What’s your story?

From the London Review of Books:

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.

Link to the rest at London Review of Books

PG notes that the author of the OP has written the following book:

2 thoughts on “What’s your story?”

  1. I don’t think that I will pick up any of these books. Although I am going to go out on a limb, and assume that the author of the OP is having a “the deep meaning of blue curtains” in his interpretation of the book through the filter of his Trump Derangement Syndrome.

    I would challenge anyone to find a single President (or any politician) that was not a narrative – both in their election and their administration. From “Heroic General of the Revolution” right up through “Uniter In Chief.” (Whether the narrative is/was mostly true or mostly false can be rationally debated.)

    I also have a problem with the rejection of “everyone is their own story” – everyone is their own story. For the vast majority of us, it’s a bare walk-on role, only somewhat different than just about everyone else’s story – but it is unique. Not a “collective.” Never has been, is not, and will never be. (Unless the Borg Queen time travels and defeats the opposing efforts of Star Fleet…)

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