Stories of lives

I was reading an article in the newish Aeon magazine, by Galen Strawson. His conclusion, I thought, was rather tame…

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’.

… so I felt moved to comment. Here’s my comment.

I’m quite surprised no one has yet quoted T S Eliot. So much in Four Quartets. Working backwards:

History may be servitude,
History may be freedom.

and

Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.

and earlier still

There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

Surely, it seems to me, no personal stories can be passed off as “the truth”. And yet, stories are all we have to make sense of lives, our own and those of others. So, if we are mature (and not bound to any supposed “fundamental” narrative truth) I guess we have just to live with a plurality of narratives about our selves. We tell stories to convey sense to the listener. Sometimes the listener is ourselves. The more we need a coherent story, the more vehemently we will tell ourselves the selected story that confirms the identity that we need to affirm. Our stories to others can sometimes be self-conscious lies, if we think that’s what they need to hear.

But perhaps we can let go of the centrality of our own self-narratives. We can take St Paul’s position – “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” Perhaps our deepest value is the role we can play in other people’s stories? The transformation from being something like “lost” to something more like “found” doesn’t always need a narrative beyond the proto-story: “I was blind; now I can see.” Sometimes, elaborating that story is just creating a fictional narrative. The truth may just be the moment of transformation.

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