Resisting “life,” resisting “story”

I often find myself resisting the void of a concept such as one’s “life,” the normative narrativity of viewing a “life” as sequence of events with story-like structure, and story-like meaning. Generally, I don’t like imposing that artificial logic on whatever it is I am wherever and whenever I happen to be. I prefer to let moments be moments, without the whole associated apparatus.

Galen Strawson’s “Against Narrativity” really helps crystallize this episodic, non-narrative mode, a mode of being-around-the-world without being-about-the-world.

I take it that many people are naturally Diachronic, and that many who are Diachronic are also Narrative in their outlook on life. If one is Episodic, by contrast, one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future.

One has little or no sense that the self that one is was there in the (further) past and will be there in the future, although one is perfectly well aware that one has long-term continuity considered as a whole human being. Episodics are likely to have no particular tendency to see their life in Narrative terms.

 I have a past, like any human being, and I know perfectly well that I have a past. I have a respectable amount of factual knowledge about it, and I also remember some of my past experiences ‘from the inside’, as philosophers say. And yet I have absolutely no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without form. Absolutely none. Nor do I have any great or special interest in my past. Nor do I have a great deal of concern for my future.

I’m well aware that my past is mine in so far as I am a human being, and I fully accept that there’s a sense in which it has special relevance to me* now, including special emotional and moral relevance. At the same time I have no sense that I* was there in the past, and think it obvious that I* was not there, as a matter of metaphysical fact. As for my practical concern for my future, which I believe to be within the normal human range (low end), it is biologically – viscerally – grounded and autonomous in such a way that I can experience it as something immediately felt even though I have no significant sense that I* will be there in the future.

People can develop and deepen in valuable ways without any sort of explicit, specifically Narrative reflection, just as musicians can improve by practice sessions without recalling those sessions. The business of living well is, for many, a completely non-Narrative project. Granted that certain sorts of self-understanding are necessary for a good human life, they need involve nothing more than form-finding, which can exist in the absence of Narrativity; and they may be osmotic, systemic, not staged in consciousness.

As for Narrativity, it is in the sphere of ethics more of an affliction or a bad habit than a prerequisite of a good life. It risks a strange commodification of life and time – of soul, understood in a strictly secular sense. It misses the point. ‘We live’, as the great short story writer V. S. Pritchett observes, ‘beyond any tale that we happen to enact.’

Galen Strawson, “Against Narrativity