Saturday, February 04, 2017


A Shambles is a Slaughterhouse

“But many of us aren’t Narrative in this sense. We’re naturally – deeply – non-Narrative. We’re anti-Narrative by fundamental constitution. It’s not just that the deliverances of memory are, for us, hopelessly piecemeal and disordered, even when we’re trying to remember a temporally extended sequence of events. The point is more general. It concerns all parts of life, life’s ‘great shambles’, in the American novelist Henry James’s expression. This seems a much better characterisation of the large-scale structure of human existence as we find it. Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us. And neither, from a moral point of view, should it.”

This quote is from, an online highbrow magazine.  “Galen Strawson is a British analytic philosopher and literary critic. He is a consultant editor at The Times Literary Supplement, and a professor in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.”

This essay is excerpted from On Life-Writing, edited by Zachary Leader and published by OUP in September 2015.

If a person has had a strong predilection and even conviction about something (which is moral), it’s often a good idea to argue in the other direction, in opposition to one’s normal game plan, so I was pleased to see this article without having to go to chaos theory or anarchists.  If there was ever a time that suits the theory that there IS no theory, this must be it.  Certainly the events of what I thought would be a quiet retirement in a peaceful small town have turned out to be mostly discombooberating.  

The latest surprise is that my neighbor’s gas pipe feed failed and had to be dug up.  Their house has been cold and dark for a few days.  I dread to think what happened to their water system.  We’re in another sub-zero span of weather, groundhog or no groundhog.

My education and “social class” have honored the humanities mainstream idea of the importance of narrative.  The main disciplines of my training — novels, history, psychology, anthropology, religion, law, and even biology — have emphasized, nearly required, a line of events that follow both time and logic to show development.  In the religious context of the Western world this is much controlled by the idea of Eschatology, which is about where we are all going.  Christianity is obsessed with the idea of Judgement Day on the world, or even the moment (in the story) when we present ourselves at the Pearly Gates and St. Peter looks in the book for your life records.  We’re assured that virtue will keep us safe.  This has not been my experience.

Life is goals, a Curriculum Vitae with a certificate or at least a t-shirt at the end.  Money will do.  But now we are aware of many others whose only goal is to live through the day.  You can tell them all the stories about saints who died rather than betray their standards, but those are matters of the pre-frontal cortex which shuts down to save calories when nearing death, esp. when the death is from starvation.  We die alone, one by one, even in the hospital.  (My oppositional mind says, “what about explosions”?)

Story can be a disguise for the question of belonging:  who are your people?  If you are starving, who will give you bread?  And then the clever question:  “if you say you are a Christian, is there enough evidence to convict you?”  There’s a legal dimension to this, as hapless immigrants are discovering.  And it’s tied to writing: always the book, the diploma, the passport, the record of achievements which should have an orderly sequence to them over time, always bigger and more significant, more of value to the community.

It becomes clear by now that the idea of human story in individuals — which is presumably what psychologists and psychiatrists address — is mainly literary, imagined and subsequently written or told in therapy sessions.  Sociology then is a group story or at least the story of the individual struggling with a culture that defines stigma or even criminality in a way that entraps a person.  If you wanted to be optimistic, you could say entitlement to a story embraces a person — although warm and fuzzy has its limits.  People are talking about compassion fatigue.

When a person comes to a point of decision, if that fork in the road is controlled by others, the person can make a pitch for one’s value by recounting the events of one’s life.  The idea is that what happened “made” you.  It’s considered “better” if you excelled, if you went along with the larger society, and if it was all according to a careful plan.  But the truth is that stuff just happens and sometimes a precipitating cause is so trivial and so far in the past that it’s laughable to think of it as “on purpose.”  I ended up on the Blackfeet Reservation, which has been a major influence on my life in several ways, because on a vacation trip my mother was driving while my father slept, and though she was meant to go to Yellowstone, she took the wrong road and went to Glacier.

It was the leaving Browning in 1973 that was a decision, because I wanted a certain kind of education, which I have to admit was a portal to narrativity on a grand literary scale.  I mean religion and writing.  It was five years before I managed entrance to the U of Chicago Div School.  That changed everything.

Not what you may think.  From that point on I was a loner.  It was not a good plan for employment.  Older, eclectic, intellectual females can expect marginal jobs with low pay and not much time to prepare for retirement.  No one had pointed this out to me, but I wouldn’t have paid attention if they had.  So this is my inner anarchist, willing to accept whatever happens and generally getting by because of carrying little baggage.

What happened to the United States while I was doing this trip that turned out to be a circle?  Something parallel but forces that I blocked out after seminary:  greed for safety and prosperity, obsession with control, terror of endings, the sudden realization that “number one” is just another finger.  The “axis mundi” on which the world turns is a vertical dimension that strikes through life again and again, and is crooked as lightning, reaching up as often as it strikes down.  It’s a MOMENT, not a narrative, a haiku rather than a novel.  

What happened to “Be Here Now!”, that beloved book?  Speared in the heart by graphs!  Not those familiar bell shapes.  Not even the hammock-shaped valley versions.  But rather the spiked lines that were supposed to indicate rising profit, and they’d better be steep.  The third political party is Venture Capitalism.

Strawson, son of Strawson, is a second generation philosopher which is a literary pursuit, tracing out scenarios and arguing for certain strategies.  Much of what he says sounds like dodging responsibility, the sort of thing natural to someone whose life is dominated by a father.  I mean, at the very least it’s a rationalization, and a way of staying in a familiar and protective environment, namely Oxford.  I find the son reminds me of Laurence Fox, son of James Fox, in another of those sequences.  

But this is narrative.  I have no idea what these men are like when they’re not acting.  So it must be the writers of the series who make Laurence Fox a wavering, unconvinced person responding to the moment.  The character draws one in — at least he attracts me.  I keep thinking he knows something crucial, a literary idea.

Leader suggests life is "a ‘great shambles’, in the American novelist Henry James’s expression. This seems a much better characterisation of the large-scale structure of human existence as we find it. Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us.”

But perhaps there are a zillion shambolic stories to tell, each of them a brief moment lit by lightning before being consumed.

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