Narrative Seduction

If you think carefully about the experiences you have and how fully you can trust them, this might be a difficult essay for you.  I already know it is going to be difficult for me.

Let’s start with some conventional common ground.  We all know that memories don’t just sit there like buried treasure.  It isn’t just “there” when you come back to get it.  It has changed in the meantime.[1]  We make fun of the way we remember “the old times,” knowing that is not really how they were.  Risks taken have gotten, since the last telling, even riskier; achievements have gotten more and more significant; most of the people we knew “back then” are now largely personalized stereotypes—not so much “persons” as “kinds of persons.”

We now know that happens in real time as well.  Here’s an example that startled me.  Jonathan Haidt is describing a moment of friction with his wife.[2]

  “In passing, she asked me not to leave dirty dishes on the counter where she prepared our baby’s food.  Her request was polite but its tone added a postscript: ‘As I have asked you a hundred times before.’  My mouth started moving before hers had stopped.  Words came out.  Those words linked themselves up to say something about the baby having woken up at the same time that our elderly dog barked to ask for a walk and I’m sorry but I just put my breakfast dishes down wherever I could.  In my family, caring for a hungry baby and an incontinent dog is a surefire excuse, so I was acquitted.”

Then, two pages later:

 “It’s true that I had eaten breakfast, given Max his first bottle, and let Andy out for his first walk, but these events had all happened at separate times.  Only when my wife criticized me did I merge them into a composite image of a harried father with too few hands, and I created this fabrication by the time she had completed her one-sentence criticism …[and] lied so quickly and convincingly and my wife and I both believed me.”

Note that he believed these spontaneous lies he was telling at the time he was telling them.  It was only later that he recalled that it hadn’t really happened that way.  And even then, it might not have happened had he not been a professor of psychology and working on a review article on moral psychology at the time all of this occurred.  So the urge to justify ourselves is, for all practical purposes, instant, comprehensive, and persuasive.

But it isn’t what I want to talk about.

Let’s think about seduction a little bit.  The root verb is the Latin duco, “to lead.”  In our use of the word, it has nearly always to do with sexual misadventures, but there is nothing essentially sexual about the word itself.  We can say “led astray;” representing the “astray” direction by the prefix se-.  Since I began using this word to help me think about these things, I have always been attracted to the presupposition of the word, namely that there is a way you should go.  If there is not a right path, there is not a wrong path.  If there is not somewhere you should go, “astray” has no meaning at all.  And I say this without considering whether the outcome of your having gone astray, of your seduction, was positive, negative, neither, or both.  It isn’t the outcome.  It is, as in Haidt’s fabrication for his wife, that he went “astray.”

Please do not be led astray.  I understand that the urge to justify ourselves is immediate and powerful.   It is also probably more beneficial than harmful, but it is not what I want to talk about today.  There is another kind of seduction.  My sense of it is that it is just as powerful and just as immediate and just as unchosen.  It is our tendency to cause our remembered experiences to conform to the demands of a narrative.

There are, certainly, narratives that seduce us.  That is not today’s topic.  Today, I am thinking about “narrativity.”  Sorry.  I am thinking about the essential character of narrative itself.  Here’s my complement of Jonathan Haidt’s story.  This happened, as I am writing this sentence, about an hour ago.

On Sundays, Bette ordinarily sleeps in so I don’t wake her when I head off to Starbucks.  I do take her Starbucks mug with me.  My New York Times had not yet come when I left, so I spent the time reading Sherry Turkle’s marvelous new Alone Together.  When I was ready to get Bette’s coffee and come home, her blend of coffee (Pike Place) was available but my blend (whatever the bold coffee is at the time) was not.[3]  While I was waiting for my coffee, one of the baristas began dragging out for disposal a substantial quantity of cardboard that Bette needed at home for a landscaping project.  We had, in fact, asked Starbucks to save some cardboard for us and they said they would, but did not.  And here it was.

And had I not waited, I would have missed it.  So why was I waiting?  I was waiting for them to make Bette’s coffee and while I was waiting, this treasure trove of cardboard arrived to complete Bette’s landscaping project.  See how pretty that is?  The loose ends are all tucked in.  The symmetry is complete.  The director of a play would say “it works better,” meaning that the audience would understand the inner connectedness of the two events (my waiting for Bette’s coffee and getting, in addition, Bette’s cardboard) and would celebrate the confluence of the two.  “That was a really good play,” they would say to each other on the way out.  “Did you notice how he was waiting for HER coffee when HER cardboard arrived?”

There is nothing even remotely self-justifying in this story.  If you felt that Haidt’s story made sense because you can see how he would want to justify himself, you will need to find another crib for this one.  Here’s mine.  We learn “narrative.”  We learn what a good narrative is at very deep levels; levels that have nothing to do with manipulating a story for immediate personal gain.  We come to feel that a narrative is an “it,” a separate entity.  We come to feel that it “wants” to be symmetrical, to be purposely and effectively shaped; it wants to “work.”  It seduces us.[4]  It leads us “astray,” remembering that if there is a wrong way (astray), there must be a right way.

And what is that right way.  Is it confessional essays like this one?   Is it remembering what “really happened”[5] for the next 30 minutes so I can tell Bette?  Memory will do what it will do in any case.  And don’t think I have help my chances at “remembering what really happened” by writing this essay.  There is now a narrative about the time I fought so hard at Starbucks to remember and tell the real truth about the coffee and the cardboard.  That narrative wants to be told.  It wants the edges trimmed off and the symmetry found that will make it a narrative that works.  And it will do that.

It can limited, to some extent, the range of changes I will allow.  Let’s say I have a spat with Starbucks and want to shift the scene of this morning’s episode over to another coffee chain or to one of the many local independent coffee shops.[6]  I can insist that the real event happened at a Starbucks no matter how I come to feel about Starbucks.  I can continue to insist that the unplanned benefit was cardboard are refuse to retell the story as if it had been plastic or Styrofoam.  But when I think of what constant elements I can insist on, I realize right away how paltry they are.  They are not even blueprints of the original event.  They are scarcely silhouettes of the original event.  And all the little things that will make the story work will be pushing at me.

If I am going to resist them, I am going to have to have a good reason to do so.  I don’t have that reason at the moment.

[1] And even if, hypothetically speaking, it had not changed, the act of digging it up would change it.

[2]The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.  This examples is described on pp. 53—54.

[3] I had to fight myself, in writing that sentence so that I would not say that Bette’s coffee was not yet ready.  It’s easier to say and makes no difference at all and even improves, I think, the narrative a little.  And if I were not writing about this topic, I probably would have said that.  And it would have been a lie and I would not have cared.

[4] If you are feeling that you want to dismiss this reflection on grounds of personification alone, I urge you to read Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene or Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.  Then we’ll talk.

[5] Which was fabricated even as a perception, let alone as an experience, let alone as a memory.

[6] Note, by the way, how the second location will eventually play off against “chains of coffee places,” while the first location will compare one chain unfavorably with another.  I will not notice that when I begin doing it, I am quite sure.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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