Saturday, April 25, 2015

59 Thoughts on Narrative and Meaning

One. The elements: metanarrative (e.g. the various world religions; capitalism; progressivism); cultural narrative (e.g., I will be happy if I become a mother; I will make a good living if I work hard and get a good education); archetypal narrative (e.g. the protagonist becomes a scapegoat, or undergoes something resembling death and resurrection); plot (a series of causally linked events in which the protagonist either suffers a terrible fate or faces and overcomes conflict). 

Two. Postmodern resistance to metanarratives, because they have been shown to be untrue – either because they made predictions that have proved false (e.g., the revolution of the proletariat), or because awareness of other cultures' metanarratives makes it impossible to both be tolerant and continue to assert the exclusive truth of your own. 

Three. We can either continue to cling to metanarratives, with an increasing sense of anxiety, since the existence of others is a threat to our beliefs; or we can do without them. A world without a metanarrative is one in which what happens is up to us. 

Four. I don't know what it's like to adhere to a religion, or to adhere religiously to a particular thinker or system of thought – Marxist, Freudian, feminist. I see spiritual traditions as depositories of wisdom, myth, ethics, symbols, metaphors, therapeutic techniques, and techniques for accessing different levels of consciousness. They combine philosophy, psychology, myth, and ritual. They can be a source of ethical energy and they can be a source of violence (they're hardly the only source of either). I don't see how any religious person can believe their tradition is right while also respecting the beliefs of others and the position of the atheist; or how they can have faith without believing that their tradition is right. The only way this could work is if you think that all religions have tried to apprehend the transcendent and the best way to do so is not through your own tradition but through all traditions. That makes sense logically but may not give believers what they are getting psychologically from believing in their tradition.

Five. When I was a teenager I liked the existentialist idea that there was no God, and therefore no objective ethics, so I could choose how to live my life based on what I, personally, valued. Later (after reading about Wittgenstein's late philosophy?) I realized that this made no sense: I can choose to live according to values that aren't the culturally dominant ones, but I can't choose what I value. There are a finite number of things that human beings are capable of valuing; many of them conflict with each other; and at any given moment, one may be in ascendance in the culture while conflicting ones appear as minor strains. So, for example, feminism (the liberation of women, the equality of women) has always been around as an idea, but until the idea of human rights became culturally ascendant, it could not affect the lives of women on a large scale.

Six. Two meanings of meaning: signification and significance (i.e., value). They come together in the idea of moral intelligibility: when bad things happen to good people, or good things happen to bad people, or the punishment outweighs the crime, we feel that the situation is morally unintelligible, and begin to wonder if our lives are meaningless. In fact it's so important to us that the world be morally intelligible that we find it almost impossible to escape from the notion that might is right.

Seven. The situation we desire is good things happening to good people. That would be a world that was intelligible, and meaningful, to human beings. Accordingly, suffering is meaningless – unintelligible and without value – unless we can find some value, and therefore meaning, in it. And after all, it's not that there is a fact of the matter: it's all interpretation. It's not quite that there's nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so: true, but human beings can't make themselves think that suffering is, in itself, good. However, you can interpret an event as completely senseless (say, if you want to emphasize the human cost of a disaster, disease, or epidemic) or you can find some good that has come out of it. You can think of the latter case as God setting you an interpretive challenge. (See Donne's Devotions.)

Eight. As Northrop Frye points out, the protagonist of literature descends in status through the centuries: from gods to heroes to kings to ordinary people to ordinary people in deterministic conditions. Only once the protagonist is an ordinary person do we think that the job of literature is to represent reality, and by “reality” we mean the quotidian.

Nine. However, even during this phase, plot requires exciting events to befall the protagonist. A typical plot of the Victorian novel is a fairy tale-like wish fulfillment fantasy in which the low-born hero or heroine rises in social status through marriage or the inheritance of a fortune. Sometimes this fantasy is attached to a nightmare of guilt (e.g. Jane Eyre, Great Expectations), perhaps acknowledging the human cost of anyone rising. Sometimes it turns into a nightmare, as in the fortune hunter plot, which can be played for Gothic thrills (The Woman in White) or for realism (The Portrait of a Lady). Here, “realism” means the pleasure principle giving way to the reality principle: reality turns out to be more complicated, and more full of compromise, than the naive, optimistic protagonist, so full of belief in her own power and judgement, imagined. (This is a frequent theme of the 19th century novel, differently realized in Middlemarch, and differently again in Pere Goriot.)

Ten. Modernism gets rid of plot because the quotidian is, by definition, uneventful. The 19th century novel purported to represent reality, but it turns out that just meant that (to use Frye's analysis) the hero had no more or less power over the situation than the reader would.

Eleven. Literature may embody cultural narratives, or it may challenge them.

Twelve. Just because a work of literature challenges a cultural narrative doesn't mean that it doesn't have a plot. An American Tragedy challenges the American cultural narrative of equality based on social mobility, but it very much has a plot: a boy sets out to make his fortune and gets close to attaining the fortune and its erotic embodiment in the upper-class woman who goes with it; but due to contingencies, he ends up impregnating a lower-class woman who'll keep him tied to a life of poverty and low status; tragedy ensues with her murder and his execution, although technically they're both the victims of the cultural narrative. This is double realism: not only does the pleasure principle give way to the reality principle, but a false cultural narrative gives way to reality.

Thirteen. Note that plot isn't something impossible or even implausible. The plot of An American Tragedy is so effective because it's completely plausible (in contrast to, say, the plots of Great Expectations or Jane Eyre); in fact, Dreiser based it on a real criminal case. Modernism doesn't reject plot because it's implausible (although particular Modernists may have used that rationale), but because Modernism restricts itself to the quotidian. Different notions of realism: the protagonist who is typical of his society in the sense of embodying its contradictions vs. the protagonist who is a typical member of his society in that his life is uneventful.

Fourteen. The literature that we still study, especially the 19th and early 20th century novel, normally challenges cultural narratives; or if the wish fulfillment fantasy triumphs, as it does at the end of Pride and Prejudice, cultural narratives have at least been severely interrogated. The novel of this period is strongly engaged with reality (here meaning: the world outside the work of literature) and therefore with cultural narratives. Romance and Romanticism, in contrast, are involved respectively with the world of legend and with subjective states; Modernism is also, in its own way, more interested in subjectivity than in social reality.

Fifteen. The Gothic novel is, often, the nightmare version of the wish fulfillment fantasy of marrying up in class: instead of a poor woman happily marrying a rich man, a rich woman is victimized by a man who purports to be able to fulfill her fantasies. When played for thrills, this isn't a matter of the pleasure principle giving way to the reality principle but of pity and fear being converted into pleasure. The underlying archetype of the woman sexually menaced by monsters goes back to romance and reappears in the slasher film; the fortune hunter's female counterpart is the femme fatale, originally the sorceress of romance who distracts the hero from his quest. Both are fantasies/nightmares of sexuality destroying identity.

Sixteen. Let's hypothesize, then, that works of literature typically do not reinforce cultural narratives, but rather challenge them. Why, then, do we fear that works of literature tell us lies about reality? Why Don Quixote and Madame Bovary?

Seventeen. In Don Quixote, comedy is generated by the clash between levels of decorum: put a high mimetic hero in a low mimetic world and see what happens. The world in which Don Quixote moves is no truer-to-life than the world in which he thinks he moves, except that it has no magic in it – but only as a matter of literary decorum. But while only an insane person would take romances to be true, Emma Bovary, a reader of romances in their modern, erotic sense, is much closer to us: she has been led to believe by media focused on wish-fulfillment that she will find fulfillment in consumerism and a great love. In the first place, they're not easy to come by: she can only indulge in consumerism by going into debt, and her lovers can't live up to her expectations. And neither consumerism nor passion is fulfilling, either. As much as Clyde Griffiths, she's the victim of cultural narratives, although in her case they come to her through novels.

Eighteen. It was often thought – and we can see it especially in Don Quixote and Austen's Northanger Abbey – that novels dealing with the fantastic could make avid fans lose touch with reality. In the case of Emma Bovary, they simply set her up for disappointment. The quotidian has nothing in it that can fulfill her desire for big, exciting meaning; like Anna Karenina, she rejects Levin's solution of finding meaning in the small and daily.

Nineteen. Sheila Heti is Emma Bovary in reverse: she claims that life is much more interesting than a novel. Where might this impression come from? Novels only know how to tell a few stories: there's tragedy and “realism,” in which the reality principle triumphs; comedy and romance, in which wish fulfilment triumphs; and melodrama, in which fantasy becomes nightmare and nightmare becomes a source of pleasure. These stories speak to longstanding human longings and fears, but they don't much resemble the average reader's life. The fact that they are things that you want to happen to you or fear happening to you shows that they are not what is happening to you. Now in our late, “meta” Western culture, which has produced not only The Anatomy of Criticism but TV Tropes, we already know all of these stories. Life, in contrast, by the very contingency that makes it so precarious a source of meaning, offers surprise (as in Heti's conversations with strangers in How Should a Person Be?).

Twenty. Contingency: when you write, you learn to take out anything that doesn't matter to the plot, or the description of “one complete action,” as Aristotle put it. If you want to make your story more life-like, you reintroduce a little contingency.

Twenty-one. We've learned that a realist novel can challenge cultural narratives and still have a (plausible) plot. It's also possible to have a nihilistic narrative with a plot. Plot=/=meaning. Film noir shows couples who are driven by lust and greed and who still can't get ahead even after they've committed a crime for that purpose. Their failure can be read as evildoing being punished, but the tone of the genre makes it seem more like meaning can be found neither in human nobility nor in success. These are human beings in conditions of less power or freedom than the viewer, the pulp counterpart to a certain strain of Modernism (e.g. Kafka). Noir couples are enslaved by their passions and by a deterministic universe that is out to get them.

Twenty-two. One of the things I appreciated about Roberto Bolano's 2666 was that by being plotless in the sense that nothing was resolved and it wasn't clear what, if anything, the various protagonists learned from their activities, and by refraining, through this plotlessness, from even the suggestion of authorial commentary, it retained the essential mystery of its subjects: mass sexual violence; the legacy of European fascism; and the hope that we (although an increasingly small number of us) place in the figure of the writer. Anything that could be said about them, any attempt to draw meaning from them – even by pointing, with an owlish solemnity (as Frye would put it), to their lack of meaning – would be hopelessly trite.

Twenty-three. At the same time, 2666 provides the illicit thrill of runaway contingency. In literature, contingency is a daring hint of meaninglessness that also points to a fullness of meaning. If you have a character talk about things that are inessential to the plot (as Shakespeare sometimes does), on the one hand, it's meaningless: the reader or audience member's trained brain will try to find some way to relate it to the plot, and fail. On the other hand, it hints that this character is more than a plot function: he has his own life, his own subjectivity, of which we only get a glimpse. He could be the protagonist of another story. 2666 is nothing but a series of such digressions, and can only work within a context of expectation in which the reader imagines that eventually most of this, or some of it, will be tied together. That it is not suggests that the stories continue off the page, and that nothing less than a full description of every quotidian detail of every character's life and psychological quirks will adequately represent that life. (Compare the biographies of Nazi Literature in the Americas, which are compressed versions of such lives.)

Twenty-four. Life is contingent, literature is not. Normatively, in literature every event has meaning, i.e., significance. In literature, if a character brushes their teeth, there's a point to it: it's important to the plot; or it's a character point (this character is hygienic); or it's for mood (showing the character going through their daily routine before the plot gets going). In life, if you brush your teeth, the only point is to get your teeth clean.

Twenty-five. Say it's a misunderstanding of literature to think that it ought to be true-to-life, whether we think that it's more interesting or less interesting than life. What about other, apparently truth-telling narrative forms, like history or memoirs?

Twenty-six. The audience for memoir wants the story to be story-like, i.e., “a good story,” and also wants it to be true. These are contradictory demands, and lead to scandals over partly or entirely falsified memoirs, as well as “literary memoirs” and “novels from life” that purport to be part-true and part-fictional, with which is which unknown to the reader. The roman a clef has always been this, but its moral flaw was to pass itself off as fiction (when really there was no invention involved – for shame!), whereas the new memoir's moral flaw is to pass itself off as fact (when really there was invention involved – for shame!).

Twenty-seven. One sub-genre of the new memoir, the ordinary-person memoir, zeroes in on “the story you have to tell.” The idea being that even ordinary people – people who are not writers and not celebrities – have had at least one thing happen to them that makes a good story. But what makes a good story? Maybe it's inspirational (how I got off drugs; how I traveled the world and found meaning; how I traveled the world and got off drugs; how I live with an illness; how I survived abuse). Maybe it takes you inside a world that you would never come in contact with otherwise (drug addiction, mental illness, prison). Maybe it tells you about a discrete unusual experience – like what trying to get a book published is really like. “Really like” is key: the reader believes that by reading the memoir they bypass cultural narratives and fictional representations.

Twenty-eight. Obviously, then, the new memoir has sub-genres, and leads aspiring memoirists to try to squeeze their “true stories” into those sub-genres.

Twenty-nine. A favourite memoir sub-genre of writers is the loved one's death (e.g. The Year of Magical Thinking). Clearly in this case writing may serve a therapeutic purpose; and it may also be hoped that reading it will. The subject also presents a challenge to the writer: to extract maximum meaning from maximum meaninglessness. “Meaning” here means profundity, which may be achieved through focusing on the absence of meaning – on the absolute contingency of events combined with their relentless horror. It is important, here, that the writer doesn't embellish; that the writer tells us what death, one of the favourite subjects of both literature and religion, is really like.

Thirty. The writing of an autobiography often starts at a certain point in a person's life – generally, when they feel that they've reached a stable point, however temporary, at the end of a journey. The autobiography then tells the story of how they got to where they are: how the young man became an artist; how Augustine became a Christian. It is to view one's life through a particular filter, not to attempt to look at it, or recount it, without any filter.

Thirty-one. A noir protagonist also looks back, but from a point of desperation – maybe even death (as in Sunset Boulevard).

Thirty-two. Our lives have meaning, and narratives have meaning, but our lives are not narratives, and therefore do not have meaning in the same way that a narrative does. The confusion arises because we are so used to putting our lives into narrative form or applying narratives to our lives – whether metanarratives, or cultural narratives, or the stories we tell ourselves every day about why we do things and why things happen to us.

Thirty-three. Generally speaking, we feel that our lives have meaning if they're going well – which is why the ending of a comedy doesn't raise questions about meaning. There are limitations to this: if your life is going too well, you might feel spiritually empty, or guilty, or bored, or useless. For most people most of the time, though, questions of meaning – of moral intelligibility – are raised when a crisis occurs (death, illness, job loss). Or if you have suffered your whole life, you might ask questions not only about the meaning of your life but about whether life has meaning at all.

Thirty-four. The libidinous protagonist, who is after social status, money, and a wife who represents these things, or a wealthy or respectable husband, doesn't exist anymore. Romance is the genre in ascendance, at the movie theatre and among readers, but no longer as a depository of shared cultural lore – founding myths and quasi-historical heroes. Fantasy is now not even subjectivized, as in Romanticism, but individualized, and, like the cult of celebrity, provides maybe the same quality of spiritual experience that you can get from the cult of the saints. On quality TV, white male protagonists like Don Draper and Walter White grapple with their masculinity, privilege, and entitlement, and touch tragic status by creating Dad fixation in the audience.

Thirty-five. Then again, America never had the kind of comedy in which the hero or heroine sought social status through marriage. That plot appeared in the early 20th century novel – in An American Tragedy and Alice Adams, for instance. But in the classical Hollywood romantic comedy, hero and heroine act like equals, despite their genders, and despite whatever difference in social status there may be. If they do marry above their class, which isn't that often, that wish-fulfillment isn't the point of the story; the wish-fulfillment involves their relationship's playful enactment of democratic ideals. (American film comedy, which is now largely comedian-comedy, is still the same thing, but with two men instead of a man and a woman. The romantic comedy plot has been relegated to the “chick flick,” and is about the female protagonist's relationship with romance, or sometimes shopping, not with a man.)

Thirty-six. Nor, it seems, can inequality in America today be represented by a protagonist who tries to marry above their class. Today one tries to get ahead by going into debt to get a university degree (or two, or three), which may turn out to be a different kind of tragedy, but which doesn't speak to the libido in the same way.

Thirty-seven. Tragedy and comedy have different kinds of “meaning.” Tragedy is intelligible because one can see how the protagonist caused the terrible outcome. It is mysterious and fascinating because one can debate the protagonist's responsibility, especially when, like Oedipus, he didn't understand what he was doing; or, like Cordelia, she couldn't possibly have predicted the outcome. Tragedy is somewhat intelligible: if it were completely intelligible, there would be no drama, and no mystery of human life. And that mystery is part of what we mean by the meaning of human life.

Thirty-eight. The supreme tragic hero is Adam, who is spectacularly punished, and all mankind through him, for breaking an arbitrary taboo. Hence, tragedy (including the Genesis story itself) represents the feeling of human beings that they are somehow responsible for the terrible things that befall them, because to be human is to be imperfect, but not wholly responsible, so that life and morality remain largely mysteries.

Thirty-nine. Comedy is not causally intelligible, but it has meaning anyway – because, as I pointed out above, we don't question meaning when things go well. In comedy, the protagonist has a libidinal goal (money and a woman: the woman may have the money, or the money may get the woman); the villain blocks him; the villain is defeated; and boy gets girl in a happy ending. Melodrama is closer to this plot than to the tragic plot. In melodrama, the villain has a libidinous goal (the heroine's virtue, or, in the less racy version, her fortune); the hero stops him; and boy gets girl in a happy ending. In comedy and melodrama, that is, disaster is averted at the last moment, and the ending, as Frye points out, is manipulated – which is to say, unbelievable. It is more unbelievable in the case of melodrama, because libido has been thwarted; whereas the ending of comedy is the uncomplicated triumph of the pleasure principle. The only reason we're willing to believe the happy ending of melodrama is that we're so relieved that the heroine has been spared.

Forty. Yet even though we know that narrative fiction is not a representation of reality, we still often consider true-to-lifeness a virtue in it. But we have different ideas about what that means. For the unsophisticated, true-to-life means having characters with goals and motives. For the sophisticated, true-to-life may mean exploring the consciousness of one character or a few characters, through whose eyes we see the world, rather than watching, from the outside, characters try to achieve their goals through their actions. In the case of the sophisticated story, the character may not seem like she has any goals that extend beyond the immediate future, or that require heroic action. For example, in Mrs. Dalloway the heroine's only goal is to get ready for her party. The sophisticated hold that the quotidian is true-to-life; all of the drama is below the surface, and has to do with choices regarding relationships, social status, and, ultimately, whether life is worth living.

Forty-one. Other Modernist or Modernist-influenced novels (Beckett's, or Bolano's) may give us characters who have no goals at all and seem to drift aimlessly through life. If you have big goals, your life has a purpose – one kind of meaning. If you have modest goals, you may start to question whether your life has meaning, but you may, like Clarissa Dalloway, be able to affirm that it does. After all, don't the majority of people have modest goals, even if that's not what they write about in the history books or in novels? If you have no goals, presumably your life has no meaning (it's absurd), but that may or may not be a concern to you. You may continue to be driven by your own obsessions, which are obscure to those around you. If you have enough characters like that, as Bolano does in his big novels, you recreate a feeling of meaning by the sheer inexhaustible and inexplicable variety of human beings.

Forty-two. The sophisticated reader may say: fringe characters, like Beckett's, understand that meaning is a lie; everyone else tells themselves lies in order to muddle through in a morally unintelligible universe that itself has no ultimate goal. It's not so much, then, that it's true that the typical human being has no goals, as that these atypical human beings are closer to the truth. This kind of Modernism, or interpretation of Modernism, takes Emma Bovary's and Anna Karenina's extreme stance of rejecting the reduction of our expectations brought about by the weakening of metanarratives and cultural narratives that was the result of, first, the blow that the scientific revolution delivered Christianity, and, second, to compound it, the blow that the two world wars delivered Enlightenment hopes.

Forty-three. Reality TV is actually much less true-to-life than realist fiction (or Modernist fiction that explores subjectivity), not just because the editing creates narratives for the people on the shows, but because those people tend to become archetypes for the viewer.

Forty-four. We work out the meaning of our lives through narrative fiction. Reality TV characters become archetypes that we use to make intelligible the desires that drive us, not as individuals but as human beings, at a deep level. Cultural narratives give our lives shape by telling us what we want and how to get it; often, they are lies. Metanarratives tell us that all of human history, and perhaps the universe, has a shape and a goal. When metanarratives are uncertain and cultural narratives are in low esteem, we have to lower our expectations; for those who can't do that because their egos are too ravenous, the idea that human life has any meaning, or adequate meaning, becomes a lie.

Forty-five. The reason we can't uncomplicatedly think of human life as having meaning is twofold: being purpose-driven, human beings want to believe that their own lives, and the universe they're in, have a purpose; and suffering makes life morally unintelligible. Freud thought that love and work brought adequate meaning to human life, but meaningful work can be hard to come by (or make a living by) and love, even when it is found, can devastate and disappoint. As metanarratives and the cultural narratives dependent upon them recede, erotic love has to bear more meaning, but due to the nature of erotic love, that can lead to disaster: to murder and suicide. And we live in a culture devoted to profit, whose cultural narrative is that consumerism will bring happiness, rather than a culture devoted to meaningful work.

Forty-six. Reality principle and pleasure principle, objectivity and subjectivity: the life we are born into has no necessary correspondence to what would make us happy.

Forty-seven. Is it ever the case that the job of the writer is to show us what life is “really like”?

Forty-eight. Yes – when you're counteracting cultural narratives.

Forty-nine. Also, perhaps, when you're pushing at the limits of what can be represented. (Joyce, Bolano.) I don't mean the formal limits, but rather the cultural ones. The novelist makes us look at what we don't want to look at, because we feel shame or horror.

Fifty. And when you're reacting against non-realist characterization. To think that Harry Potter or Bella Swan or Batman are supposed to represent real, complex human beings is to misunderstand the function of an archetypal character, but the overwhelming popularity of archetypal characters makes the realist writer, who is always reactive, want to show that human beings are more interesting than archetypes. But behind that well-meaning desire is the old puritan fear that misleading representations will put fans out of touch with reality.

Fifty-one. The writer gives us fantasies or combats fantasies. Frye and Fiedler, reacting against the WASP elevation of realism in academe, wanted to focus on the first role, because obviously, that is what is literary about literature; but this is confusing, because literature presents itself as telling the truth and takes human life as its subject.

Fifty-two. It is of the nature of the human activity we call storytelling to be confused about its relationship to reality or truth. There is never a point at which the activity of literature does not make some claim about being related to reality: myths are supposed to tell the truth about gods and legends and romance about (distant) history; while realism is supposed to give an accurate representation of actual life. Only with Romanticism do we arrive at the idea that the truth contained in the narrative is metaphorical in nature. What we won't accept is for a story to be a lie. This is why we're so on edge about memoirs and even more on edge about the Bible.

Fifty-three. The story has an inherent relationship to truth. The parable, the simplest form of story, is a way of communicating a moral truth that can't be better communicated by any other means. Literature, as Frye says, turns away from direct or factual statement – because the facts do not have an exclusive hold on truth. (Given all of this, it's no wonder Frye thinks we haven't even begun to understand what literature is.)

Fifty-four. The universe may have no purpose, but human beings have built-in values. It may be that the story of human beings will end in disaster; at the same time, we seem to have the raw moral materials to be able to turn things around. Which, interestingly, corresponds to the Christian notion of free will: sufficient to stand, but free to fall. Although of course free will vs. determinism is a debate that predates Christianity.

Fifty-five. The universe produces life, which in turn produces consciousness. You can think of the universe as having become conscious through conscious beings. If human beings turn out to be suicidal by virtue of the very mechanism that allows us to flourish, the will to dominate, then life itself has a flawed design. After all – as mystery religions such as Christianity attest – animal life requires consuming other life to live. So life may be inherently tragic for conscious beings who are able to recognize other conscious beings. And although domination and self-destruction would seem logically to be opposed tendencies, they don't seem to be so opposed psychologically in human beings (hence Freud's theorizing of the death drive).

Fifty-six. Reasons for the inadequacy of the quotidian. With the modern European novel, the European audience for literature for the first time consumes stories about people like themselves. Audiences were used to locating meaning (i.e. significance) in the realms above them, whether social or supernatural: the quotidian was precisely what it was not worth telling stories about. Stories were for commemorating and broadcasting the doings of the gods and the astonishing deeds of heroes, and misfortunes only mattered if they happened to the high-born. When, now, we read tabloids and gossip about celebrities, we follow the same impulse; we may seem to be critical, but the Greek and Roman gods were notoriously misbehaved. The public mourning for Princess Diana is another example (not only a celebrity but a princess!), or our continuing fascination with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. So the quotidian was a realm where, by definition, nothing significant could happen. Although Protestantism challenged this, increasingly locating meaning in the private realm – and especially (in keeping with its emphasis on the individual's conscience) in the interior realm of subjectivity. That, now, was where all of the exciting stuff was going to happen: e.g. the drama of judgement, and anxiety over judging correctly, that we see in Jane Austen's heroines, which becomes interpretive hypertrophy in Henry James's novels. 

Fifty-seven. At the same time, the factual conception of truth was gaining ascendancy with the scientific revolution. Not only did science challenge the factual basis of Christianity; it increasingly made it seem as though factual truth were the only kind. Human beings' ravenous desire for meaning, which had been satisfied by story in the sense of myth, was not going to be satisfied by a factual quotidian world. It was possible to carry on and find meaning, but the immense psychological difficulty is dramatized in both Anna Karenina and Mrs. Dalloway, in which the author has one character choose to live and one character choose to die.

Fifty-eight. A story has meaning in that it communicates a truth, having to do with our desires and/or fears, that cannot be communicated as a direct statement. If I hear a true story, and it resonates that way with me, it's because it has a parabolic or archetypal quality. A story gives meaning if it offers an explanation of reality. Not just any explanation, though, because the laws of physics offer that, but a hopeful, redemptive, optimistic one, in which justice, peace, and happiness will eventually reign. A metanarrative not only explains the way the world is, but also renders it morally intelligible. (American capitalism would seem to be a partial exception: although propaganda has associated it with democratic freedom, its real appeal is not to social justice but to individualism. All it offers in the way of moral intelligibility is equality of opportunity and the idea of the individual's power over his or her destiny. It does not say that something is wrong that will eventually be fixed, but that, contrary to the appearance of injustice, everything is the way it should be already.)

Fifty-nine. My life has meaning because I have things that I value and I try as much as possible to build my life around them; but when a cultural narrative fails me, or when a crisis occurs, my life or life in general may become morally unintelligible to me, until I find some new source of meaning. We are not lacking for them, even if consumerism is not one of them. I don't know what it would mean to say that human life in general or the universe have a purpose, but they are both fascinating. The odyssey of human beings through religious and scientific phases, from imaginative speculation about the origins of the universe and life to evidence-based, but just as mind-blowing, speculation about them, is staggering; so is the fact that all of this co-exists with fundamentalism, McDonald's, and the brink of environmental and nuclear disaster.  

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