Life Stories and the Novel

Die-hard Monty Python fans will remember the spoof of the Icelandic sagas in which the name of each character is accompanied by a long list of his forbearers: "Ethelridge, son of Barfleby, son of Clem the Meek, son of Clem the Destroyer," and so on until the dawn of creation itself. The joke is that the list is so long the hero (Michael Palin, if I remember correctly) falls asleep. Once the list is over, the hero snaps awake, hops on his horse and goes off to kill somebody. The Monty Python skit is a joke, of course, but it conveys the gist of pre-modern identity. The epic hero was all his forefathers rolled into one, and his actions were always sanctioned, even the bloody slaughters, because of the continuities of kinship and the unities of the social order. You don’t see Beowulf (son of Ecgþeow, grandson of Hreðel, king of the Geats) fretting about killing Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon, an endangered species. When Beowulf dies, no one suggests he may have had unresolved issues with his mother, causing him to be aggressive toward women. The very suggestion is absurd: you would have to psychoanalyze all his forbearers, even his entire culture.

Juxtapose this with a patient lying on a psychiatrist’s couch recounting some humiliation in high school and trying to figure out how that incident may account for his current timidity before his boss. We tell these kinds of stories all the time, and not just to psychiatrists. We tell them because we have to, because we’re not sure who we are and, more crucially, how we got to be whoever it is we are.   We also tell life stories because we’d rather be somebody else. American psychology has just discovered how stories integrate our stable sense of self with our everyday lives.  Yesterday the New York Times reported on this hot news.

Every American may be working on a screenplay, but we are also continually updating a treatment of our own life — and the way in which we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but how we behave, new studies find. By better understanding how life stories are built, this work suggests, people may be able to alter their own narrative, in small ways and perhaps large ones.

"When we first started studying life stories, people thought it was just idle curiosity — stories, isn’t that cool?" said Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and author of the 2006 book, "The Redemptive Self." "Well, we find that these narratives guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future."

Well, better late than never. For a century literary studies, philosophy, even some brands of Continental psychology have understood that these acts of narrative self-fashioning have been going on since Shakespeare’s time. There’s even a technology that has been developed since the 16th century to allow us to see ourselves as actors in a drama that is at once coherently plotted and open-ended. That technology is the novel.

In The Theory of the Novel (1920) George Lukács notes that Don Quixote–generally considered the first true novel–appeared exactly when "the Christian God began to forsake the world; when man became lonely and could find meaning and substance only in his own soul, whose home was nowhere; when the world, released from its paradoxical anchorage in the beyond that is truly present, was abandoned to its immanent meaninglessness."

In contrast with the epic hero who always feels perfectly at home wherever he is, the novelistic hero always feels a gap between his inner and outer selves, between what he thinks and how the world behaves. In a world of uncertainties and partial truths, the novel offers complete stories at the end of which everything (usually) makes sense. But unlike the heroes of the ancient epics, the hero or heroine of a novel has to learn what’s possible in the real world and what’s not. He or she must then reconcile themselves to those reduced possibilities. At the same time, the crucial innovation of the novel is that this compromise is freely chosen and serves as an act of self-definition. Think of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, in which a boy’s dreams of adventure are transformed into a moral education, which in turn sets him on the path of a mature and autonomous adulthood. At the beginning of the story, he is a crude being trying to defend his own life. By the end, he is capable of making free choices–and the "right" choices, as defined by his particular place and time. By the end of his narrative, he is a recognizable person. He’s a subject in the modern world. He may, however, have to undergo some therapy to get over whacking his father in the head with a shovel.

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