Is Life a Narrative? (via Three Quotes)

I discovered two opposing approaches to life and the self in a chapter on Lucian Freud in Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art by Julian Barnes. (For increased readability I’ve divided the following passage into short paragraphs and added my own emphasis.)

In one version of the philosophy of the self, we all operate at some point on a line between the twin poles of episodicism and narrativism. The distinction is existential, not moral.

Episodicists feel and see little connection between the different, unfolding parts of their life, have a more fragmentary sense of self, and tend not to believe in the concept of free will.

Narrativists feel and see constant connectivity, an enduring self, and acknowledge free will as the instrument that forges their self and their connectedness.

Narrativists feel responsibility for their actions and guilt over their failures; episodicists think that one thing happens and then another thing happens.

Lucian Freud. By procsilas (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Lucian Freud. By procsilas (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
Freud is Barnes’s example of a typical episodicist: someone who sees life as a series of random events. I’ve always been the opposite. Maybe it’s because I read so many novels, memoirs and biographies, but I like to think of life as having a shape and a meaning, of one thing leading to another or prefiguring something else and so on.

However, when I look back, so many aspects of my recent life – a Master’s degree that never led to related work, six years of working at entry level in libraries without being able to advance, and living in 10 different places over the past 10 years – seem meaningless. I didn’t become an academic or a librarian, and my husband’s and my (usually) enforced nomadism was at odds with my desire to feel I was settled somewhere and truly belonged. It all looks like false starts, missteps and failures.

I encountered a Cormac McCarthy quote some years back (but now can’t find it again for the life of me), something to the effect of: we tell ourselves that life is a coherent story so as to trick ourselves into believing it means something. That’s overly depressing and nihilistic, I think (well, it is McCarthy!), as the urge to make a meaningful story out of life is surely a fundamentally human one. But would I be better off thinking of life as random?

Another quote that really challenges me is this one from Eckhart Tolle: “When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life.” Uncertainty feels threatening to me. I like to know where things are going and why. Yet if I could just turn my thinking around and welcome all that randomness could offer, would life feel more open-ended and exciting?


Are you a “narrativist” or an “episodicist”?

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14 thoughts on “Is Life a Narrative? (via Three Quotes)

  1. I’m in the middle. I do feel responsibility and guilt for my actions… but I do believe a lot of life is random and feel disconnected from my self as a kid, as a teenager… those feel like different lives. Free will, well, yeah, but a lot of stuff is determined by where/how/to whom you are born. I like what Cormac McCarthy said. I think we do impose narrative on our lives, and that’s okay, bit it’s definitely us imposing it, it’s not just naturally there, if that makes sense?

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    1. I know what you mean: I feel like I’m a different person from who I was in high school/college or when I was newly married and in my first proper job, so it’s hard for me to spot the continuity between then and now. Or maybe it’s like I started one narrative — ‘American boldly moves overseas to start new, exciting life’ — and then it petered out. (I wish I could locate that McCarthy quote. I’ve tried all kinds of keywords but just can’t find it!)

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      1. I feel like my life is a series of chapters or short novellas…usually coinciding with a geographical move. Like Chapter 1: Childhood (life in Bowie AKA where we met) Chapter 2: College (Indiana) Chapter 3: Struggling Young Adulthood (Also Indiana) Chapter 4: Starting A Family (Moving back to MD, getting married, having Fi) and now Chapter 5: Life On Our Terms (back in Indiana – where we worked our butts off to be)…But it’s always had this odd finality to it, of starting something new meaning that what I accomplished/did over the past few years was over rather than being added to…very strange for sure as far as narratives go.
        PS – come visit, I miss you!

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    2. That’s a really neat way of thinking of life — and would certainly look like a sensible memoir structure if you ever wanted to write one! (Do I remember correctly that you started writing some autobiographical anecdotes about your childhood?)

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  2. I think I’m mostly a narrativist (and I was also wondering if narrativists also tend to be optimists).
    I was just thinking about that last quote today – well, not the quote but the idea of it. I like things to be safe, I like to know where they’re going before I try them, but I’m probably cutting myself off from some opportunities I might have if I was willing to take more risks. I’m thinking of taking a risk, but maybe I should just leave things the way they are. I could benefit greatly from the risk, but it could also totally backfire. Is it worth it? How much do I care if it backfires? Sorry so cryptic!

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    1. Facing the unknown is really hard. I’ve never been much of a risk taker, but I admire people who think “hey, what’s the worst that can happen?!” and then go for something. Saying “yes” to the opportunities life offers you is supposed to be a great way to develop as a person. Of course, I can’t speak to your particular situation, and it sounds like you’ve already given quite a lot of thought to the pros and cons. Good luck with your decision!

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  3. Interesting discussion, Rebecca. I’ve read some research that suggests that for people who have lived through severe trauma, they can heal and recover better when they learn to compartmentalize the memory of the traumatic event(s) and refuse to integrate the event into their life-narrative. Some therapists encourage them to see the trauma as an separate, anomalous episode. ~ I can’t recall now where I found that research, but I did find your Cormac McC quote: Go to the Cormac McCarthy author page on Goodreads, and the seventh quote in the list is from The Road and contains your sentence.

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    1. That’s interesting, Holly — I would almost think the opposite, that you’d have to find a way to make meaning out of your trauma or else it would keep haunting you forever. But maybe excising the experience altogether keeps it from having the power to shape your story.

      Was it that “the things you put into your head are there forever” quote you were thinking of? I’m not sure it’s quite what I had in mind. I have a feeling it was something he said in an interview rather than a line from one of his novels.

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      1. Is that not the quote? oh, well – there are so many philosophical lines on that quotation page!
        And re that idea about whether or not to integrate the trauma into one’s narrative: maybe how successful that is would depend on the individual person (and whether they already tend be a “narrativist” or “episodicist”). And it’s not right for everyone. Another intriguing thing I’ve read, also having to do with re-framing trauma but could apply to anyone’s life reflection, has to do with whether we recall our life stories in first person or as third person: i.e., was that “me” or was that “her” that went through the experience. Fascinating. I think I use a combination.

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    2. I can see how displacing an experience onto a self-as-character could be helpful for those who have suffered trauma. In a book on memoir writing that I read called Why We Write about Ourselves, I think it was Darin Strauss who suggested that if you’re struggling with writing your own story you put it into the third person and envision the action that way, before putting it back into first person.

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