Joseph Anderson

I am not a story

The Personal Labyrinth step in the Soul Cartography process, in which we draw a random line on a piece of paper, and then map life events onto it, draws on the notion that our life has a narrative thrust, a movement from beginning-to-present (and maybe beyond) that has coherence and consistency: a story.

An article by Galen Strawson calls this assumption into question in a useful way. The premise of the article is that imposing narrative structure on our lives may work well for some people, but not for all:

But many of us aren’t Narrative in this sense. We’re naturally – deeply – non-Narrative. We’re anti-Narrative by fundamental constitution. It’s not just that the deliverances of memory are, for us, hopelessly piecemeal and disordered, even when we’re trying to remember a temporally extended sequence of events. The point is more general. It concerns all parts of life, life’s ‘great shambles’, in the American novelist Henry James’s expression. This seems a much better characterization of the large-scale structure of human existence as we find it. Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us. And neither, from a moral point of view, should it.

My own thinking about Soul Cartography has been that the exercise of thinking of one’s life as a narrative in order to help find coherence, meaning and purpose, is a positive good and would be beneficial to anyone. So this article is good food for thought. I don’t think it invalidates the project; but it does lead me to think about it in a more nuanced way.

There is mystery and depth in our lives, and it won’t do to oversimplify. Nietzsche may help (quoted near the end of the Galen Strawson article):

Let the young soul look back upon its life and ask itself: what until now have you truly loved, what has drawn out your soul, what has commanded it and at the same time made it happy? Line up these objects of reverence before you, and perhaps by what they are and by their sequence, they will yield you a law, the fundamental law of your true self.

Exercises are just exercises. The map is not the territory. But to find guidance through the “shambles”, we need to start somewhere. Let’s assume provisionally that there is a story. We can un-tell it later if it does not serve. We can split it into multiple parallel threads. We can post-modernize it. These are all useful tricks to keep from getting attached to an oppressive master narrative. But let’s start with a story.

I’m reminded of a tale I heard long ago in Mark Juergensmeyer’s World Religions class at UC Berkeley, circa 1980. (I must add that I don’t have a documented source for this story; it is possibly apocryphal – if so that is actually quite appropriate, as you will see.) The story has to do with kachina dancers in the Hopi tribe. The Hopi children would grow up seeing these masked dancers at festivals and ceremonies, and as far as they knew these were real mythical beings living among us. At a certain age the children would be gathered, the dancers would enter in full regalia–and then suddenly remove off their masks. “Hey, that’s Uncle Frank!” The shock of recognition – demythologization – is disturbing at first, but becomes a wisdom teaching: just because the surface is not as it seems, that does not mean there aren’t hidden depths in which lie power and magic beyond our imagining.

So it may be that those first insights that come from our Soul Cartography storytelling about our lives are like the kachina dancer for a young Hopi child: a fully realized mythical presence that offers a perfect vision of the Real, a simple tale that provides a comprehensive explanation of all our mysteries. Later on we can discover that there are in fact significant holes and inconsistencies, and that they are an inescapable part of the whole picture as well. The mythic resonance remains, but now it is grounded in the messy chaos of the everyday. But unless we embrace both the masked, magical aspect of our stories, and unmasked, more chaotic reality as well – the Narrative and the non-Narrative -how can we possibly put those stories to truly good use?