It’s story time: why narrative is so profoundly important to us all
Life has been narrativised by humans from the earliest times, from prehistoric art on the walls of caves to the beginnings of spoken and written language. One can only speculate about the origins of narrative, what compelled the very first stories and what they might have been about: ancestral legends or wrangles with the gods, perhaps, campfire tales of hunting exploits or battles with the elements.
Widely regarded as the world’s oldest story, or literary narrative, the Epic of Gilgamesh, with its written origins as far back as 2,100BCE in ancient Mesopotamia, has one of the oldest and most prevalent themes since storytelling began, that of the quest for earthly immortality. Gilgamesh’s fame survived long after his death, of course, his story translated into many languages and featuring in popular fiction down to the present day.
Stories, though not always as epic as this, are all around us, day in, day out: in our personal interactions, in novels, movies, poems, newspapers, magazines and TV, in our social media news feeds and across the internet. It’s been said that there’s no longer any such thing as fiction or non-fiction, but only narrative.
We all make use of stories, and our lives are shaped by them. The narrative impulse is ever-present, and it’s impossible to imagine being without it. But it’s not just a case of us telling, or narrating, stories, for stories tell us, too — we’re in stories, simply because they’re everywhere. And stories always have something to reveal about stories themselves through their metanarrative and self-reflexive elements.
So much of our world is mediated through narrative, and has always been, yet we still tend to forget that these narratives offer versions of reality rather than actuality, that they’re ways of interpreting experience. Moreover, we’re so accustomed to stories since childhood that we’ve become competent listeners, and readers, without any consideration of the profound effects of our tendency to ‘naturalise’ conventions of narrative until they no longer appear conventional.
If narrative, in both social and literary senses, is seen as one of the main ways in which we order and attempt to ‘make sense of the world’, then such matters as narrative structure and the recurrence of certain motifs take on a special significance. Many narratives are intertextual — linked to other utterances — and central motifs are common to a multitude of disparate narratives.
Defining narrative as the telling by a narrator of an event, or series of events, means we should think about the ways in which the relation between various narrative elements, on both temporal and causal levels, often presupposes and produces coherence and closure. The upshot is that there’s a clear relationship between narrative form and belief or ideology, in the widest senses of these terms: how a form of narrative reflects a form of belief, or a particular way of seeing.
Manner as well as matter
The more complex a given narrative, the less it’s reducible to a simple summary, such inadequacy calling for the need to pay attention to its manner as well as its matter. A number of different people describing the same experience will give different accounts of what happened, according to their own ‘angle’ on it, or their idiosyncracies. What all the accounts will share, however, is a core that can be called the ‘story’; what distinguishes them apart will be the way in which the basic events are narrated.
This distinction between story and narration, whether in the spoken or written word, is fundamental to an understanding of the rhetoric of narrative — the ways in which the speaker or writer tries to guide or persuade the listener or reader to a particular reception or response. This story/narration distinction, as an interpretative model, reveals fundamental workings of narrative by highlighting two crucial areas in which narration modifies story: time and point of view.
Distortions of linear time sequence occur in narrative with the slowing down or speeding up of events and the jumping forwards (prolepsis) or backwards (anachronism) in time. There’s a difference between simply giving a list of events and providing a narrative thread to show how the events are related, providing the important element of causality.
Point of view entails a relationship between the writer or teller and the reader or listener — giving rise to questions of identity, authority and desire — as well as different kinds of narration: first or third person, objective or subjective, reliable or unreliable, omniscient or otherwise. Our understanding of an utterance is flooded by our sense of the character of the narrator.
The discourse, theory or critique of narrative and narration in literature — my main area of interest, as readers might realise — is called narratology. Briefly — just to pick out some key historical figures in this field — the Russian Formalist and folklorist Vladimir Propp (1895–1970) saw fixed elements, or functions of narrative, in folk tales. Structural analysis followed with the French anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009) who, similarly, found that myths contain basic and common structures.
Russian Formalism made a distinction between story (fabula) and plot (syuzhet), and the French literary theorist Gérard Genette (1930–2018) went further to distinguish between the chronological order of events in a narrative (récit), the sequence in which events actually occur (histoire), and the act of narrating itself (narration). He also discussed, in depth, narratorial voice and the relationship between narrator and narratee.
Roland Barthes (1915–80), the French literary theorist and semiotician, also examined the basic elements of narrative, proposing, instead of a range of interacting components, a hierarchy of levels, while the archetypal theory of the Canadian literary theorist and critic Northrop Frye (1912–91) posited four ‘mythoi’, or organising structural principles. It should be said that both Lévi-Strauss and Barthes were influenced strongly by the Russian-American linguist and literary theorist Roman Jakobson (1896–1982).
‘Post-truth’ culture or society
Today the issue of narrative in the wider sphere of the quotidian (which, of course, is reflected in literature) becomes central in what we might term a ‘post-truth’ culture or society where people are more likely to accept an argument based on emotion and personal belief than on the facts — where ‘objective’ facts are less influential in shaping public opinion, and anything that conflicts with one’s personal opinion is rendered questionable. I place ‘objective’ in quotes because it’s debatable that there is any such thing as objectivity.
Post-truth is a recent philosophical and political term applied to what is seen as the diminution of shared objective standards for truth, a position developing out of debates about relativism and post-modernism and the sense of the inadequacy of all ostensibly complete explanations, or ‘grand theories’, of the world and existence — notwithstanding how this has led to defeatist and pessimistic narratives that pursue ideas of a universe ultimately chaotic and meaningless, despite human efforts to render it coherent and meaningful.
Yet, one could say, with justification, when looking back through history, that the human race has always faced the predicament of truth versus narrative. One can follow the thread back to the dogmas and obfuscations of institutions such as church, state and monarchy over centuries. Shakespeare was aware of it: ‘O, what authority and show of truth / Can cunning sin cover itself withal!’ exclaims Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing (Act 4, Sc 1).
The German philosopher and cultural critic Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) claimed that definitions of the just and the good are arrived at through concepts which we humans create ourselves, substituting a concept of value for one of truth and locating the ‘reality’ of situations in the operation of the will.
Post-truth discourse has been frequently contrasted with the rigours of the scientific method, but even science, once long regarded as a bastion of impartiality untainted by external influence, has today become severely compromised, as revealed recently in climate change and Covid-19 controversies. Relying on emotional response and rapid dismissal of evidence contrary to a particular belief is in complete contravention of the scientific method, but it happens.
Questions of narrative are thus nothing new. As Samuel Johnson (1709–84) said: ‘There has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful.’
It’s just that since the Brexit referendum and the US Presidential election in 2016, the ‘post-truth’ idea has become prevalent — in that very year, ‘post-truth’ was named ‘word of the year’ by the Oxford English Dictionary — and ‘narrative’ has become something of a buzzword in the media.
Narrativisation of life
So now appears a lively and concise (at 100 pages) contribution to the subject: Time’s Lie: The narrativisation of life by Leo Cookman (Zero Books, UK £9.99 / US $14.95, April 2020). Key among the multiple functions of narrative in our lives, Cookman says — literary narrative is not his prime concern, it should be pointed out — are the organisation of reality so as to make it comprehensible, the construction of identity, contextualisation of ourselves in society, a way of relating to others, and a mode of catharsis.
With acuity and enthusiasm, he reminds us how profoundly important narrative is to our existence. We tell stories to entertain, inform, educate, to control, understand, heal, clarify and unify: ‘Narrative is at the very core of our being … we are just stories we tell each other, but it is in the telling, the presentation, of these stories that they become reality, it is where they take on their meaning.’ Certainly, it’s the manner as well as the matter.
Although the term ‘post-truth’ does not appear in the book, Cookman’s point is that truth is dependent upon narrative — the particular narrative one chooses to accept. Indeed, he states (in italics for emphasis): ‘All narratives are only true to you.’ Presumably with the ‘objective’ standards of consensus and consistency that he promotes, undisputable truth — if that’s not a contradiction in terms –is ‘hard to come by’. Hasn’t it always been?
This doesn’t mean truth doesn’t matter, Cookman assures us, or that there’s no point in trying to discover the truth. He does seem to believe there is such a thing as objective or absolute truth, albeit elusive. But it still means that, generally speaking, truth is relative: what is true for one person is not true for another — the ‘true for me’ syndrome is surprisingly popular when one realises the implications (not least for narrative) of something being merely true for me.
Perhaps ‘Truth’s Lie’, admittedly oxymoronic, would be an alternative title for Cookman’s book, although time and point of view, as referred to above as they affect narration, are necessarily of concern to him.
Product of human invention
In many ways, ‘time is the base layer of narrative for the way we tell our bigger, broader stories’. But the ‘lie of time’ is that it’s simply part of the fabric of the universe and can’t be disputed: ‘Time and all its effects is just as much a product of human invention as it is a product of entropy.’
We create time, says Cookman, by witnessing entropy, the change, or process, from order to disorder, or randomness, in a system — the conflict between vitality and entropy makes for a powerful but tragic metaphor, one recalls, in the fiction, for example, of Norman Mailer, William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon.
Perception controls the flow of time, as does concentration, Cookman points out. He intuits the intentionality of consciousness when he says ‘an event that is given a huge level of meaning is given a great deal of focus and thus time is perceived to slow down’ (his italics): the greater the intentionality, the greater the meaning.
And it’s the question of meaningfulness in life that made Cookman want to write about narrativisation in the first place. Despite being secular, he has always believed that things happen for a reason because ‘whether discussing luck, chance, fortune, coincidence or synchronicity they are all a method for creating meaning out of random, entropic interactions’. (His italics).
And this is surely the crux of the issue, or of the narrative, this narrative. We are meaning-seeking creatures, after all, whether through pattern, sign or symbol.
Leo Cookman is a writer, poet and musician based in Kent, UK. He is currently a researcher and writer of scripts for the YouTube channel Wisecrack, and has written on philosophy and theory for various publications.