Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog


with 3 comments

Okay.  I’m on round two of winter health crud here–this time it seems to be just your standard cold, sore throat, feel like yuck, you know what I mean.  But with the schedule I  keep, I’m bone tired and can’t sleep in until  Sunday–my younger son has classes on Saturday, which means getting up at three thirty even on the week-ends–so I’m feeling a little disorganized.   So let me try to cover a few things without worrying about the structure of the whole, so to speak.

First, I never said that fiction didn’t “change lives.”  I said the humanities–literature, music, art (and history, but I’ll get to this in a minute)–didn’t make us good people, and it doesn’t.  On the individual level, the jury is still out on what people like Arnold claimed that an understanding of the humanities would do–that is, make the individual better than he would have been without them–and I’ll leave determination of the truth or falsity of that to whoever figures out how to test it.

But on the society-wide and culture-wide level, there’s no doubt at all–it is narrative that shapes out societies and changes them.  And those changs are often enormous.   Uncle Tom’s Cabin did more to turn public sentiment against slavery, and make it impatient of resolution, than the thousands of abolitionists tracts and lectures that had been issued across the county in the decades that preceded it.  When Virgil wanted to give  Rome a sense of identity, he didn’t write a philosophical tract on the glories of the Empire, he wrote The Aeneid, convinced that it was the Iliad and the Odyssey, not Aristotle and Plato, that had made the Greeks the great civilization they were.

Human beings live and die by narrative, and this narrative is almost always at least partially finctional.  It is always consciously shaped.  Remember how I said I’d get back to history?   History has always been considered one of the humanities–not the “social sciences”–because from the beginning, history has been about producing narratives and claiming them to be ‘true stories!”

I don”t mean that there”s no such thing as fact in history. Of course there is.  The problem is that, if all you had was a list of facts, without framework or interpretation, you wouldn’t have anything particularly useful, or particularly of interest to just about anybody.  Herodotus and Thucydides both knew this, and they felt no compunction at all about making up speeches to put in the mouths of historical figures, or turning entire events into platforms for moral instruction.

These days we’re more careful.  We don’t do anything so blatant as simply to make up what somebody is supposed to say.  But we don’t just stick to the facts, either, because we can’t.   A list of all the facts that make up the Civil War would tell us very little about the Civil  War–that’s why Bruce Catton writes narratives called histories, not fact sheets.  And even if every single fact he gives is verifiable, the further fact is that he only gives us some of them and leaves others out.  In that choice itself the “facts” are fictionalized, and history becomes an art and not a science.

If you don’t believe me, think about a scientist conducting an experiment about a new drug, who decides to keep in the data on one set of side effects but to leave out the data on another set.

Like it or not, narrative is the most important fact about us individually and as a society, and narrative is what both makes us what we are and pushes us into change.

What’s more, the Great  Conversation has, in the West as in everyplace else, always been carried on primarily through the arts (and therefore fiction), not through philosophy or other nonfiction work.

Robert was wrong to say I care very little about the nonfiction end of the Canon.   Any look at The Western Canon According to Me will show that at least half of it is taken up with nonfiction.

But the simple truth is that philosophers speak mostly to each other.   If their ideas remain in philosophy texts without being translated in any way into fiction, those ideas will be of no ultimate important to civilization at large.   Sartre and Camus both understood this, which is why, aside from writing philosophy, they always made it a point to write novels that embodied that philosophy as well.  And to this day, you can learn a lot more about existentialism as philosophy and as way of life from The Stranger than you can from Being and Nothingness.

Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom and its ideas had no currency in everyday life whatsoever until a generation which had been reared on Atas Shrugged discovered it.  Suddenly it was popular enough for multiple reprintings and references on Internet web sites by people who know no more of Leibniz or Macchiavelli than I do of carburetors.

Human beings think in narratives, and the narratives they think in determine their personal identities and the nature of the societies they live in.   Change a society’s narrative, and you change everytbing about it.

And that will, I guarantee you, change lives.

What’s more, once a narrative becomes strongly entrenched, it maintains itself even if it’s drastically, destructively wrong.

Consider both Karl  Marx and Sigmund Freud, two thinkers whose chief claim to fame is to have come up with some of the worst ideas every written down on paper, almost all of which have been decisively refuted on almost every level.  

I say almost every level, because Ayn Rand notwithstanding, there’s been very little in the way of counternarrative out there to deconstsruct the worst of the idiocies their narratives left behind.   In the case of Marxism, the effect has been even stronger than it might have been because its narrative is in fact an offshoot of an older one, with enough of that older one’s elements to feel “naturual” to the people taking it up–Marxist narratives are always variations on the Gospel,  with History made to stand in for  God and Oppressed Humanity made to stand in for Christ on His Cross.

A  philoosphy that is never expressed in narrative dies, or becomes a simple academic enterprise of interest to nobody but scholars in universities.   It you want to chane the world, you must tell a story, and get other people to adopt your story as ‘true.” 

All of the great questions of our time will be decided not by logical discussion,  not by philosophical or political debate, but by which naratives come to be adopted by the most people.  Abortion, gay rights, the welfare state, pre-emptive war, the Islamic resurgence–you name it, and the best and most compelling story will win. 

What strikes you as more immediate and true–the stoy of the rape victim who finds herself pregnant by her rapist and is trapped, screaming and desperate, with no way out of undergoing even more pain and suffering?  or the story of the small child in the womb, trusting to its mother and the rest of the the world to feed and comfort and protect it, suddenly attacked by knives and suction cups and ripped to pieces?

Or how about this–the story of an old and suffering woman, condemned to die a slow death from a debilitating disease, without hope, without relief from pain, unless someone will help her put herself out of her misery?  or the story of the old woman who is suffering but still wants desperately to live, constantly in fear of the “medical professionals” around her who think her clinging to life makes her a “greedy geezer’ and is completely irrational, determined to “put her out of her misery” even if she thinks that isn’t what she wants?

Our narratives are who we are, and the Great Conversation is first and foremost a history of and competition between narratives. 

And, if that’s a hobby, it’s the most important one ever invented, far more important than most of the rest of what we do.

Written by janeh

February 6th, 2009 at 6:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Hobbies'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Hobbies'.

  1. I agree with you. It’s been a long, long time since I thought that history as presented was either literally true or the only possible interpretation of what facts exist.

    I think it may be hard to establish a new and convincing predominant narrative, though. In the past the barriers to acceptance of a new narrative may have been slow communication, but now many people seem reluctant to accept ONE narrative – there’s all this relativistic stuff about ‘well, that may be true for you’, and you cannot have a convincing guiding narrative for a society if everyone follows their own individual one.

    Or so it seems. And yet, within different circles narratives still have their power. You’ve given several examples. Most people seem to form their opinions on the basis of narrative as much as (or maybe more than) by reasoning from first principles. So how do you set up a new narrative? I’d say some people do find their old narrative unsatisfying as a result of some experience and therefore choose a new one – an example would be the conviction of some gay rights activists that if only their opponents would just talk to a gay person, they (the opponents) would automatically accept the activist’s narrative and agree with gay marriage, or whatever the current issue is.

    But this doesn’t always work. There are always people who have had exactly the experience that convinces the true believer (had homosexual friends or experiences, a desperately unwanted pregnancy, a painful and debilitating terminal illness) and who nevertheless chose another narrative.

    So reason and exposure to experience doesn’t necessarily change narratives. Fiction might – but if it were possible to write a society-changing best seller to order, we’d have new narratives every five minutes!

    Is there a solution? I can’t think of one except living according to a narrative and hoping that enough other people will do so as well that eventually enough people will write and talk and live the ideals of courtesy and respect and so on to shift the narrative a bit. And that idea doesn’t sound terribly likely to work.


    6 Feb 09 at 8:15 am

  2. Excuse me? I said that more reading of mainstream literary fiction wasn’t going to cure incivility or build that sense or “owing something to one another as human beings,” and I got a ringing defense of narrative.
    I’m actually quite in favor of narrative, which is why tonight’s reading might very well be Schmitz’ THE DEMON BREED or Bujold’s MEMORY, but is unlikely to be anything which would bring joy to an English teacher’s heart.
    But let us remember the limitations of fictional narrative. First, it doesn’t have to be true to resonate. I could fill this apartment–not the bookshelves, the entire volume–with fiction which, if you break it down to basic ideas promoted, is demonstrably false. Many of them sold quite well. A number are still doing so. (If we forgot about basic ideas and just talked about fiction which gets its facts wrong–from historical novels which can’t remember when Napoleon was crowned to contemporary thrillers which don’t know what the NSA is in charge of–you’d need the whole building.) Mind you, certain categories of “nonfiction” are worse. “The best and most compelling story” may well be one which destroys rather than promotes Western Civilization.

    Second, popular and accurate isn’t enough. Yes, no doubt UNCLE TOM’S CABIN helped make slavery disreputable in some quarters. But the wildly popular FIVE NIGHTS IN A BAR ROOM got (briefly) Prohibition, not an end to drunkenness. THE JUNGLE got the Pure Food and Drug Act, not labor laws, and seventy years after Zamyatin’s WE and Rand’s WE, THE LIVING, communists still litter the globe. As for ATLAS SHRUGGED and THE ROAD TO SERFDOM, I’d have said the consecutive presidencies of Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter also had an impact on attitudes toward expansionary government. (One point for fictional narrative: I couldn’t get through any six months of the Clinton presidency without getting flashbacks to particular scenes in ATLAS SHRUGGED. Yet the perpetrators had almost surely also read those scenes.)

    As for counternarratives to Marx and Freud, they litter my shelves. They just don’t get admitted to the Literary Canon. Storytelling moves on and leaves the Canon further behind and more self-referential.

    Note I did not say you didn’t care for the non-fiction Canon. I said you expended your ammunition disproportionately in defense of the literary Canon. That was intended for simple truth. I can read the blog for weeks without reference to the non-fiction Canon, but I expect to be reproved for my taste in fiction about every fourth or fifth blog entry. And non-fiction books can be definitively refuted. No one feels compelled to give equal space to the Ptolemaic astronomers or the practisioners of Aristotelian physics. There is no equivalent housecleaning in philosophy and literature.

    But I’m wandering. Certain choices among those available promote civility and compassion. But the literary Great Conversation is a restaurant menu. Some of the choices are tasty and healthful. Some are bitter to swallow, but also necessary to long life and good health. Some are sweet-tasting but bad for you, and some are fast-acting poisons. Promoting the Menu will not advance health, and promoting the literary Canon will not in itself restore the health of Western culture.

    As for “the jury still being out” on Arnold, and the periodic reading of Dickens as “the most important hobby in the world” actually, Western Civilization is being held up solely by the playing of historical miniatures wargames. Every thousand gamer-hours keeps our civilization going one more day than it would otherwise–just as irrefutable as Arnold, and a great deal more plausible on the face of it. As for Arnold’s notion of “good” or “better” I’ll not dwell on them: I’ve been troubled enough by nightmares lately.


    6 Feb 09 at 7:40 pm

  3. ‘Western Civilization is being held up solely by the playing of historical miniatures wargames.’

    Why do you think that? I can only recall two literary references to wargames – Dick Francis and Gerald Durrell, I think – and have never heard of or seen it locally, so in at least this little corner of the world, it would seem entirely irrelevant.

    If we’re talking about behaviour rather that knowledge, I’d say every person who demonstrates appropriate levels of courtesy and respect for others, especially in public, demonstrates and helps perpetuate civilized standards. Naturally, doing the same in private helps perpetuate such standards within the family, but I’m discussing larger scale situations.

    But at the best, this sort of example-setting spreads the idea of civilized behaviour very slowly, and does nothing to get through the shell of conviction of people who don’t share the view that being human (or at least our kind of human) involved behaving is that particular way. For that, you need something bigger. A best-seller that everyone admires. A particular response to a big news story that supports a ‘civilized’ view. A block-busting film or popular TV show that takes for granted certain attitudes or behaviours.


    7 Feb 09 at 7:22 am

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 737 access attempts in the last 7 days.