Sunday, February 05, 2012

Where Narratives Reign

The Power of the Narrator

Narrators have a power to draw us into a story.  Years ago when I studied English literature at college we studied the various types of narrator in novels and short stories. A narrator is, within any story (literary work, movie, play, verbal account, etc.), the fictional or non-fictional, personal or impersonal entity who tells the story to the audience. There are basically three types of narrator (i) first-person, (ii) third-person limited and (iii) third-person omniscient.  When told in the first person, we are as it were, addressed in person by an "I" or a "me" who wishes to engage us in a rather one-sided conversation, but engage us this narrator does.  One of the most classic of narrators is surely Ishmael of the 1851 novel Moby-Dick by U.S. author Herman Melville.  This novel opens famously with the three words "Call me Ishmael."  From these three words, we are lured into a wonderfully engaging and powerful novel which will engage our attention from the "off" or "get go" as it were.  The other narrator whose words haunt my literary mind are those of the "Ancient Mariner" of that famous poem by S.T. Coleridge called The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  That old hoary rugged mariner addresses the wedding guest, having caught him first by the lapels of his coat, with the gripping words " 'There was a ship,' quoth he."  Once again, we are going to hear a story recounted or narrated.

I once wrote a novel - some twelve years ago now - based on my experiences with the mental health system here in Ireland.  Choosing whether to write it in the first or third persons, or even in a mix of the two, was a choice I had to make when I set about writing it.  The whole experience was a cathartic one for me, and I really never had any intention of getting it published, nor did I try to, indeed.  We all have stories to tell, and we can choose different ways to tell them.  In other words we are not mere puppets on a string: we have many choices from which to pick in any situation in life; many ways to choose from in tackling a problem; many courses of action from which to pick in any decision; a variety of paths to pick our life course from and so on and so forth.  We can choose, to a greater or lesser extent, the story we are going to tell about our lives - within limits, of course.

Looking Back

I have attempted to tell the story of my own life in recent posts, and in looking back from this distance on my life and in perusing what I have written, there definitely were choices which interwove with more chance or fatalistic elements.  Indeed, we are all free, but free within limits.  For a start I cannot choose to disobey the laws of nature: I simply cannot walk off the roof and hope not to fall, or walk on water or walk through the wall.  The universe which obeys certain  natural laws, like those of gravity and so on, restricts the freedom of the beings and objects which inhabit it.  Likewise our genes, even accidents which befall us, and indeed the particular culture into which we are born all determine certain substantial areas in our lives.  However, once these limits have been set, it is then that we are enabled and empowered to be free agents.  We can choose which subjects to study at school, what type of school to attend, what area to live in, which type of car to buy, what means of transport to take to our places of work, what hobbies to pursue, what stance to take with respect to the meaning of life and so on (quite obviously, I'm assuming a lot here - reasonable income, mobility, availability of job etc.)

Looking back on my life, I saw education as the key to success - a philosophy of life advocated by both my parents and my teachers.  Having had wonderful teachers, especially one, of whom I spoke in a recent post, I had early decided to become a teacher.  Also I was academically inclined and was a very hard worker at school.  That I was free to become a teacher was true, but only true insofar as both the preceding qualities were given.  And, yes, indeed, I then had the freedom of choices between courses.  However, there were many serendipitous and synchronicitous occurrences interwoven with these choices - people I met, lecturers who inspired, several wonderful people with a deep insight into and vision for their lives.  All of these things conspired with the choices I made to fashion the story that is my life.  That it can be told in different ways, in different voices is beyond doubt.  I'm sure the telling of my story in twenty years will be somewhat different to the story I have told heretofore in these pages.

Tell us a Story

Perhaps one of the most enduring interests of the human species is that of story.  If I had a euro for every time a student or class asked me to tell a story, I'd be a very rich man indeed.  Stories draw us into topics and into subjects.  Bryan MacMahon (1909–1998), one of Ireland's greatest short story writers from Listowel, County Kerry, used always say that he used stories as one of his principal methods of keeping his pupils' attention. He wrote an interesting autobiography, The Master, in which, among other things, he spoke about his philosophy of education, his teaching methods, his interest in the Irish Travellers as a small native ethnic group as well as his interest in writing.  Therein he tells us also of his love of story-telling.  So, if you should ever become a teacher, don't be surprised if you hear them say simply, "tell us a story."  Indeed, I see now that I have left out the most obvious story-tellers of the lot, that is, you who are parents.  That we send our children to sleep with stories only emphasises their sheer power in our culture.  Indeed, I remember reading an old folktale - in one of Kevin Danaher's books, I think - about how sad it is if, when going to a neighbour's house, one was bereft of a story to tell.

To tell a story, to listen to a story, to share a story is such a profoundly human thing. To listen to the real life story of another human being is a privilege. To tell your story to another human being is to reach out to the other, to say this is me, this is what I am about, this is where I came from, these are the ways I got here and there is where I am going. Another marvellous book I read on holidays some four years back was On Stories by Richard Kearney (Routledge, 2002) who is Professor of Philosophy at Boston College and U.C.D. As Kearney puts it therein, when you tell your story: “you interpret where you are now in terms of where you have come from and where you are going to. And so doing you give a sense of yourself as a narrative identity that perdures and coheres over a lifetime. That is what the German philosopher Dilthey called the coming-together-of-life …meaning the act of coordinating an existence which would otherwise be scattered over time. In this way storytelling may be said to humanise time by transforming it from an impersonal passing of fragmented moments into a pattern, a plot, a mythos.” (p. 4)

Our first woman president Mary Robinson pledged herself to listening to the stories of others in her inauguration speech way back in 1990 on December 3rd:
I want this Presidency to promote the telling of stories — stories of celebration through the arts and stories of conscience and of social justice. As a woman, I want women who have felt themselves outside history to be written back into history, in the words of Eavan Boland, “finding a voice where they found a vision.” (See this link here: MR: Inaugural Speech )
Narrative Therapy

These few thoughts were inspired by an introductory course to Narrative Therapy on my M.A. course in Human Development.  Narrative Therapy was invented by the Australian psychotherapist Michael WhiteFollowing an initial attraction to the cybernetic thinking of Gregory Bateson, White became more interested in the ways people construct meaning in their lives than just with the ways they behaved.  In developing the notion that people's lives are organized by their life narratives, he came to believe that stories don't mirror life, they shape it. That's why people have the interesting habit of becoming the stories they tell about their experience.

Narrative therapists attempt break the grip of unhelpful stories by externalizing problems. By challenging fixed and pessimistic versions of events, narrative therapists make room for flexibility and those new and more optimistic stories can be envisioned. Finally, clients are encouraged to create audiences of support to witness and promote their progress in restoring their lives along preferred lines.

I realise that there is much more substantial reading waiting for me to do in this interesting therapeutic area which is very new to me. Also I have much reading to do in the wellbeing area which incorporates a potted history of the approaches to wellbeing or happiness in Western philosophy as well as in the traditions of the World Religions. I don't think, with all the work that I have to do over the next several months, that I will be able to post much here. Maybe, you're saying to yourself - "Thank goodness, we need a break, and the author needs to do some fresh thinking as he is rehashing too many old ideas!"  Until the next post, may happy reading and deep philosophising accompany you on your journey!

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