I like the idea that I am a story which I am still writing. After all, there seems to be a rambling kind of direction to it, and if pressed, I could likely invent a plot. Of course, until the final page, nobody -not even me- really knows how it’s going to turn out, but that’s the beauty of it. The intrigue of it -a story in which we’re kept guessing until the very end.
I suppose, though, any story admits of a certain amount of literary licence, and a life story is definitely no exception -just look at many social media postings where fact and fiction intermingle like roots from a pot-bound plant. It’s hard to know what to do with stories like that; by constructing them the way they have, does that still make them stories of who the narrators actually are? By altering the way we tell our tales, does that also alter us?
Because our memories are imperfect reproductions of what actually happened, and because the way we sift through them may favour -or reject- the more remarkable ones, do we have a story at all? Could our lives be nothing but random hodgepodges of remembered events on flash-cards we hold up when asked to tell someone about ourselves? And, even when organized in some semblance of sequential chronology, is it a story, or a fantasy?
Sometimes the only thing that stitches the narrative together is the fact that it all seems to have happened to that fraying thread of continuity we identify as ourselves. And yet, an old black and white photograph of me as a child seems not to be the same ‘me’ as the one I feel I am now. I have to believe the writing on the back that identifies it as me, and yet… and yet I do not remember it being taken. That child is not me anymore -there are so many gaps I cannot fill. So how do I construct a narrative that includes him? Am I his story, or is he mine?
I had almost forgotten about the idea of Homo narrans when I happened upon a counter-argument in an essay by Galen Strawson, a British analytic philosopher from the University of Texas at Austin: https://aeon.co/essays/let-s-ditch-the-dangerous-idea-that-life-is-a-story
After reciting a few examples of sundry philosophers and savants who subscribe to the narrative approach, Strawson writes, ‘I think it’s false – false that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing.’ I have to say that it spurred me to read on; I wondered how he would attempt to assail the now-conventional wisdom of the narrativists.
He firmly rejects this thesis. ‘It’s not just that the deliverances of memory are, for us, hopelessly piecemeal and disordered, even when we’re trying to remember a temporally extended sequence of events. The point is more general. It concerns all parts of life, life’s ‘great shambles’, in the American novelist Henry James’s expression. This seems a much better characterisation of the large-scale structure of human existence as we find it. Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us.’
Strawson seems to feel that identity through narrative is an almost desperate attempt to seize control of the course one’s life: to develop an autobiographical narrative to act as a lens through which we experience the world. He quotes McAdams, a leading narrativist among social psychologists: ‘Beginning in late adolescence and young adulthood, we construct integrative narratives of the self that selectively recall the past and wishfully anticipate the future to provide our lives with some semblance of unity, purpose, and identity.’
And then, before we decide that describes our ‘story’, Strawson counters with a quote from the British author W Somerset Maugham: ‘I recognise that I am made up of several persons and that the person that at the moment has the upper hand will inevitably give place to another. But which is the real one? All of them or none?’ I suspect this was an attempt to muddy the water, but I pressed on.
I get the impression that Strawson identifies most with the 16th century philosopher and writer Michel de Montaigne who is mainly remembered for his prodigious output of essays. Montaigne, was also known for his memory lapses, and so it is no surprise that ‘‘I can find hardly a trace of [memory] in myself,’ he writes in his essay ‘Of Liars’ (1580). ‘I doubt if there is any other memory in the world as grotesquely faulty as mine is!’ And why is that important for Strawson?
Because ‘Poor memory protects him [Montaigne] from a disagreeable form of ambition, stops him babbling, and forces him to think through things for himself because he can’t remember what others have said… To this we can add the point that poor memory and a non-Narrative disposition aren’t hindrances when it comes to autobiography in the literal sense – actually writing things down about one’s own life. Montaigne is the proof of this, for he is perhaps the greatest autobiographer, the greatest human self-recorder… Montaigne writes the unstoried life – the only life that matters… He knows his memory is hopelessly untrustworthy, and he concludes that the fundamental lesson of self-knowledge is knowledge of self-ignorance.’
Not to make too great a point of a faulty memory being a helpful argument against the narrative of life, though, Strawson borrows from a comment on a book by the American novelist James Salter: ‘Salter strips out the narrative transitions and explanations and contextualisations, the novelistic linkages that don’t exist in our actual memories, to leave us with a set of remembered fragments, some bright, some ugly, some bafflingly trivial, that don’t easily connect and can’t be put together as a whole, except in the sense of chronology, and in the sense that they are all that remains.’ In other words, I suppose, self-knowledge comes mostly in bits and pieces that we fit together as best we can.
I still feel that life is a narrative, though -a series of events, however cobbled together, however rambling, that tell a story. Like an archeologist sifting through fragments from a midden, we piece together seemingly disparate items and random shards until we have a chronology that makes sense to us, an idea about what was happening and when. Our lives are not so much describable in accurately numbered episodes, as they are in contextually sorted potsherds found in the dust we have been walking through for years; we’ve organized them in a way that makes sense to us. So, our lives are only as colourful as the fragments we have stooped to gather.
Shouldn’t that tell us something…?