Blog Post

Against Narratives

What is it about the human (Western?) mind that compels us to think in narratives?
Why do we ask "what have you been up to?" or "what did you do this summer" and not "what shades of emotion was your morning?", "what was the quality of your being?", or, "tell me about your sunsets, your inner smile, your disjointed reveries, the svelte balancing act of the eucalyptus trees across the street?"

Storytelling is a prized social skill; improvising haikus is not. This might have to do with the "neurological bias" – as I would call it – that emerges from stroke survivor and neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor's book, My Stroke Of Insight (Viking, 2008). As she details the functions of the right and left hemispheres of the brain, it becomes painstakingly clear that our culture privileges but a fraction of our mind's potential, and the one that might prevent us from succeeding in the "pursuit of happiness" that we are at the same time supposed to embrace. In a nutshell, she explains how we depend on the left brain for our notions of linear time, discreet space, boundaries, differentiation between colors, shapes, objects, hence analytical thinking and the very notion of the self. All these condition the very possibility of most of the qualities and activities our society and economy reward (purposefulness, calculation, goal setting, planning, timelines). They are also the stuff narratives are made of: settings, stages, characters, action, development, resolutions, descriptions, all depend on the worldview of our left hemisphere, which dissects into distinct elements the whole of perception. (Not surprisingly, the language center is located in the left hemisphere: the core principle of linguistics as defined by Saussure -- difference -- is neurologically founded.) In other words, linear time and our sense of self as a separate, closed entity cohesive and continuous across separate moments, the foundation of the realist novel, are expansions of our left brain's capacity to shape our experience of the world according to its unique, but incomplete, framework. (Kant’s definition of time and space as the conditions of possibility of experience describes in fact only half of how the human mind perceives the world.)

If the left brain is all about difference, the right brain is about fusion and confusion: it perceives everything as a continuum, an undifferentiated magma of light, sounds, warmth, vibrations and emotions, gives us access to transcendence, thinks only in the present tense. (Infants are very much right-brainish -- they don't distinguish between colors and shapes, their mother’s bodies and theirs for months. As they grow up, they join us progressively in the Kingdom  of Difference.) The left brain anchors our sense of self; the right melts us into the universe. One side gives us the concept of two; the other a feeling of being one with everything. And I would surmise: our left brain must exult when we read novels, while our right brain is our getaway to poetry.

Our culture is one of difference, of hypertrophied left brains, where analytical thinking and its imaginative counterpart, narratives, are the privileged ways of making sense of the world (think of the dominance of philosophy and theories of the novel over poetics in academia). And yet, what if the fabric of our lives was made of inconclusive thoughts, shades of emotions too gentle to ripple the surface of our minds? What if our happiest moments amounted to nothing more than scattered miracles, popping up here and there, as light, luminescent and short-lived as soap bubbles? No cumulative effect, no built up, no painstakingly won reward, no long-awaited epiphany, no stroke of enlightenment. And similarly for the rest of our lives: day in and day out, minute after minute, we are not in the sublime. Instead, the ordinary is our fate, and, if we are able to see it, our blessing. How many moments are spent unnoticed, because they are unnoticeable for the narrative seeker, the story catcher? As they say, "le bonheur n’a pas d’histoire." No firecrackers, no doom, no drama.

But pain too has no story. It's easy to open up to the meaninglessness of a child's smile, to forgo our addiction to retrospective projecting in order to embrace the "present moment" –the new modern day moral imperative, based on an oxymoron. But what about chronic or gratuitous pain? As Montaigne said about philosophers: « Ont-ils tiré de la logique quelque consolation à la goutte ? Pour avoir su comme cette humeur se loge aux jointures, l’ont-ils moins sentie ? » (Did logics give them any consolation against gout? For knowing how this humor infiltrates their joints, did they feel it less? Essais, livre II, chapitre 12, p. 200).

Cecile Alduy's picture
« Je ne puis tenir registre de ma vie par mes actions: fortune les met trop bas; je le tiens par mes fantasies. » Montaigne, Essais, III, 9, 945 A prescient definition of blogging, no? Cécile Alduy, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of French Studies at Stanford University. A former student from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, she teaches French literature and film, with an emphasis on gender and ethnic studies.  Her research interests include Renaissance literature and culture, the history of the body, poetry, cognitive theory, and more generally how we make sense of the world.