Blog Post

Against Narratives II

"That reality has to be explained. (It really means; or is a symbol of; or must be interpreted so.) For those who live neither with religious consolations about death nor with a sense of death (or of anything else) as natural, death is the obscene mystery, the ultimate affront, the thing that cannot be controlled. It can only be denied. A large part of the popularity and persuasiveness of psychology comes from its being a sublimated spiritualism: a secular, ostensibly scientific way of affirming the primacy of "spirit" over matter."
—Susan Sontag, Illness As Metaphor (1978), pp. 55-56.

Are we all so “bovarisés” that we cannot understand our lives without reconstructing the smallest “episode” into a short story? We are quick to dismiss anything that doesn’t fulfill our expectation for meaning, or at least form, as "gone wrong" or pointless: any experience that does not follow a clear narrative, with beginning, middle and end, is deemed worthless, frustrating, mind-boggling or at best forgettable. Obsessions, haphazard events, chronic pain, boredom, fleeting moments of joy or sadness connected to nothing but subconscious affects, impulses, all are beyond our innate talent for and compulsion to tell ourselves (and – thanks to blogs, Facebook and other YouTubes –tell the world) the stories of our lives. “No story, no self” is the cultural assumption. We are prepared to accept a sudden turn of event at the condition that it be a real "turning point," one that punctuates and organizes into a climactic arch the otherwise monotonous flow of normalcy. What we want is not necessarily happiness or rectitude, and certainly not a dull uneventful stretch of quotidian contentment, but, whatever life brings, to be able to recount it according to a dramatic model. No drama equals no audience, including our own inner spectator. We welcome the sobbing, the rage, the shock of whatever can be reconstructed as “events,” plots, or denouement. Breakups, accidents, betrayals, clashes, and even death will fit the bill (as for chance encounters, they’d better lead up to romance, networking or stalking, or our internal story-editor presses “delete”). In spite of more than a century of deconstructive theory and the implosion of narrative forms, we’re still stuck in 19th century novels in our everyday lives.

Worst, since 19th century novels share an uncanny taste for doom, désenchantement and disillusionment, we don't only have to spot micro-stories and patterns, but we also have to fight against preestablished narratives that are forced onto us, into us, as warnings: the broken marriage, the failed ambitions, the slow betrayals of ideals, the inheritance of family trauma, the doomed relationship, etc.

Even talk therapy is no longer about recapturing one’s past; it is now a controlled method of choosing one’s own narrative. What was an exercise in retrospection is now an apprenticeship in successful projections. Never closer than now to fiction writing, therapy has become a skillful, albeit oral, attempt to shape into destiny what might have been a random concatenation of events. We cannot entirely claim to be the omniscient narrators of the realistic novel, but this is not for want of trying, and we are at least being trained to reconstruct chance events into meaning.

(My very job, and passion, is to find meaning. But there should be an ethics to interpretation as for everything else : there is a good chance that one might find meaning in a work of literature created by a mind obsessively weighting in the choice of each word; less so – in my admittedly agnostic vision of life on earth – in all the little ways our lives stagger and stray.)

This new turn in psychotherapy (or maybe, its at last more explicit way to theorize its own production of discourses) became apparent to me when a therapist explained, as I was complaining about a sudden flare up in my wrists, that what I was experiencing as meaningless, unexpected, and unaccountable pain would in the end be resolved, not merely medically, but literarily, the denouement depending on what kind of narrative I would be able to build around it. As if (and this might be true) my inner storyteller would be able to come up with an (aesthetic?) resolution of its own that would reframe the experience of physical pain, loss, and bewilderment into what? A moral fable? A modern-day epic?

I am not denying that as long as there is time ahead of us, there is time to rethink, rewrite or rewire our emotional responses to life events, changing in effect the course of the trajectory. But what about the facts in our lives that have no shape, no direction, no lesson, no end, and no other feeling than the cold realization that, simply, they are, or they happened to us? Are we so afraid of life that everything has to be controlled, shaped, understood by our minds and packaged in a legible form? (From all the self-help books and redemptive autobiographies on the shelves, I'm tempted to infer that the answer is a screaming yes.)

Sometimes I wonder: wouldn’t we be better off, emotionally and maybe even physically, without this drive for meaning?

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.