09 August 2009

Narratives and the Narrating Narrators Who Narrate Them

I got up, and forced myself to start reading Errol Morris' Seven Lies About Lying (parts I and II), which have been sitting on two tabs of the browser for, I guess, a week now, waiting for me to get through every little thing that's crossed my sight line since. My interest in that article (besides being kindled by having enjoyed Mr. Morris' previous multi-part essays in the Times, largely about the relationship between truth and photography), was sparked--before laying dormant for a week--by the inclusion of an interview with Ricky Jay, who's a pretty fascinating bloke, enjoying a sort of renaissance, I think, here in the early 21st century. That is to say: I have the impression, based partly on faint memories from my childhood, but mostly on a pictorial of him using playing cards as darts, to pop balloons taped to an otherwise nude bunny, from a December 1977 issue of Playboy that used to live in the bathroom mag rack, that he reached the pinnacle of his celebrity some 30 odd years ago. Lately, he seems to be popping up more often on the pop radar--I was surprised to see him in a "dramatic" role in Gus Van Sant's pseudo-bio flick, Last Days, about the end of Kurt Cobain's life--but it may be only my radar on which he's blipping more frequently, since I was commissioned recently to paint his name on an old vintage magician poster, to be a birthday gift for Mr. Jay, himself (I hope, in posting it here, that the birthday has already come to pass):

I can't help but wonder if someone who collects such vintage posters, as does he, might not be a little appalled to have a perfectly good one defaced in such fashion... I mean, I'm fine with the lettering and all, I just feel like, if it were my name on there, I'd be saying, like, "Why did you have to go and do that to it?" But I don't know the first thing about assessing the value of such old posters; I'm not Ricky Jay, and I don't know him as well as does David Mamet, from whom the commission came (more celebrity name-dropping! Actually, it was just "his people", and they only talked to "my people", i.e. Scott).

The week I was working on that, I swear, I told at least a half dozen people what I was doing, and not one of them had heard of Ricky Jay. Just now, I had to tell Deb who he was, though I swear I must have told her then, too. And I think only one person even recognized David Mamet's name! I mean, c'mon, people! David Mamet?!? I feel like I should just be able to say, "What the fuck?!", and that would be a kinda weak inside joke about the coarse speech patterns of the Western Male, as commonly represented in Mamet scripts. But really: there's no excuse. You should just know this shit. Here, check his wiki. Jesus. Now, Jay, okay, I grant you, he's been a little under the radar for lo these many. You should just read the Errol Morris article, but here, you can check his wiki, too.

I think I'd barely gotten through the Jay interview in part one before Deb got up, and turned on the TV. It seemed like "space" morning (Deb guesses it's got something to do with the 40th anniversary of the moon landing a couple weeks ago): on one channel was a news panel program I'd never heard of, called "press:here", and they were interviewing Dr. Jill Tarter, of SETI, on whom Jodie Foster's character from Contact is based. I wasn't paying much attention, but Deb says the rest of the panel seemed to be doing all they could to cast ridicule on the whole project. Deb flipped around and ended up for a while on McLaughlin's One on One, wherein he was interviewing the co-authors of The View from the Center of the Universe. I may at some point decide to investigate further what they were talking about, as it sounded interesting; but in the five minutes we had it on, Nancy Abrams, one of the authors, found at least four opportunities to declare that humans are made of "stardust". I found the repetition offputting, though I'm copacetic with the concept.

While all this was going on, I was at Errol Morris' Lie #3 about lying, that "lying leads to narrative inconsistencies":
The common wisdom is that people whose stories change are telling lies. But it’s often liars (not truth-tellers) who are able to tell consistent stories. They have their stories down. They practice them, plan them and achieve complete consistency in every retelling. Those of us who are trying to tell the truth (or at least recalling memories about what we believe to be the truth) probably will provide inconsistent narratives. Memory is, of course, not infallible. We casually rely on it but often don’t realize how a version of events based on memory may change. To make matters worse, we often impose a spurious narrative consistency on our beliefs so that they accord with others. Sadly, when there is a contest between the facts and our narratives about what we have experienced, our narratives invariably win. People repeat narratives not observations. Sir Walter Scott wrote, “O’ what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive.” (Marmion, Canto VI, XVII) But why should we think that the truth is less tangled than a lie? Scott also wrote, although it is rarely quoted, perhaps because it isn’t part of a cautionary tale, “I cannot tell how the truth may be; I say the tale as it was said to me.”
This talk of narratives reminded me of some email that a fellow parishioner had sent out to the SGN-sharing group list a couple of weeks ago:
In her sermon on Sunday, Amber suggested I didn't like the word "vocation". I tried to remember why not, and here it is:

The idea of a vocation seems to be derivative from the grand narrative. The classic grand narrative, is that of the fall, punishment, Christ's saving grace, redemption, and an eternity in heaven. More recent grand narratives include: the Hegelian story of thesis and antithesis and synthesis as extended by Marx to give: feudalism leading to bourgeois capitalism, leading to industrialism, then the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the eventual communist bliss ...or the triumph of the Aryan race overcoming international Zionism ...or the triumph of America and democracy over communism and dictatorship

The grand narratives make a (non)sense of history. A vocation is there to make a (non)sense of our lives. It tells us how our lives have meaning, and provides a mini-narrative that derives from a grand narrative. And just as a grand narrative allows cultures to engage in gross immorality to serve some higher aim, so a vocation permits us to lead a life of whitewashed immorality.
I missed Amber's sermon that week. Deb and I were out at the Alameda County Fair, with Alissa and Foxen, looking for a pair of prize-winning Rhode Island Reds for Erin to raise in the yard. So, I don't know what Amber had to say about vocation. I should download the mp3! That never occurs to me! Anyway, it's of interest not least because I'm a member of the church's Vocation Committee, that group of people tasked with helping you discern whether or not the voice in your heart is legitimately God's request that you become a priest (it was, in fact, our group's conversations that led, some years ago, to friend-of-the-blog Huw leaving not only his pursuit of Episcopal Church priesthood, but the entire Episcopal Church, opting for Eastern Orthodoxy, and eventually moving to a mission in North Carolina, before... and so on). It boggles me that I'm entrusted with such a responsibility. On the other hand, there comes to mind an exhortation I've been hearing a lot lately, to "do your best and forget the rest". I can believe that my tangle of human quirks and foibles... isn't going to rubber stamp approval on any wannabe priest that's gonna drag the whole enterprise down--unless, of course, the whole enterprise is in divine need of dragging down! That is: I accept the responsibility of agency, the same way any living red blood cell recognizes the value, at least to itself, of delivering oxygen, without any consistently pressing need to grasp why the body is dancing, or sleeping, or watching McLaughlin One on One. If I ever pretend to get the bigger picture, I'm only pretending, and I'm cool with that.

Now: is it "whitewashed immorality", this having done what I was asked, and am willing to do, without feeling qualified, or understanding quite why? Is it "whitewashed immorality" when I choose to pretend to understand (to some small extent) how the church, in part through my role therein, is working to bring about the "kingdom of God on Earth"? Is that pretense a form of lying? I don't rightly know.

Revisiting the red blood cell analogy, briefly: no red blood cell ever wonders if it was really "meant" to deliver oxygen, or what it was "meant" to do, at all. So, perhaps the analogy is weak, but my musings on meaning are tireless: what does "meant" mean in my case, or yours, or the blood cell's? Certainly, the blood cell has no capacity for choosing a different purpose, or to ignore the one it is served/serving. What makes us human, again?

Anyway, I've recently been reading some passages on "narrative", in the second chapter of Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution (which, if I haven't indicated already, I heartily recommend). I don't know quite how to condense it appropriately, but here are a couple of pages that express some of the same qualms as my fellow parishioner, at least as I interpret what he's saying, about the tendency, when providing an overview of any narrative of human development, to give short shrift to its own contrarian aspects:
What is peculiar to the modern age, Charles Taylor writes, in contrast with the temporally stratified premodern one, is the rise of a single "narrative of human self-realisation, variously understood as the story of Progress, or Reason and Freedom, or Civilization or Decency or Human Rights" (A Secular Age, p. 716). One need hardly add that Taylor is not opposed to these ideals, as long as they are suitably lowercased. Everyone is for progress, reason, freedom, and decency, just as everyone admires Nelson Mandela. It is just Progress, Reason, Freedom, and Decency for which there are fewer takers these days. The very word "progress" is now so ideologically polluted as to be in some contexts well-nigh unusable; and it is men like Ditchkins [this, incidentally, is Eagleton's conflation of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, around whose poorly grounded refutations of the value of religion the book revolves], with their smug assurance that enlightenment would forge merrily ahead under its own steam were it not for certain residual atavisms, who have helped to discredit it with their foolishly triumphalist rhetoric. The idea of progress needs to be rescued alike from the complacency of Ditchkins and the modish skepticism of the postmodernists. There is indeed progress--as long as we bear in mind that the civilization which manifests it is also one which seems bent on destroying the planet, slaughtering the innocent, and manufacturing human inequality on an unimaginable scale.
This, strangely enough, seems to have failed to capture Ditchkins's attention. It is true that Hitchens denies that human civilization will develop "in a straight line," but only because our credulous prehistory holds us back. "We have first to transcend our prehistory," he writes in the lurid prose of a Gothic potboiler, "and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection" (God is Not Great, p. 283). Some might consider such horrors to be a touch milder than the military violence for which Hitchens himself seems to have such a relish. Rather than being dragged back to the reeking altars, we should perhaps be dragged forward to biological warfare and ecological disaster. Once we have shaken off our gullibility, Hitchens assures us, we can "consciously look forward to the further evolution of our poor brains, and to stupendous advances in medicine and life extension" (Ibid., p. 94) As long as we haven't wiped ourselves out in the meanwhile, of course. Dawkins has an equally Panglossian vision of progress. Indeed, for all his self-conscious modernity he turns out to be something of an old-fashioned Hegelian, believing in a Zeitgeist (his own word) involving ever-increasing moral progress, with just the occasional "reversal." "The whole wave," he rhapsodizes in the manner of some excited TV sports commentator, "keeps moving." (The God Delusion, p.271) Most people in the twenty-first century, he adds, oozing moral complacency at every word, are "way ahead of our conterparts in the Middle Ages, or in the time of Abraham, or even as recently as the 1920s" (Ibid., p. 271). On this reading of history, Dawkins himself will look pretty troglodytic a century or so from now.
[...] There are, Dawkins is gracious enough to acknowledge, "local and temporary setbacks" to human progress (one thinks of such minor backslidings as Belsen, Hiroshima, apartheid, and so on), but the general upward trend is unmistakable. [...] Not even beaming, tambourine-banging Evangelicals are quite so pathologically bullish. What is this but an example of blind faith? What rational soul would sign up to such a secular myth?
That was most of pages 84 to 88, at the bottom of which Eagleton writes, "There is nothing wrong with a belief in the possibility of progress, as opposed to a full-blooded ideology of it. It is not inconsistent to speak up for progress while refusing to be the pawn of Progress".

One of the things I've really enjoyed about this book, which I mentioned earlier in my "Story of Enlightenment" post, is Eagleton's handling of quick metaphors, in rapid-fire juxtapositions, as in this paragraph from p.89:
An enlightened trust in the sovereignty of human reason can be every bit as magical as the exploits of Merlin, and a faith in our capacity for limitless self-improvement just as much a wide-eyed superstition as a faith in leprechauns. There is even a sense in which humanism, looking around our world, seems at times almost as implausible as papal infallibility.
I feel the need to draw, somehow, a division between the notion of Progress, as an attempt to characterize our development as a species, and my own individual path, or narrative, of attempts at self-improvement. I don't quite make the leap that my co-parishioner seems to, above, of equating a sense of vocation in one's life, with complicity in the moral failings entailed by "grand narratives" throughout history.

That I have an end toward which I strive is certainly disputable, inasmuch as I don't often catch myself striving for much of anything. However, it's a cultivated ignorance: the idea of a goal is not completely alien. I can certainly accept that the journey itself is the point, or goal, but nonetheless--it's a goal. Developing the capacity for awareness of oneself being on a journey, for whatever reason, may be a goal achieved. I don't know if it's the right one, or the only one, but I'm not inclined to accept that the preponderance of people having chosen what may seem to be a "wrong" goal, indicates that there is in fact no goal. Which is to say: I'm not inclined to accept that I am a less evolved creature for being unwilling to abandon the notion that my life has meaning, or purpose. While moral culpability certainly lies somewhere, for the evils manifested by various attempts at Progress, I don't believe it's rooted as far down as the mere desire to "do good". Surely, one needn't, however, move far with that as a motivation, before errors compound and suffering multiplies...

Two things that come to mind, but which I'm not sure how to fit into the conversation: the thesis of Thomas Cahill's The Gifts of the Jews, that the "sons of Abraham" were the first people with a sense of being on a journey through time, with a destination (essentially, the originators of the concept of progress), rather than bound to an endlessly repetitive cycle; and Ken Wilber's observation (perhaps not originally his, but where I first came across it) that every stage of evolution, wherever it occurs, in every context, both "transcends and includes" the previous stages.

At St. Gregory of Nyssa, we observe a quote from our namesake, painted atop the rotunda, that "the only thing truly worthwhile is being God's friend." And I've heard that posited as the moral behind a two-line parable/koan, "A man is running; is he running toward heaven, or away from hell?". I understand that interpretation to mean: forget the reward and punishment; go with the flow, and have a nice run.

Eagleton is a Marxist and an atheist. However, he draws from Marx's having heard, in religion, the "sigh of the oppressed creature," a broader picture of this human insistence on maintaining faith in some kind of God and/or heaven, than what the atheists with whom he takes issue might paint dismissively as an irrational superstition. "Religion," he writes, "needs to be patiently deciphered, not arrogantly repudiated." Nor, he would agree, arrogantly promulgated. He describes a different understanding of progress within the church:
Charles Taylor speaks of it in A Secular Age as a "Providence-surrogate" (p. 279). Yet Christian eschatology is very far from the notion of some boundless evolution. the kingdom of God does not arrive as the top, triumphant note in the ascending tune of history. It is the consummation not of some stately historical evolution, but of all those flash points in history when men and women have struggled for justice, and in doing so have prefigured the advent of universal peace and justice which is the reign of God. In this way, Christian theology believes in the possibility of transforming history without the hubris of the idea of Progress. As Walter Benjamin recognized, the reign of God is simply those dispersed, often doomed fights on behalf of the oppressed seen, as it were, from the standpoint of eternity, gathered into a nunc stans, or singular point, where they assemble in order to be fulfilled and redeemed as a coherent narrative. Modernity believes in grand narratives, while postmodernity does not; Jews and Christians hold that there is one still to come, which will operate retrospectively. As Benjamin writes: "only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past." ("Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations, p. 256)
To end this post, quoting a quote of a sentence of which I completely fail to grasp the meaning, does not diminish, one iota, my satisfaction with the general shape of the narrative. This may, I concede, indicate a predilection for making (non)sense.

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