The agreeable eye

an eudæmonistarchives


We are constantly telling stories—about how we are, about every person we see, hear, hear about—and when we don’t know something, we fill in the gaps with parts of stories we’ve told or heard before. Stories are always only representations. […] to tell a story based on a character-driven plot or a moment of epiphany or a three-act structure is to subject story to cultural expectations. To wield craft morally is not to pretend that those expectations can be met innocently or artfully without ideology, but to engage with the problems ideology presents and creates.

—Matthew Salesses (Craft in the Real World, p. 29)

It is still before six in the morning when I return from my run1 and take the dog out. It is just above freezing, and a fog is starting to inch up the west–east streets from the river, unheimlich as something from M.R. James. The shadows – my own and the dog’s – seem larger and more substantial than flesh as we pause at the neighbor’s so she can make note of a fern or examine a wrapper that has escaped the bins. Being with the dog is a matter of punctuation: there is an emphasis on pauses rather than movement. She does not come with me on my run – or, indeed, on any excursion dependent on going from a specific point A to a different (also specific) point B.

* * *

For the last little while I have been thinking about Galen Strawson’s Things That Bother Me, which, like an unpleasant but catchy tune, began to bother me as well. There is much to bother one in Strawson’s book, but his discussion of two things stuck with me the most:2 the ‘sense of self’ and its cousin the ‘narrative self’. Strawson takes a Marxist view of the self – he’s against it. I don’t quite understand why he finds the ‘self’ as concept so frustrating. Perhaps for reasons similar to my frustration with his frustration: it is annoying not to see one’s experience of the world reflected in others, particular if one could interpret one’s own experience as being denied by those reflections.3

This repudiation of the self qua persistent being is historically situated, although he doesn’t go in for too much detail on the matter. While it might be fun to stand in a circle and take turns kicking Descartes (or Aristotle, or Hegel, or even G.M. Hopkins (?!)) in the shins, what I think Strawson is ultimately trying to convey is that a continuous narrative understanding of one’s life is not essential in the sense that it does not always occur. That is not a point with which I would argue, because it seems inarguable;4 why would one’s life be a narrative that, to be complete, would need to include all instances of brushing one’s teeth or taking out the trash? One foreshortens, abridges, elides, compresses, confuses, mistakes – as does, for example (Strawson’s example), Montaigne.5 The personal narrative, be it episodic or continuous – the result of choices both conscious and not – is not (in general) less true6 than some imagined ‘objective’ narrative (if one assumes, for example, a dispassionate clipboard noting down the minutes of one’s life).7

I also suspect that those who are drawn to write on the subject of narrativity tend to have strongly endurant and narrative outlooks or personalities, and generalize from their own case with that special, fabulously misplaced confidence that people feel when, considering elements of their own experience that are existentially fundamental for them, they take it that they must also be fundamental for everyone else.

—Galen Strawson (‘A Fallacy for Our Age’, in Things That Bother Me, p. 59)

But to say that one does not tell stories of one’s life – well, isn’t that another story? Some of the stories that Strawson, in his essays, tells of himself: ‘I do not live in narrative’, ‘my sense of self is transient’, ‘the past me and the present me are not the same’, ‘I am a philosopher’. These are not perhaps very interesting stories. They are not long or involved – and I suppose in this sense they are ‘transient’. No one ever said, though, that a life-story needs to (or should) be interesting.8 Nor is there any need for the life-narrative to be coherent or to follow a conventional plot arc; one would be disappointed, perhaps, if it did (ah, well, I’ve reached the one crisis of my life, it’s all downhill from here).9

Perhaps what bothers me most is that his essays make so obvious the distance between being clever and being wise – a distinction I generally prefer to overlook.10

* * *

Of course wisdom may be overrated. The dog is certainly wiser than I – her entirely reasonable fear of trash trucks and busy streets is certain evidence of that – but I would not necessarily follow her suggestions for the good life.

On the second to last corner of the block, she stops and stares into the darkness across the street at the house where a blue merle corgi is sometimes left out on the porch to bark at the neighborhood: she likes to grumble back when it does. These encounters have the habitual savor of old men quarreling at a corner café in another sort of town or another sort of time. She anticipates the encounter and, I think, enjoys the narrow span of expectancy. It is comforting to have the opportunity to grumble about something, and one looks forward to it, enjoys the anticipation, even if it is not satisfied.

If the ghosts in the stories are the ghosts in our dreams are the ghosts in our closets, we cannot put them behind a placard, inside a glass box. The farther we get from the origin, the looser the narrative becomes. But perhaps what it loses in precision, it gains in expansiveness. The story is a different story. The story is the same story.

—Jami Nakamura Lin (The Night Parade, p. 286)

  1. If one may dignify by the name of ‘running’ what is perhaps closer to a lazy shuffle. []
  2. The craw being quite sensitive. []
  3. Although this is, of course, one’s interpretation, not the positive statement of the other. Not to get too Levinasian in the footnotes. []
  4. Not least because, to skirt uncomfortably close to what Strawson calls ‘the Great Silliness’ of the denial of consciousness, it is scarcely observable. []
  5. Or, indeed, any memoirist. Muriel Spark’s autobiography, for example, leaves out rather more of her consciousness than it includes, although it does have rather a lot to say about butter. []
  6. There are always exceptions, of course. []
  7. It is possible Strawson is merely arguing against the imagined clipboard – and who wouldn’t? []
  8. Interesting times and all that. []
  9. Perhaps some people do live that way, but it seems disappointing. There are other narrative types to explore. []
  10. It’s also possible that Strawson merely wishes to disassociate his present ‘self’ from the actions of his younger self; judging from the sample behavior presented in the final essay, he was a bit of a twerp, so the impulse is understandable. I myself would prefer not to be associated with some of my youthful twerpitude, but I would not say that I am not now that person (not least because I would not be the ‘self’ that I am now without having been at one time the self I was then, etc., etc.). I don’t actually think I disagree with Strawson as such, which is perhaps another thing that frustrates me. []


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