Posts Tagged ‘David Mitchell’

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…

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