Sunday, November 10, 2013

"Life in Quest of Narrative"

I had an "old fart" moment in Thursday's class on Carol Shields' Stone Diaries.  I confessed to my students that when I stand in line at the grocery store, I read the headlines of the tabloids and the celebrity magazines and shake my head because I don't understand why we think that stories about people who are really neither interesting nor gifted nor thoughtful nor particularly kind are more important than our own stories of trying to live our lives the best we can. 

This sense that the stories of our own lives deserve and need to be told and valued has been even more at the forefront of my mind since re-reading Paul Ricoeur's quite moving essay "Life in Quest of Narrative."  Ricoeur proposes that telling our stories, even to ourselves, is one of the important ways that we understand ourselves and make meaning out of our lives.  In a sense, we make these narratives into little works of art.  Life, as you know, doesn't always have meaning.  It doesn't have meaning when you are so preoccupied by your daily round that you are living by rote.  It doesn't mean when you fail to pay attention.  It certainly doesn't have an implicit meaning when you are faced with the death of a child or mental illness or the onslaught of dementia.  That's its difference from art:  the structures of art confer meaning on events that might otherwise seem arbitrary or chaotic, though we must at the same time admit that it's a meaning the maker and the viewer are giving it, not a meaning the rises naturally out of the events themselves.

Stories also have ethical dimensions.  Working from some of Aristotle's premises, Ricoeur concludes that art--literature in particular--"constitutes so many thought experiments by which we learn to link together the ethical aspects of human conduct and happiness and misfortune." Stories allow us the opportunity to consider how various kinds of conduct might lead either to "happiness or misfortune"--which is perhaps one of the reason I hate the whole celebrity machinery:  we somehow manage to believe that celebrities' lives are charmed in ways ours are not, yet at the same time we're shockingly (and perhaps unethically) delighted when those charmed lives go awry.  We assume that their stories have a meaning ours do not--that they are rewarded or punished on a much grander scale than we are in our own pedestrian lives.  But perhaps it's only the journalists and publishers and readers of these magazines that confer meaning on a sequence of events that was probably too complicated to reduce to a two-page spread in Us.

Other philosophers like Noel Carroll and some of the writers of the "On Fiction" blog suggest that literature provides us with a dress rehearsal for our life, largely because our wonderful brains, they discover, do much the same things when we are reading as they do when we are living.  If we are following a character through the labyrinthine streets of London, our brains' spatial centres light up as if we were attempting to follow that route ourselves.  Carroll also suggests that it's literature's complexity--its refusal of simple rewards or punishments, its eschewing of unmixed motives, that allows us to consider life's complications, preparing us empathetically to face similar situations in our own lives.

In my classes, the two works I'm teaching also highlight these ideas of Aristotle, Ricoeur, and Carroll.   In the Sixties class, we are finishing up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, one of Tom Stoppard's early plays.  Stoppard borrows two marginal characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet, and follows them as they struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of hanging around the stage waiting to be of use in someone else's story.  Their lives are determined for them by their situation; at the same time, they have, like all of us, a sense that their own choices and narratives should have meaning--a sense that is profoundly frustrated by the fact that their lives have already been written.

In the class on reading fiction, we're looking at Carol Shields' Stone Diaries, with its puzzling and problematic narrator.  In the first chapter, Daisy Goodwill Flett tells the story of her birth, a story she could not possibly have known, since her mother died just as Daisy herself opened her eyes to observe the world around her.  So strong is the need to have a story that launches her into her own narrative in a meaningful way, that Daisy (we suspect) makes up all kinds of details that no one  could have known or shared with her.  (Shields is very careful to eliminate any possible provenance for details like the way her father's fellow workers thought about his relationship with Daisy's portly mother.)  Other chapters--in a powerful and teasing conflict with this opening--silence Daisy, making it impossible for the reader to see Daisy as a teller of her own life.  Of course this is wonderfully frustrating for the reader; it seems to me at least possible that Shields is using some of these strategies to illustrate what happens to our sense of self when we're not allowed to shape the stories of our own lives.

One of the strategies that Ricoeur talks about in his essay describes the way stories take a mere succession of events and turn them into a meaningful configuration.  Intriguingly, giving that much of the time this term I'm living exactly the kind of life that makes me sad, just getting things done and moving on to the next thing that needs doing, I'm seeing configurations pulled out of successions everywhere I look in those moments when I raise my head--like a drive Bill and I took to Lumsden today.  The geese who are rehearsing their migrations are practicing arranging themselves from a messy configuration of honking creatures into a tight, aerodynamic line.  The large power poles that cross highway 11 on the way toward Lumsden seem to organize the space beneath their large legs into a purposeful cadence embodied in the power lines that connect them.  And then there's the knitting that I'm mindlessly doing when I need to shut down my grasshopper mind, which won't let me sleep. Stitch after stitch is simply a succession until I finally bind off and find I've finished a Christmas present.

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