Two Modes of Narration
Recently, Kathleen Jamie wrote in The New Statesman :
“… But how can time break? Surely time goes on like an arrow, through one damn thing after the next.
Well, maybe it doesn’t. This extraordinary book will win devotees among that minority who don’t see “stories” everywhere, who resent the hegemony of narrative, and who perhaps experience time more like a spiral …”
I found this deliciously well observed. This was the first time I read someone pointing out the deep connection between our sense of time and our fondness for narratives. Still, it is good to remember that things might not be so clear cut. A juxtaposition of linear and circular views of time is not necessarily sharp-edged. Asian cultures are known for an emphasis on circular movements in time. One of the most famous of such movements being the “wheel of reincarnation” in Buddhism. But even in these cultures the life of Buddha e.g. is told as a normal, linear-timeline-narrative. The difference, of course, is that the wheel of reincarnation is an idea about reality, while the life of Buddha is a historical narrative. But one can ask any farmer in the West as well: he will be quite able to manage circular (e.g. seasonal) timelines along with linear one’s. Finally, the horizon of any circle may look like a straight line (to our perception) if the circle is just large enough.
Still, I have been one of those complaining about the increasing hegemony of narrative (oh, so wonderfully put!) in the visual arts (and elsewhere). This, however, has to do mostly with an insight that there is not one mode of narration, but two. Let me explain: the first mode of narration is a tool of communication between humans. This mode seems to me very fundamental to human thinking and it is easy to imagine how it might have evolved: look!, tiger comes from the wood, looks to us, gets closer, will eat us, run!!! Later at the fire, this story of their escape might have been repeated to the others in the group. It is this mode of narration that led to the stories of world literature we all love.
From early on, there has been, however, a second mode of narration: stories that pretend to be perception, stories that construe meaning from what we observe. It is the use of that mode of narration that has been much overdone in my view, which I consider even dangerous and would like to call here (with all intended negativity) false narratives. Before we turn to these, though, we might have to look at what we (ehem, I) mean by meaning.
The Meaning Of Meaning
The term meaning is maybe best understood when looking at its (probably original) uses: with signs and symbols. There is nothing inherently stop-py in a red light but we all know that a red traffic light means that we should stop. The stoppiness of the red light might still have deep roots, though. A red, ripe apple makes one stop to eat, a green, unripe one makes one to move on. That red apples are ripe is an observation, while saying: “Mother Nature has painted these apples red for us so we know which one we can eat” is a narrative (and a classical example for a false one). Both, observations and narratives are ways in which our mind makes sense of what our senses sense (I am so full of puns today…) and both assume that, beyond the sensory input, there is a second level of insight – and that second level of insight is the important one. Not the red light, but the implied order by the state to stop is the decisive level of reality.
So far so good, if and when we are in fact dealing with signs and symbols as in the traffic light example. Not so good, in my not so humble view, in case of the red apple. The problem is that if we exchange observation with narrative, all we might end up with is a fantasy world – and never more as when we start to treat matters as narratives like in “the meaning of life” (Ah, now you start smelling where this is heading). Anyhow, it is time to go back to the false narratives now.
Our minds (mine, if you prefer) are filled to the rim with false narratives. Religions tell us that our life is part of a “bigger story”. Politicians, historians and philosophers tell us that there are nations, which might have “destinies”. Marketing tells us that this cream makes us younger, fitter, whateverisher. (And ah, I have written earlier a lot about false narratives regarding things and consumerism.) All of these have in common that they cloak narratives as observations. All of them construe a reality beyond our sensory input or interpret it on our behalf. Just recently we have seen where this can lead: that large parts of populations in certain countries indeed believe that red is green and green is red.
On a more innocent level, I have been working for some time on a (unpublished) project about “Stories in Nature” where I (ironically and) playfully superimposed false narratives on observations in nature. If you follow this blog, you might remember e.g. the “Little Icehog”.
But let us summarise at this point: 1) False narratives replace observations. 2) False narratives suggest that there is a second level of reality, not reached by observation but which can be reached by interpretation and thus unlocking meaning.
If that is so, what then do we mean by the meaning of life (or meaning in life) and why do quite a few psychologists suggest that there is a “Crisis of Meaning”, making people sick. Yep, now we get to the hairy questions.
The Meaning in Life
This is, of course, a topic we might not be able to attack head on. Let us first circle it a bit like a predator before the jump. As I explained, using the term meaning already implies that we don’t just live but that there is an inner, truer story about this simple fact in need of unlocking.
Did it ever occur to you that all questions around identity would be moot if we only would stop discriminating against each other? Yes, I think, what we see as identity and its suppression is based on a whole bunch of false narratives. If we wouldn’t construe narratives about identity, if it just wouldn’t matter at all if we are man or woman, white or black, straight or gay, left or right, what we believe in or not, if we just could be humans (and more so) there would be no need to identify with anything but ourselves. But that is, of course, not the world we live in (and still John Lennon was right: just imagine).
Equally, if we could stop treating life as a symbol or a timeline (you see we are back to the linearity of narratives!), indeed if we could stop treating life as a narrative in the first place, the question of its meaning, or how to life a meaningful life, would become far less urgent.
Reading obituaries is a clear sign of ageing; nevertheless I have started to read a few of them and noticed that almost all weave life as a narrative. (S)he went to school there and there, the parents were this and that, then came marriage, the right amount of children, a career, then retirement, membership in hobby clubs and then – the end. Is life no more than a CV? (Ok, that might be inherent in the genre of the obituary, but still.)
Isn’t life about the “lateral” events, those that go across the timeline of our ageing. The moments of tenderness, understanding, insight, learning? The hand on the shoulder of a friend in distress, the random act of kindness, the word of advice, watching leaves unfold in spring or experiencing the dance of cranes on the ice of a lake. Isn’t that what will survive us because it will continue to reverberate in others long after we died?
Now, I will make a bold statement: what we are looking for (in vain) in false narratives, in the search for meaning, we can find in the simple act of experience. Which leads us, obviously (…), to: the river.
Also the river has been mightily abused by narratives: as it springs from its source to the happy end when it reaches the sea (and don’t we all love Smetana’s Vltava for that reason already?). The problem is only: we are left no wiser for what a river actually is.
What then, is a river. A river, first, is water. Water that interacts with land (as clouds are water interacting with the air). A river becomes sea, or clouds, or a lake, a drink in our glas and thus part of our body. We might see it as part of cycle (Caution! False narrative alarm!) but in the end it is just water – and water is everywhere, all the time, the same water. A river is water in movement, sometimes uproar, it is water showing its muscles its (and gravity’s) unrelenting force.
Since I stood up to the hip in rivers while fly fishing, the almost spiritual experience of the river’s force haunts me. I do not have to have more from the river than the memory of this experience. Since then it has become one of my obsessions (and a kind of yearly spring ritual) to photograph the river in its force.
I titled the picture “Across”. If you remember from a few paragraphs above, I wrote about: across the timeline. So, I admit, the title is absurd; it is a dadaist play with the absurd because I superimpose (half of) a narrative on the nameless. But my recommendation is: stop worrying about meaning. Visit the river.