Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum. --Goethe, Faust, Part One.[i]
In explaining his choice to present a Critique of Pure Reason instead of an affirmative system of philosophy, Kant noted that his was “in especial degree, the age of criticism.”[ii] Much has changed since then. Our own age might instead be described as the age of stories. It is no longer fashionable for progressives to talk about relations of production or ideology; this is left to the dwindling crew of old-school Marxists. Instead, they are encouraged to “shift the narrative,” to tell stories about the world that will inspire individuals to act differently. In an atomized social structure this may seems like a plausible strategy, indeed the only way to bring people together in a common cause, because narrative appears to link the personal and the political as nothing else does. That plausibility, though, demands a critique, because it rests on the unsupported assumption that we are not just story-tellers by habit but creatures made of stories.
There could hardly be a better summary of this nearly-universal belief than Galen Strawson’s abstract for his essay “Against Narrativity,” where he describes “two popular claims:”
The first is a descriptive, empirical thesis about the nature of ordinary human experience: “each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’ . . . this narrative is us, our identities” (Oliver Sacks); “self is a perpetually rewritten story . . . in the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives” (Jerry Bruner); “we are all virtuoso novelists. . . . We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character . . . of that autobiography is one’s self” (Dan Dennett). The second is a normative, ethical claim: we ought to live our lives narratively, or as a story; a “basic condition of making sense of ourselves is that we grasp our lives in a narrative” and have an understanding of our lives “as an unfolding story” (Charles Taylor). A person “creates his identity [only] by forming an autobiographical narrative – a story of his life”, and must be in possession of a full and “explicit narrative [of his life] to develop fully as a person” (Marya Schechtman).[iii]
Strawson’s argument was itself primarily empirical; he denied the universalist claim of narrative theories, calling himself an “Episodic,” and took the dominance of narrativity theory to be influenced by intellectual fashion and personal predilection.[iv] He was swimming against the tide, though; narrativity is all but taken for granted these days. Just a few weeks ago an interview with the philosopher Costica Bradatan popped up in my internet feed, and in it I read, “I start from the assumption that meaning is narrative in nature. … Indeed, we find our life worth living to the extent that we can weave a narrative in which all—or at least most—facts of our biography can be plausibly connected following a certain inner order.”
We seem to be stuck with narrative, then, but we are also stuck with conflicts, because the proliferation of stories leads not to a garden of happily coexisting narratives but to a contest of differences. The reception of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer may serve as an example. The film interweaves two stories, linked by Oppenheimer’s sense of immunity or privilege and his failure to see deeply enough into the worlds he has been making, both for himself and for the world at large. But a substantial number of critics wanted even more. Some said that Nolan failed to honor the suffering of the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the Americans downwind of the Trinity site, others argued that he ignored the fact that Los Alamos was Native American land, and still others complained that he gave too little attention to the women in his central character’s life. These make demands that no work of art could possibly meet. Every story is partial, and to tell one is to exclude the others, just as every photograph excludes everything outside the frame. That is no reason to stop telling them.
As the very intensity of these criticisms may suggest, though, there is a great deal at stake when narrative is given the task of conferring meaning. It is not enough to have stories about oneself and one’s world. If the meaningfulness of our lives is bound up with autobiographical narrative, any stammering, any elision or silence, any crack in the narrative structure is an existential threat. Our stories have to be true, and they must be validated by those around us, whose own stories cannot ignore or—worse—contradict ours. The world of stories is a war of each against all, and the alternatives to this chaos seem limited to adventitious alliances with individuals whose stories happen to coincide with ours on one or more points or an abject surrender to populist tale-telling.
Historically speaking these are very recent developments, but they were analyzed with remarkable clarity almost 230 years ago by the dramatist, poet, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller. Outside of the German-speaking world Schiller’s star has fallen, but in the nineteenth century he was seen as a giant; there is still a Schiller Park in my home town of Rochester, New York, Verdi based more operas on his plays than he did on anyone else’s, including Shakespeare, and of course Beethoven chose his “Ode to Joy” as the text for the finale of his ninth symphony.
Schiller the philosopher was always of lesser repute. Frederick Beiser has tried to make the case that he was a significant if not a major figure, but the effort seems misplaced.[v] Beiser’s focus is on Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man from 1795, when Schiller was associated with Fichte, and that work suffers greatly from the comparison. Both friends framed their work in terms of a diremption and a movement back towards unity, but Fichte saw this as a foundational element in self-consciousness itself where Schiller, by contrast, wrote it into history, imagining the Athens of Pericles as a time of natural harmony and arguing in the mode of Rousseau that it was “civilization itself that inflicted this wound [i.e., the ‘all-dividing intellect’] on modern man.”[vi] His argument is historically implausible and philosophically weak.
Even minor philosophers can make useful points, however. If Schiller could not match Fichte’s rigor or plumb the unsettling depths of the Wissenschaftslehre, he saw into the deep structures of self-consciousness that make narrative so central, especially the split between self and world, and as a skilled dramatist he was far more alive than Fichte was to the ways those structures affect human lives and interactions. This is one of the themes in the last of his philosophical essays, On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry.
From the title one might suppose that Schiller was writing avant la lettre about the verses in greeting cards. He was not, of course, and he did not use “naïve” or “sentimental” as evaluative terms. The words referred to two different kinds of poetry, and by implication two different kinds of storytelling. “The poet … either is nature or he will seek it. The former makes for the naïve poet, the latter for the sentimental poet.”[vii]
Naïve poetry is in a sense objective; the poet strives to make present the unified world of nature and natural expression in which she finds herself. Sentimental poetry is inward, the reflection of the poet’s reaching towards a unity which culture had shattered. “The agreement between his feeling and thinking, something that actually took place in the original condition, now exists only ideally. It is no longer in him but rather outside him, as a thought that must be realized, and no longer a fact of his life.”[viii]
Schiller’s distinction can be applied to any form of narrative or literary production. It underlies “Odysseus’ Scar,” the famous first chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, which contrasts Homer—the archetype of the naïve poet—with the Genesis writer’s story of the binding of Isaac:
On the one hand, externalized, uniformly illuminated phenomena, at a definite time and in a definite place, connected together without lacunae in a perpetual foreground; thoughts and feeling completely expressed; events taking place in leisurely fashion and with very little of suspense. On the other hand, the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent; time and place are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal (and to that extent far more of a unity), remains mysterious and “fraught with background.”[ix]
The essential point is the same. The unity in Homer lies out in the open, in the give and take of a life shared between humans and gods, and it shines through every detail of the epics’ perpetual present. The unity of the Bible is hidden, and Abraham’s inner life grows from his movement around and towards the literally unimaginable deity from whom all proceeds and towards whom all tends.
We can pass the time with naïve stories, but to satisfy the demands of the narrativity thesis we must turn to sentimental ones. Both their inwardness and their power to make things meaningful, though, derive from their relation to something external and indeed beyond concrete experience. They can suggest the connections that unite characters and events, but mere coherence is not enough; as Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus, “The meaning of the world must lie outside the world.”[x] This is a matter of logic and not of theology. Without something behind the flow of events they would seem to be nothing more than one damn thing after another. To say, with Bradatan, that meaning is “narrative in nature” is to mistake the form of expression with the idea being expressed. Narratives have that authority only when they presume or exemplify a prior commitment to certain ends or values, whether explicit or implicit. They must reach beyond themselves for groundedness and universality, towards what Schiller called the ideal and which Fichte saw as the burgeoning activity of an unknowable Absolute. This is one reason that we make the impossible demand that films like Oppenheimer tell us everything; behind every sentimental narrative is a yearning for the whole. It is also why we can be wounded when others fail to validate our stories, for this means that we are not, after all, in contact with the hidden unity of things.
Sentimental poetry and storytelling may have higher ambitions than the naïve sort, but their failures run deeper. Schiller develops this theme most thoroughly when he sets aside the “poetic nature” of the two types of poetry and treats them as the attitudes of realism and idealism. He has a grudging tolerance for the realist, who neither looks out far nor in deep but who takes things as they seem and can give each its due. Life without the ideal is at least sustained by the laws of nature, so even l’homme moyen sensual is “not completely without significance.”[xi] The idealist, though, can lose sight of what is in the pursuit of what should be, and that failure leads not merely to bad art, vacuousness, or vagueness, but to callousness, fanaticism, and worse.
The idealist is “at odds with himself; neither his knowing nor his acting can satisfy him. What he demands of himself is something infinite, but everything he accomplishes is finite.” As a result, “he is prepared to reconcile himself with the extravagant and monstrous, if only it testifies to its great potential.”[xii] Our rage for order is insatiable, and we are too apt to grab at any plausible end. An idealism which thus mistakes a part for the whole is dangerous, and one unhinged from the ideal is worse. Such a pure subjectivity opens the way to a “terrifying” “false idealism;” the perversion of an infinite nature is “an infinite fall into a bottomless depth.”[xiii]
Schiller’s idealist, though, is at risk whenever she tells herself that she has seen her project through to its impossible conclusion. In her pursuit of unity and significance “the idealist demonstrates though individual actions the neediness of human nature.”[xiv] And to assert that this neediness has been satisfied is a delusion, and a dangerous one at that; it is the losing term of Faust’s bargain with Mephistopheles, our seeking refuge in an illusion of fulfillment. Our lives are richer and fuller in every moment than any story could comprehend, and so long as we live we can never see them whole and entire. Every rounded autobiographical narrative must therefore freeze us in place and commit us to a Procrustean shape-giving of something ungraspable. To identify ourselves with any story we could possibly tell about ourselves is at heart an act of violence.
But the problems with the “normative, ethical” branch of the narrativity thesis are even more severe. Stories of the sentimental kind cannot be understood apart from the unspoken but necessary commitments which give each one its unity and persuasive power. The conflict of stories is thus a proxy for a conflict of allegiances or assumptions which are often unconscious or only hazily present to our reflection. The power of those assumptions, though, comes from their claim to universality, and when they are in fact partial or even ideological this conflict, too, turns towards violence, as we strike out at any threat to the unspoken foundations of our fragile, ultimately delusional stories.
We are clearly unable to leave off telling stories, both to ourselves and to others, and I would not suggest that we try. We must never forget, though, that all stories are provisional and all must be left behind. Christianity at least confronted believers with the incomprehensibility of divine providence and, by implication, the mysteries of their own individual lives and fates. The individualized and secular demand that we craft a sense-giving story for ourselves is anything but an improvement. It imposes an extraordinary burden on us all, blinds us to the external and often arbitrary source of the “meanings” conveyed by our narratives, and helps obfuscate the roots of social dissension and conflict. In our personal lives it leaves us with only two possibilities: to “succeed” in entrapping the iridescent multiplicity of living within the monochrome of story or to fail and be haunted by a sense of inadequacy. It is hard to say which of these is worse.
This does not mean that there are no ways out of this dilemma. We are not forced to choose between dreaming through a timeless present and imprisoning ourselves within a sacred or secular narrative; we may live by stories, but we do not have to die by them. But any alternative requires other ways of apprehending and making order out of experience and a reconsideration of the very notion of “the meaning of life.” Such subjects must await another essay.
[i] “Gray, dear friend, is all theory, and green the golden tree of life.”
[ii] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Smith (London: Macmillan & Co., 1933), p. 9, fn. a, A xii.
[iii] Galen Strawson, “Against Narrativity.” Ratio (new series), XVII, 4 December 2004, p. 428.
[iv] Ibid., p. 439.
[v] Frederick Beiser, Schiller as Philosopher: A Re-Examination. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 2005).
[vi] In Schiller, Essays, ed. Hinderer and Dahlstrom. (New York: Continuum, 1993), p. 99.
[vii] Essays, op. cit., p. 200.
[viii] Ibid., p. 201. The emphases are Schiller’s.
[ix] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, tr. W. Trask. (Garden City: Doubleday Press, 1953), p. 9.
[x] 6.41. I am using Daniel Kolak’s translation (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1998), as it harmonizes better with Schiller’s text.
[xi] Essay, p. 259.
[xii] Ibid., pp. 255-256.
[xiii] Ibid., pp. 259-260.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 257.