Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Living the Episodic Life

We recently came across a terrific piece by Galen Strawson (whom we previously discussed here on the matter of free will) titled Against Narrativity. In it, he argues against the prevailing human tendency to view our lives as a narrative, rather than as a series of episodes. We strongly recommend reading the whole piece--block out some time and really digest it, as it is not exactly light reading.

In a nutshell, Strawson says we have, as a species, essentially come round to the belief that each of our lives is an unbroken story, with the "self" we are today directly linked to the self from yesterday, last week, or 20 years ago. (While we are of the opinion that the self is an illusion, and Strawson appears to share this belief, this is immaterial to the argument.) In a sense, most people approach their lives as a sort of perpetual building exercise, carefully constructing layer upon layer of personal and career "successes" they fervently hope will be large (read: important) enough to stand for some time, thus granting them extended "life" in books, people's memories, maybe even a song ("Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?")

As Henry Potter might ask: "Do I paint a correct picture, or do I exaggerate?"

The problem with this approach is that it brings with it an ever-increasing load of baggage, as we constantly seek to conform to this self we have spent so long crafting. Thus, when faced with decisions, most people unconsciously strive to satisfy this self, rather than weighing pros and cons of the current situation. Or, worse, many find it more convenient to outsource such decisions--for example, many people in the US strongly identify with one of the two main political parties, and filter their beliefs accordingly. Thus the ridiculous recent specter of Democrats supporting invasive searches at airports and Republicans decrying them, in flat contradiction of long-standing stances on matters of civil liberties and defense. What accounted for the flip-flop? Well, the measures were implemented by a Democratic administration...

But we are talking more of the issue of, as Krishnamurti put it, "dying" each day (or even each minute). In short, we weigh ourselves down with all the detritus we accumulate day after day, in pursuit of this fiction that we can, if we work really hard and don't make too many mistakes, actually construct something that will stand for all time. Because if not, then what does it matter?

Ah, you say, it matters because these things make me happy. My life as I live it provides me with comfort, and friends, and good food and drink, and maybe even a fast car I enjoy driving on the weekends. These are good things...why should I renounce them in pursuit of this inner contentment you preach? Who are you to say what makes me happy?

We, of course, are no one. But we can say without fear of contradiction that a happiness based on things, be they physical or mental (eg, relationships) is ultimately doomed to failure. Things crumble, people get old and die, relationships fracture...all of which causes grief, and stress, and unhappiness. An inner contentment, on the other hand, requires nothing other than peace of mind, a "quietness," as Krishnamurti put it. And yet it is this seemingly simplest of pleasures that often seems most difficult to attain.

Living the episodic life, therefore, is yet another attempt to skirt the obstacles we put in our own path to such a state--a way of living that recognizes the past has indeed shaped us (both physically and mentally), but need not confine us.

In the words of the once and always Dude, "You don't have to be who you think you are."


  1. Wow - lots to think about here. I have read the referenced article (only once, so far). My initial assumption upon reading this is that I am Diachronic, Narrative. But upon further introspection, I don't know if this is true, or if the general culture in which I am immersed assumes Diachronic Narrative, and therefore I assumed it to be true. I do think I am genuinely Diachronic, but less narrative than I initially assumed. Or maybe I have changed from Narrative to non-narrative as I have aged. Or is that just another narrative? :-)

    I like the metaphor of personal Narrative to a historian writing a biography. I have often entertained the thought that if self is an illusion, and history is pasting false narrative on top of (pseudo) random occurrence. Hmmmm.

    Finally, GS gives an example of "form-finding" as opposed to "narrative" as "I have certain anxieties now because of the way X and Y treated me when I was young." This seems to me to be narrative. The statement "I have certain anxieties" is form-finding; putting a story behind the form is narrative. Other opinions?

  2. As with every entry in this wonderful blog, there is much to think about. I see clearly the connection between this post and the previous one which included that gorgeous quote from Karen Armstrong about monastic life. There is simply no doubt that this idea of narrativity is prevalent in the academy, and I frankly think it might be a way that qualitatively distinguishes us from other citizens, at least, and this is very interesting, the working class, who typically can't apply Aristotle to their work, i.e., see themselves locked in a tragic struggle with the deep questions of Western existence, simply because of the episodic nature of their work. That is what Sports is for, I guess. As for the academy, there's a great cartoon titled Philosophers on Strike, which you can easily Google, in which philosophers carry signs as they strike, one of which says: "No more search for truth until our demands are met." I think this narrativity is a great hazard in the U.S.'s view of itself, too, and I think the media does inestimable damage by casting so many events, personal and political, as narrative crises, because that construct sells so well, and because a television culture, really now a kind of post-literate "visual tradition" culture, thrives on simple narrative constructs of crisis and overcoming. The key things about Western narrativity pertinent here I would say are the notion of heroic struggle against the forces of evil, and ethical imperialism. Both of these concepts are of course deeply rooted in (the desert) religions. Anyway, all of this simply to say that I appreciate very much how thought-provoking your posts always are! Thank you! And of course I'd be remiss not to ask you if this blog does not have certain underpinnings of narrative crisis (the battle for souls); maybe our lives by our very self-consciousness will always be as the Beatles put it...

    Behind the shelter in the middle of the roundabout,
    The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray,
    And though she feels as if she's in a play,
    She is anyway.

  3. Anon-

    Great line! We certainly agree about being in a play - we find role-playing to be one of the more effective ways of keeping the absurd top of mind.

    Not exactly sure what you mean about "narrative crisis" and the battle for souls - we do agree that a necessary condition of the absurd is that it doesn't matter whether one recognizes the absurd or not - this being as irrelevant as everything else. (So it doesn't matter if you realize...it doesn't matter.) But if you mean are we trying to "save" people by opening their eyes, then the answer is an emphatic no!


  4. I am familiar with Strawson and while he paints the picture of a freer more contented life living in episodic fashion - it comes with significant dangers and oversights. While there is within us a mixture of episodic and narrative living - Strawson's rejection of the narrative life is naive at best and dangerous at worst. Strawson himself lives more narrative than he would admit and enjoys the provocation of his not so new ideas.