Narrative Madness: What is Narrative and How Do Our Conceptions of It Warp Our Understanding?

(A summarized extract of my book Narrative Madness, edited by Katie Fox, which you can get at or on Amazon.)

Narrative is a Very Limited Selection of So-Called Facts

 Since language is inherently narrative and its stories strongly influence our perception and actions, it is important to understand what narrative is.

The word “narrative,” from the French narratif, began appearing in the English language in the early 1500s, referring to parts of a legal document laying out “alleged or relevant facts” (Oxford English Dictionary). The word “alleged” reminds us that all facts may be challenged in a court of law. A fact is not a fact until it has been proved. Even then, a legal decision is open to appeal. In many fields, including science and history, “facts” are frequently disputed and reinterpreted.

The word “relevant” indicates that the one writing the legal narrative is expected to dismiss any facts that do not seem to pertain. This selection process implies the elimination of vast numbers of supposedly irrelevant facts. One morning I got up and tried to write down everything that had happened thus far, but the events quickly outstripped my record of them, and I caught myself simplifying, even misrepresenting, so that I could accomplish my task. The most complete version (which took a couple of days) was at best a caricature of the morning, rather than a complete record; still I had said nothing about the insects in the room or the biological systems taking place inside my body. Since this subjective selection process is essential to every kind of narrative, narrative is never a complete record of events.

Narrative is Meaningful Organization

 A more familiar use of the word “narrative” began appearing in English a few decades after the legal term. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word so: “An account of a series of events, facts, etc., given in order and with the establishing of connections between them.” The definition does not tells us what a narrative is made of – its substance – so we fall back on the description of narrative as words in a series. “Account,” however, comes from “counting,” suggesting that numbers can also make up a story, as any accountant or statistician can attest.

I will go further, following the implications of the dictionary definition. Any set of symbols that describes place, agent and action and draws connections is a narrative. Kerstin Dautenhahn, biologist and professor of computer science, writes in  “The Origins of Narrative” (2002) that “sequential visual arts, dance, pantomime, comics, literature, etc. . . . are fundamentally ‘narrative’ in nature” (108). Roland Barthes even found narrative in soap powders and detergent, as analyzed in his book Mythologies (1972).

According to the definition, the series of “facts, events, etc.” must be given “in order with connections made [among] them.” If facts and events are already in “a series,” then why must they be “given in order,” and if they are given in order, why is it necessary to “make connections”? Shouldn’t the connections be obvious from the order? Why this triple insistence on arrangement? Clearly, the most important aspect of narrative, according to the definition, is organization. The type of order, however, is not specified. It may be logical, chronological, associative, alphabetic or even alliterative, as long as there is some sense of sequence.

Expository writing often gives the reader the sense that the order of the material is logical, even inevitable. If so, this is evidence of the writer’s craft. Ideas, like language, are interconnected networks, as complex as the interconnections among the one hundred trillion synapses in our brains. Let me revise that. Not as complex as synapses, the connections are synapses. With every word I write, neurons go sparking off in all directions, performing 1016 computations a second. With every idea I express, hundreds of others come crowding in. Between each phrase, there is a chasm of teeming demons. I hold them at bay and proceed logically.

Language is a synchronic system, existing at one time as a structure, like the neurons and synapses in our brain. In contrast, speech and writing are inherently linear and must be played out one by one across time, diachronically. The order of our letters and words gives us the mistaken impression of linearity, even though books loop, chapters wander, paragraphs jig, sentences jag, and words compound.

The apparent linearity of narrative causes confusion between consecutiveness and consequence, or as Roland Barthes points out, confusing “what-comes-after being read in a narrative” with “what-is-caused.” Narrative is “a systematic application of the logical fallacy denounced by scholasticism under the formula, post hoc, ergo propter hoc” (Barthes, “An Introduction” 248). Don Quixote lost his mind after reading chivalric romances, but we shouldn’t assume the romances caused his madness. Many others have read such books and remained (relatively) sane. As a parallel example, The Catcher in the Rye (1951) did not cause Mark David Chapman to shoot and kill John Lennon. Nor did the film Taxi Driver (1976) drive John Hinkley, Jr. to shoot Ronald Reagan. Banning narratives like these will not stop people from acting irrationally.

Making a narrative about our lives gives us the erroneous impression of causality, of fate. Looking back at our lives, we think with awe, “I would not be the person I am if X and Y and PDQ hadn’t happened exactly so. Each event was meant to be or I would not be standing here today.” And this is true, of course, in retrospect, but if things had happened differently, I would be a different person in a different place looking back over the course of my life saying, “I would not be here today unless . . . ”

Similarly, when we examine the history of this planet, we see that humans evolved as we did because so many events happened in a particular way, making the unlikely formation of Homo sapiens seem inevitable, as if following some predetermined design. Nonetheless, if we were sponge-like communities of thinking mold, we would feel the same sense of inevitability.

Narrative organization also causes us to put a great deal more importance on the ending than on any other part of a story. Since the last moments form the impression we carry away, we think that the end holds the meaning of the whole. Thus, a villain who repents on his deathbed is a good man. A noble, optimistic woman who kills herself is a tragic failure. Because of the importance we put on endings, philosophers and writers sometimes say that death is the most important part of life. Now that we have identified where some of that mistaken notion comes from, namely, the linearity of narrative, we can dismiss it as the absurdity it is.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972. Print.

Barthes, Roland, and Lionel Duisit. “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative.” New Literary History 6.2 (1975): 237 – 272. JSTOR. PDF.

Dautenhahn, Kerstin. “The Origins of Narrative: In Search of the Transactional Format of Narratives in Humans and Other Social Animals.”International Journal of Cognition and Technology 1.1 (2002): 97 – 123. Print.

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