Monday, August 2, 2010

Narrative as the Center of Man’s Relation to the World: “Are Perceptions More Important than Physical Reality?” or “Why We Like Narrative Literature”

These are beginning thoughts concerning something I’ve been contemplating for four or five years. It is sort of a defense of studying literature; but it is simply more concerned with why I, and many others, love stories. Although I’ve thought about this for a while, I only took an hour or so to compose this. I intend to tweak things out in time.

As an English teacher, as well as a lover of narratives in general, I accept that I speak from a bias. Although I will approach the material as objectively as possible, I will not detach my love for narratives from my analysis. There are two reasons for this. First, not to get real philosophic (yet), but I believe truth is not captured or experienced objectively; I believe truth is experienced subjectively. Truth is lived. So I shouldn’t try to detach my passion from my analysis, since I believe my passion can lead me, with reason as a guide, to truth. Second, my passion for narrative literature, as it is a common trait in humanity, is, in a sense, the entire point of my piece. That leads me to the questions that form the underpinning of my rambling essay.

Why is that we love story-telling? From cave art, to the oral tradition, to Greek tragedy, to the Elizabethan stage, to the invention and production of the novel, and, importantly in modern days, to film – why is man led to retell his experience in terms of narrative; and why do these narratives of history find themselves, artfully, retold and restructured through the medium of fiction? What is the reason for our preoccupation with this art form? Because this set of questions is open to a grave amount of speculation that may be neither provable nor helpful in any sense of the word, I offer a second set of questions: What does this fascination with narrative fiction reveal to us about being human? In what way does humanity’s endless interest in narrative literature help us understand history, written texts, spoken texts, and man’s current predicament amidst existence here on earth?

To borrow phraseology from a couple of Dutch literary theorists who said that the self is the center of man’s narrative gravity, I claim that narrative is the center of man’s relation to and experience with the world. I think our brains interpret the data we experience narratively. I think this is how we make sense of the world around us. There is something about the very nature of narrative itself that is human.

Let’s take a look at a few examples. I could go back to older mythologies, but I am more familiar with Greek mythology. These stories and tales create a cohesive (although that may be an overstatement) perspective on reality and world. Lacking scientific study for things like the seasons, the Greeks interpreted data narratively. Why is there winter? Easy. Persephone, daughter of the Greek Olympian Demeter (goddess of the earth and vegetation), was abducted by Hades. After much haggling, Hades agreed to give Persephone back, as long as he is allowed to keep her for a 1/3 of every year. Thus, during the 1/3 of the year that Persephone plays the queen of the Underworld, Demeter weeps for her daughter and refuses to allow vegetation and life forms to grow on the earth.

Let me take an example from Christianity. We often refer to our faith as the story of salvation, or the salvation story. In fact, all of our perception of God and Christ takes the form of a story. God created the universe. Man sinned. God came to earth, died for man’s sins, and invited man to join Him in the heavenly realms. Life is the battle between reveling in the fallen nature of humanity and accepting the salvation won for us on the Cross. The end of the story is Heaven.

OK, so what’s the point in all of this? How does this affect anything? Well, I believe this changes quite a lot of how we view the world – or it can at least help us envision the world through a different lens. How? I know my bias is coming out, but here’s my point: the study of literature is essential to understanding human experience. Why? Simply because it reveals to us, the readers, how different human beings, throughout different generations and cultures, interpreted the world around them. Because humans essentially translate experience narratively, narratives of the times can give us an honest existential view of human experience.

We do not experience our lives as historical sets of data; instead, we view it as a story. The beginning and end are somewhat obvious in terms of a plot line, but the conflicts, climaxes, and characters vary day-by-day, and year-by-year. To understand a historical experience, one must go beyond the data – although this going beyond doesn’t imply disregarding the historical data and factors involved – but one must go beyond the data and understand the experience as a narrative.

Although narratives are further from literal truth than other sorts of analysis, they are a lot closer to lived truth, to truth as it is experienced on a human level. For example, if I were to study the brain activity of a person in love, I could figure out, on a literal level, what the physical properties of love are: I could understand the chemical processes and transferences that occur when one is in love – what areas of the brain reveal heavy activity, and what neurons fire where and when. However, although this is essentially more literal than a play that expresses how one feels in love (take a Shakespeare, for example), the play gets us a lot closer to the human experience of love than the scientific study. Now, I’m not claiming that the previous scientific study is irrelevant, unimportant, or doesn’t tell us something about love; however, I am claiming that the play, even though further from literal truth, gets us closer to lived truth – and this is because human experience is first and foremost narrative.

I’m not saying, “Let’s look at a narrative from WWI, and we’ll understand the historical reasons behind the war.” Or, “Let’s look at a narrative from WWI, and we’ll understand how people were back then.” Let’s remember that literary narratives are essentially fictional; also, a single person composes them. Both of these realities shed light on what studying literature primarily is not concerned with: studying characters or plots and comparing them to reality, or something of that nature. Instead, the study of literature should essentially be a study of the structure of the narrative, a diving into the different forms and constructions that people use to express their experience. This doesn’t mean we don’t concern ourselves with the historical experience that produces the narrative; this would, falsely, cut off the source of the inspiration. However, we should be more concerned with how different individuals, from different times and beliefs, formulate experience narratively.

And, in studying this, we are essentially studying what it means to be human – at least a part of it. If humans necessarily, or at least often, experience the world around them in a narrative fashion, understanding that narrative helps us understand humanity. So is the study of literature more important to humanity than the study of science? I’m neither biased nor blind enough to agree with this statement. However, the study of science gives us an incomplete picture of reality and truth, especially as they pertain to human experience.

Let me use some examples from Dostoevsky (all praise be his name on high). In his Notes from the Underground, the first part of the novella is concerned mainly with a philosophic problem. We can call the problem by different names: the problem of authenticity, identity, morality, or whatnot. However, the problem is not solved through philosophic debate. Getting to the heart of truth is not simply objectively, impassionedly studying a set of premises and conclusions, and circling the logical truism. No. Truth is lived, and truth is lived out narratively. Therefore, Dostoevsky gives us the second portion of the novella: a narrative. Now, I don’t want to oversimplify the matter and say that the second portion of the novel is an answer to the first; perhaps it’s simply a playing out of the ideas expressed in the first part. Either way, Dostoevsky intentionally gets beyond the philosophical problem he outlines, and dives into a more authentic approach to discussing philosophy and truth: through story-telling.

There is a similar pattern in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan outlines some pretty intense arguments against God, free will, and much else – or at least problems with these ideas – in the chapters entitled “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor.” Alyosha does not do a great job with his philosophic rebuttals. In a certain way, Ivan wins. However, and I don’t intend to give anything away to anyone who hasn’t read the novel yet, but I think that it is the narrative that answers the problems Ivan describes. Could Dostoevsky have given us a more logical answer to the issues at hand? Could Alyosha have responded more critically and academically to Ivan? Perhaps. But perhaps Dostoevsky thinks that no, Alyosha could not have actually argued his way out of Ivan’s intellectual and religious dilemmas. Whatever the answer, Dostoevsky did in fact choose to provide an answer, or at least a perspective that offers potential answers, through the narrative. Of course, this reading implies that the novel answers the religious problems it presents. I think it does, but not in a simplistic sort of way. Unlike my reading of Notes, I am more confident that the actual narrative is the answer to Ivan’s problems.

For those who concern themselves with things like literary theory (to be blunt: what is it we’re doing when we study literature?), this idea is probably closest to the old and simple approach to literature: close reading. Sticking, for the most part, closely to the text helps us best understand the patterns and structures used to create the text; and studying these patterns and structures help us understand the human act of creating narratives – and since creating narratives is a universal human drive or ability, this study helps us understand humanity on a lived, existential level. Of course, the text is connected to its place of creation, both geographically and temporally; so understanding these levels help us understand the text. But we don’t abandon or forget the text in our analysis of the culture that produced it. For one, we would be in danger of distancing ourselves from the patterns and structures that shape the nature of the narrative; and second, we may be, implicitly, denying the fact that a certain part of human nature, what is means to be human, is universal, from culture to culture, from narrative to narrative.

Let me end very specifically. What sometimes annoys me in people’s study of literature (especially as it is portrayed on TV or in the movies) is how they analyze the characters as if they are real. People apply psychoanalysis to them, or at least attempt to uncover their real motives. Now, while a certain amount of that is OK, it is only OK in the context of understanding its limitations. The character in a movie or novel is not real; therefore, studying him as if he were is futile and misplaced. It is better to understand why a character such as he was created; or understanding how the character is influenced by the other powers in the novel, and how he influences these powers; etc. And all of this is not to understand how people actually act or react in real life, but simply to understand a perspective on how people perceive these things. These perceptions, as they are expressed through narratives, help us understand how humanity perceives the universe. And perhaps understanding how humans perceive the universe is, in fact, more important than what exactly the universe actually is.

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