By Isaac Butler
Via George Hunka I happened to stumble upon this essay about narrative in the online magazine Exeunt, in which the “ethics of narrative” are critiqued. As I’m a few steps down this winding garden path of narrative issues, I thought I’d see what author Deborah Pearson had found so problematic about narrative. I left the essay scratching my head.
The essay begins with Pearson’s shock to find out that narrative and the self are hardwired together in the brain. This prompts her to ask “If the human need for narrative is not restricted to dramatic conventions but originates from our very sense of self, then how do we extricate ourselves from it in performance? Should we?” Frankly, I’m shocked by her shock. Narrative isn’t simply “dramatic convention”—although this essay is rife with term-level confusions between narrative and western conventions about narratives—it’s something that every culture everywhere has engaged in for pretty much ever. From the Bayeaux tapestry to Sanskrit dance performance, we’ve engaged in narrative and story telling. It’s one of the universal human activities (and there’s some research that it’s not just humans that engage in it). It wasn’t invented by Aristotle.
My answer to these questions would make for a very short essay. The answer to both is “no, you can’t, so stop trying.” Even if the performer makes an ostensibly narrative-less work, the audience in its hunger and desire for a narrative will impose one on the proceedings. If you want to work in performance and don’t want to deal with story, go make modern dance (which, by the way, would be fine, I vastly prefer non-narrative dance to narrative dance).
Next we get into some of Pearson’s problems with narrative:
The political problems that narrative throws up are not so tough to recognize. Narratives must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They must have a “controlling idea”, one main point (moral) we can take from the series of events that have unfolded. And they must have consistent characters with easily described natures – cowardly but kind, or irrational and insincere, for example.
The problem is, none of this is true of narrative (except for maybe—and only maybe—the beginning, middle and end part). It’s true of certain kinds of narratives that hew closely to certain tropes. There are all sorts of narratives with inconsistent, unstable characters. Characters in both Shepard and Pinter are famously inconsistent. Chuck Mee deliberately builds character through contradiction, not coherence. And even if characters are generally consistent, the part about easily described natures is simply false. While there are plenty of great characters that can be described simply (melancholy Jacques comes to mind) there’s plenty that can’t. Iago, for example, overtly defies simple interpretation, he rubs it in his audience’s face with his gleeful deployment of impossible explanation after impossible explanation. Paul in Six Degrees of Separation remains a total enigma, most of Chekhov’s characters can’t be so easily put into boxes, and moving into novels, novels give the writer plenty of space to create deep, rich, surprising characters.
Furthermore, while most narratives have a controlling idea (less so in the postmodern era) the idea that narratives are supposed to have only one idea/moral, one main takeaway just doesn’t wash. I can’t tell you what the one takeaway from Hamlet is. Or Oedipus (don’t fuck your mom?) or—looking around my bookshelves right now—White Noise or Uncle Vanya or Footnotes in Gaza or Waterland or Then We Came To The End or Sandman or Joe Turner's Come and Gone or Song of Solomon or Ma Rainey's Black Bottom even a work of genre fiction like The Blunderer.
The rest of the paragraph from Pearson is quite telling as well, as it finally reveals (sort of) what the (supposed) political problematics of narrative are:
Narratives are psychologically comforting because they provide resolution, and often impose a logic onto a frustratingly fluid reality. As anybody who has ever had to edit a play or story can tell you, narratives are highly selective, shamelessly omitting facts and events in search of a coherent story. This is all well and good for Oscar bait – but when these rules are applied to a political situation (as in the media they often are) the omissions and cuts are real people with real experiences.
The above quote reveals that there’s a category error at the heart of Pearson’s essay. All narrative—with all of its richness and diversity and thousands of years of history—is reduced here to “Oscar bait.” Pearson is confusing narrative with a specific kind of highly conventionalized trope-fueled narrative. They’re not the same thing. Furthermore, it isn’t narrative that’s “highly selective,” it’s art in general. Narrative might do it in search of a coherent story—and I think that construction is problematic but life is short—but all art uses careful selection of marterials and details. The most abstract modern dance eschews some gestures in favor of others. Even an abstract expressionist painting leaves out certain colors, certain kinds of brush strokes. And let's not even gets started on the fact that both of those examples leave out all the kinds of stories that Pearson worries narrative leaves out. No work of art can contain everything. Art works through selection and expansion, the ruthless culling of the extraneous so that the necessary can then be exploded into sublimity.
Then we get this odd final sentence that’s supposed to explain why narrative (as she misdefines it) can be politically problematic. The use of the catch-all bugabear “the media” obscures meaning here. Does she mean journalists? Or does she mean politically minded works of art like Ruined or Angels in America? Either way, again, there is no way that you can create something that doesn’t exclude something, probably something important. What you can do—what I’d argue is the duty of both journalists and artists— is be responsible about what you omit, try to check your own ideological involvement in that decision and, if you’re a journalist, try to do follow up when possible. The problem of leaving things out is as much a problem of time and space as it is how stories are constructed.
Throughout the essay, Pearson confuses narrative in general with the tropes of the “well made play.” They’re not the same, and as a result the essay doesn’t really question anything. Pearson is suspicious of how seductive a well-made, highly conventional story can be. And she’s right to be. It’s fun to be swept away, but we also need to be critical of the sweeping, or else we end up with hate crimes like Gone With The Wind for our classics. But that’s not narrative, that’s convention.
Ultimately, all that narrative really requires is things causing other things to happen. Causality isn’t a social construct, or a kind of meaning we impose on the world. If I punch you in the face, it’s not a comforting myth that you’ve then been punched. I’ve caused that to happen. And if in response to that punch in the face you kick me in the shins, we have a chain of causality.
In her final paragraph, she floats an idea that’s quite popular in more high fallutin’ circles of academia, literature and performance, namely that we desire narrative out of fear, that the world is a chaotic, messy, not-understandable place, and we want a story to help make sense of it and our place in it. Leaving aside for a moment that there are narratives that descend into utter chaos and incoherence (I just finished one, Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found In A Bathtub, this morning), it’s an interesting idea, one I’m not sure if I agree with or not, frankly. Here’s Pearson’s version of it:
Finally, I sometimes wonder if the real reason we need stories originates from the fear that our lives may never find a final resolution in any way that we will be conscious of. If this, mortality and the confusing nature of an ongoing existence, is what is really behind our desire for storytelling, then perhaps we should just see it as a neurotic quirk of the human species.
I love narrative too much to dismiss it on these terms, but I hear and read things like this all the time, particularly from people who adhere to the “performance” tradition rather than the theatre tradition. Given that I remain a bit unsure how I feel about it, I will simply counter with another idea that a professor of mine floated the other day, one I’m still chewing over and unsure of my feelings about:
There’s a class dynamic to the above quoted approach to narrative that people don’t want to look at. Basically, since the enlightenment, we have wanted to see ourselves as having a large amount of agency to enact change in the world and decide our destiny. This is particularly true of members of the, shall we say, professional-managerial classes.
Highly conventional narratives reject this idea. In highly conventional narratives, the protagonist is a cog in a machine that preexists her. She doesn’t have control, the rules have control. Those of us who have risen to a point where we (mistakenly) believe that institutions don’t govern the vast majority of what we do want to reject these kinds of stories because they are suffocating to us, because they remind us that we too are subject to rules and institutions that we (mistakenly) believe ourselves to have transcended. But these highly conventionalized narratives actually reflect more honestly the experience of being, say, working class, where your choices are far more overtly narrowed by institutional realities.
When asked about the “Shakespearean” and “Dickensian” qualities of The Wire, David Simon regularly draws the interviewers attention to the Greeks. He says that with The Wire, he tried to reach back to a pre-enlightenment understanding of people, where they actually had very little agency to affect change. For the Greeks, it was because the Gods controlled everything. For The Wire, the Greek Gods are replaced with large institutions. Greek drama was also highly conventionalized. This isn’t a coincidence. Perhaps then Pearson seeks comfort in a rejection of narrative because it reifies her worldview and grants her more control.
Again, I’m not sure how I feel about that one, but I think it’s a point of view equally worthy of thought and attention to the condescending idea that people like stories because they’re babies in need of a security blanket.