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‘Each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”,’ wrote the British neurologist Oliver Sacks, ‘this narrative is us’. Likewise the American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner: ‘Self is a perpetually rewritten story.’ And: ‘In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’ Or a fellow American psychologist, Dan P McAdams: ‘We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.’ And here’s the American moral philosopher J David Velleman: ‘We invent ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.’ And, for good measure, another American philosopher, Daniel Dennett: ‘we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best “faces” on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.’
So say the narrativists. We story ourselves and we are our stories. There’s a remarkably robust consensus about this claim, not only in the humanities but also in psychotherapy. It’s standardly linked with the idea that self-narration is a good thing, necessary for a full human life.
I think it’s false – false that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing. These are not universal human truths – even when we confine our attention to human beings who count as psychologically normal, as I will here. They’re not universal human truths even if they’re true of some people, or even many, or most. The narrativists are, at best, generalising from their own case, in an all-too-human way. At best: I doubt that what they say is an accurate description even of themselves.
What exactly do they mean? It’s extremely unclear. Nevertheless, it does seem that there are some deeply Narrative types among us, where to be Narrative with a capital ‘N’ is (here I offer a definition) to be naturally disposed to experience or conceive of one’s life, one’s existence in time, oneself, in a narrative way, as having the form of a story, or perhaps a collection of stories, and – in some manner – to live in and through this conception. The popularity of the narrativist view is prima facie evidence that there are such people.
Perhaps. But many of us aren’t Narrative in this sense. We’re naturally – deeply – non-Narrative. We’re anti-Narrative by fundamental constitution. It’s not just that the deliverances of memory are, for us, hopelessly piecemeal and disordered, even when we’re trying to remember a temporally extended sequence of events. The point is more general. It concerns all parts of life, life’s ‘great shambles’, in the American novelist Henry James’s expression. This seems a much better characterisation of the large-scale structure of human existence as we find it. Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us. And neither, from a moral point of view, should it.
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The tendency to attribute control to self is, as the American social psychologist Dan Wegner says, a personality trait, possessed by some and not others. There’s an experimentally well-attested distinction between human beings who have what he calls the ‘emotion of authorship’ with respect to their thoughts, and those who, like myself, have no such emotion, and feel that their thoughts are things that just happen. This could track the distinction between those who experience themselves as self-constituting and those who don’t but, whether it does or not, the experience of self-constituting self-authorship seems real enough. When it comes to the actual existence of self-authorship, however – the reality of some process of self-determination in or through life as life-writing – I’m skeptical.
In the past 20 years, the American philosopher Marya Schechtman has given increasingly sophisticated accounts of what it is to be Narrative and to ‘constitute one’s identity’ through self-narration. She now stresses the point that one’s self-narration can be very largely implicit and unconscious. That’s an important concession. According to her original view, one ‘must be in possession of a full and explicit narrative [of one’s life] to develop fully as a person’. The new version seems more defensible. And it puts her in a position to say that people like myself might be Narrative and just not know it or admit it.
In her most recent book, Staying Alive (2014), Schechtman maintains that ‘persons experience their lives as unified wholes’ in some way that goes far beyond their basic awareness of themselves as single finite biological individuals with a certain curriculum vitae. She still thinks that ‘we constitute ourselves as persons… by developing and operating with a (mostly implicit) autobiographical narrative which acts as the lens through which we experience the world’.
I still doubt that this is true. I doubt that it’s a universal human condition – universal among people who count as normal. I doubt this even after she writes that ‘“having an autobiographical narrative” doesn’t amount to consciously retelling one’s life story always (or ever) to oneself or to anyone else’. I don’t think an ‘autobiographical narrative’ plays any significant role in how I experience the world, although I know that my present overall outlook and behaviour is deeply conditioned by my genetic inheritance and sociocultural place and time, including, in particular, my early upbringing. And I also know, on a smaller scale, that my experience of this bus journey is affected both by the talk I’ve been having with A in Notting Hill and the fact that I’m on my way to meet B in Kentish Town.
Like Schechtman, I am (to take John Locke’s definition of a person) a creature who can ‘consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places’. Like Schechtman, I know what it’s like when ‘anticipated trouble already tempers present joy’. In spite of my poor memory, I have a perfectly respectable degree of knowledge of many of the events of my life. I don’t live ecstatically ‘in the moment’ in any enlightened or pathological manner.
But I do, like the American novelist John Updike and many others, ‘have the persistent sensation, in my life…, that I am just beginning’. The Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s ‘heteronym’ Alberto Caeiro (one of 75 alter egos under which he wrote) is a strange man, but he captures an experience common to many when he says that: ‘Each moment I feel as if I’ve just been born/Into an endlessly new world.’ Some will immediately understand this. Others will be puzzled, and perhaps skeptical. The general lesson is of human difference.
According to McAdams, a leading narrativist among social psychologists, writing in The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (2006):
Beginning in late adolescence and young adulthood, we construct integrative narratives of the self that selectively recall the past and wishfully anticipate the future to provide our lives with some semblance of unity, purpose, and identity. Personal identity is the internalised and evolving life story that each of us is working on as we move through our adult lives… I… do not really know who I am until I have a good understanding of my narrative identity.
If this is true, we must worry not only about the non-Narratives – unless they are happy to lack personal identity – but also about the people described by the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson in Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968):
various selves… make up our composite Self. There are constant and often shocklike transitions between these selves… It takes, indeed, a healthy personality for the ‘I’ to be able to speak out of all these conditions in such a way that at any moment it can testify to a reasonably coherent Self.
And the English moral philosopher Mary Midgley, writing in Wickedness (1984):
[Doctor Jekyll] was partly right: we are each not only one but also many… Some of us have to hold a meeting every time we want to do something only slightly difficult, in order to find the self who is capable of undertaking it… We spend a lot of time and ingenuity on developing ways of organising the inner crowd, securing consent among it, and arranging for it to act as a whole. Literature shows that the condition is not rare.
Erikson and Midgley suggest, astonishingly, that we’re all like this, and many agree – presumably those who fit the pattern. This makes me grateful to Midgley when she adds that ‘others, of course, obviously do not feel like this at all, hear such descriptions with amazement, and are inclined to regard those who give them as dotty’. At the same time, we shouldn’t adopt a theory that puts these people’s claim to be genuine persons in question. We don’t want to shut out the painter Paul Klee, writing in his diaries in the first years of the 20th century:
My self… is a dramatic ensemble. Here a prophetic ancestor makes his appearance. Here a brutal hero shouts. Here an alcoholic bon vivant argues with a learned professor. Here a lyric muse, chronically love-struck, raises her eyes to heaven. Here papa steps forward, uttering pedantic protests. Here the indulgent uncle intercedes. Here the aunt babbles gossip. Here the maid giggles lasciviously. And I look upon it all with amazement, the sharpened pen in my hand. A pregnant mother wants to join the fun. ‘Pshtt!’ I cry, ‘You don’t belong here. You are divisible.’ And she fades out.
Or the British author W Somerset Maugham, reflecting in A Writer’s Notebook (1949):
I recognise that I am made up of several persons and that the person that at the moment has the upper hand will inevitably give place to another. But which is the real one? All of them or none?
What are these people to do, if the advocates of narrative unity are right? I think they should continue as they are. Their inner crowds can perhaps share some kind of rollicking self-narrative. But there seems to be no clear provision for them in the leading philosophies of personal unity of our time as propounded by (among others) Schechtman, Harry Frankfurt, and Christine Korsgaard. I think the American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald is wrong when he says in his Notebooks (1978) that: ‘There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people if he’s any good.’ But one can see what he has in mind.
There is, furthermore, a vast difference between people who regularly and actively remember their past, and people who almost never do. In his autobiography What Little I Remember (1979), the Austrian-born physicist Otto Frisch writes: ‘I have always lived very much in the present, remembering only what seemed to be worth retelling.’ And: ‘I have always, as I already said, lived in the here and now, and seen little of the wider views.’ I’m in the Frisch camp, on the whole, although I don’t remember things in order to retell them.
More generally, and putting aside pathological memory loss, I’m in the camp with the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, when it comes to specifically autobiographical memory: ‘I can find hardly a trace of [memory] in myself,’ he writes in his essay ‘Of Liars’ (1580). ‘I doubt if there is any other memory in the world as grotesquely faulty as mine is!’ Montaigne knows this can lead to misunderstanding. He is, for example, ‘better at friendship than at anything else, yet the very words used to acknowledge that I have this affliction [poor memory] are taken to signify ingratitude; they judge my affection by my memory’ – quite wrongly. ‘However, I derive comfort from my infirmity.’
Poor memory protects him from a disagreeable form of ambition, stops him babbling, and forces him to think through things for himself because he can’t remember what others have said. Another advantage, he says, ‘is that… I remember less any insults received’.
To this we can add the point that poor memory and a non-Narrative disposition aren’t hindrances when it comes to autobiography in the literal sense – actually writing things down about one’s own life. Montaigne is the proof of this, for he is perhaps the greatest autobiographer, the greatest human self-recorder, in spite of the fact that:
nothing is so foreign to my mode of writing than extended narration [narration estendue]. I have to break off so often from shortness of wind that neither the structure of my works nor their development is worth anything at all.
Montaigne writes the unstoried life – the only life that matters, I’m inclined to think. He has no ‘side’, in the colloquial English sense of this term. His honesty, although extreme, is devoid of exhibitionism or sentimentality (St Augustine and Rousseau compare unfavourably). He seeks self-knowledge in radically unpremeditated life-writing, addressing his writing-paper ‘exactly as I do the first person I meet’. He knows his memory is hopelessly untrustworthy, and he concludes that the fundamental lesson of self-knowledge is knowledge of self-ignorance.
Once one is on the lookout for comments on memory, one finds them everywhere. There is a constant discord of opinion. I think the British writer James Meek is accurate when he describes Light Years (1975) by the American novelist James Salter:
Salter strips out the narrative transitions and explanations and contextualisations, the novelistic linkages that don’t exist in our actual memories, to leave us with a set of remembered fragments, some bright, some ugly, some bafflingly trivial, that don’t easily connect and can’t be put together as a whole, except in the sense of chronology, and in the sense that they are all that remains.
Meek takes it that this is true of everyone, and it is perhaps the most common case. Salter in Light Years finds a matching disconnection in life itself: ‘There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.’
And this, again, is a common experience:
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.
It’s hard to work out the full consequences of this passage from the essay‘Modern Fiction’ (1921) by Virginia Woolf. What is certain is that there are rehearsers and composers among us, people who not only naturally story their recollections, but also their lives as they are happening. But when the English dramatist Sir Henry Taylor observed in 1836 that ‘an imaginative man is apt to see, in his life, the story of his life; and is thereby led to conduct himself in such a manner as to make a good story of it rather than a good life’, he’s identifying a fault, a moral danger. This is a recipe for inauthenticity. And if the narrativists are right and such self-storying impulses are in fact universal, we should worry.
Fortunately, they’re not right. There are people who are wonderfully and movingly plodding and factual in their grasp of their pasts. It’s an ancient view that people always remember their own pasts in a way that puts them in a good light, but it’s just not true. The Dutch psychologist Willem Wagenaar makes the point in his paper ‘Is Memory Self-Serving?’ (1994), as does Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich on his deathbed.
In his poem ‘Continuing to Live’ (1954), Philip Larkin claims that ‘in time/We half-identify the blind impress/All our behavings bear’. The narrativists think that this is an essentially narrative matter, an essentially narrative construal of the form of our lives. But many of us don’t get even as far as Larkinian half-identification, and we have at best bits and pieces, rather than a story.
We’re startled by Larkin’s further claim that ‘once you have walked the length of your mind, what/You command is clear as a lading-list’, for we find, even in advanced age, that we still have no clear idea of what we command. I for one have no clear sense of who or what I am. This is not because I want to be like Montaigne, or because I’ve read Socrates on ignorance, or Nietzsche on skins in Untimely Meditations (1876):
How can man know himself? He is a dark and veiled thing; and whereas the hare has seven skins, the human being can shed seven times 70 skins and still not be able to say: ‘This is really you, this is no longer an outer shell.’ (translation modified)
The passage continues:
Besides, it is an agonizing, dangerous undertaking to dig down into yourself in this way, to force your way by the shortest route down the shaft of your own being. How easy it is to do damage to yourself that no doctor can heal. And moreover, why should it be necessary, since everything – our friendships and hatreds, the way we look, our handshakes, the things we remember and forget, our books, our handwriting – bears witness to our being.
I can’t, however, cut off this quotation here, because it continues in a way that raises a doubt about my position:
But there is a means by which this absolutely crucial enquiry can be carried out. Let the young soul look back upon its life and ask itself: what until now have you truly loved, what has drawn out your soul, what has commanded it and at the same time made it happy? Line up these objects of reverence before you, and perhaps by what they are and by their sequence, they will yield you a law, the fundamental law of your true self.
‘Perhaps by what they are… they will yield the fundamental law of your true self.’ This claim is easy to endorse. It’s Marcel Proust’s greatest insight. Albert Camus sees it, too. But Nietzsche is more specific: ‘perhaps by what they are and by their sequence, they will yield… the fundamental law of your true self.’ Here it seems I must either disagree with Nietzsche or concede something to the narrativists: the possible importance of grasping the sequence in progressing towards self-understanding.
I concede it. Consideration of the sequence – the ‘narrative’, if you like – might be important for some people in some cases. For most of us, however, I think self-knowledge comes best in bits and pieces. Nor does this concession yield anything to the sweeping view with which I began, the view – in Sacks’s words – that all human life is life-writing, that ‘each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”, and that ‘this narrative is us’.
This essay is excerpted from On Life-Writing, edited by Zachary Leader and published by OUP in September 2015.
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is a British analytic philosopher and literary critic. He is a consultant editor at The Times Literary Supplement, and a professor in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.