What’s Wrong With Narrative?
March 19, 2010

In a series of inspiring posts, Cécile Alduy has been putting forward an argument against narrativity. Like Cécile, I believe that narrative is important, valuable, and often indispensable. (She’s not claiming, with Hayden White, that historical narratives are inevitably distorting; or again, with Jean-François Lyotard, that grand narratives are necessarily totalizing; or even, with Galen Strawson, that personal narratives are, for many individuals, simply beside the point.)

Like Cécile, however, I feel that narrative has overstepped its bounds in recent years, infiltrating domains in which it has no business. You’ll find all kinds of people telling you that everything is narrative; when you give an example of something that isn’t, they’ll just turn around and tell you that there’s a hidden narrative behind it. (Ah, ideology: if X isn’t there, just make up a hidden X!)

Of course, for any significant moment there is always a background sequence of events. But conversely, for every sequence of events there is some result, some new state of affairs which is often why we care about them in the first place. We human beings live in the temporal and the atemporal at once, sliding easily from a focus on states to a focus on changes and back again. We can even undergo exercises designed to help us place the emphasis on one side or the other: meditation for the static, Robert McKee’s “story seminar” for change.

Our focus is, then, a choice. So here’s the question: why choose to focus, at least some of the time, on the static? Why is our obsession with narrative a bad thing?

Here’s one reason: because it rules out contentment with what there is.

Look at the way we treat our heroes: it’s never enough for us (any more) to enjoy them; we have to keep constructing narratives for them, which inevitably involves some kind of a fall (they are out of form, their marriage is failing, their box office take is dropping, they are mismanaging their money...).

Look at the way we treat our commodities: out with the old, in with the new. (Schopenhauer was right: we human beings are addicted to desire. We’ll buy the iPad even if it doesn’t really do anything.)

You want to save the environment? Start by turning down the volume on narrativity. Here’s Wendell Berry on why, counterintuitively, the arts can do more to rescue the planet than can the sciences:

we may have to remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology and have a new look at the arts. For an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension.

He continues:

In science one experiment, whether it succeeds or fails, is logically followed by another in a theoretically infinite progression... In the arts, by contrast, no limitless sequence of works is ever implied or looked for. No work of art is necessarily followed by a second work that is necessarily better.

Wendell Berry is right, and importantly right. I may dump my cellphone in the landfill when the new model comes out, but I’m not about to throw away my copy of the Odyssey when I discover the Aeneid. For all its emphasis (in modernity) on formal innovation, the shape of the artworld encourages this spirit of conservation, this slower, more contemplative attitude. (No planned obsolescence here; quite the contrary!) And individual works of art encourage it too, with their emphasis on the local moment wrested from the stream of time.

Still, like everything else in the artworld, this works only if we allow it to. We always have the choice to focus on the chronological, to perceive each scene only in relation to what it causes and is caused by, each work only in relation to its “intertexts,” each genre as interesting only in relation to the history that surrounds it. (And of course to ignore poetry, that synchronic medium par excellence, like the plague.) The non-narrative is a saving oasis, but one which is ever threatened by the encroaching desert.

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