Thursday, January 4, 2007

Notes on narratives

I have been thinking about how history is created; how any narrative is created. This includes things that you do not generally consider a narrative, but have the same structural elements: what you think about another person or what you think about yourself.

The "true" story, if we can call it that, the "reality", what actually did happen -- and I am taking the philosophical position that there were physical events that did actually happen -- might be considered to contain x elements. X will be a very large number and immediately there is a problem. X is not the same from all viewpoints. Trivially, imagine this. A man is shot by a gun from in front. But if you are standing in front of the man, looking at him, you might not see the shooter but can see the entry of the bullet. If you are standing behind him, you can see the shooter but you cannot see the bullet's entry, only its exit, if it has one.

It is important to remember, although we mostly do not, that these are all elements that need to be counted in x (the physical facts of the shooting and the viewpoints it could be described from). And I am not saying that the shooting has an independence separate from the viewpoints on it. Not at all. Those who understand the theory of relativity will understand that I am saying there is no separate reality that we can describe. When we are creating a narrative, we are not reconstructing something that exists outside understandings of it, but something that even if fully described would include those viewpoints on it.

Even for relatively simple narratives, it should be obvious that x is a number in the millions. Practically, if we allow that there are favoured viewpoints -- the "facts of the matter" or what happened to a person from their own POV (not how they remember it but how it actually happened and what they actually felt and experienced at the time), x may be a smaller number.

The naive view is that historians, when constructing a narrative, attempt to gather all the pieces of x that they can. They do not, of course. They generally have a shape of the narrative sketched out and place elements to make the story they want. Sometimes they will exclude elements that do not fit. The number of elements that they gather can be called y. Y is a much, much smaller number than x, orders of magnitude smaller. If x is in the millions, y can be in the hundreds.

The problem of history is twofold. First, that the historian must make a picture from y, not x. They will never have x, no matter how thorough their investigation. (If you think you can think of things that could be fully described, you are probably either thinking of something that could not be fairly described as a narrative or you are not quite thinking deeply enough about things that could be said about it or could go to make a fuller description of it. Take for example, a letter. You might say the letter, what is in it, can be fully described. But this is not a narrative, but a fact. And then you can consider that you cannot be sure that the letter is authentic, has not been tampered with, and that the meaning of the letter, the intentions of the author, go to deciding that.) So the historian creates their picture, we can call it Y. It's a representation of X (the "real" story). But here is the second problem. The nature of history is that Y is easily confused for X (just as in science, the model that science uses as its approximation of the world is easily confused for the world, so that people mistake science for the Truth). Sometimes the historian themselves can make the mistake of presenting Y as X: suggesting they have the full story. Sometimes -- Churchill comes to mind -- they are very aware that they do not, and are determined that Y will be their story, will describe events from a perspective that suits them.

But generally what counts for a historian is that the narrative they construct makes sense: whether that sense is something they impose on the narrative or something that emerges, they want it to be coherent, themed. They do not pay much mind to historical narratives' rarely being coherent. This is a real problem because history tends to have an orthodox reading, a narrative endorsed by the mainstream, and those readings of events that differ from it are considered divergent, when the truth is sometimes going to be that those narrating have simply used different elements from X to make different Ys. Each might be as "true" as the other. For those who enjoy postmodernism, you will recognise that my discussion here takes a postmodernist "no view privileged" look at the construction of narratives, rather than the modernist view that there can be a truth to unveil. Modernism ignores that its selection of the true point of view is arbitrary. I don't think there is anything wrong with taking the modernist line, and I do in some respects, so long as you are clear that you have no ground to do so.

Curiously, even though the world is quite clearly full of diversity, history and other areas that use narratives, particularly in the media, take a modernist approach to narratives. In other words, they assume that there is a privileged viewpoint -- a "true story". In some ways, this is essential to them because they are trying to present a coherent view of the world. This is a subject for another post though.

Incomplete narratives do not belong only to history, even if it is interpreted broadly enough to include your or others' personal history. How you think about another person is a narrative. Your "picture" of them is more like a story. But you also make the same mistake that you might with stories. You assume Y is X.

The main problem with creating a narrative is that often the elements that we have do not join up particularly well. We might know what happened at a point but not why, and we might infer a motivation at another point but not know what the person or people involved were doing exactly. So the temptation is to join the dots and use the motivation from one point to explain the action at another. In this way, we weave a whole story from sometimes rather few threads. As for historians, what matters to us is that our picture coheres, that it seems to present us with a whole person, and we need to be able to believe that our picture is "true" in some sense.

A person has x elements. They do not themselves understand or even know all those elements (I am not talking particularly about their lack of understanding of the processes that made them; I am talking more about their not knowing elements of their own life -- none of us has a full picture of what is going on, which is quite obvious on reflection). And we will, of course, know y things about them. We are quite clear with a person that we do not, cannot, know everything about them. However, we are bound to make our picture from x elements and consider that X for us.

Sometimes, we will say "I don't know her very well" but this does not mean that we are relinquishing the notion that we have a picture of them that is in some way whole. It means that we accept that having more elements will allow us to change that picture.

What is problematic is that we do not always understand that X -- all they are -- and Y -- all we know them to be -- are highly divergent. Sometimes this lack of understanding can be almost pathological, but even when we are aware that we have built our picture from very little of what there is to know about them, we still are not clear that what we have built is too whole. I noted that historians sometimes have a narrative already sketched out that they will fill with facts, and this is true too of our narratives about people. We quickly form an idea who they are and then use new elements to fill in that structure. Sometimes we have to stetch the elements we have absurdly much to fit the picture, yet we are not keen -- some very much less keen than others -- to surrender it and build a new narrative.

For my part, I am quite clear that I do not have a complete picture of anybody, not even of myself. I rarely even have a functioning whole narrative for a person. I tend to allow them either to have a more fluid representation if I have several of the x elements, or, as we generally do, to allow one or other of the elements to stand for the whole. I'm not sure where the dividing line is, because, for example, I have many elements for my father-in-law but I tend to conceive of him in quite simple terms. Sometimes people are quite simply easier to manipulate (in your thinking, not as people, although it would probably be even truer of them as people) as symbols than as complex narratives. Because I do not expect to construct a complete narrative, I probably seem less interested in people than they might hope. I am interested, of course, but in specifics, things that interest me in and of themselves. I am not interested in an enquiry into the person aimed at making a fuller picture. That might seem a curious trait in someone who aspires to be an author, but I think it is a failing of authors, not a strength, to feel that a character is constructable from few elements and can be understood by simply acquiring them. Simply making more complicated whole pictures is not enough (by which I mean that you are not doing enough if you simply avoid using cardboard cutout characters, but still have wholly comprehensible characters). You need more, to reflect how difficult to grasp we are, as whole narratives and as people.


Anonymous Sour Grapes said...

While there are examples in literature to illustrate your point, from Thornton Wilder to Smiley's People, I thought you might be interested in comments from the people who run terror-info site, in an interview:

They say essentially the same thing you're saying here, in regard to narratives, what the press for good reason calls "stories".

January 5, 2007 at 5:19 AM  

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