact, how can we believe their other pronouncements? How can a man who uses that word think he stands on the side of humanity? Of course, it follows he prefers an economic theory whose myth is that it helps the “little man” over one that does.

What struck me when I turned to my old teacher’s book last year was how much he took for granted close reading; Lemon’s approach was not unlike Jay’s toward science. Books were read closely, a generalization formed, books were reread to see how useful that generalization was. Proof came from the text itself – the facts were the text; generally, the usefulness of those “facts” were their relation to reality, to human nature. Criticism changed soon after that – and led to more subjective, ideological interpretations. The liberal arts would never have the solidity Jay describes science as having – but at one time it was a more rigorous approach to ideas than it is now.

Of course, stupidity is a pretty universal human trait and the weird Freudian and Marxist readings of the earlier period are embarrassing. But the critics under whom I studied didn’t think they were scientific, didn’t think they were completely objective – but knew they should strive for honesty with the work and read with humility. Of course, it is also true that sometimes their private lives colored our memories (one old teacher that regularly trolled the bus station for young boys from the nearby base, the one that left his wife and four children for a young grad student with whom he romped so randily that the lecturer with the next office would have to guard his bookcase, which might topple, or at least the books come out, during the teacher’s noon “conferences”). In the end, though, the books they wrote were their gifts, neglected now in a later time and place but remaining with rich observations that came from honesty with the texts – their way of testing a hypothesis with facts.

Post Script

I would like to apologize for the complete off-topic nature of my comment about Napoleon to Jay’s thoughtful post. I don’t know what I was thinking – but I do know what I was feeling. The mythic grandeur with which Napoleon presented himself was at its core an unhealthy narrative; the narrative of the French Revolution and of Napoleon can, however, be contrasted with what was going on in our little, muddling through country during the years that have become mythic to us, too. We keep testing the ideas which form the myth. We find clay feet. Still, no wonder we think of their voices in mythic terms – note the link from Instapundit about copyrights. They understood a human nature universal and eternal – that understanding is the core of our myths, ones our nation’s experiences test constantly. Nations aren’t all alike and neither are their myths. Of course, most nations have multiple myths and different ones are trotted out at different times; biographies come in and out of vogue. I do suspect Romantic myths have a greater ability to capture the imagination than, say, Enlightenment ones – but the latter, in their sturdy practicality and humility may be better models.

5 thoughts on “Narratives – A Rambling Response to Jay”

  1. Ginny – I got what you were saying about Napoleon.

    I have a fondness for narrative as well. Humans evolved the trait to help us sort wheat from chaff in the chaos of our experience. However, our predilection for self-deception allows us to construct narratives that are all chaff and no wheat, which is all too common. That’s why the scientific method is so essential.

    “The liberal arts would never have the solidity Jay describes science as having – but at one time it was a more rigorous approach to ideas than it is now.”

    Exactly. My main Russian Lit teacher (an old school Russian Jew who fled Krushchev’s USSR) was a shining example of that kind of scholar. That is why both the Humanities and the Sciences were originally in the same university. I’m not sure they are so compatible, now. But given what I wrote on trajectories, I can’t pretend that the present situation projected forward is a stable state. A revolution in the Humanities may be coming when my generation replaces the Boomers. But then again, maybe not, as those Gen Xers who succeed in Academia are generally those who parrot the BS of their elders the best. Beats my pair of jacks, and I’m so long removed from the halls of Academia that I’m really not the best prognosticator on this subject.

  2. “I would also argue a writer’s own failings need not mean we can’t learn from his works.”

    I didn’t mean to argue that quite so strongly, I just meant that you should not have a steady diet of such writers, not that they should not be read. As my Tae Kwon Do teacher used to say, even the worst martial artist in the world can teach you something, if only what not to do.

    I’ve read a hell of a lot of Soviet Lit by authors I despise. And I still profess a bit of fondness for Sholokhov (Tatyana may gag at that one). He lived in that brief time in the 20s when it was possible to be all three: honest, smart, and Communist. That he continued to write long after it was apparent that things were circling the drain means (to me) that he lost the “honest” part, but he and John Reed capture the feelings of the 20s for me that help me understand why so many good people fell for that crap.

  3. Narrative is important to help make people understand the world.

    However, many of the elements that make a narrative “satisfying” or “persuasive” are not always consistent with honesty or truth.

    While prescriptive theories try to argue that honest narratives are satisfying, the truth is that many dishonest, misleading narratives are both emotionally appealing and influential, while more truthful narratives often seem to fall flat.

  4. Thanks Jay & Vincent for commenting.

    I suspect that one thing that is more satisfying is that man is responsible – after all, we are comfortable neither with chaos nor a malevolent God. So, we prefer to think that our forefathers were genocidal (and thus acting agents) rather than a whole continent was swept with virulent diseases over which we have little control. We would rather think that weather changes are our fault and can therefore be controlled than to face the world the farmers did in my youth – where weather could wipe out a year
    s crop in minutes. It’s a lot easier to blame Bush than to accept the dice roll that hurricanes pose. And if there is anything hard to accept it is the weird effect of tornadoes. Our contemporaries are trying to define a narrative that leaves them in control. I can see why that is satisfying. I don’t think it is true.

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