Before making suggestions for reading short stories in the book on which I am currently working, I need to develop a foundation for understanding the literary form by exploring the basic nature of story—why we tell stories, why we listen to, or read, stories, why stories are, or, are not, necessary to human beings. In order to do that, I am reading, or rereading, several books about the nature of story by philosophers, literary critics, psychologists, and anthropologists.
For the next few blog posts, I will report on what I am discovering from this research. I begin by summarizing and commenting on Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life, based on a series of lectures given at the University of Bologna by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 2003).
Bruner begins by reminding us that our intuitions about how we make stories or understand them are so implicit that we do not know how to explain them. The purpose, he says, of his present book, is to get beyond implicitness, something he says most theorists have previously failed to do. He begins his account by returning to the earliest known effort to explain the structure of narrative, Aristotle’s concept in the Poetics of peripeteia, that sudden reversal in circumstances that turns a routine sequence of events into story.
Drawing on characteristics of story discussed by narratologists ever since Aristotle, Bruner reminds us that story differs from a sequence of actual events by having a sense of ulteriority, some purpose or intentionality frequently concealed beneath the mere sequence of events. An important implication of this characteristic of story is that, contrary to common sense, story is not merely a transparent glass through which the reader perceives external reality, but rather a highly convention-bound, thematic form that shapes and alters external reality.
One of the most important theoretical sources of Bruner’s theories are the Russian formalists of the 1920s, who argued that the purpose of story was to make strange or to defamiliarize ordinary reality by transmuting the declarative into the subjunctive, focusing not on what is, but on what might be or could be. Narrative is a dialectic between what was expected and what actually happened, for without something unforeseen taking place there is no story.
Consequently, one of the chief purposes of story is to forewarn us, to prepare us for the unexpected, give us abilities to cope with the new. Echoing the Russian formalists and the literary theorist Morse Peckham in his 1965 book Man’s Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behavior, and the Arts, Bruner says that story is thus a way to “domesticate” human error and surprise by conventionalizing the common forms of human mishap into genres, such as comedy, tragedy, irony, romance, etc.
Bruner begins his chapter on the relationship between the law and literature by comparing the formalist literary notion of conventions clustering together to create genres with the legal concept of precedent, for tradition is embodied both in literary conventions and in legal precedent. A lawyer (what Bruner likes to call a legal storyteller) appeals to a similarity between his or her own interpretation of the facts in the present case to similar cases in the past, much the same way a writer or reader creates or interprets a present literary work within the context of previous similar works.
A law story therefore prevails not just by its rhetoric, but also by making it clear that there are precedents that match it. Another important element common both to literature and law, says Bruner, is ritualization, for ritual makes the message seem uncontestable, suggesting that the message is inherent in the way things are and therefore beyond debate. Rituals seem so deeply embedded in a culture as to seem completely at one with common sense.
Although law often seems to be based on logic and reason, with lawyers and judges trying hard to make their stories seem factual rather than storylike, by “pleading” their case, lawyers often create drama. Moreover, law stories are more like literary stories than logical arguments in that they focus on the particular. Common law, says Bruner, looks for continuity in particulars rather than for universality by deduction from abstract rules, and this, he says, is why law cannot do without narrative.
In his third lecture, Bruner tackles the puzzling issue of self, asking the age-old question of whether there is some essential self inside us or whether self is in a constant state of creation. Bruner quickly aligns himself with the latter, stating categorically that there is no such thing as an essential self, but rather that the self is constantly constructed as a narrative to meet the needs of situations human beings encounter.
Bruner lists twelve characteristics of the self, derived from a number of psychologists: the self has intentions and aspirations; the self is sensitive to obstacles and responsive to success; the self alters aspirations in response to success or failure; the self engages in selective remembering; the self is oriented to “significant others”; the self adopts beliefs and values without losing continuity; the self is continuous over time and circumstances; the self is sensitive to where and with whom it finds itself; the self formulates itself in words; the self is moody; the self tries to maintain coherence.
He then compares these characteristics to twelve characteristics of narrative: a story needs a plot; a plot needs obstacles; obstacles make people rethink; stories are only concerned with the relevant past; characters have to have allies; characters must grow; characters have to maintain their identities and manifest their continuities; characters have to exist in a world of people characters have to explain themselves; they inevitably have moods; and characters must make sense.
Selfhood, says Bruner, is a kind of verbalized event that makes the chaos of experience into a coherent and continuous whole. It is not just language that accomplishes this, but narrative in a delicate balancing act in which the self must create a sense of autonomy with a will of its own, while at the same time it must make a commitment to the world of others. Freud discussed this concept in terms of the radically autonomous Id struggling to keep balance with the culturally demanding Superego. In literary criticism, T. S. Eliot defined the balancing act as that between Tradition and the Individual Talent, for new literary works cannot escape the controls of the traditions within which they are created.
Bruner concludes his third lecture by emphasizing the importance of being able to make stories about the self, citing a neurological disorder called “dysnarrativia,” an inability to tell or understand stories associated with such problems as Alzheimer’s disease. As one psychologist says, people who cannot construct narratives lose their concept of self. The concept of dysnarrativia seems related to a now famous study of Alzheimer’s by scientist David Snowdon, called the Nun Study. Charting the personal and medical histories of several hundred nuns, even dissecting their brains after death, Snowdon discovered that the way people express themselves in language has an effect whether they might develop Alzheimer’s in later life. Examining autobiographies of almost 200 nuns, Snowdon found that those nuns who expressed themselves in complex narratives, packing a great number of ideas into their sentences, were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who has less “idea density” in their writing.
In his short summary chapter, entitled simply, “So why narrative?” Bruner reiterates what he stated in the introductory chapter—that narrative is not only a human delight, it is also a serious business, the essential means by which we express human aspirations. Stories are important because they impose a structure on what we experience. Stories help us to cope with surprises by making them less surprising. This “domestication” of unexpectedness that story makes possible is a crucial way our culture maintains its coherence.
Bruner refers to common characteristics of language in general in the concluding chapter to suggest that narrative constitutes a kind of language itself. He discusses the two basic features of language—its remoteness of reference, i.e. its ability to refer to things not present either to speaker or listener, and its arbitrariness of reference, which frees it from pure mimesis in which signs have to resemble what they refer to. The third essential feature of language, Bruner reminds us, is its syntax, which reflects the relationships between agent, action and recipient of action.