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Are We Stories? Do We Want to Be? November 26, 2014

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Philosophy of Human Nature, Philosophy of Literature.
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Every student of mine will know that sooner or later I will be introducing them to some story which illustrates some philosophical idea to perfection. And I am indeed a firm believer in the ability of good stories–film as well as literature–to provide the “meat” for the “bones” of a dry or complicated philosophical theory, especially in moral philosophy. Just think of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as a critical expose of utilitarianism. The film Extreme Measures, same thing. Ethical relativism, look no further than Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. And my latest addition to the moral universe of fiction: The television series Longmire, with Sheriff Walt Longmire being the most Kantian of heroes since Will Kane in High Noon. But rarely do we get into the core of narratology, the notion of personhood being inexorably linked with the ability of a person to tell his or her own story; it is really only in my Phil 111, Philosophy in Literature class that we have the luxury of getting into that corner of philosophy and storytelling. But this is where the field first saw the light of day, in the 1980s and 1990s, with philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Paul Ricoeur, Martha Nussbaum, Daniel Dennett, and a number of literature people such as Wayne Booth and David Carr. The idea that we become who we are because of our capacity to “connect the dots” in our lives into a narrative whole has caught on so that narratology today has two distinct areas, an epistemological/ontological side where the personal narrative becomes our human mode of being, and the ethical one where gathering one’s events into a story becomes a moral requirement in order to be a human being with care and direction.

But now there are voices, questioning the truth of “humans being storytelling animals,” at least as far as our own stories go. Because when we tell the story of our life, we are (like Ricoeur said) always in the middle, we don’t remember our beginning, and we won’t be able to tell the story of our end. In New Philosopher 11/25/2014 Patrick Stokes writes,

Biographers can describe a human life in narrative terms quite successfully, but they can only do so successfully from a certain distance, leaving out lots of trivial everyday detail. Zoom in close enough, and the ‘story’ of a human life starts to look like a pretty ineptly-scripted one, full of abandoned subplots and details that signify nothing and go nowhere.

Our lives don’t always resolve across a neat five-act structure either. 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted that the final act is always bloody, but very often that final act comes out of nowhere, a jarring interruption to the narrative coherence of our lives rather than a neat conclusion. And even if our lives are stories, we won’t be around to find out how they end.

That’s a problem for narrativists, because how stories end is central to their meaning. An alternative version of Romeo and Juliet where the protagonists survive isn’t the same story with a different ending – it’s a completely different story. The narrative meaning of everything leading up to the end turns out to be very different.

Stories have narrative shape, and only things with boundaries can have a shape. How a story begins and ends is an integral part of its narrative meaning and trajectory. But we have no idea how our lives will end, and quite possibly won’t know about it when they do. If that happens, we won’t ever have access to the final narrative meaning of our lives, we will never have known whether it was a tragic story of star-crossed loves or a tale of triumph. It’s like we’re watching a movie where we actually have some direct control of the plot, but realise we might never find out how it ends.

For one thing, Ricoeur solved that one, in his book Oneself as Another: He says to imagine one’s ending, and relate to the imaginary unity of one’s life that way. We can’t control our fate, but we can influence its direction through the story we tell. But there is another problem with seeing our lives as stories, and that is something that has made me a little more reluctant to embrace the theory of us being our stories. Because a good story, in order to have a point, invariably has to involve problems, problems that will then get resolved at the end. Maybe even horrific problems, tragedies, horror stories, tales of loss and grief, the depths of human misery. Because nobody wants their life to be a comedy, right? So if our story is supposed to be serious, we must embrace the drama, the tragedy. But perhaps most of us would rather just have a boring, safe life with predictable events, just some fun, some love, some sweetness, and then whatever problems that arise, get rid of them/get over them as fast as we can? But those lives don’t make great stories. In order to leave behind a worthy tale of our lives, we need to include the drama, the tragic, and then overcome it through a character arc.
Aside from the fact that most people’s lives will include tragedy whether we want it or not, it hardly seems like something to strive for, just so we can say that we improved on our character. Maybe most of us would prefer to read/watch fictional stories and biographies about other people’s tragedies and hope those things don’t happen to us…
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