Notes on narrative

I just stumbled upon this post by Alastair Roberts. The gist of it is that there is a problem with overvaluing personal narrative:

Personal stories can have the most profoundly distorting effect upon our moral judgment. By playing up the ‘luxurious’ details of personality and the ‘depth’ of individual character, we can blind ourselves to the true ethical nature of actions. Žižek’s phraseology is important—‘the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing’—and captures a number of important matters. First, ‘our story’ is not some eternal truth, but an account told by interested and unreliable narrators—ourselves—and should be handled very carefully as a result. Second, not only are we the narrators of our own stories but we are also the primary hearers—it is a story we ‘tell ourselves about ourselves.’ We are the ones most easily and typically deceived (usually willingly) by our own unreliable narration. Third, it is a story told ‘in order to account for what we are doing.’ As such it is a story typically designed to help us live with ourselves and our actions. It is usually a rationalization, an attempt to make sense of our actions retrospectively, in a manner that acts as a defence against the harshness of the ethical or rational judgment that they might otherwise provoke.

I tend to be in favor of people telling their stories, even if they use them in favor of philosophical conclusions I disagree with, because I often find that attacks on personal narrative often are one gambit in an attempt to avoid seriously engaging with disagreeable ideas. If someone’s testimony can be exposed as propaganda, then it becomes easier to see whatever position they represent as being in bad faith. This tends to happen within the sphere of the culture wars, where individuals are reduced to ciphers of larger cultural forces.

But then, it is also true that we are all unreliable narrators. We are experts at crafting narratives that help us and others to avoid things we’d rather not see. I have been reading some of Rene Girard’s book, The Scapegoat. In the opening chapter he discusses a work by the 14th century French poet Guillaume de Machaut which describes in phantasmagorical fashion an attack against the Jews in retribution for a catastrophe which has befallen the region. The text, of course, is simply a rationalization for a pogrom that occurred. What makes de Machaut’s text of particular note is how naively honest he is – he isn’t a propagandist. A particular statement by Girard struck me:

My readers will have already observed that in speaking as I do I contradict certain principles that numerous critics hold as sacrosanct. I am always told one must never do violence to the text. Faced with Guillaume de Machaut the choice is clear: one must either do violence to the text or let the text forever do violence to innocent victims.

Some narratives need to be critiqued to reveal the true meaning, because to not do so would be complicity in perpetuating injustice and falsehood.

But this is in tension with the practice of taking someone’s personal story at face value. I don’t think that we really need to abandon one or the other, but it is worth being aware that the tension exists.

Charles Norris Cochrane, in his tome, Christianity and Classical Culture argued* that one of the principle failings of classical antiquity was its failure to harmonize objective/philosophical truth with subjective experience. Christianity, and in particular the thought of St. Augustine, was able to respond to this need by interpreting individual consciousness in light of a cosmic narrative that connects to the very principle of existence itself (i.e. God) In light of the tension discussed above, this goes some way, perhaps, to explaining why I find Christianity to be an epistomologically sound place to be, when it comes to interpretation.

Wow, this has turned out to be a way more pretentious post than I thought it would be.

*(it has been about a year since I read Cochrane, so my synopsis of his argument is a bit hazy)




About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
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2 Responses to Notes on narrative

  1. jubilare says:

    It’s a lot of food for thought, and didn’t come off as pretentious to me.

  2. wgosline says:

    Nice post. You broach a lot of very interesting epistemological questions, most of which have plagued us since at least the time of St. Augustine 🙂 In other words, may we continue to hunt for answers and objective truth! I am a fan of John Gardner and when I heard that he had written a book on Moral Fiction, I was very interested in reading what he had to say. Unfortunately, my take away is much more than can be written here, but suffice it to say, he also did a good job of asking how much an artist, as unreliable narrative, can be trusted with truth and objectivity.

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