“WE LIVE BEYOND ANY TALE THAT WE HAPPEN TO ENACT”
If one is Narrative, then—here’s my first definition— one experiences or conceives of one’s life, one’s existence, oneself, in a narrative way, and in some manner lives in and through this conception. To be Narrative, as I will use the term, is to have a certain psychological characteristic.
It is in the first instance a natural disposition, even if it is open to cultivation. Narrativity, or the lack of it, is a natural dimension of human psychological difference, whatever the possible effects of training or cultural influence.
But what is it, exactly? What is it to experience oneself or one’s life, or major parts of one’s life, in a narrative way? This is a large question and I know of no clear answer. But there is widespread agreement that Narrativity exists. According to the neurologist Oliver Sacks, “each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’ … this narrative is us, our identities.”
The psychologist Jerry Bruner holds that “self is a perpetually rewritten story,” and “in the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives.”
The philosopher Marya Schechtman claims that one “creates [one’s] identity by forming an autobiographical narrative—a story of [one’s] life.”
Charles Taylor holds that “wemust inescapably understand our lives in narrative form.”
“We are all storytellers,” according to Ruthellen Josselson, Amia Lieblich, and Dan McAdams, and “we are the stories we tell.”
David Velleman writes that “we invent ourselves,” in a paper called “The Self as Narrator,” adding that “we really are the characters we invent.”
According to Dan Dennett, we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour, and we always try to put the best ‘faces’ on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.
I think these quotations give the general idea. Most of them add the claim that one conceives of oneself—or one’s self—in a narrative way to the claim that one experiences one’s life in a narrative way, and make no clear distinction between the two things. I have accordingly built this into the starting definition of Narrativity.
All these writers endorse what I call
(a) the psychological Narrativity thesis
which states that all normal people are Narrative. All normal human beings conceive their lives, themselves, their existence, in a narrative way, and in some manner live in and through this conception. The psychological Narrativity thesis is an empirical, factual, descriptive thesis. This is how we are, it says, this is our nature.
Many also endorse a further thesis which embraces and extends the psychological Narrativity thesis. This is
(b) the narrative self-constitution thesis
which states that all normal people constitute their identity as persons or selves by virtue of being Narrative—by conceiving their lives, their existence, in a narrative way, and living in and through this conception. One of the most prolific exponents of this thesis is Dan McAdams, who propounds what he calls the “life-story theory of identity.”
“Identity,” he says, “is itself a life story.”
Schechtman puts it as follows: “we constitute ourselves as persons by forming a narrative self-conception according to which we experience and organize our lives.”
2. Are we all Narrative?
We have a major consensus. And it is arguable that there’s a way of understanding the psychological Narrativity thesis, at least, in which it is trivially true. And if it is trivially true then of course I endorse it. Truth is always good, trivial or not. But I am going to assume that it is meant to be non-trivially true, and consider the suggestion that it is false in any sense in which it is not trivial. As I understand the psychological term “Narrative,” some of us aren’t Narrative at all. Some of us do not naturally cast or construe our lives as a narrative or story of some sort, and we do not experience parts of our lives in this way either. Nor do we think of ourselves as opposed to our lives in a narrative way—whatever exactly this might be supposed to be. We may simply not be reflective about these things, or we may be like Bob Dylan:
I don’t think I’m tangible to myself. I mean, I think one thing today and I think another thing tomorrow. I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else. I don’t know who I am most of the time. It does not even matter to me.
or Samuel Hanagid a thousand years ago when he writes that:
for my part, there is no difference at all between my own days which have gone by and the distant days of Noah about which I have heard. I have nothing in the world but the hour in which I am: it pauses for a moment, and then, like a cloud, moves on.
The Narrativity theorists admonish Dylan: “Look, everyone is Narrative. Your ‘‘I am one thing today, another thing tomorrow’ thing is just part of your narrative about yourself.” And Bob Dylan has certainly told a lot of stories, when questioned about himself. But this, if anything, confirms the accuracy of his remark. As for the great Samuel Hanagid—spice merchant, warrior, poet, tax collector, grand vizier to the King of Granada—I think the Narrativity theorists should treat him with great care. At the very least, people vary greatly when it comes to the basic Narrative impulse. If you consider your friends for a while, I think you will see how they differ in this respect.
The Narrativity theorists may concede that some people do not appear to be Narrative, but claim that they are really; it is just that they are doing it unconsciously or implicitly. The Narrativity theorists may back up their claim by instancing the deep human drive to make sense of things, find patterns and explanations at all costs, and, where necessary, “confabulate” in the technical sense of experimental psychology: that is, make up, invent, patterns and explanations where there are none to be found.
Here again, though, we have to do with a central human “individual difference,” a psychological variable, a trait that is strong in some and weak in others. Keats congratulated Shakespeare on his “Negative Capability,” his capacity to rest in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (the sort of irritability that can easily lead to confabulation).
I think some of us possess a good amount of negative capability when it comes to our attitude to ourselves and our own lives. Others could probably do with more of it. It may be sounder—closer to life—than the perilous reachings of narrative self-interpretation, let alone narrative self-constitution. We are perhaps, in certain ways, and to a deep degree, “strangers to ourselves”, in the words of the social psychologist Timothy Wilson.
In many respects, it seems, we do not know what we are about. Perhaps we begin to know something about ourselves when we begin to appreciate this. Whether this is so or not, any large-scale project of self-constitution, narrative or not, is likely to involve a fantasy of control. It risks being violently Procrustean. “If the hare has seven skins,” as Nietzsche says, then “the human being can shed seven times seventy skins and still not be able to say: ‘This is really you, this is no longer outer shell’.”
Nietzsche may be exaggerating, and I hear a voice—Marya Schechtman’s—telling me that there are things that people mean by the expression “narrative self-constitution” that I cannot possibly wish to reject. That may be so. For the moment, if the Narrativity theorists insist that we are all really Narrative, I will disagree vehemently, and again begin to wonder whether they are defining Narrativity in such a way that the psychological Narrativity thesis comes out as trivially true. When McAdams, Josselson, and Lieblich say that ‘we are all storytellers … what is consciousness but an inner narration of experience?’, they seem to understand narration in a way that immediately lands them in triviality. It seems that to be conscious at all is in Kant’s phrase ‘always already’ to be engaged in narrative.
So we are all Narrative, simply because we are all conscious (except for the zombies among us).
On one view, having and making plans already entails having a Narrative outlook and engaging in narrative self-constitution. In this case triviality threatens again, for we all make some plans. Some have no long-term plans because they are feckless or shiftless, or, more positively, because they are highly spontaneous or happy-go-lucky (“very improvident and cheerful,” like the Flopsy Bunnies).
Others make no long term plans because they are desperately poor and are simply trying to survive from day to day. But we all make some plans. So we are back with triviality—and a continuing unclarity about what exactly the psychological Narrativity thesis and narrative self-constitution thesis amount to.
The unclarity that derives from the key term in the definition of Narrativity: “narrative”. What is to be done? Aristotle steps in with his usual reminder: do not attempt more precision than the subject matter admits. But the need for clarification remains. It does not help that most uses of the term “narrative” in the humanities can be replaced without semantic loss by words like “description,” “account,” “view,” “theory,” “explanation,” ‘understanding,” “belief,” “concept,” “picture.”
Perhaps 95 per cent of all uses of “narrative” are replaceable in this way, once we put literary theory aside, inside or outside the humanities.
Any description of anything whose existence involves change is liable to be called a “narrative.” And perhaps change is not necessary—as in the case of the description of a painting.
This suggests a rule of engagement. Whenever anyone uses the word “narrative,” ask whether it can be replaced without semantic loss by by one of the words listed above, or by some variant of the generic expression “description or account of a temporally extended sequence of events.” If it can be replaced, let it be replaced. Then we will be able to see more clearly what is left. If it is hard to say whether or not something is lost in the replacement, the burden of proof (proof that something has been lost) will fall on the user of the word narrative.” If we proceed in this way, we may be able to get more clarity into the debate. It will also help if we explicitly restrict attention to the use of the word “narrative” in the ethical and psychological contexts that principally concern philosophers. We will still need to make a direct assault on the question of the intended force of the word, but we will have a much firmer base from which to start.
This, though,is a task for another time. Having marked the need for clarification, I am going to rely on the characterization of narrative contained in the quotations I’ve already given, in opposing the psychological Narrativity thesis and the narrative self-constitution thesis, along with their ethical counterparts, which I have not yet introduced.
The key claim is simply that human beings differ. We differ dramatically in respect of Narrativity. There are the Dan Dennetts, on the one hand, spinning away, trying for whatever reason to make all of their life material “cohere into a single good story,” and the Bob Dylans, on the other, who are doing no such thing. There are people like Charles Taylor who hold that a “basic condition of making sense of ourselves is that we grasp our lives in a narrative,” and have an understanding of our lives “as an unfolding story” (1989: 47, 52), and people like myself who find the idea of engaging in this sort of self-narrativizing activity profoundly alien, people who believe that they can get on quite well without it, whether or not they also believe that it risks being a royal road to error. We differ in respect of Narrativity as much as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Iris Murdoch differ when it comes to their sense of themselves in the present moment. Hopkins speaks of his “self-being”:
my consciousness and feeling of myself, that taste of myself, of I and me above and in all things, which is more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum [or] the smell of walnutleaf or camphor, and is incommunicable by any means to another man.
Iris Murdoch’s husband John Bayley reports that
Iris once told me that the question of identity had always puzzled her. She thought she herself hardly possessed such a thing, whatever it was. I said that she must know what it was like to be oneself, even to revel in the consciousness of oneself, as a secret and separate person …. She smiled, looked amused, uncomprehending.
Proponents of “virtue ethics” tend to say that there is one right way to be. Aristotle claims that we should before all else possess the four “cardinal” virtues of courage, temperance, “practical wisdom” and justice. And these are surely all very good things to have. Even here, though, we need to recognize the fact and importance of human difference, the very different forms that human virtue can take given the vast field of human imperfection. There seem to be people whose virtues are forms of their failings. There are people whose gifts depend on their faults. There are people who inspire love and respect although they are rackety, partial, inconsistent and comically faint-hearted (as opposed to temperate, just, practically wise, and courageous). There are on the one hand heroes and wise maidens with oil lamps, and, on the other hand, Don Quixotes, Fitzcarraldos, Shirley Maclaine figures, Mullah Nasruddins, Uncle Tobys, and Papagenos. There are people whose charm is inextricable from their rashness or naughtiness, people whose creative energies are constitutively linked to their cowardice or bad temper, people whose particular insight and humour depend on certain sorts of injustice and unfairness, people whose special capacities for generosity and great-heartedness are inseparable from their intemperance, hopelessly faulty people who have moral charm (a notion favoured by Isaiah Berlin)—moral charm which constitutively is bound up with their lack of practical wisdom. One should not be too quick or grand when one tried to generalize about the human condition—either about how it is or how it ought to be.
4. Two more theses
Sacks, Bruner, McAdams and many others endorse (a) the psychological Narrativity thesis and (b) the narrative self-constitution thesis. We are all Narrative, and we “constitute ourselves as persons by forming a narrative self-conception according to which we experience and organize our lives.” 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. Personal identity is the internalized and evolving life story that each of us is working on as we move through our adult lives …. I … do not really know who I am until I have a good understanding of my narrative identity.
I find this bewildering. I certainly have an identity in the relevant sense, a psychological identity, and I certainly have a past, a history; even, if you like, a life story. But I am blowed if I constituted my identity, or if my identity is my life story.I do not spend time constructing integrative narratives of myself or my self that selectively recall the past and wishfully anticipate the future to provide my life with some semblance of unity, purpose, and identity. When I read that this is a human universal, I think I must come from the planet Zog.
Some psychologists use the term “identity” to refer not to how one fundamentally is, psychologically, but to how one conceives oneself to be—however misguided one is. Some also use the term “self” in this way. On this view, one’s self is just one’s self-conception. One’s identity, one’s actual psychological identity, is how one conceives of oneself. This seems to me like saying that one’s VW is a Rolls Royce (or conversely), because that is what one thinks it is. It also sounds rather alarming. But this, perhaps, is just a terminological matter; and since it seems that McAdams is using the term “identity” in this special way, the disagreement between the two of us is considerably less than it seems. I cannot, for example, object that his view seems to have the consequence that no one can ever be self-deceived.
Even so, disagreements remain—among them, the deep disagreement between those who think that one’s self-conception is essentially some sort of narrative and those who do not. I am also unsure what to make of McAdams’s statement that ”I … do not really know who I am until I have a good understanding of my narrative identity.” The trouble is that the phrase “know who I am” seems to me to connect inexorably to an “objective” understanding of the word “identity” to mean who I really am as a matter of deep psychological fact, opposed to the “subjective” use of “identity” to mean how I conceive myself to be. It seems all too painfully clear that I may have a very good understanding of my identity in the sense of my account of myself to myself, and not “know who I am” at all. I may be clueless about myself, radically self-deceived as to my identity in the objective sense, and my cluelessness may consist precisely in my identity in the subjective sense, my McAdamian identity.
But having noted this difficulty, and possible ground of misunderstanding, I am going to put both aside for now. I will continue to use “identity” in the way I favour, as referring to who or what I am, fundamentally, considered as a person, however much or little I know about the matter.
A person can of course be highly complex and inconsistent compatibly with their being a fact of the matter about how they are, fundamentally, considered as a person.
(a) and (b), the psychological Narrativity thesis and the narrative self-constitution thesis, are distinct. One can endorse (a), the view that we are all Narrative if normal, without in any way endorsing (b), the view that we (all normally) constitute our identity in that way. (a) is also independent from any other self-constitution view—any view according to which we constitute ourselves as persons in some way. Neither thesis has any evaluative implications; both are merely empirical and descriptive. But they both have evaluative or “normative” forms. I call the normative version of the psychological Narrativity thesis
(c) the ethical Narrativity thesis.
According to the ethical Narrativity thesis, one ought to have a Narrative outlook on one’s life. One ought to think about oneself and one’s existence in a narrative way and in some manner live in and through this conception. It is essential to a good life, essential to living well, essential, in fact, to true or full personhood.
We can illustrate this view by supposing that Socrates is right when he says that the unexamined life is not a full human life, not a life for a human being—right that we ought to be reflective about our lives in some way or other. I am not sure that this is a universal human truth, in fact, but let us assume that it is (“in some way or other” may prove to be a fairly capacious dispensation). We may then take the ethical Narrativity thesis to be the thesis that we ought to reflect about our lives in a particular way: in the narrative way, in the narrative framework.
This view is widely held today, and it is usually part of the normative version of the narrative self-constitution thesis, which I will call (somewhat heavily)
(d) the ethical narrative self-constitution thesis
According to this view, one’s identity as a person or self ought to be constituted by (or perhaps in or through) one’s narrative of one’s life.
Like (a) and (b), (c) and (d), the ethical Narrativity thesis and the more specific ethical narrative self-constitution thesis, are distinct. For one can endorse (c), the claim that one ought to be Narrative, without endorsing (d), the more specific claim that one ought to constitute one’s identity in a narrative way. In practice, though, most of those who think that one ought to be Narrative seem to think that this is at least partly, if not wholly, because one ought to constitute one’s identity in a narrative way.
We now have four connected theses: a thesis about how we do normally think about ourselves and our lives; a thesis about how we ought to do this (given that Socrates is right that we ought to do it in some way or other); a thesis about how our identity gets constituted; and a thesis about how it ought to get constituted.
It may be said that the fundamental features of one’s identity are what they are independently of anything one can do about them. There is, first and foremost, the matter of a person’s position in the great state-space of core character traits, which once had four main parameters—sanguine, melancholy, phlegmatic, and choleric—and now has five, the “Big Five,” the bipolar categories Extraversion/Intraversion, Neuroticism/non-Neuroticism, Agreeableness/Disagreeableness, Conscientiousness/Irresponsibility, Openness/Closedness to Experience. Well, this is surely right, and I will return to the point. For the moment it is enough to note that one can ingest and savour this large dose of realism—highly restorative in a debate which sometimes runs wild—while continuing to endorse versions of the two self-constitution theses which remain highly substantive, although much more moderate than their unrestricted versions, in focusing on self-constitution in so far as as there is anything we can do about ourselves and our identities.
5. Four initial positions
I want now to put aside the specific issue of self-constitution (theses (b) and (d)) for a while, and consider the four possible theoretical positions defined by acceptance or rejection of (a) and (c), the psychological Narrativity thesis and the ethical Narrativity thesis.
First position. The descriptive psychological thesis is true but the ethical thesis is false. That is, we are indeed deeply Narrative in our thinking about ourselves, but it is not a good thing. It leads to self-deception, bad faith, inauthenticity, bullshit. This view is associated particularly with Jean-Paul Sartre, but we may also call the great (second-century) Stoic Marcus Aurelius as a witness.
Second position. The descriptive thesis is false, but the ethical thesis is true. It is not true that all normal people are naturally Narrative in their thinking about ourselves. But we should all be Narrative. We need to be, in order to live a good life. Bob Dylan needs to start narrativizing before it is too late. This is a common view today, and it also has respectable ancestry, e.g. in the person of (the first-century historian and philosopher) Plutarch.
Third position. Both theses are true: both the psychological Narrativity thesis, according to which all normal non-pathological human beings are naturally Narrative, and the ethical Narrativity thesis, according to which being Narrative is crucial to a good life. This seems to be the most popular view in the academy today, and indeed in the clinic, followed by the second view. It does not entail that everything is as it should be; it leaves plenty of room for the idea that many of us would profit from being more Narrative than we are, and also, I take it, for the view that we can narrativize ourselves badly, and learn to do it better.
Fourth position. The psychological Narrativity thesis and the ethical Narrativity thesis are both false. This is my view. I do not think it is true that there’s only one general way in which (non-pathological) human beings think about themselves when they think about themselves in the larger, more overarching way that is at present in question—the Narrative way. And I do not think there’s only one good way for them to do so— the Narrative way. There are deeply non-Narrative people and there are good ways to live that are deeply non-Narrative. There are people who live well who are not only not naturally Narrative in temporal temperament, where this is something merely negative; there are people who are naturally strongly anti-Narrative, where this is something positive in its own right. People like this not only lack any inclination to cast, conceive, construe and conduct their lives (or parts of their lives) in a Narrative way; they also find it peculiarly hard to do. They are likely to stumble and stall in recounting events in their lives, and this is principally because they have a strong sense that something is being positively misrepresented, falsified, in so far as the events are being strung together in a narrative.
6. Two more positions
With these four basic positions in place, we can return to the narrative self-constitution thesis, along with its normative version. The non-normative version, recall, says that your narrative of your own life constitutes your identity as a person or self. The normative version says that one’s identity as a person or self ought to be constituted by one’s narrative. The dominant view in the academy and the clinic, I think, is that both these theses are true. Proponents of this view hold a full house: we are naturally Narrative; we ought to be; we constitute our identity in this way; and we ought to. I am at the opposite end. We are not all naturally Narrative; it is rarely if ever a good thing; we do not all constitute our identity in this way; nor ought we to. I suspect that Michael Jackson was destroyed by his belief in narrative self-constitution.
Who iss right, and why does it matter? It matters both theoretically and practically. The psychological Narrativity thesis (according to which we are all Narrative) is an empirical claim whose truth or falsity is of great moment to anyone interested in human affairs. The ethical Narrativity thesis (we all ought to be Narrative) is a normative, evaluative claim, not a descriptive claim, but it also of course makes a claim to truth, an empirical claim, in fact, about what is actually good for people, and one reason why it matters is that if it is not true then a considerable amount of damage may be being done—in psychotherapeutic contexts, for example—by people who think it is true. Therapy aside, and more generally, the ethical Narrativity thesis creates a problem inasmuch as non-Narrative people who are exposed to it may think there’s something wrong with them and their lives when there is not.
One obvious possibility is that the Narrative life is right or best for some but not for others. It may be, for example, that naturally Narrative people ought to be Narrative—that this is a good way for them to lead their lives—while naturally non-Narrative people ought not. I am certain that the Narrative life is not good for everyone, and I am interested in the polemical thesis that it is not a particularly good way—or at least the best way—for anyone to live their lives. Perhaps it is essentially confining, essentially petty, excessively self-concerned, second-order, shopkeeperly. Perhaps the ethical Narrativity thesis is false for everyone, or almost everyone, because we live beyond any tale that we happen to enact, and the ethical Narrativity thesis seeks to confine us to our tales. When I first wrote about Narrativity I wanted to defend the non-Narrative or anti-Narrative temperament against what I took to be the prevailing orthodoxy, and I thought that the most important thing to do was to stress human difference and variety, as—so far— I have done again in this paper. Now I want to begin to go on the offensive against Narrativity. If the Narrativity thesis is the main thesis in town, we need the antithesis, the anti-thesis. (Aufhebung can wait.) I am going to proceed in two stages.
Stage 1. I have allowed for the sake of argument that Socrates is right that we ought to think about or examine ourselves in a wide, general, life-assessing way. I have allowed that he is right that we ought to engage in what he called hexetasis, or more accurately autohexetasis—self-examination (I am going to use the Greek word, because it is unfamiliar and to that extent theoretically unencumbered). Question: Does autohexetasis, hexetasis for short, essentially involve narrative, Narrativity? If I have to be hexetatic, do I have to be Narrative? Is the Narrative way the best way, even if it is not the only way? I say No and No. Let me put down a clear marker straight away by saying that I do not think hexetasis involves Narrativity even when it involves therapy that pays special attention to past life, especially early life.
Perhaps this shows that I understand the notion of narrative is a narrower way than others. So be it. I do not think that deriving therapeutic benefit from grasping and emotionally appreciating causal connections between one’s early-life experiences and one’s current travails need involve any sort of specifically or distinctively Narrative thinking—any more than learning that the scar on one’s finger is due to an early fall. In most cases, I think therapy delivers a strikingly disparate clutch of insights, bits and pieces, elements of understanding (emotional understanding) that cast light severally on this and that. The insight-elements do not themselves make up a narrative sequence; nor is the way each one casts light individually a distinctively narrative matter. Truth in this area is mostly a matter of fragments and oddments, accurate hexetasis is largely bricolage, smooth narrative is almost certainly fantasy (except, perhaps, for people who are obsessional in one way or another). I certainly do not want to rule out the possibility that successful therapy or hexetasis should in some cases have a narrative form. But if we measure therapeutic success partly by reference to getting at the truth, rather than just by reference to restoring or increasing everyday fitness for life, then I think the possibility of achieving success with smooth narrative grows slimmer.
No, say the narrativists, the facts are these. Almost all causal explanation of features of concrete reality—in this case, features of oneself, one’s personality, one’s present situation, and so on—involves identifying links between past and present. And when one’s subject is oneself and one’s life, all identification of links between past and present involves narrative. Granted, they say, this may not be true (or interestingly true) in the case of many explanations of features of oneself, medical and genetic explanations, for example, to do with eyesight and shoe size, but it is going to be true in the case of many of the most interesting character-related or more generally psychological explanations. This means that hexetasis is bound to involve narrative as soon as it involves causal explanation, past-present linking. And it is bound to involve a considerable amount of highly substantive causal explanation if it is to get anywhere. So it must after all involve a considerable amount of highly substantive narrative.
In sum and in brief, we have an argument. Premise : Hexetasis requires causal explanation, past-present linking. Premise : Causal explanation is necessarily narrative, when one’s subject is oneself and one’s life, and in particular one’s ethical life, in the largest sense of that large word. Conclusion: hexetasis is necessarily narrative.
The argument is valid, but I do not think it is sound. I reject both premisees. As for premise , I do not think hexetasis necessarily involves causal explanation; I think, with Proust, among others, that it often involves such simple things as discovering something about what really matters most to one (I will come back to this). But although I do not think that hexetasis necessarily involves causal explanation, I do think that it very often involves causal explanation. So I am prepared to grant premise  for the sake of argument. But not premise . I reject premise : causal explanation, psychologically significant causal explanation, is not always narrative. It is not ”always already” narrative, even when a life is in question. It can be, in an intuitive sense, anti-Narrative. I can have no story of development, but capture an isolated key explanatory connection between past and present, an arc of contact that reaches above and is utterly independent of all the developmental, progression-involving details of my life.
8 “Le vrai moi”
So much (for the moment) for hexetasis. Now for a frontal assault on the “full house” view described on p. 000. I have a team of supporters. I cannot write like Montaigne, but I can match him in appealing to others and moving from quotation to quotation. On my team I have, for a start, or so I believe, people like Proust, Emerson, Woolf, and at least one avatar of Nietzsche, who has, it seems as many avatars as the Hindu God Vishnu (at least one of which is on the other team). This initial list may sink some hearts, on the grounds that these people are just too sensitive, too highly strung, too transcendental-intellectual, too hyper. But they are counterbalanced by the comparative bluntness of some of the other team members: the great short-story writer V. S. Pritchett, the source of my title, and the incomparable Chekhov, who inspired Pritchett’s observation.
Kierkegaard has also been claimed by both sides in the Narrativity debate, but he starts well for me by saying that one should not try “to arrange oneself dramatically in [time or in] temporality,” for this sounds like a direct criticism of Narrativity, an exact rejection of the MacIntyre/Taylor project, and also, I think, the Ricoeur project, although Ricoeur’s formulations seem somehow gentler and more open than MacIntyre’s or Taylor’s. Kierkegaard’s most famous remark on this subject runs as follows:
Philosophy is perfectly right in saying that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other clause—that it must be lived forwards. The more one thinks through this clause, the more one concludes that life in temporality never becomes properly understandable, simply because never at any time does one get perfect repose to take a stance: backwards.
This passage has probably been cited in support of the Narrative cause. It seems to me, though, that it rejects the idea that one should make use of a story of oneself in living forwards, that is, in living—for there is no other way to live. Your narrative is something you work out, perhaps, if you want to, looking back, but you should not let it dictate your stance to the future. Rather the contrary, when it comes to dictation. In another passage Kierkegaard says that we should live like someone taking dictation, continually having his pen poised for what comes next, so that he does not presume meaninglessly to place a period before the meaning is complete or rebelliously throw away his pen.
This is, admittedly, in context, a counsel against despair, but it seems, more generally, a strongly anti-Narrativist injunction. I do not, however, want to rest anything on Kierkegaard’s case, which is highly complex, particularly when it comes to the importance he accords to reflective recollection (as opposed to mere memory).
Proust considers days when one finds oneself “outside the regular tenor of life” (“en dehors du train courant de la vie”), days when one is more inward. They are not days on which one finds oneself in a special position to “appreciate what one has made of oneself.” They are days when one is simply more at home to what one just is, independently of any making, more at home to—or with, or in—“le vrai moi,” as Proust calls it, the true me or true self, to which there is, on these days, some kind of reconnection, or better connection. One has been caught up in one’s daily life (or one’s narrative?) in a way that has in some respect alienated one from oneself. Perhaps one has been caught up in one’s narrative in a way that has alienated one from oneself. How could this be, the narrativists ask? Because we live beyond any tale that we happen to enact.
Proust gives great weight to what he calls “involuntary memories,” upsurgings of past episodes of extreme happiness. They teach you about yourself as nothing else can. They are rare and fundamental data. These data come from the past, to be sure. It does not follow that they have anything to do with narrative. On the contrary; they are isolated clues, clés, not clews you have to ravel up (narratively, temporally) to their source. They are complete in themselves in respect of their probative force. Proustian self-knowledge centrally involves things like this, suddenly realizing that one really loves something, something which is likely to seem wholly trivial from most points of view. Proust’s greatest revelations come from the feel of a starched napkin, the sensation of uneven flagstones under his feet, hearing a spoon clink on glass, dipping a biscuit in tea. Such things are, perhaps, the fundamental clues to self, under all one’s skins.
Of which there are at least 490, as Nietzsche says before he goes on to make the very point Proust is making. He, Nietzsche, is speaking of the dangers of self-examination, but he then says that there is a way in which this absolutely crucial enquiry [into oneself] can be carried out. Let the young soul look back upon its life and ask itself: what until now have you truly loved, what has raised up your soul, what dominated it and at the same time made it happy?
Again, this hexetatic use of the past is not a matter of narrative. It is a leap outside narrative. Obviously in looking back one considers parts of one’s actual life (one’s actual history), but what one hopes to acquire is information about one’s deep form, information about one’s nature that is not constituted—perhaps not even partly constituted—by the events of one’s actual life, let alone one’s narrative of that life, information that may seem oddly trivial and thoroughly surprising.
Emerson (deeply admired by Nietzsche) adds this, in his roaring essay on self-reliance:
What is the aboriginal Self…? The inquiry leads us to that source … which we call Spontaneity or Instinct … [or] Intuition. Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. He may err in the expression of them, but he knows that these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed. All my wilful actions and acquisitions are but roving; — the idlest reverie, the faintest native emotion, command my curiosity and respect.
Here Emerson delivers a colossal blow against many who champion self-constitution by wilful choice and action, but this is only en passant. His principal message is that we are reliably accessible to ourselves only by intuition … we need to listen for ourselves … we are in Nietzsche’s phrase “pieces of fate” … we wander most blindly precisely when we try to regiment ourselves … things are not up to us … we ourselves are not up to us.
He takes the point to its fiercest conclusion:
Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind …. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, ‘What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?’ my friend suggested — ‘But these impulses may be from below, not from above.’ I replied, ‘They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.’ No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it.
If this seems too much, remember that Emerson is betting on the basic goodness (or good-enoughness, in Winnicott’s terms) of untainted human being. Kant, by contrast, believed in radical evil, that is, a tendency to wrongdoing right at the root [radix] of human being. Kant’s standards, though, were very high, and Emerson is at one with Kant in his paean to autonomy when he says that “no law can be sacred to me but that of my nature”— even as he utterly rejects what Kant has in mind, and, as I read him, reverses the aspirations of those in the present day who seek autonomy in self-constitution.
Both Emerson and Kant agree with Nietzsche that “you should become what you are.”
—“You cannot fail to become what you are. It is tautological that you are at any stage of your life what you have thus far become.’”
Emerson’s and Nietzsche’s point is precisely that it is all too possible that you can fail to become what you are, and miss out on reality, “that reality which we run a serious risk of dying without having known, and which is quite simply our life, true life.”
—“Of all the things you could have quoted in support of your argument, this is the worst. For Proust’s very next sentence reads as follows: ‘True life, life finally uncovered and illuminated, hence the only life that is fully lived, is literature.’”
What Proust means by this, though, is the polar opposite of what the narrativity theorists have in mind when they encourage us to be Narrative, to engage in narrative self-constitution. He means, very briefly, a certain high quality of apprehension of life and self that is free from the almost invincible distortions and blindnesses of train-train habit, and fundamentally independent of the actual course of your life, and a fortiori of any narrative account of it.
Proust might nonetheless be thought to believe in self-constitution. For he also says that “we work away constantly trying to give our life its form.” But what happens when we do this, he says, is that “in spite of ourselves we copy, as in a drawing, the traits of the person we are, not the person we would like to be.”
This is not really self-constitution, and even if it were it would not be distinctively narrative self-constitution (and Proust seems here to have our public history and social persona principally in mind).
That is enough Emerson, Nietzsche and Proust. I am sure we should get in touch with ourselves (although I am not sure how this fits with projects of radical self-constitution). But doing so is often more a matter of luck than than endeavour, and I am now interested in a quieter point. For Mrs Ramsay, in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, … it was a relief when they [the others] went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of—to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself.
Here, I think, we have contact, contact with one’s identity, the distinguished thing in both senses of the word (though not in Henry James’s meaning). And it seems to be the negation, the pure negation, of narrative.
Consider, also, Woolf’s “moments of being.”
Some Woolfian moments of being are good but relatively ordinary moments of life in which one is—manages to be—present in a way in which one is often not present.
Others are memories, not necessarily happy (they may be ‘sledge-hammer’ blows), that have Proustian force. These are, as it were, windows into one’s essence, one’s personal essence—something to whose existence I am now happy to commit myself as a matter of basic psychological realism, without saying that we should go digging after it, or that it is unalterable, or that experience after early childhood can have no part in its constitution. Moments of being reveal something; something is made manifest.
—“The metaphor of the window is not neutral, given the current debate. It is potentially question’begging: it presupposes a fixed place—a kind of shrine—into which one looks.”
It needn’t be taken so crudely.
—“But these ‘moments of being’ are obviously part of one’s ‘narrative’, in the sense of one’s account of one’s life.”
This threatens to be question-begging in its turn. Or rather, it threatens to trivialize the claim that all normal people are Narrative. One cannot be said to have a narrative of one’s life, a narrative attitude to one’s life, a narrative self-conception, simply because one has and remembers and treasures such moments. We all have histories, and nearly all of us have a reasonable number of memories of past events in our lives. This alone cannot make it true to say that we are Narrative—short of trivializing the claim. What distinguishes Woolf’s moments of being, it seems to me, is their isolation from narrative. They are, certainly, actual events in her life, but that does not place them in a narrative. They are loci or manifestations of her fundamental form, or aspects of her fundamental form. Their power lies in their stillness, their self-sufficiency, their independence of the flow of life, their immunity to “making.” They make me think of the stillness of a great portrait. There is a fundamental mode of human understanding in which to understand someone is like experiencing this stillness. The same goes, I propose, for understanding oneself. The correct image, in any case, and independently of the image of the portrait, is one of discovery, not creation or constitution.
Thoughts of this kind are no doubt familiar enough; the gathering conclusion is plain. Theses (a)–(d) are all false. (a) and (b) are empirically false as descriptive theses. (c) and (d) are empirically false as normative theses. But suppose you are naturally Narrative, suppose you do naturally think of yourself and your life in a narrative way. Many do not do this, but suppose you do. So be it. That is one natural way of human being. But it seems to me that you should then be careful what else you do. For to identify oneself with one’s narrative of oneself, to take one’s narrative of oneself to constitute one’s identity, is likely to be a desperately reductive (if not murderous) act— and for several reasons. Not only because we live beyond any tale that we happen to enact, but also because there are many respects in which we are not very good at knowing much about ourselves, or about why we do what we do. To all the broadly speaking Freudian evidence in support of this last claim we have to add all the situationist evidence from social psychology. Then we have to take full account of the non-Freudian notion of the “adaptive unconscious” as expounded, for example, by Timothy Wilson in his book Strangers to Ourselves. The adaptive unconscious is the unconscious mind as acknowledged in cognitive science, a vast repertoire of mental processes that influence our judgments and decisions in ways inaccessible to conscious awareness. It turns out to do a great deal of the running of one’s life, especially when things go well, sometimes with little regard for one’s conscious elucubrations.
Note that this does not mean that it is not really one oneself who acts, when one acts. To think this is to make the great mistake, to identity oneself with the “conscious self,” which is, at best, the spindrift of your being. It just means that you’re not generally au fait with what is going on in the way that you think. And the danger is that the more you identify with your explicit narrative of yourself, the less you’re likely to know what is really going on. “We do not deal much in fact when we are contemplating ourselves”, as Mark Twain observed.
Some of us, do, perhaps, but most of us do not. “It is all very well to be aware of your awareness,” Lewis Thomas adds, “even proud of it, but do not try to operate it. You are not up to the job.”
The consequences for the (b) and (d), the ethical Narrativity thesis and the ethical narrative self-constitution thesis are I think clear. I am inclined to adapt William Blake’s famous quatrain: “Never seek to tell thy life, / Life that never told can be; / For the gentle wind doth move / Silently, invisibly.”
None of this is to say that one cannot plan a life’s work or pursue great projects. It is not to say that one cannot try to be good, to become good. (For that, though, one need never look further than the present; to think of yourself as on a “quest” is almost inevitably corrupting.) It simply raises doubts, grave doubts, in my opinion, about the value of being Narrative and about the goal of narrative self-constitution, or indeed any project of self-constitution—about the extent to which self-constitution is likely to be a form of self-abuse—about the extent to which the goal of autonomy is a form of enslavement. As Pritchett says in his essay about Chekhov’s short stories, which surely inspired him, “life is a fish that cannot be netted by mood or doctrine, but continually glides away between sun and shadow.”
9. Conclusion I’ve tried to present an antithesis to the Narrativist thesis. There’s a great deal more to say about all this, but this is as far as I’ve got at present.