Narrative, truth and lies

September 14, 2021

The idea that all narratives are lies surfaced during a discussion (of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas) in our book group recently, and has been preoccupying me since then. The notion quickly needed some qualification. I think it’s clear we refer to fictional narratives here, to describe which we might use the words ‘invented’ ‘untrue’ ‘lies’, all of which have certain connotations. At one level it’s clearly a matter of semantics, but we normally overlook the invented-ness of fictional narrative and the implications thereof. The word fiction itself means something made, as in invented, and this should lead us, as I recall frequently reminding my students, to reflect on the author, the maker, as well, and her/his purposes and choices as s/he made their narrative. What had they chosen to include, exclude, emphasise? How had they ordered their invented artefact, and how did that affect the ways we received, understood and interpreted it?

There is perhaps a certain relative innocence to fiction, in contrast to the benefits from making things up, or lying in other contexts. Untruths in the personal and the imaginative spheres are not qualitatively the same thing… we may tell untruths for personal gain or advantage: consider almost any politician you care to name (said he cynically).

We like and enjoy made-up stories, and this reflects a higher stage of development and mental operation, that we can imagine, visualise, and create things which are not. Even in our prehistory, humans created art, music, poetry, story. It is deeply hard-wired into us.

Stories we read, as well as entertaining us, broaden our knowledge and experience of the world vicariously: we can explore situations and emotions we may not have experienced personally, and learn something from them. Someone – I have a suspicion it may have been Umberto Eco – pointed out that a reader lives thousands of lives as well as their own. And narratives – factual ones, based on real events we have experienced ourselves – are also surely a way we use to make sense of our own lives, as we see progressions and developments, and become aware of connections between events and experiences.

Mitchell was trying to make a point about other narratives, too, I think: the narratives that we, as a species, the human race, tell about ourselves: our histories. And these may be based on facts, have facts behind them, but are nevertheless made, shaped and interpreted by those who write them, and there are agendas and effects that we need to be aware of behind such narratives. In some ways, I think he was saying, the created narratives can over-write the realities they sprang from…

If, for instance, we read a narrative of ourselves as basically a selfish, or a warlike species, or a cruel species, do we unconsciously accept and integrate those interpretations unthinkingly? Do we believe we are innately competitive, that it’s about the survival of the fittest because we have been told this so often? In which case, who told us, and why? And if so, what if we tried different narratives, ones which focused on co-operation, on mutual self-help, on our capacity for good? Might this affect our future behaviour, might it be capable of changing subtly our lives and our world for the better? Interesting stuff…

3 Responses to “Narrative, truth and lies”

  1. wallyzed Says:

    Interesting stuff indeed! The concept of narrative is a powerful one – we often talk of *this* or *that* narrative, but I’m more interested in narrative as a method for structuring the passage of time, and ultimately for bringing a sense of order to reality itself. I would argue that this structuring is, in essence, similar to telling a story, but at a more fundamental level.

    If I recount what I’ve done today, I’m unlikely to describe it as a set of random events, some deliberate, some accidental, some done to me, some observed, some mediated, some semi-forgotten and so on. I’m more likely to describe them in a sequence; I may not mention some; I may ascribe cause to some and effect to others.

    For me, this is narrative almost forcing me to bring agency, focus and sense into my life. Where would we be without words like but, if, then, because, and, so ?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Some narratives, even highly imaginative, are a pleasure to accept and ride along with, while others either (for me) are avoided completely due to a constantly developing and acted upon discernment, while attempting to remain open minded and not become narrow in one’s choices of reading material. Occasionally we come across something that does both, that can both resonate or be accepted as a truth and at a certain point the author’s choices will provoke outrage at the perceived lies.

    This year I read Brian Moore’s The Passion of Judith Hearne and was outraged by how he chose to portray his character and went looking for discussion of my issue since most readers were praising him. Truth, lies or gross exaggeration?
    I found his hidden/intended agenda discussed in an article by Colm Toibin that highlighted the author’s “using” a female character to portray certain views that weren’t able to be expressed by a male character without compromising them. I remain outraged. But I note that even with narrative flexibility, the rules have changed and the lies author’s imagine onto the page have to move with the times.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. litgaz Says:

    Your point about remaining open-minded is an important one, I feel. Quite often I find myself thinking, I know what I like, and using that (along with advancing age!) as an excuse for not trying something different… Having become a member of a book group about a year ago, I’m being pushed to try writers I wouldn’t normally bother with, and it’s quite hard, sometimes!


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