Continuing with the theme of narrative …
In his last post, our erstwhile School friend Deane asked, ‘don’t stories constantly seduce us? Don’t they constantly dull our sense of the inexplicability of existence, of the event itself, offering us their comforting patterns like a mother’s warm nipple offers its soporific milk?’ There is something to this, but there is also something more that needs to be made explicit: Aren’t we more completely and willingly seduced by simple stories, especially by those simple stories in which we – and people who look and think as we do – come up roses? It is the simple stories, those with clear-cut moral divisions and unequivocal messages, that speak the most clearly to us: Jesus was a prophet fully aware of his own role in the salvation history of mankind; Muhammad was a morally pure religious and military leader, an unimpeachable exemplar for Muslims at all times and in all places; the United States and the United Kingdom are innocent victims of acts of terrorism perpetrated by those who hate the West for its freedoms. And on and on it goes …
This is a matter that finds resonances far outside of biblical studies and religious fundamentalism. Indeed, it is possible to find evidence of our love of the simple tale in the ways in which we organise and understand ourselves. On the academic front, Paul Ricouer and Charles Taylor have convincingly argued that the ways in which we approach the world and even our own identities are fundamentally narrative in nature. That we love simple stories that iron out the bumps on the road of human progress and show us that what lurks in the shadows is an absolute other – or something we need not worry ourselves about – is also evident in the ways that certain academic or quasi-academic narratives make their way into the wider culture. Narratives that make the world simple – not to mention those that lay the blame for the world’s problems on the shoulders of people who do not look or think like we do – are the ones that find the biggest audiences. Why else would we still be hearing about Joseph Campbell’s (frankly idiotic) theory of the ‘monomyth’ more than sixty years after it first appeared? Why else would Bernard Lewis’ and Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ model, which has distinct narrative elements, have been accepted by so many people, and put to such repellent uses (such as justifying the drive for ethnically pure states in the former Yugoslavia)?
Herr Galbraith, in characteristic deadpan fashion (deeply offensive to a closet conservative like myself), concludes with what I suspect, without wishing to engage in too much pop psychologising, is the answer to my question: ‘It’s just easier to get by, I guess’. For those people who are merely interested in getting by, this would be fine; however, for the rest of us – including those of us in the Dunedin School – there needs to be something more. Intellectual and academic iconoclasm demands that we strive always to complicate stories, to at least be willing always to ask difficult questions: Is that all that happened? Are there other explanations? What if things had in reality been otherwise? Isn’t it more likely that Jesus – and Muhammad for that matter – made mistakes? Would people be willing to sacrifice their lives and willingly embrace brutal, violent deaths simply because they hate freedom? And whose idea of freedom are we talking about here, anyway? Is this the freedom that comes from absolute submission to the divine, or is it the freedom to make a narrowly-prescribed choice in a national election?
It is also a matter of allowing stories to begin where and when they actually begin, not merely where we want them to begin. The story of an anti-American human bombing doesn’t begin on the morning of the day when the bombing took place. It might not even begin in living memory. As Judith Butler writes about the attacks of 11 September 2001:
There is as well a narrative dimension to this explanatory framework. In the United States, we begin the story by invoking a first-person narrative point of view, and telling what happened on September 11. It is that date and the unexpected and fully terrible experience of violence that propels the narrative. If someone tries to start the story earlier, there are only a few narrative options. We can narrate, for instance, what Mohammed Atta’s family life was like, whether he was teased for looking like a girl, where he congregated in Hamburg, and what led, psychologically, to the moment in which he piloted the plane into the World Trade Center. Or what was din Laden’s break from his family, and why is he so angry? That kind of story is interesting to a degree because it suggests that there is a personal pathology at work. It works as a plausible and engaging narrative in part because it resituates agency in terms of a subject, something we can understand, something that accords with our idea of personal responsibility, or with the theory of charismatic leadership that was popularized with Mussolini and Hitler in World War II.
In the end, aren’t difficult stories with roots that trail into the murky past more interesting at the same time that they are more troubling? Aren’t confused and convoluted narratives of history ultimately more convincing, even if they are less comfortable? Taking a cue from the late philosopher and cultural critic Jean Baudrillard, I want to suggest that the goal of any truly engaged thought is not clarification and it certainly isn’t utility, but is rather to maintain the mystery of the world and to revel in, rather than try to explain away, its complexity:
Radical thought is at the violent intersection of meaning and non-meaning, of truth and non-truth, of the continuity of the world and the continuity of the nothing. It aspires to the status and power of illusion, restoring the non-veracity of facts, the non-signification of the world, and hunting down that nothing which runs beneath the apparent continuity of things … The world was given to us as something enigmatic and unintelligible, and the task of thought is to render it, if possible, even more enigmatic and unintelligible.
This of course does not mean that we need to reject offhand any simple narrative accounts of history, merely that we always be suspicious of stories, especially those comforting tales that we know and love best. If I may perhaps suggest a mission statement as we pursue the truth of the world through its stories (if indeed these last two are not one and the same): If a story is too simple, then it probably isn’t true.
If you’re supposed to die, could you tell me first?
‘Cuz I would like to be one step ahead of the hearse
Such a perfect day today, it seems such a shame
It seems such a shame to die …
Is this what you need to hear, Heaven’s real and you’ll make it there?
And when you do, could you put me and you plus two on the door?
And I thought God loved his children, but I don’t know how
And I can’t see why or where …
From the Minuit song ‘I Hate You’
Judith Butler, Precarious Lives
 Jean Baudrillard, Impossible Exchange, 150-151.