Forty years ago , Peter Brooks produced a pathbreaking study, Reading for the Plot, which was part of the so-called narrative turn in literary criticism. Narratology, as it became known, spread swiftly to other disciplines: law, psychology, philosophy, religion, anthropology and so on. But a problem arose when it began to seep into the general culture – or, as Brooks puts it, into ‘the orbit of political cant and corporate branding’. Not since the work of Freud, whose concepts of neurosis, the Oedipal and the unconscious quickly became common currency, has a piece of high theory so readily entered everyday language. The narratologists had given birth to a monster: George W. Bush announced that ‘each person has got their own story that is so unique’; ‘We are all virtuoso novelists,’ the philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote. What Brooks glumly calls ‘the narrative takeover of reality’ was complete.
It isn’t just that everyone now has a story; it’s that everyone is a story. Who you are is the narrative you recount about yourself. Whether the life history of someone forced into sex work reflects their true self, or whether self-narration might also be self-deception, are questions that seemingly don’t trouble this line of argument. What if someone tells contradictory stories about themselves? How do you decide which tales are true? You can’t resort to standards of evidence, coherence, plausibility and so on because these, too, are no more than a fable. Facts, Brooks argues, always come to us embedded in a narrative, which makes it hard to see how they can be used to verify or falsify it. The Russian commentator Margarita Simonyan says that all we have by way of truth is a host of competing anecdotes. This wouldn’t matter so much if Simonyan weren’t the director of the Kremlin’s TV channel. Reports that Vladimir Putin murders his opponents, according to this logic, are no more true or false than stories that he is the reincarnation of Peter the Great. If there is no way of adjudicating between conflicting accounts, those that are backed by the greatest muscle are likely to win out. Brooks rejects this ‘that’s just your story’ relativism, insisting on the difference between what actually happened and the way it is represented.
Everyone these days is on a journey, which can lend some provisional shape to lives without much sense of direction. Humanity was also on a journey in medieval times, but it was a collective expedition with an origin, well signposted stages and a distinct destination. The Enlightenment notion of progress was more open-ended: to imagine an end to human self-perfecting was to deny our infinite potential. This creed was inherited by some 19th-century thinkers – ironically, since the dominant model of development at the time was evolution, which is random, littered with blind alleys and lengthy digressions and heads nowhere in particular.
If you can carve your own path to the grave these days, it is because grand narratives of this kind have crumbled and can no longer constrain you. Journeys are no longer communal but self-tailored, more like hitchhiking than a coach tour. They are no longer mass products but for the most part embarked on alone. The world has ceased to be story-shaped, which means that you can make your life up as you go along. You can own it, just as you can own a boutique. As the current cliché has it, everybody is different, a proposition which if true would spell the end of ethics, sociology, demography, medical science and a good deal besides.
Self-authorship, an idea Shakespeare denounces in Coriolanus, is a fantasy of self-governance in a world where the markets decide who shall starve and who shall grow fat. Brooks’s complaint, however, isn’t only that the idea of narrative has been trivialised, but that some of the tales are malevolent and oppressive. If this is a bleaker, more disenchanted book than Reading for the Plot, it is largely because of Donald Trump, even though the former president isn’t granted the dignity of a mention. It begins with a quotation from Game of Thrones: ‘There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.’ One assumes that the story Brooks has in mind is a chronicle of America Lost and America Regained, a stolen election and a deep state, paedophile conspiracies and the storming of a citadel. Life-giving fictions have yielded to noxious myths – myths, the book warns, ‘may kill us yet’.
The distinction between fiction and myth is discussed by Frank Kermode in The Sense of an Ending. Roughly speaking, myths are fictions that have forgotten their own fictional status and taken themselves as real. Liberals like Brooks fear being imprisoned by their own convictions, or oppressed by the convictions of others; the ideal is a cognitive dissonance in which one believes and disbelieves at the same time, rather as Othello thinks Desdemona is faithful to him and also thinks she is not. Since reading fiction involves a suspension of disbelief, it can show us how to attain this dual consciousness. The problem is to distinguish this ambivalence from simply feeling lukewarm about something. Can you really be passionately anti-sexist yet sceptical of your own anti-sexism?
Brooks also refers to myths as ideology, but makes the classic liberal mistake of overlooking his own. Along with most Americans, he probably believes in Nato, the free market and private education, but it’s unlikely he would call this an ideology. Like halitosis, ideology is what the other guy has. Perhaps ideology is a more ‘extremist’ creed than one usually encounters, which is the way the state viewed the suffragettes and slave-owners the advocates of emancipation. Or maybe ideology is a more systematic form of discourse than one overhears on the bus, although geometry could also be described as a system of ideas and nobody thinks it’s ideological.
In Things that Bother Me (2018), Galen Strawson argues with a brisk Oxfordian common sense that there are narrative people and non-narrative ones. Some of us see our lives as a story and some of us don’t. He might have added that there are those who have some narrational days and some non-narrational ones. There are also ‘transients’, who don’t consider that the self they are now was there in the past or shall be there in the future. Virginia Woolf and Bob Dylan occupy this slot, along with Strawson himself, who believes that ‘as a whole human being’ he exists continuously over time, but that his self, by which he means the way he experiences himself to be now, is not the same as his self at the age of ten. He also thinks it is obvious that it isn’t. Contrasted with transients are endurers, who feel themselves to be continuous over long stretches of time – they include St Augustine and Graham Greene. The difference also works at the level of entire cultures.
The question of narrative, in other words, raises the problem of what, if anything, persists over time. David Hume thought for a while that nothing did; others have proposed the soul, the body, the brain and so on. Whatever the candidate, fictional narratives might help us to see continuity in ways other than the straightforwardly linear. What lends Middlemarch or Cousin Bette their coherence isn’t the recurrence of a single character or motif, but a complex overlapping of features. As Wittgenstein observes, what gives strength to the rope that tethers a ship to the dock isn’t a single fibre running through it.
Why in any case is continuity thought to be a virtue? Is a coherent life always desirable? Alasdair MacIntyre, an endurantist par excellence, argues that ‘the unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest,’ but not all narratives are unified, and many of them are none the worse for that. In literary criticism, the dogma that a work of art must constitute a unity runs from Aristotle to the present day, excluding all manner of vitalising conflicts and contradictions. In aesthetics as in politics, unity is something of a fetish. One reason we want to regard our life histories as all of a piece is a fear of loss and damage. To be self-contained, with no loose ends or rough edges, is to be less susceptible to death.
Brooks addresses Strawson’s anti-narrative case, but he does it cursorily. Though uneasy at the banalising of narrative, he still maintains that ‘our daily lives, our daydreams, our sense of self are all constructed as stories.’ This, he insists, is ‘the logic of those who are mortal’. Perhaps academics model their lives too much on writing books: ‘We assess ourselves,’ he comments, ‘in terms of the story up till now, and we project future chapters.’ It’s hard to imagine doing this while on the school run or fighting the Russians. Strawson’s case, he concedes, may be useful as polemic. But in fact it isn’t polemical at all. Brooks may hear it this way because English writing tends to be sharper and more contentious than the bland prose of US academia.
Brooks wants to retain the narrativity thesis while encouraging people to be more alert and analytical about which stories are life-threatening and which are not. He clings to the concept because he can’t see an alternative source of value. ‘We have fictions,’ he writes, ‘in order not to die of the forlornness of our condition in the world … the reason of fictions [must be asserted] against the darkness.’ If all that stands between us and the darkness is Huck Finn and Emma Woodhouse, our condition must be dire indeed. Brooks is the latest in a line of critics from Coleridge to I.A. Richards for whom art, given what they see as a sterile political landscape, is an ersatz form of insight and fulfilment. Reading Henry James isn’t likely to put paid to QAnon, but like a good deed in a naughty world it shines a frail light on our unsavoury situation.
No doubt it’s tough to be a middle-class liberal in today’s United States, but feeling forlorn should be understood in historical terms, not passed off as a universal plight. It doesn’t seem quite the right way to describe Iranian women protesters or striking railway workers. The book speaks of the need for storytelling as protection from the chaos of reality, but for whom is reality chaotic? For disillusioned intellectuals, but probably not for merchant bankers and military planners. It may be a rough old place, but that’s different. Virginia Woolf seems to have seen the world as chaotic, but one doubts the same was true of her servants. In any case, you could just as easily see reality as stiflingly rule-bound and constrictive, and fiction as a playful relief from this straitjacket.
One of the great clichés of modernism is that art imposes order on an anarchic reality. In Brooks’s view, narrative invests our lives with a shapeliness they would otherwise lack. But the world comes to us not as raw material to be sculpted but as already organised, in however rough-and-ready a way. There may be no grand narrative immanent in history, but that isn’t to say situations don’t have a certain structure which is independent of the ways we articulate them. That there was once a revolution in France isn’t just a tidy way of arranging the world. One of the traditional functions of fiction was to give voice to stories that were somehow inherent in reality. This conception was thrown into crisis by modernism, rather as a faith in the inevitability of human progress was challenged around the same time by the First World War. Among other things, modernism is a crisis of narrativity. Telling a story is becoming harder and harder. But there is no point in making things even more difficult for yourself by adopting the Nietzschean position that reality lacks all form until we ourselves breathe one into it.
In Brooks’s judgment, one of the most precious functions of fictional narratives is to cultivate sympathy for others. By the power of the imagination, we can project ourselves into people who are otherwise alien or opaque, and art can teach us how to do this in life. Fiction is an antidote to egoism, letting us view the world through estranging eyes. As far as real life goes, however, this overstates our inscrutability. Because we are linguistic animals, we have access to one another’s inner lives all the time. It was the empiricist belief in the privacy of the self, along with the growth of possessive individualism, that gave rise among Adam Smith and others to the 18th-century cult of imaginative sympathy. If people in their natural state are impenetrable to us, we need some special faculty that allows us to recreate from the inside how they are feeling. And fiction is a paradigm of this.
But people are impenetrable for particular reasons (because they have something to hide, for example), not because of their natural separateness. One result of this false epistemology was a huge inflation of the faculty of imagination, generally known as Romanticism. This meant that in an age when the arts were increasingly marginal, mere commodities on the market, they could claim morally privileged status. They were now the paragon of imaginative sympathy, and what could be more precious than that, not least in the brutal early decades of industrialisation? Yet feeling your way into someone else’s mind won’t necessarily transform your view of them, or modify an external judgment of what they do. Tout comprendre isn’t always tout pardonner. This may have been true for George Eliot, but not for Jane Austen, who tartly remarks in Persuasion that one of her characters would have saved his parents a lot of trouble had he never been born. Feeling what it is like to be a serial killer may deepen one’s repugnance, not temper it with mercy. Sympathy is no basis for an ethics. You don’t need to know what it feels like to be starving to give a sandwich to a beggar. Finding him repellent doesn’t make the act any less virtuous. It might even make it more so.
Part of the value of fiction, Brooks claims, is that it can unsettle our preconceptions. In fact the more it does so, the better. This may be true of the belief that all children are selfish brats, but not of the conviction that you shouldn’t commit genocide. Why should we want to question that? Is a novel that rages against racial equality to be admired just because it questions a common view? Dissent isn’t valuable in itself, any more than orthodoxy is. The liberal likes to be open to the unfamiliar, but the unfamiliar isn’t always to be applauded. Reintroducing child labour would be both unfamiliar and inhumane, even though the father of liberalism, John Locke, thought it acceptable for three-year-olds to work in factories. Anyway, the preconceptions that matter most may be those we can’t know about, given that they are part of the social air we breathe. Slavoj Žižek has pointed out that Donald Rumsfeld’s sole contribution to the sum of human wisdom – his litany of known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns – lacks a fourth permutation: unknown knowns, things we know but don’t know we know, a more suggestive notion of ideology than Brooks’s systems of extremist ideas.
For a slim volume, Seduced by Story covers an impressive array of topics: oral narrative, the function of character, the role of narration in law, storytelling’s affinity with child’s play, what narrators know and don’t know, those raconteurs who calculate the act of narrating into their stories and those who refuse to be authoritative. In the end, however, there is a touch of desperation about demanding so much of fiction and narrative while acknowledging the ease with which they are abused. It isn’t that Brooks thinks fiction can save us, as I.A. Richards believed poetry could; it’s rather that he can think of nowhere else to turn. Story and poetry are important, to be sure, but not that important. Literary types, unsurprisingly, have often overrated their power, loading them with a pressure to which they are unequal. The hope that value and insight are to be found mainly in art is a symptom of our condition, not a solution to it.
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