|Jan/Feb 2018 Salon|
Textile Photo Art by Jeffrey Trespel
Why is it most of us never tire of the news cycle? Is it because we're addicted to narrative just as the millions who tune in their favorite soap operas every day can't live without finding out what happens next?
We should be called homo narrans, Storytelling Man, not homo sapiens. We spend our lives spinning narratives about everything, from how the universe began to why we were late for work. We make sense out of the reality we live in by making stories about it. Mind, I didn't write "making up" but "making." A narrative is not by definition a fiction, though we love that kind of story as well.
We're so immersed in our story-telling, we rarely acknowledge our dependence on it, or we think we use it just as a convenience. But despite our insistence that we are a reasoning creature, it is narrative we rely on to make sense out of virtually everything, even our most abstract scientific ideas.
Sports seem to me an obvious example. Sports are just as much narrative as is The Days of Our Lives. The most macho men, the guys who swill beer and chomp on red meat off the tailgates of their mammoth SUVs before and after the game, are really there to see how their beloved quarterback's and wide receivers' fate turns that day. And context is just as important for the sports fan as it is for the devotees of Gray's Anatomy or CSI. What happened yesterday or last week? Can the Big Guy bounce back from a poor performance and lead the team to victory (despite an arrest for spousal abuse and/or a nagging knee injury)?
The news is primarily narrative, not facts ("fake" or otherwise). Who did what to whom? What happened in that committee hearing in Washington or state house, in the house down the block? Tell me about it. We want the story, not the rationale, not arguments in favor and against, not analysis, however much we may pretend otherwise. Mark Blyth of the Watson Institute at Brown University, two months before the election of 2016 said Trump had a better than even chance of winning because he had a narrative, or at least his potential supporters had one, and their story and the one he was expressing at those rallies sounded familiar to key voters: I had a good job 25 years ago. It was outsourced to Mexico. I got another job. It was outsourced to India. Now I work in Walmart's at half of what I used to make. Hillary's narrative? Don't vote for my opponent. Blyth's point being that people choose the candidate who tells a story they can recognize. Politics, Blyth says, is all about narrative.
Religions are stories par excellence, maybe the first ones we created as a species and certainly among the most enduring. Whatever the later dogma and theology, all creeds rely on basic myths. Even after belief in those myths becomes attenuated or they are seen as metaphorical, the rituals that commemorate them remain because the whole structure falls apart without divine foundation. Without that foundation there's less reason to accept the religion's moral or any other authority it claims.
Science is no less dependent on narrative than is any other human experience. What is the theory of Evolution but a modern version of Genesis or one of the other creation myths? Even those who disbelieve Darwin's theory replace it with a story of their own: the placement of fossils into rocks by God for us to discover and try to make sense of. And for those who accept Evolution except for the explanation of the beginnings of life, their narrative is one of a long divine plan in which the creator puts together a lifeless physical structure, injects a supernatural force into it, and then stands aside to let things play out according to purely natural laws.
The Big Bang is about as archetypal as narrative gets. It goes to the most basic question of all: how did it all start? That it should come up with the same answer as Genesis—out of nothing—should come as no surprise. After all, it's the same human imagination at work in the creation of both stories.
Our individual memories are the raw material out of which we fashion our personal narratives. Unlike our attitudes toward scientific and religious myth, we rarely ever doubt the stories we make up about our lives. They constitute our Past, the Past, fixed and true just as we remember it. Woe to those family members, friends, or others who question it. And it becomes more true, and hence more galling or bathed in golden light, as the years pass. We never think of the narrative of our lives as pieced-together stories from imperfect memories conditioned by prejudicial feelings, circumstances we only partially understood at the time, variations other people told us from their own narratives when we were vulnerable to their influence. We know what happened. We were there. We suffered that insult, that parental neglect, that filial ingratitude.
The villains and heroes of our personal narrative rarely lose their heinous or heroic character. We reject any alterations to them or what they did as vehemently as we oppose any suggestion that what we see and hear in the here and now is not as we perceive it. The plays of Shakespeare are more open to interpretation than are the individual narratives our memories insist are the reality we have lived. It's not so much that there is weak factual basis for what we remember. It's the way we select and edit those facts that constitutes our narratives, much as a clever defense lawyer chooses which facts s/he will concentrate on to discredit or support a witness. Yes, there is a corpus delecti. No one doubts that. But everything else is up for grabs—the notorious who, where, when and what, not to mention the most important: why.
The movie Rashomon presents a plot seen from four different human perspectives. Each differs significantly from the other. Which is the true one? Our lives are Rashomons in which whatever character in which we are cast is the one we are sure has the correct version of what happened. Rashomon is a narrative about the unreliability of narrative, but unlike other artistic narratives that we take to heart no matter how unrealistic they may be, this one is humbling and disturbing because it strikes so close to home.
But of course it's not just what actually happened that matters as it is how we felt about it, and even not so much how we felt about it at the time as how we feel about it now. A narrative is just a string of events without meaning until we tease a meaning out of or impose one on those events. It's not so much whether or not So-and-so did X, Y or Z. It's what we suffered or enjoyed as a result of that action and, sometimes more importantly, what we conclude So-and-so intended and hence how much we blame or feel grateful to them.
We prefer to believe we're a rational and analytical, not narrational species, just as we fail to recognize how much we still think in pictures like other mammals. The next time you lose something around the house and then you remember where you left it, stop a moment and recall how you came to that realization. Then pay attention to in how many other circumstances you remember or figure something out by remembered images. We associate greater intelligence with rationality, logic, analysis, language and from that association, reasoning backward, conclude we must therefore not spend much time thinking in any other way.
One of the current intellectual exercises and popular narratives is to imagine our minds reproduced and then replaced by computers, so-called Artificial Intelligence. This is yet another myth like the others we make up about ourselves. At first glance AI seems like a threat to us, and why would we make up such a dark story if it weren't possible? We could disappear as a species entirely or become mere slaves to the machines we created. But at the heart of the AI story is a deep fallacy. It assumes we, being at the apex of a supposed tree of life (a myth disposed of by Stephen J. Gould more than 20 years ago), will in effect evolve into superhumans of our own creation. It also assumes the mind is computer-like, a grid of neurons, synapses and other gray matter that can be duplicated in silicon and other non-living material.
That's the story some of our smartest scientists are telling us. But it's just another narrative by which we try to make sense of reality, in this case future reality. Several decades back someone decided a computer, actually a piece of computer software, could convince a human it had a conscious intelligence, and the program that person created did convince a number of people. A kind of psychotherapist, the program was seductively human-like in its dialogue with anyone who "talked" to it. But the experiment proved the opposite of what the subjects in the experiment concluded. What it demonstrated was that human beings are willing to believe in the existence of an independent consciousness where nothing actually exists save some transistors in an on or off state. It only had to appear human to do so. Talking machines, heads that spoke in a human-like way, in the 18th century had a similar effect on people. It's the stuff of sideshows at country fairs, but if we clothe it in the garb of science, it still works.
For anyone interested in learning how a computer actually operates and thus what it is and is not capable of, I recommend Richard Feynman's lecture on the subject. Nothing is stupider than a computer, and yet it's capable of performing calculations a human mind could take years, even centuries to do. The robots we are now being promised will look after us in illness and old age and even be our daily companions are nothing more than advanced versions of that program which aped the persona of a psychotherapist. But, as always, we prefer a good story, preferably a flattering one, to the truth.
Nations are founded on myths, narratives of a presumed beginning in which a single people came together as one based on geography and, at least in those imagined formative years, blood. In fact, such narratives are concocted well after the nation is already in existence. But our need for a foundational story quietly turns the process around, and we never suspect the factitious nature of the enterprise.
Which brings us to fiction itself. If we employ narrative as a basic way of explaining abstruse as well as commonplace events to ourselves and to each other, why bother with fiction as art, entertainment, diversion, even a way of understanding life? Between our waking and our sleeping fantasies, one would think we already have a surfeit of story in our lives. But that's apparently not the case. And all art is story-telling of one sort or another. Even the least literal—music—is narrative, not in a programmatic sense but on the deepest level of reality we can experience, as Schopenhauer pointed out.
Apart from the escapist kind, fictional narrative in written form is out of favor these days. At least, our best talents seem no longer to be found between its covers or in the pixels of our ebooks. It's as if the great spirit that flooded the 19th century with such profligate force, like the sea of faith recalled in Matthew Arnold's poem, receded in the early 20th and has not yet returned. Today we prefer the more primitive realism of the movie, which appeals to our basic mammalian preference for the pictorial. We sit in darkened rooms with others of our kind or alone in front of our television or computer screens, dreaming a common dream.
But, one way or other, high-brow or low-, we must have our narrative, both to engage with the real world and to escape from it. It may be dumbed down to a point a reader in pre-World War I Europe or America would not have thought possible, but we must have it nonetheless.
Our lives begin with stories, the ones we're told or are read by our parents, and it ends with one. As young children we hear fairy tales, stories of wonder with happy or gruesome endings. The story of what happens after we die is one of heaven and hell, reincarnation or oblivion. Throughout our lives we are exposed to thousands of others, most of which can be reduced to a handful of plots. Meanwhile we are continually making up our own as our go-to way of communicating and making sense of our lives to ourselves and to others. Even asleep we are at it, as if our story-telling imperative never took a break and without it we wouldn't know who we are, why we exist or what the purpose of our lives is.