Galen Strawson and Narrativity

I was planning to summarize Galen Strawson’s arguments against narrativity in the Oct 15 issue of the TLS, but I’m blessed, because Peter Leithart has already done a sterling job presenting Strawson’s argument. The key idea, in Strawson’s words, is the opposition between diachronic (or continuous, or narrative) and episodic (or discontinuous, or non-narrative) perceptions of life:

The basic form of Diachronic self-experience (D) is that one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future – something that has relatively long-term Diachronic continuity, something that persists over a long stretch of time, perhaps for life. I take it that many people are naturally Diachronic, and that many who are Diachronic are also Narrative. If one is Episodic (E), 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, 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 (the Episodic/Diachronic distinction is not the same as the Narrative/non-Narrative distinction, but there are marked correlations between them).

Strawson slides some of the terms around, but to keep things relatively simple, let’s consider that diachronics are inclined to build narratives around themselves and others over time, while episodics are disinclined to construct cognitive edifices that rely on the assumption of a constant body undergoing incremental change. The assumption is not intuitive for them. I have no problem instantly classifying myself as episodic, or in accepting the basic nature of the dichotomy. As Strawson says, it is not the default position in most literature, and one of the reasons reading Proust has been so revelatory has been his stance that a person at one moment is incapable of looking upon their memories, their past experiences, and their acquaintances with the same authentic eye that he or she possessed at any past point. This stance struck me as refreshingly honest and non-reductionistic, and went a ways towards justifying the book’s length. It occurs first with Swann and Odette:

Was not Swann conscious of this from his own experience, and was there not already in his lifetime–as it were a prefiguration of what was to happen after his death–a posthumous happiness in this marriage with Odette whom he had passionately loved–even if she had not attracted him at first sight–whom he had married when he no longer loved her, when the person who, in Swann, had so longed to live and so despaired of living all his life with Odette, when that person was dead?

This represents to me a more realistic and complex view of human experience than anything in Balzac or Fitzgerald. From Strawson, I would take it that my intuitions are not shared by many, and certainly not by fiction writers. Strawson’s diachronic writers are canonical, his episodic writers are idiosyncratic. Beyond that, I was gratified to see that of Strawson’s list of episodic writers–

Michel de Montaigne, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Laurence Sterne, Coleridge, Stendhal, Hazlitt, Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Fernando Pessoa, Iris Murdoch (a strongly Episodic person who is a natural story-teller), A. J. Ayer, Bob Dylan.

–I felt favorably (sometimes extremely favorably) towards most of them, while of his list of diachronic writers–

Plato, St Augustine, Heidegger, Wordsworth, Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick O’Brian.

–I find Conrad, Greene, Waugh, and O’Brian extremely boring, and wouldn’t identify myself with any of the others, who I appreciate more in the role of philosophers of narrativity than when they are employers of it. Yet it’s amazing how, despite the disputable nature of the choices (wouldn’t Hegel have been a lot less controversial than Heidegger?), so many of the episodic writers are of special significance to me.

(I know people who would claim that Conrad, particular the Conrad of The Secret Agent, has a much more complicated view of character and choice than Strawson dismissively gives him. But I’ve never seen it myself.)

So whatever the debatable points of his taxonomy (and this being analytic philosophy, there are plenty of taxonomic points to debate), I think Strawson is on to something. Here is my personal experience with that something:

My great frustration with so much short fiction was not the narrative itself, but the function of change. There are stories that present a character in terrible, pure stasis and illuminates that stasis through assorted means, but the vast majority of stories end up with their characters some distance from where they started by means of some turning point event. This change is meant to stand out and mark a posthole in a character’s existence. But this assumes a backdrop not just of consistency, but of stasis itself.

After reading Proust, I came to believe that my frustration arose from the writer’s expedient mechanism of fixing the frame of reference so as to call out a moment of particular meaning or catharsis. I so often found this moment artificial, since the story would then assume an ever-extending future from thereon out with the reverberation from the story’s climax ringing down into the line. I was puzzled to run into other writers that thought of this approach not simply as natural for their characters, but for their views of themselves and others as well.

The modern American short story writer who I did feel the most identification with was Stephen Dixon, and in his endless variations on metaphysical possibility, hypothetical settings past and present for what is really a limited set of characters, he embodies something of what Strawson describes as episodic as much as any more experimental writer who has just thrown out the notion of realistic characters altogether. (Shoe gives some idea of his approach, though he requires a lot more space for the constant revisionism and moment-by-moment-ness of his style to take hold.) I wouldn’t describe it as “episodic,” but it is certainly anti-narrative in a way that owes a little to Laurence Sterne. Again, I have only my tastes to rely on, but Strawson’s framework is valuable for my own outlook if nothing more.

One last point that I couldn’t work in above. Strawson doesn’t mention Wittgenstein, probably because he tends to have the effect, like Kafka, of throwing a monkey wrench into whatever schema he’s inserted into. Wittgenstein might allow for the idea of a public narrative enshrined in language, but it would necessarily be cut off from one’s own idea of one’s self: a narrative that is not narrated. It’s entirely fitting then that Wittgenstein had no patience for most fiction save detective stories, with their objective descriptions of facts, flat characters, and galloping, punctuated plots.

One thought on “Galen Strawson and Narrativity

Leave a Reply