Reflections On Narrative Sense And Nonsense
(reprinted from EPO April of 2002)
At a recent conference, a speaker bemoaned the embarrassment she felt when her student didn't know that Mexico had supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. She was pleased to announce that the student did know who was the Governor of New York. However, she continued, her student opined that he would vote Democrat in his first election because, he said, as everyone knows, Republicans are in favor of bringing back the slavery that Abraham Lincoln had so enjoyed in the 1860's. Many in the audience smiled and shook their heads; some looked like they might start screaming. But one, a friendly woman from Nebraska, stood up and asked if it were not sometimes better to believe in a different story than what had actually happened. She wondered if, in the Second World War, had parents, siblings and friends known what conditions soldiers were facing, would they have supported the war. One was tempted to ask in response whether, had Americans had been told by the press and the government what many knew by 1944 was happening at Auschwitz-Birkenau, would they have agreed with Secretary Stimson, who wanted to reduce postwar Germany to an agricultural colony?
However one answers either question, it's no news that Americans are increasingly ignorant of our own history, not only from laziness but from a carefully guided effort by educators to replace that with world history. Their students were to be content knowing a little bit about the whole world but nothing about ourselves. While this has a certain we-are-the-world charm, a people that knows nothing of its own institutions and history is little better off than the citizens of a dictatorship. Such innocence smacks of the Eloi in H.G. Wells's Time Machine, who were content to have pleasant, happy lives until they were eaten by their keepers. Asking if ignorance is better for good feeling seems like a foolish question. But a lot of people feel that way.
Some are products of public schools, where good feeling and the illusion of equal results have created generations of people unsuited for the times they live in. At best, even American students learn, usually second-hand, of the latest exception to an old story. Exceptions, such as the proposed fathering of Sally Hemmings' children by Thomas Jefferson, or the secret desire by Franklin Roosevelt to be a medeaval warlord, or the one depicting Lincoln as an unabashed racist, however shaken in his belief by Frederick Douglass, have for many become the sole bases for judging a person, a country, or an entire age. Why this is inappropriate for both history and for narrative seems self-evident. Isn't such news the story?
News is not so much what happens as a breach with norms, as today, there was an attack on the World Trade Center. News is most often not the story. At some point, to gain perspective, it is necessary to look at the context of an event. Why was it attacked? Who did it? Is there any truth to what the terrorists have to say, or are they using an amalgam of suspicions and fears to gain support for a pathological delusion?
And, news-like exception is no proof in judging the past. While Jefferson owned slaves, and may well have loved one named Sally Hemmings, he and his generation set in motion effects that, fifty years after his death, resulted in the end of more than twenty centuries of slavery in the West, and underpinned the revolt against imperialism in Africa and the East that began fifty years after that. Even a hypocrite can move us to acts of conscience, a good thing as, beneath noble surfaces, we are human, not gods -- even those born after the Second World War. If a writer doesn't do the necessary exploration, he or she will never know this. The news is not enough; you have to find the story.
In the second example, while Roosevelt, by all accounts, clearly enjoyed his wartime leadership role, imagine a world after 1945 where Hitler remained as the dominant force in the northern hemisphere. Whatever Roosevelt's motivations were, the overall story was that they were part of a necessary transformation of the world. Mistress, fondness for war, arrogance and all, it would have been a hellish world without the decisiveness of people like FDR. There again, to judge those events by the daily news would be an abject failure to represent what happened.
And in the last, while Lincoln's view of Africans was decidedly out of touch with progressives, even in his own time, without his insistence on prosecuting the Civil War and emancipating African slaves in the Confederacy, the historical trend set in motion by Jefferson's generation might not have concluded in 1865 or even in 1965. The news of an historical figure's foibles and hypocrisy are not the story. Why shouldn't be a hard question.
What's called, perhaps ironically, critical thinking, becomes inverted. We try to judge people in the past for not behaving as we think they should had they lived now. We presume a sole basis for change, whether in the notions of property held by southern plantation owners, or in what constitutes legitimate action by a national government in Nazi Germany, lies in contemporary thought. Examined even casually, this is transparent nonsense. The slave plantation system was destroyed by the Civil War; we had nothing to do with that. The Nazi version of Germany was destroyed by Russia and the Western allies; our parents and grandparents did that, not us. Even though many were racists, homophobic and anti-feminist, they ended Hitler's reign of terror and the Holocaust, not us.
Segregation in the South ended legally in 1965; in Mississippi, heart of many Civil Rights struggles, half of the elected officials are African-American now. The legal process was done before most of us were born, had originated in the late 19th century, developed through advocacy writing and speechmaking, lawsuits, strikes, boycotts, and demonstrations throughout the 1920's and 1930's, and culminated in landmark decisions beginning with Brown vs. Education in 1954, when few of us were old enough to read. A writer knows nothing about the struggle until surveying a century of actions. One shouldn' t have to ask why.
Similarily, in storytelling, to short circuit a similar process of development and discovery usually leads to fractionated plot lines and, worse, stereotypical characters who only reflect prejudice or ideological correctness. While popular in the Middle Ages, such a morality play's characters are not people but types. This approach, even in juvenile entertainments in the movies, is fairly regarded as unsophisticated at best and idiotic at worst. Why shouldn't be hard to guess.
Types reflect prejudices, not narrative plausibility. When types -- guardian angel, evil devil, charming idiot, scheming genius, avaricious rich, morally perfect poor -- are employed, the author's objective is to appeal directly to prejudice, to let the reader tell the story. In its casual form, it's the hack's airport novel, or TV "journalism". In its worst form, it is "marketable" history -- the story that people will believe, whether it's true or not. Haven't we had enough of that?
When stereotypes are employed, the author appeals directly to suspicions, not to reason. Marxists and fascists have done this since the beginning of their political ideologies, and to effects for which we are still counting the dead. Both relied profoundly on appeals to feeling rather than to a narrative and historical sense. And hysteria, not rational consideration, is a prerequisite for political violence, not conflict resolution. In that light, it's not hard to fathom the appeal of Osama Bin Laden, who relies on not only those tactics, but on a fusion of them with religious dogmatism -- all to manipulate mass audiences into an hysteria with which one can neither reason nor negotiate. The same is true of domestic fascists in the United States, whether on the left or on the extreme right. Without perspective, they can't see much of anything in the present but flashes of light, whether the explosion of Tower 1, or the flickering of candles in a bunker.
In storytelling, fractionated plot lines suggest no causal link between events, or between actors. Things just happen. Here's an example. One day, a crazy woman killed her children. Commentators screamed about the nature of evil without bothering to find the context. Some blamed feminists. Some blamed the media for demonizing motherhood. Some blamed religious belief. Some blamed both parents for having too many children. No one could understand why a close friend called the killer a loving mother. Such "thinkers" were participating in news, using the instant photography and chatter of bystanders as a means to substantiate their own feelings, not to investigate and present a story. A storyteller, or a researcher, must look closer. And then, maybe a discovery is made In the case examined above, perhaps a profound (and often observed) psychosis associated with hormonal disturbances from too many closely-spaced pregnancies was observed for years, including two bloody attempts at suicide. The researcher found that husband, friends and doctor conspired to ignore an obvious need for observation and treatment. In this uncovered context, which may be found months later, judgment of the murderer, while no less urgent, would be both more complex and more complete, and might engage an entire family, its friends and its doctor.
Failing to do this is to perpetuate suspicion and hatred, which feed on fear and prejudice. A cohesive narrative, exploring all the significant details, even about the most horrendous events, can be a means to finding peace, if not world peace, an illusive quest, then peace for a community, a household, a couple, or an individual. But if writers instead are willing to accept a shotgun blast of effects as a depiction of what the world is, and what a story should be, what can we expect but a sense of numb powerlessness, akin to flashback memory of combat veterans -- an unintegrated impression of a story never quite told? If you think that's a good place to be, ask any veteran.
It is arguable, however, that a tyrant would prefer this mode. When stories don't make sense, his subjects would judge solely on the basis of internal prejudices. This is ideal for a tyranny, where "internal" assessment is more often the internalization of tyrannical rules. Beyond the wars and mass murders they executed, the profoundest damage done by the totalitarian experiment in politics, both with the Bolsheviks and the Nazis, was to consciously deprive resisting populations of any means to express alternate opinions or observations. As a psychologist, or a student of the workings of propaganda, can tell you, there is a point past which individual thinking cannot survive. Between propaganda and lying, with selective intimidation, the tyrant can destroy both popular and personal capacities to judge him. What better stories to serve such politics than those which make no sense, which afford neither perspective nor logic to a sequence of events? The tyrant always aims at demolishing the fact and the responsibility of authority, that urgent desire and skill to lance the liar's boil and bandage the fabric of reality. Why tyrants want to do this, of course, is to replace the healing skill of the writer with the dominating fury of the ideologue. Don't let them; find the story.