Life and narrative

From Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue:

Narrative is not the work of poets, dramatists and novelists reflecting on events which had no narrative order before one was imposed by the singer or the writer; narrative form is neither disguise not decoration. Barbary Hardy has written that ‘we dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative.’

This has of course been denied in recent debates. Luis O. Mink, quarrelling with Barabara Hardy’s view, has asserted: ‘Stories are not lived but told. Life has no beginnings, middles or ends; there are meetings, but the start of an affair belongs to the story we tell ourselves later, and there are partings, but final partings only in the story. There are hopes, plans, battles and ideas, but only in retrospective stories are hopes unfulfilled, plans miscarried, battles decisive, and ideas seminal. Only in the story is it America which columbus discovers and only in the story is the kingdom lost for want of a nail.’

MacIntyre agrees with Hardy that we not only understand life through narratives but that life is inherently intelligible and storied. He argues that the elements of narrative are so bound up in life that to separate them out as retrospective impositions is wrong. We hope and plan in the middle of the story, we find things tragic or comic in the middle – how can this identification be made without knowing the end unless narrative is inherent in life? And what would a life stripped of narrative even look like? Can one picture it in a such a way that no narrative cries out for recognition?

I think MacIntyre’s arguments do not justify the full strength of his conclusion. At best he can say that Mink’s position is facile – it may not be logically wrong but it does not account for the complexity of how we experience life. But it strikes me that it is more MacIntyrean not to expect an answer to this question via argument. What is true about life and narrative must be sustainable by actual lived lives. Our belief on the question of life and narrative the quotes above raise must be narrated as well. And which would be more convincing: a life that can coherently trace a narrative of its life intertwined with belief that it inhabited a real (broken, troubled, often incoherent) story all along, or a life that must narrate even the belief it held that all meaning is retrospective as another imposed story? I see a very definite distinction, if I can give no argument for the one over the other.

Advertisements

3 Responses to “Life and narrative”


  1. 1 periphery May 2, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    “He argues that the elements of narrative are so bound up in life that to separate them out as retrospective impositions is wrong. We hope and plan in the middle of the story, we find things tragic or comic in the middle – how can this identification be made without knowing the end unless narrative is inherent in life?”

    Why can’t it be both and? We appropriate available cultural models (through which we read our lives as tragic or comic or whatever in the middle of things) and we impose order on the experiences later, shaping the events into neat sparkling nuggets of wisdom? The narrative inherent in the living of a life (“I am hopeless today”) is of a different quality from the narrative of memory (“I squandered my gifts”). Or the daily outworking of a GLBT life versus the coming-out story. There are quotidian stories and there are retrospective stories, and both of them involve distortions, impositions.

  2. 2 withastone May 2, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Good point. You will get no argument from me, or MacIntyre, there. He is mostly interested in making sure that life as ongoing narrative is not abandoned in favor of an entirely retrospective approach.

    Your comment made me think of this: He’s interested in the moral life as ‘carried’ (or something like that) in narrative. If we’re negotiating between quotidian and retrospective stories and always distorting and imposing, what does this mean about our moral life? Inherently fumbling, tragic imperfect? Always needing revisiting and retelling, never having a final form?


  1. 1 Narrative and accountability « theo-ethical interrogations of a stone Trackback on May 1, 2009 at 7:13 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s





%d bloggers like this: