Wednesday, 3 February 2016

I'm not a story. But what am I?

This week, I'm returning to Galen Strawson's essay "I am not a story" in Zachary Leader's On Life-Writing –  read the essay on Aeon (the comments on the essay make fascinating reading) – about the relationship between story and identity in more depth, because its implications have been preoccupying me.

In the essay, Strawson challenges the veracity of the claim that we are our life stories. He quotes five or six philosophers, psychologists and novelists supporting this idea, including social psychologist Dan P McAdams:
"Beginning in late adolescence and young adulthood, we construct integrative narratives of the self that selectively recall the past and wishfully anticipate the future to provide our lives with some semblance of unity, purpose, and identity. Personal identity is the internalised and evolving life story that each of us is working on as we move through our adult lives… I… do not really know who I am until I have a good understanding of my narrative identity."
philosopher Daniel Dennett: "We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography"; and Oliver Sacks "Each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”… this narrative is us"*.

His basic thesis is that while some, possibly even most people – "narrativists" – view their lives in story form, others, the non-narrativists – amongst whom he situates himself – don't.

It's partly a question of whether you are a diachronic or synchronic type: do you think/feel/view the world and your experiences chronologically, or more laterally? Do you, like Strawson and John Updike "‘have the persistent sensation, in my life…, that I am just beginning’"? It's also about whether you believe, along with many others "that self-narration is a good thing, necessary for a full human life", or whether you have doubts or concerns. One Strawson raises – but dismisses – is the suggestion that if we do story our lives, and do so, as certain writers/thinkers claim, to show ourselves in the best possible light, then we are being inauthentic. He dismisses this because evidence suggests that, in general, we don't.

Grand narrative

Overall, his argument is with the idea of a grand, overarching life-story narrative, as opposed to something less coherent, more fragmentary. As I quoted in last week's post:
"For most of us … I think self-knowledge comes best in bits and pieces".
I wrote then about the relationship of narrative, self-knowledge and wisdom, but have come back to the same subject because it's still nagging at me.

Back in the mid-90s, while working as Serpent's Tail's publicist, I was accompanying the author Pagan Kennedy while she was being interviewed by – if I remember rightly – Tim Adams for The Observer.

The story & the self

It wasn't long after Kennedy had published a graphic 'zine detailing her experiences of ovarian cancer. Adams expressed surprise and even a degree of concern about her willingness to publish such a personal experience (though I imagine he'd be less surprised in 2016). As if she was giving away part of her self.

After the interview, Pagan and I discussed this. From what I remember, neither of us felt that telling even highly personal stories gave away anything of ourselves. The act of revealing personal stories – where it was us doing the revealing, and I'm sure that's crucial – didn't feel exposing. Or like a giving up of the self. Knowing my story (or, rather, stories) doesn't mean someone knows me: self-narrative and the self feel quite different. And telling life stories can be a way of shielding ourselves, a way of keeping others at arms length, of shedding the parts we can do without, like the lizard's tail. A way, in other words, to avoid the dissipation of power.

narrative is power

Perhaps narrative – even more so than knowledge – is power. And the bigger and grander the narrative, the greater the expression of power: at least the power of the narrator over the audience. It's about what's left out, the complex, dissonant stuff. Smaller, more fragmented narratives can accommodate more dissonance.

It's about whether your story looks like this

beautifully explained by Stella Duffy here…

Or like this
Limited edition jigsaw by John Kimpton
… but perhaps with pieces missing.

Overall, the thing about narrative is that it's a function of time. Things happen over time, and that's life – and story. But the grand narrative? I agree with Strawson. That's not life. In fact, it's probably closer to propaganda^…

As for the answer to the question in the title? Nope. Don't have one. And don't necessarily want one. Don't think it matters…

* his examples aren't all male: I've just selected these three for the pithy quotes
^ or Big Fiction. Which I don't have the same objections to, at all…


  1. v true! re self exposing that is...i've often wondered at people wondering about people talking about intimate physical symptoms e.g....why would they think it's revealing?

    1. It's fascinating - it must mean that 'non-disclosers' see the world in a very different way to 'disclosers'. And I wonder whether the latter are more likely to be the people Strawson would define as 'narrativists'?