March 2012

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by Jonathan Wallace

Humans find various ways for distinguishing themselves from other species: opposable thumbs, the animal which can conceive of the future, or, more darkly, the animal which routinely kills its own kind in huge numbers. But the distinction which most interests me, is that of humans as story-making animal.

We live in a random, chaotic, shifting universe, and when we look at it too closely, or are devastated in person, property or mind by its writhings, may slip into suicidal depression. The Druid said to Jergen: "If Merlin had seen what you have seen, Merlin would have died, and Merlin would have died without regret, because Merlin receives facts reasonably." Instead, we construct narratives which have two over-lapping purposes: to explain but to reassure. When both goals are not possible, for most of us (individually and collectively), reassurance takes precedence.

As a result, life is a quilt of narratives. We are conscious of a few of them, but are no more aware of most than a fish is of water. I wake up in the morning, in the grip of a narrative about my relationship to sleep (sleep is not that important; my disturbed sleep feeds my creativity; some of my best work began in fragmented, half awake dreams). I talk to an early calling law client, and am impressed by a narrative about being thoughtful, experienced, compassionate, a kindly, competent lawyer. I sit down to work on this essay for the Spectacle and think about a seventeen year long routine, of writing an essay every month, of quiet pride in a private effort which has been one of the most fulfilling actions of my life, without ever winning me fame or wealth. Later, I may do some theater business, cook a meal, watch a movie with my wife or listen to an account of some problems she dealt with during the day. Each of these activities will advance a narrative or have one as background.

There are micro-narratives: why are so many pigeons dying under the railway trestles? It is more reassuring to think that the freight train is hitting them, than that they have bird flu, which I might catch. The Greek coffee shop on the corner of 31st is very appealing in its plain, unpretentious ethnicity, but the people there were nasty to my wife, so we can't go there. An actor I know is smoking a cigarette outside the same bar when I come home every night: I have a small window into what the rest of his life must be like.

But there are also mega-narratives. Wars, even when they are really about real estate or gold, all have compelling narratives, and some wars seem to be solely narrative-based, like Vietnam. Communism vs. capitalism, Al Qaeda vs. secularism, are both huge clashes of competing narratives about what kind of world is just and shelters us best. In this sense, since the beginning of time, hundreds of millions of us have died for narratives, as soldiers believing in them, or, more haplessly, as civilians wiped or washed away by narratives.

A strong part of the reassurance is pride in ourselves. It is a fundamental human need to feel good about yourself, and there are among us many who should but don't--kind, good, talented people who suffer, and sometimes die, from painful self-loathing. You could say that many, if not all of these, have fallen prey to a counter-narrative, like anorexic women who have believed a fashion narrative which convinces them they are too fat.

On the other hand, some people have to scramble for pride. Mediocrity frequently lauds itself. A version of this is Lake Wobegon, where "all the children are above average". All people should not of course judge themselves, or be judged, by one standard (and much of the world's violence has come from someone or another aggressively advancing the idea that we should). I want my friends to be great-hearted people, regardless of whether they attended college or can discuss Kierkegaard, though I also respect people who meet the latter criteria. On the other hand, narratives can be a kind of self justification, an excuse for not working on one's own flaws. At the far end of the narrative spectrum, there is a form of American exceptionalism which says we can be fat, weak, uneducated, unemployed, and we are still better than anyone, because Americans.

Narratives dealing with unpalatable matters, or great and inexplicable matters, tend to contain mystery, to be incomplete. The words "Its all part of God's plan" contains an element which communicates, "Stop asking questions". At the worst, there is a kind of narrative which is a counter-narrative, like anti-matter to matter, which consumes and destroys narratives and calls for a kind of muteness. These counter-narratives become vital to our survival when we would have a Merlin-reaction to truth or mystery. We believe in a relatively benign God who tolerates terrible murders and massacres, so it is our lot to trust in Him and not to ask too many questions.

There is an interesting distinction between tropes and narratives. Tropes are essentially passive, usually nouns with baggage. "Democracy" is a trope. Narratives are tropes used in a sentence which also contains a verb. "Making the world safe for democracy" is a narrative.

Narratives are like Legos; you can snap them together in quite divergent and unique shapes. Mega- and micro-narratives in particular snap together very nicely, like "small town boy becomes war hero" while "making the world safe for democracy".

The architect Christopher Alexander imagined an architectural pattern language, elements you could snap together to make houses, like "bay window with ocean view". Narratives too are pattern languages: snap together some tropes and verbs, then take the resulting narrative and connect it to other narratives. Even in a fight to the death, opposing narratives create a framework or architecture which, in a snapshot, can be studied as if they were a static structure: start at the Al Qaeda "jihad" narrative and follow the through line to the American "secular diversity" narrative--or a branching pathway, via West Point prayer breakfasts, to the Christianity v. Islam narrative.

While most narratives are designed to incorporate known facts, narratives can also be designed not to contradict any. My own thought experiment: before the dinosaurs, there was an intelligent race of jello people who lived on earth. They built an entire jello empire dominating the planet. But they left no fossils, footprints or other trace of themselves behind, because made of jello.

Semiotics, the "science of signs", involves unpacking hidden narratives from their containers. Roland Barthes' lucid and enjoyable essays reveal the narratives (which he calls "significances") packed into wrestling matches and animated laundry advertisements. Think of a trope with a narrative (including verb) concealed within.

The concept of "memes", ideas as gene-like replicators, first proposed by Richard Dawkins in 1976, also ties in here. Ideas clearly battle each other for supremacy the way genes do. I have the beginnings of an article in my head about suicide bombing as a frighteningly successful meme--an idea which kills the person bearing it and many others. A meme may be a mere noun, such as courage or faith. Narratives, with their verbs, are also memes; they battle for supremacy in our mental environment, in the field which is the collective of all human minds.

When I worked in the computer industry, I learned that databases and other information-bearing technologies had metadata, information about the information stored in the system. The metadata of a database includes the design of the tables for storing the data--rules about what information we collect, in what format, what is considered to be the unique identifier or "key", and rules regarding how many of one data point could there be relating to another: one credit card could have many transactions but only one expiration date. I started thinking then that all information-carrying systems have metadata. What is the metadata for the American constitution? For democracy? Is there a meta-narrative which governs all our narratives?

The meta-narrative states that everything must be explained by a narrative (hence the origin myths of every religion and culture). This narrative must not only explain all mysteries and unknowns: it must situate us, the Aleuts or Americans or Republicans or Mets fans or orchid or Jack Russell terrier fanciers, at its center. It must remind us we are the Good People. It will almost certainly also include Bad People, and if it does, it will remind us they are Demonic, Other, Non-human and worthy of destruction. Narratives must also imply that we have some control over our own lives and the universe--if we meet some criteria, pray properly, or are brave, thrifty, humble and obedient (the Boy Scout narrative), the Bad People will be defeated and our lives will be satisfying.

Sometimes narratives are a pathway to truth: scientific theories are a form of narrative, constructed to fit the known facts, then discarded when new facts are discovered or old ones re-arranged. However, more often in human life, narratives take the place of truth, prevent us from seeing truth, are in fact more important than the truth.

A classic literary embodiment of this is the climax of "The Maltese Falcon". Who actually committed murder is unimportant to anyone, not to the criminals, detective or cops; who will "take the fall", who "looks good" for the killing, is the only important thing. In other words, the exercise of finding the killer--determining ultimate truth--is replaced by the exercise of forming a plausible narrative about the killing, regardless of whether it is true. Once this narrative has been agreed on, we can all rest easier, get on with our lives.

This is what happens every day in the American justice system (I am sure in the rest of the world as well). The advent of DNA testing has demonstrated that hundreds of men on death row each "looked good" for a killing, was a bad acting person in proximity to the victim, had means, motive and opportunity, in other words fit exactly into the justice narrative--with the minor inconvenient that DNA, no respecter of narratives, now proves he wasn't the killer. This has led prosecutors nation-wide to fight like wild-cats to preserve exploded narratives, often by proposing absurd variations.

Prosecutors presumably pursue some cases against innocent victims because they themselves are in error, are convinced of guilt, believe a false narrative. But it is evident that much of the time, the prosecutor knows the individual is innocent, or at least suspects he may be--the cases in which the prosecutor is accused, years later, of withholding exculpatory evidence. Some prosecutors may be radically uninterested in ultimate truth, and wear narrative blinders: they are interested, like the "Maltese Falcon" characters, only in whether someone "looks good" for the killing, is available to take the fall. Prosecutors who knowingly prosecute the innocent may be doing so from personal ambition--to have a great conviction record which may lead to higher office. But they may also be responding to a public pressure for certainty, the need for a consoling narrative of justice and retribution, of getting a killer off the streets rather than admitting that we don't know who did it, that the killer is free out there enjoying his life, and stalking his next victim.

Along came the quantum physicists, and proposed their own wild narratives. Someone who made a career explaining abstruse physics concepts in plain English admitted years ago, somewhat against interest, that if you don't understand the math, you can never really comprehend the idea. All popularized explanations of relativity, string theory or quantum physics are really only understandable to most of us (me included) as metaphors, as narratives.

The story of "Schrodingers' Cat", which was a thought experiment using metaphor in the first place, has been very important to twentieth century narrative making, because for the first time it proposed the theory that multiple narratives may be true simultaneously--the cat is in a quantum state, shifting between alive and dead, until you open the box. This is a counter-narrative, a narrative-eater or destroyer, in that it doesn't meet any of the meta-narrative rules: we are not situated in it, it is not comforting, it raises more doubt than it dispels. Alternative interpretations of the Schrodinger-narrative are also not comforting: truth is unascertainable, or we are looking at it through lenses so reductive (mere subjective human categories of "alive" and "dead", perhaps, that are meaningless to the universe) that we can never perceive Truth.

Schrodingers' narrative ties in disturbingly to the morally and culturally relativistic, soft-headed narratives proposed by half-educated college students who insist that "one thing can be true for me, another for you." In most human cases involving the physical world, not subjective beliefs, we are not in Schrodinger territory: Columbus' ships did not sail around the world and fall off the edge, simultaneously. One of the evils dealt us by fuzzy thinking, perhaps inadvertently encouraged by Schrodinger, is to treat ascertainable physical realities as if they were mere narratives, such as global warming.

Another gift from phsyics is the black hole narrative: there is an "event horizon", beyond which information can never be reported back. This disturbs us by stating that some truths will never be discoverable even if they are knowable. There is no neurological limit to our brains, no metaphysics which prevent us from knowing what happened to Judge Crater or Amelia Earhart, or even whether Jesus ever lived among us as a man; the information, which our brains could easily comprehend, simply is not available. This is of course also the situation with all unsolved killings, such as those of Jack the Ripper or the Zodiac Killer.

Illustrating the fact that some humans (strange humans?) can find comfort in quite uncomfortable narratives, Stephen Hawking's "Brief History of Time", though not satisfying most of the meta-narrative requirements, reassures me in one important way. By allowing for the possibility of time travel, Hawking seems to posit that all times exist simultaneously, as all geographical locations do. Thus, our lives draw out like spaghetti strands which overlap for a length (a time); and the dead are still alive, down the timeline, like a fond relative who lives thousands of miles away, in a place it is not practical to visit.

Narratives tend to obscure the fact that we are imperfect, the available information is incomplete, our tools are flawed. Politicians in particular are flawed narrative-makers: everything they do or perceive must fit into a perfect political narrative. Newt Gingrich, about whom I have written so extensively over many years, is a fascinating case study: a psychotic woman drowning her children becomes part of a liberal welfare/crime encouraging/ coddling narrative; a murder, in which only the victim received public assistance, also becomes part of a narrative about the liberal welfare state. The political narrative, in these days of dysfunction and gridlock, is a club used to beat the adversary (the Bad People) to a pulp. At their worst, political narratives, deployed in an authoritarian way and for too long unchallenged, lead to a debasement of language, a moment when we no longer can rely on the meanings of words.

With politicians, the "We Are Good People" part of the narrative becomes increasingly difficult to apply to themselves, as they become more corrupt and compromised, are more visibly desperately ambitious. Gingrich has also struggled with this, comparing himself with famous flawed people such as Charles DeGaulle. The "They are the Bad People" part of the narrative also begins to break down, as the crimes of which the politician accuses his adversary begin surprisingly to resemble his own (virtually every accusation out of Gingrich's mouth, that opponents are elite, ambitious, corrupt, illegitimately using millions of dollars contributed by other elites, etc.).

TV shows get drawn over time into increasing narrative implausibility: since any Star Trek problem could be solved by the transporter (beam the Good People to safety, or beam away the Bad People, or bad robot or malfunctioning holodeck or radioactive artifact), it became necessary in episode after episode of multiple series to explain why the transporter wouldn't work in a given situation. A similar narrative over-stretch happens to politicians who have been out there, explaining away too much for too many years. Some politicians, like Gingrich, and also the bloviators like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck with hours of air time to fill daily, suffer from "narrative over-grasp", the act of going too far afield to claim too much for the narrative, and then having to live with the over-stretched consequences. There was no need, for example, for Gingrich to say he dreamed of an America in which no child was harmed, while drafting a Contract with America which explicitly withdrew aid from welfare mothers.

Among the funniest ethical spectacles I witness daily are those involving narrative whiplash, where the narrative snaps back unexpectedly to hit its proponent in the face. We had a great one this week, mentioned in my Rags and Bones column, in which the Republican legislature of Virginia proposed a law requiring women seeking an abortion to have a vaginal ultrasound (an abdominal one might not detect the fetus' heartbeat). In other words, the small government crowd wanted to pass a law requiring a probe to be inserted in women's vaginas. Another great example a couple years back was all the Republican baying and howling about how the Obama health care legislation would create "death panels" deciding whether or not Grandma should live. The Republican administration in Arizona then cut off financing for organ transplants for its citizens, likely ensuring death for some of them.

More properly, what we have in these cases is the collision of narratives which co-existed uneasily with one another. Many Republicans harbor a belief that government should be small, but that fetuses are people. That leads to the often unconscious conclusion that protecting fetuses is a proper use of (big) government. In the other case, the "sensible governments cut costs" narratives collided with the "Only the Bad People ration health care" narrative. (In fact, all health care is "rationed", by the private market or by government regulation).

It seems to me a very dangerous thing for the future of democracy, and for humans in general, that we get obssessed with narratives at the expense of truth. Politicians make laws which affect real life issues-- ideology eventually creates a world which is more or less polluted, more or fewer people are employed, more or fewer people are educated, more or fewer minorities move into the middle class. But politicians instead of tracking real world data points, now specialize in ignoring them, or explaining them away when they inconveniently contradict the narrative. Human-induced global warming, is almost universally accepted by scientists and governments (island nations have been negotiating where to take their people when the sea obliterates them, for almost fifty years). But powerful politicians and advocates in our world, including Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, treat global warming as if it were a subjective matter for ideological debate, similar to basically cultural conflicts such as Communism-Capitalism or Al-Qaeda-Democracy. Thus in scientific debates and in modern wars, victory comes, not when any objective criteria are met (Berlin falls and Hitler kills himself) but when it is loudly and persuasively declared ("Mission Accomplished"). When all else fails, your narratives won't be able to feed you, protect you against bullets or put breathable air in your lungs. Humans may fail and die at the end, because they clung to their narratives at the expense of their lives.