I love a ballad in print, a-life, for then we are sure they are true.
— The Winter’s Tale, Act IV, Scene 4
Whenever I come across the term “narrative,” I smell the rat in it. It has become one of the most overused and vapid words in the cultural lexicon. We speak of “changing the narrative,” of how to “change the narrative of your life,” of the “narrative for success,” of how to “change narrative strategies,” of the “narrative complexity of successful ageing,” of “narrative psychiatry,” of “cultural and racial narratives,” of the “Christian narrative,” of the “Oedipal narrative,” of “climate change narratives,” of the “Leftist narrative” of capitalist evil and American slavery, and so on ad infinitum. The term is also used loosely to suggest something like “how we think about our lives,” as if we were the protagonists of our own saga, adventure story, pageant or movie, lead actors in a narrative of consequence. Sometimes I wonder if there’s anything nowadays that is not a narrative.
Despite its prodigious application, “narrative” is basically a buzzword whose implications remain unexamined.
Triestine novelist Italo Svevo once quipped that a narrative becomes true when it can no longer be told in any other way. Of course, it becomes true chiefly for the believer – the “man of fanatical faith,” as Eric Hoffer portrays him in The True Believer – for whom the story comports with his deepest desires. Facts, however, never become true, they are true. Too often, though, facts are surrendered when they violate the narrative in which one has invested one’s hopes, dreams, political agenda or, as all too frequently, one’s entire personality.
Hans Hansen’s Narrative Change argues that society can be transformed by “changing the story.” The book reads like a superficial foray into self-help territory but shows how what seems like a sensible concept can turn a series of facts and events into a chronicle of preferred interpretations. “Narratives,” the Texas Tech management instructor writes, “are all we have to go by” if we hope to “transform the world.” The problem is that narratives tend to be stories, not recognitions; figments of imagination, not findings of reason; a portrait, not a person.
Narratives become reality for believers, as philosopher Eric Hoffer explains in his famous 1951 work The True Believer.
“Narrative” is technically apt when defining a literary genre – say, the novel, as expounded by Mieke Bal in her Narratology, in which “discourse” involves “aspects” (levels of presentation) and “elements” (events, locations, times, etc.). Her somewhat clotted and obscure treatment is tailored for an academic readership, but worth disambiguating here. Bear with me for a bit. For Bal, a narrative is a mix of the personal and the apparent impersonal, of convincing language (“discourse”) generating a world-replica rich with internal details (“elements”) and mediated by “aspects” (real-world factors), together constituting a parallel universe or “text.”
In literary fiction, the only way out of the narrative enclosure is through the portal of “aspects” or levels – that is, where the “levels” involve “presentations” from reality itself rather than from the imaginary realm of the story. Thus, the author or character may refer to the indisputably and objectively real – e.g., falling objects accelerate at the rate of 32 feet per second per second; D-Day occurred on June 6, 1944; etc. But instead of leaving the narrative, walking through the portal, we accept these aspects as being part of and validating the larger narrative communion.
Dutch cultural theorist Mieke Bal offers a comprehensive theory of narrative and the manner in which participants are swept along by story-telling techniques.
As Jordan Belfort argues in Way of the Wolf , eloquence, confidence and tone, amalgamated with pertinent aspects of the real world, are features that generate emotion-based belief in narrative conventions. It’s what helps you sell a product – a bar of soap, a smartphone, a car, or a story. In essence, narrative involves a sleight of mind in which rhetorical conviction conjures a (presumably) real state of affairs, whose assembled particulars, both fictive (elements) and actual (levels), in turn validate the rhetoric. In short, it is an alternate world.
Bal’s exposition may seem somewhat wiredrawn, but it does make sense. What Christopher Paslay says of Robin DiAngelo’s bestselling leftist hallucination White Fragility, for example, illustrates the point: “She’s taken up the mission of antiracist work with a fervor and zeal that makes her questionable conclusions and untested theories appear infallible and beyond criticism.” In such cases, ardour deputizes for fact, replacing reasoned analysis, and “facts” are cherry-picked or fudged to substantiate the sense of conviction, assurance and inevitability. In effect, the reader is unable to distinguish elements from levels.
This is how Bal believes narrative works on all planes – legends, allegories, parables, serials, soaps, manuals, conceptual thematics, exegetic articles – or your digital career as a Twitter vigilante. This is also how propaganda works. Unless we are alert, we get swept along in the make-believe world. The result is reader belief, what we sometimes describe as “losing oneself in the story,” whether we are reading it or writing it.
The category of non-fiction is equally subject to narrative factors, unless we are dealing with scientific writing and papers reporting on experiments, or accounts that happen to be scrupulously accurate, objectively verifiable and deductively consistent, criteria that satisfy what Belfort calls “logical certainty.” Admittedly, graphs, charts, and statistics (“damn lies”) can harbour ghostly, concealed narratives beneath the apparently factual veneer, against which the only antidote is consulting many such exemplars for purposes of comparison and exercising common sense. Bal’s book itself raises this question: Is it a narrative, a factual construal, or a mix?
What is fact and what is fiction? And does it matter if the narrative is compelling? A scene from director Tim Burton’s 2003 movie Big Fish.
Notwithstanding such considerations, the concept of narrative is as potent as if it referred without equivocation to something real. It functions as a material idea that commands belief, as if it were alluding to something that exists in the world, like gravity or bankruptcy, rather than in the mind. The truth is that narratives, more often than not, can disguise or embroider or deny what is.
The concept has also been deeply investigated by the French thinker Jean-François Lyotard in such books as The Postmodern Condition and Just Gaming. For Lyotard, reality is a collection of singular cases and events which narrative cannot fully encompass, competently dissect or properly represent. He rejects the notion of metanarratives (or master-narratives) that presumably eluc idate the world for us. Lyotard goes on to define the current postmodern perspective on the world as wrongly assuming that all knowledge is narrative-driven – or, to stick with the game metaphor, that interpretation can pinch-hit for truth.
In order to withstand narrative seduction we need to understand the mechanics of narrative persuasion. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster distinguished between story and plot. “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot because it introduces a causal factor. I regard narrative as incorporating both story and plot since causation pertains to the real world of events whereas in narrative cause is injected by fiat and as an abridged or selective or even defective mimicry of reality. The queen may not have died of grief but of tuberculosis or, as people say, of mysterious causes. She may have been assassinated. The queen may not have died at all. Narrative is artifice, reality is…well…real. Narrative constructs, reality impinges. Reality shocks, narrative persuades.
Technically, “story” is a frame structure based on temporality – progression in time. “Plot,” according to Aristotle’s discussion of Tragedy in Poetics, is “the arrangement of the incidents,” inserting order and agency into narrative time. Together, frame and incident form an “imitation…of action and of life,” meant to evoke feelings of pity (what nowadays we would typically call empathy) and fear. But they are not life; they remain constitutively mimetic.
We can refine the psychological transaction that occurs by positing that the imitation is not, strictly speaking, of reality but of what we presume to be reality, which is far more complex. One recalls Mark Twain’s puckish warning attached to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
Discerning what really happens or is really the case demands insight, strict analysis, a saving skepticism about teleology, and a means of expository formulation that does not reflect a prior theory or a desired, neatly parcelled conclusion. It demands honesty. It demands a passion for truth and a willingness to acknowledge that there is no such thing as your truth, my truth, or anybody else’s monogrammed version of truth. Truth is truth irrespective of personal appropriation. There is the truth of physical nature. There is the truth of human nature. Pontius Pilate, the first postmodernist, was grievously wrong when he posed his notoriously rhetorical question: What is truth? We may say that only God has a lien on absolute truth, but human beings are capable of practising credible verisimilitude, that is, of articulating and testing truth claims based on the best possible objective evidence.
The distinction between the narrative and the real is not to deny that we are storytellers by nature. We constantly exchange stories (using the words “story” and “narrative” as colloquially interchangeable), we love movies and plays, we spend hours watching soaps and TV-dramas, we read novels and romances, we absorb news reports structured as stories predicated on triangular models like Aristotle’s arc (beginning, middle and end) and the slightly more complex Freytag’s Pyramid. Journalists, as we know, routinely refer to their “stories” – which is often what they are. Even our dreams and fantasies are stories, however absurd or chaotic.
As Bradley Lewis argues in Narrative Psychology: How Stories Can Shape Clinical Practice, a psychiatric study which relies on literary readings, narrative provides a bridge between “cultural studies and clinical practice” and “offers a rich language for understanding how…metaphorical frames get incorporated into lived experience and personal identity.” In other words, we live in a psychological region dominated by narrative, which also explains why we have no trouble practising reader belief (often called “suspension of disbelief”).
As storytelling, time-bound creatures, even if we are not writing fiction, we are literally constrained to see things in terms of arc or triangle, of beginning, middle and end. Even language itself is structured narratively, determined by the temporal sequence of subject, predicate and object. One can see the difficulty inherent in separating narrative from fact. And yet, when discourse – speech, writing, visual media and other silent communication – “becomes detached from the notion of truth and reality,” to quote philosopher Josef Pieper in his Abuse of Language-Abuse of Power, the borderline that separates truth from manipulation grows blurred and we lose our grip on things. This is the danger of turning narrative into fetish.
The Leftist Fairy-Tale
Some narratives are plainly more compelling than others, especially political narratives purporting to construe all of history, our place in the world and the outlines of the future. The most salient and powerful narrative of the modern age is socialist dogma. It is a story with a plot and a red-ribbon ending promising, in the words of historian Bruce Thornton, “the final liberation of people from the tragic contingencies of human existence.”
Affirming knowledge of things to come and the conviction of human and social perfectibility, Leftist doxology offers a persistent allure that is hard to resist, in particular for those who have never experienced its devastating effects or are incapable of imagining them. They enter the narrative and are absorbed into it, like Erica nabbed by a witch and trapped inside a painting in the Roald Dahl movie The Witches.
In plain words, socialism is a narrative of hope pretending to be a document of fact. The slogan From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs, the core of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, is a description of a mirage, and as a mirage it vanishes on approach to every society that has adopted it or pretended to. It is actually an old aphorism that was borrowed by Marx, formulated as a doctrine and popularized. It has no more purchase on the real world than a child’s fairy tale, which to a large extent is what the Critique effectively is. Consider its naïve belief that “in a higher phase of communist society…the productive forces [will] have increased with the all-around development of the individual.” Socialism is essentially a narrative of a future which has obviously never materialized and which will likely never exist, mordantly satirized in Vladimir Voinovich’s must-read Moscow 2042.
The greatest fairy tale of all: The Communist narrative as first expressed by Karl Marx (above) and put into practice in Russia by Lenin (below) offers a compelling
and exciting tale that repeatedly fails on contact with reality.
Yet it is this very aspiration for a better future as a kind of return to Eden or creation of a heaven on Earth that enabled the Leftist narrative to commandeer the human imagination. Though it remains thoroughly at odds with the way the real world actually works and real people habitually act, it is consolidated by its internal coherence – the chain of “theory”. Charmed, we willingly suspend disbelief and close our minds to all countervailing evidence. Like a demonic Netflix, the Leftist narrative is among the most persuasive of all narrative displacements, trading on desire, infatuation and credulity impervious to all the available proofs that the narrative does not fit the world. To quote Alfred Korzybski, founder of the discipline of General Semantics and author of Science and Sanity, “The map is not the territory.”
Clearly, the map is not the territory for at least two reasons: maps are truncated, and they reflect the limitations of the map-maker. Mistaking one for the other is defined by Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan as the “ludic fallacy,” that is, “the misuse of games to model real-life situations.” This temptation is wittily parodied by Jorge Luis Borges in his one-paragraph story On Exactitude in Science about a guild of cartographers who devised a map “whose size was that of the Empire, and coincided point by point with it.” The map was unwieldy and useless, leaving no room for the Empire’s inhabitants to lead their lives, and so was “delivered up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters,” leaving only “Tattered Ruins.” The Left has enacted a Borgian fiction, having taken the map as a coterminous facsimile of the territory it seeks to explain. It is precisely the kind of “master-narrative” whose lack of credibility or applicability Lyotard has diagnosed, and which leaves only tattered ruins in its wake.
To take a salient example from our Zeitgeist, consider the ongoing Covid-19 narrative that has mesmerized ordinary people worldwide and dominates the political scene especially in the Anglosphere. Dissent, however credible, must be suppressed in order to maintain the favoured narrative. To take one recent example, consider the vitriolic, manipulative and often counter-factual response over the past week to the carefully thought-out, fact-based and entirely credible program advocated in the Great Barrington Declaration. In a lengthy and methodological analysis, Angelo Codevilla convincingly argues that the fight against the virus is less about “flattening the curve” and more about the political class, along with its medical adjutants, engaging in the usurpation of arbitrary political power by stoking public panic.
To achieve that purpose, reality must be rendered subordinate to narrative – specifically, to Mieke Bal’s “elements” or fictive embellishments. Thus, the numbers are grossly inflated; the computer models are incompatible with reality; trusted data sources like the WHO, The New England Journal of Medicine, and The Lancet are profoundly compromised and have been compelled to revise or retract their studies and surveys; the predictions are too high by orders of magnitude; the standard safety measures are disputable; and the banning of anti-inflammatory HCQ was – is – an epidemiological disaster, an instance of setting political narrative over people’s very lives. For this dereliction we are largely indebted to the media, which are responsible for what Roger Kimball rightly calls “a pandemic of mendacity.”
Retired Manitoba judge Brian Giesbrecht recently showed that in comparison with non-lockdown countries like Belarus, Sweden and even Haiti, our “lockdown zealots and their media and public health mouthpieces” have made “a mistake of huge proportions.” The death toll in New York as of September was approximately 1,700 per million population; in New Jersey 1,800 per million; in Sweden 580 per million and in Haiti fewer than 19 per million. The narrative and the real are demonstrably out of sync. But the official narrative will continue to gloss over these facts to maintain belief in the lockdown model. And there is worse to come. Texas Tech professor Gilbert Berdine sums up: “After taking the unprecedented economic depression into account, history will likely judge these lockdowns to be the greatest policy error of this generation.”
Another vastly influential left-leaning narrative goes by the name of “systemic racism,” asserting that North American society is infected by corrosive and widespread anti-black feeling. I have lived in various parts of Canada from sea to shining sea and have yet to meet a single instance of anti-black racist sentiment. Indeed, Canadians bend over backward not to offend. In the U.S. we have simply to look at facts. According to Black Demographics, until the financial recession of 2008 and again until the advent of Covid-19, the black middle class was gaining ground in home ownership and median household income. Many of the problems afflicting the black community can be traced to the breakdown of the family, in which nearly 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers. This is at odds with “systemic racism.”
Notwithstanding the relentless torrent of propaganda, America has become one of the world’s most racially tolerant nations. A country in which blacks are materially represented in the national community as actors, sports figures, journalists, broadcasters, police chiefs, surgeons, notable scholars, academics, poets, novelists, university presidents, corporate executives, municipal mayors, state governors, members of Congress and Supreme Court justices, plus a president, two attorneys-general and two Chiefs of Staff, is not a racist country. But narratives are perhaps at their most powerful when in flagrant contradiction with reality.
The Leftist narrative does not consort with the incontrovertible facts of nature and history. From nature: When the Left’s political narrative dominates, we get Lysenko (see also this C2C article)and the failure of crops, the turning of the Aral Sea into a salt marsh, the shrinking of the Black Sea coastline by half, and other atrocities documented by Murray Feshbach in Ecocide in the USSR. From history: Every known socialist or communist society of scale has failed to provide its people with prosperity (in most cases, even bare-bones necessities), self-determination, personal opportunity, individual value, and the civic goods we have come to take for granted like freedom of thought, speech and assembly. The socialist narrative of a distant perfectibility cannot compete with the actual civil arrangements and inherent vitality of the free-market West, however humanly flawed. Historical determinism is a Leftist fable; aleatory progress is a Western reality.
Changing the Narrative
Although the word “narrative” is part of the common idiom, it would be helpful to remember that a narrative is just that, a story (or fictive plot), not a reality, and especially that the program and advocacy of the Left is nothing but a narrative as persuasive as it is calamitous. John Sean Doyle in Being Human confidently informs us that “[w]hen we change the narrative, we open new possibilities for our happiness and effectiveness and well-being.” This is typical psychobabble. When it comes to the political realm, it would certainly be a grave mistake to try to change the narrative of the Left in order to arrive at a better narrative. Narrative content may change but its pernicious psychological structure remains the same.
Rather, we should strive to do away with the illusion of narrative altogether. If this is not entirely possible, we should work to reduce its psychic impact in our effort to make sense of the world and concentrate, as best we can, on the facts of history and the fundamentals of the real world, as experience and evidence reveal. In a powerful and truth-telling article, “Recognizing the left for what it is,” Eli Friedman urges that, “We must create our own narratives while completely shrugging off the left’s fantasy tales.”
One understands what Friedman is getting at; however, what we really need is a revelation of real facts, and these facts are there to be gathered, studied and acted upon. To neglect or discount them is to collude in creating a world not with truth on one side and narratives on the other, but entirely of competing narratives. This leads to a kind of madness, a hosting of apparitions and phantoms, like believing, as the postmodern Left does, that the biologically-given male and female binary is merely a “social construct” – and then proceeding to build a narrative to accommodate the mania.
This prepossession is the grown-up version of the child’s “let’s pretend” world, the creation of a narrative that is harmless as long as it remains in the playroom. But when one enters the real world of unforgiving demands and unrelenting forces, one can derogate the concept of objectivity only at one’s peril. The products of initially congenial chimeras and fancies, of unreflecting narratives, lead us to court disaster – cultural disarray, economic collapse, political coercion, domestic misery. To reiterate, a narrative cannot be effectively countered, as Friedman suggests, by replacement with another ostensibly more accurate narrative.
Of course, we should not be naïve about our limitations. As narrative dwellers, we cannot escape formulating the vast majority of our accounts, reports, analyses and representations of things as, at least in part, narratives or quasi-narratives. We are trapped in the paradox that language is intrinsically a syntactical continuum so that our reports are inexorably compromised by narrative at the very source of formulation and expression.
But we can still practice a kind of agnosticism and recognize that these products are productions. Linguistic and narrative syntax are not identical to natural disposition. Exceptions to imposed codifications exist, especially in science and math. The truth of things is often asymptotic, eluding our attempts to capture it fully in leveraged, ex post facto arrangements, particularly with respect to receding (future) horizons. As Eric Hoffer explains, “One has to get to heaven or the distant future to determine the truth of an effective doctrine,” which is why doctrines are wrapped in narrative.
The Horizon Factor
The horizon factor in particular is where the problem with Leftist theory, rhetoric and agenda encroaches on credibility. This occurs in Friedrich Hegel’s sense of historical inevitability, the historical process moving, in his terms, from the concrete to the abstract to the absolute, as determined by the “cunning of history”. And in Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat leading to the abolition of all classes. And in the quixotic “social democratic” reverie of an Arcadian terminus, including “new modes of realization [and] freedom…from earning a living,” as Frankfurt School luminary Herbert Marcuse advocated in One-Dimensional Man.
These are all narratives, Hegelian and Marxist theoretical extravagances framed as epics. The desired outcome always remains out there, shimmering on the horizon. Whether honestly or disingenuously, the Left considers man and society as perfectible (that is to say, subject to being changed by an enlightened governing elite, regardless of the subject’s desires), cynically manipulating data to advance its narrative and consolidate its core doctrine. In order for the fiction of ultimate perfectibility to establish itself as a possible future world, it must present itself as a historical discovery rather than a literary invention, as an eschatological prophecy rather than a metaphorical scheme, and in so doing to pre-empt reality. That is the endgame.
Narrative goes deep and is inescapable, which is why we need to remain on guard against its constitutive blandishments, its “sundry forms of epistemological incontinence,” to quote Roger Kimball again. For the road from mere intellectual defect or philosophical annoyance to human misery and death has proved a remarkably short one. That is why I have focused on the Leftist narrative, for it is socially, economically and politically perhaps the most destructive of the stories much of the contemporary world tends to live by. Once it succeeds in substituting an imaginary romance for “facts on the ground,” an airy enchantment for basic gravel, the Left will have won the day. Narratives of collective guilt, collectivist redemption and a pastoral future will supervene upon the pragmatics of everyday life and we will all be the poorer for it.
And thereby hangs a tale.
The Russian Formalists, in particular Viktor Shklovsky (1893-1984) and Vladimir Propp (1895-1970), developed an entire school dealing with narrative structures. “[I]nstead of seeing literature as a ‘reflection’ of the world, Shklovsky and his followers saw it as a linguistic dislocation, or a ‘making strange’.” (Oxford Reference). They elaborated the concept of “defamiliarization” or what German playwright Bertolt Brecht called the Verfrendungseffekt, or alienation effect – “jolting reminders of the artificiality of theatrical performances.” Anticipating E.M. Forster, the Formalists also distinguished between story, or fabula, and plot, or sjuzet, recognizing narrative, comprising fable and subject, as artifice and as distanced from reality.
Propp was preoccupied with folk tales and their common themes, viewing these stories as consisting of morphemes, or systematic groupings, and some 31 narratemes, or functional components, aspects of the a priori application of intrinsic mental structures to experience (with a nod to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and the Romantic Theory of the mind as half-creating the world of human experience, brilliantly expounded in M.H. Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp). The issues these scholars and critics examined and the idiom they applied are far too technical and esoteric for expansion in the body of a meditation such as this.
David Solway’s most recent volume of poetry, The Herb Garden, appeared in 2018 with Guernica Editions. His manifesto, Reflections on Music, Poetry & Politics, was released by Shomron Press in 2016. He has produced two CDs of original songs: Blood Guitar and Other Tales (2014) and Partial to Cain (2019) on which he is accompanied by his pianist wife Janice Fiamengo. His latest book is Notes from a Derelict Culture, Black House Publishing, 2019, London.