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Stories pervade our daily lives, from human interest news items, to a business strategy described to a colleague, to daydreams between chores. Stories are what we use to make sense of the world. But how does this work?
In Making Stories, the eminent psychologist Jerome Bruner examines this pervasive human habit and suggests new and deeper ways to think about how we use stories to make sense of lives and the great moral and psychological problems that animate them. Looking at legal cases and autobiography as well as literature, Bruner warns us not to be seduced by overly tidy stories and shows how doubt and double meaning can lie beneath the most seemingly simple case.
THE USES OF STORY
Do we need another book about narrative, about stories, what they are and how they are used? We listen to them endlessly, tell them as easily as we grasp them—true or false ones, real ones or make-believe, accusations and excuses, we take them all in stride. We are so adept at narrative that it seems almost as natural as language itself. We know how to tailor our stories quite effortlessly to further our own ends (beginning with those sly twists that shift the blame for the spilt milk to a younger sibling) and know when others are doing the same. Our lives with stories start early and go on ceaselessly: no wonder we know how to deal with them. Do we really need a book about anything as obvious as narrative?
I think so, and for the very reason that the subject is almost deadeningly obvious. For our intuitions about how to make a story or how to get the point of one are so implicit, so inaccessible to us, that we stumble when we try to explain, to ourselves or to some dubious other, what makes something a story rather than, say, an argument or a recipe. And though we may be crafty in shaping our stories to our own purposes, we still falter when trying to explain why Iago's tales, for example, undermine Othello's faith in Desdemona. We are not very good at grasping how story explicitly "transfigures the commonplace." This asymmetry between doing and understanding is reminiscent of young kids being skillful at divvying up marbles but having little inkling of the mathematics that guides them—or, perhaps, of ancient Egyptians who fashionedthe pyramids before understanding the geometry needed to do so.
What we know intuitively about stories is enough to get us through the familiar routines, but it serves us much less well when we try to understand or explain what we are doing or try to get it under deliberate control. It is like our early and naive grasp of space and number, celebrated by Jean Piaget. To get beyond implicitness and intuition, we seem to need some sort of outside hoist, something to take us up a level. And that is what this book is intended to be—a hoist up.
Why haven't there been more such hoists before? Are the underlying principles of narrative difficult to capture and formulate? Perhaps. We have some reason for dodging the issue, choosing to live with our shadowy intuitions instead. We surely haven't been without geniuses on the subject, though we've been inclined to ignore them as either arcane or too subtle by twice—like Aristotle, whose Poetics is full of stunning insights even for the contemporary reader. Why hasn't his concept of peripeteia been as widely taught to schoolkids as the geometer's less magical notion of the hypotenuse of a right triangle? A peripeteia, a sudden reversal in circumstances, swiftly turns a routine sequence of events into a story: a seemingly true-blue-English Oxbridge physicist turns out to have been leaking atomic secrets to the Russians, or a presumably merciful God all of a sudden asks the faithful Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. But not every upset of expectancy qualifies as a peripeteia. Is Aristotle's dissection of what makes a peripeteia work any less useful than Pythagoras's specifying that a hypotenuse is a line intersecting two others that form a right angle between them, with the square of the first equal to the sum of the other two squared? Why do we fob Pythagoras off on eighth-graders but never breathe a word to them about Aristotle on narrative? (We shall come to the niceties of the peripeteia presently.)
There may be something more than the subtlety of narrative structure that keeps us from making the leap from intuition to explicit understanding, something more than that narrative is murky, hard to pin down. Is it that storytelling is somehow not innocent, surely not as innocent as geometry, that it even has a wicked or immoral penumbra? We sense, for example, that too good a story is somehow not to be trusted. It implies too much rhetoric, something fake. Stories, presumably in contrast to logic or science, seem too susceptible to ulteriority—to special pleading and particularly to malice.
Perhaps this suspicion is justified. Stories are surely not innocent: they always have a message, most often so well concealed that even the teller knows not what ax he may be grinding. For example, stories typically begin by taking for granted (and asking the hearer or reader to take for granted) the ordinariness or normality of a given state of things in the world—what ought to prevail when Red Riding Hood visits her grandmother, or what a black kid ought to expect on arriving at a school door in Little Rock, Arkansas, after Brown v. Board of Education struck down racial segregation. And then the peripeteia upsets the expected sequence—it's a wolf dressed in Grandma's clothes, or Governor Faubus's Arkansas militia is blocking your entrance—and the story is on its way, with the initial normative message lurking in the background. Perhaps folk wisdom recognizes that it is better to let that normative message stay implicit rather than risk open confrontation about it. Would the Church want readers of Genesis to rail at the initial void that preceded heaven and earth, protesting "Ex nihil nihilo"? Thus literary theorists are wont to say that fictional terms only mean something in, but do not denote, the actual world. Only lawyers or psychoanalysts would ask who the Wizard of Oz really stood for! Yet a young classics don at Oxford once told me scoldingly that Sigmund Freud's familistic realism had destroyed Oedipus Rex as a dramatic narrative for his generation. And I couldn't help complain back that what Freud had done for Oedipus Rex might have been even worse for family life offstage!
In any case, whatever the source of our odd reticence, we rarely inquire as to the shape reality is given when we dress it up as story. Common sense stoutly holds that the story form is a transparent window on reality, not a cookie cutter imposing a shape on it. Never mind that we all know, for example, that the worlds of good stories are peopled with free-willed protagonists of idealized courage or terror or malevolence who have to cope with obstacles to their desires that are preternatural, even preternaturally ordinary. Never mind that we know, again implicitly, that the real world is not "really" like this, that there are narrative conventions governing storied worlds. For we also cling to narrative models of reality and use them to shape our everyday experiences. We say of people we know in real life that they are Micawbers or characters right out of a Thomas Wolfe novel.
I recall returning to New York from a visit in Europe a month or so after the outbreak of World War II on a ship that departed from Bordeaux with a miscellany of American expatriates. A press account, perhaps in The New Yorker's Talk of the Town, announced that the SS Shawnee, my ship, had arrived in New York the previous Wednesday with passengers who were like the cast of The Sun Also Rises, a then still popular Hemingway novel about the expatriate smart set. Having lived out the ten-day passage amid the heartbroken people on the boat—families separating for safety, merchants leaving their businesses behind, refugees fleeing the Nazis—I couldn't help being bemused by the ever-ready impulse to see life as imitating art. And I, too, was using a narrative in conceiving that journey: the Shawnee's voyage as yet another enactment of the biblical Book of Exodus!
We should not write off this power of story to shape everyday experience as simply another error in our human effort to make sense of the world, though cognitive scientists are sometimes wont to do this. Nor should we shunt it off to the philosopher in the armchair, concerned with the age-old dilemma as to whether and how epistemological processes lead to valid ontological outcomes (that is, with how mere experience gets you to true reality). In dealing with narrative reality, we like to invoke Gottlob Frege's classic distinction between "sense" and "reference," the former connotational, the latter denotational, and we like to say that literary fiction does not refer to anything in the world but only provides the sense of things. Yet it is the sense of things often derived from narrative that makes later real-life reference possible. Indeed, we refer to events and things and people by expressions that situate them not just in an indifferent world but in a narrative one: "heroes" to whom we give medals for "valor," "broken contracts" where one party has failed to show "good-faith effort," and the like. Heroes and broken contracts can be referred to only by virtue of their prior existence in a narrative world. Perhaps Frege meant to say (he is ambiguous on the matter) that sense is also a way to give experiential shape, even to find what is referred to—as Dickens's fictional Mr. Micawber leads us to see certain real-life people in a new and different way, perhaps even to look for Micawbers. But I am getting ahead of myself. All I want to say for the moment is that narrative, including fictional narrative, gives shape to things in the real world and often bestows on them a title to reality.
So automatic and swift is this process of constructing reality that we are often blind to it—and rediscover it with a shock of recognition or resist discovering it with a cry of "postmodern rubbish!" Narrative meanings impose themselves on the referents of presumably true stories—for example, in the law, with an offense like "attractive nuisance," a tort judged to be present when somebody is lured into danger by an irresistible temptation created by somebody else. And so, by a court's judgment, your unfenced swimming pool is transformed from a place of innocent family pleasure into an actionable public menace, and you are liable. Irresistible temptation? Well, we cannot define it precisely, but we can illustrate by a line of legal precedent that tells supposedly similar stories. Anthropologists, to take another example, are becoming aware of the real-life political consequences of their own style of telling stories about primitive people—how, for instance, their talk about cultural autonomy may have provided justification, however cynically, for South Africa's apartheid policy.
Only when we suspect we have the wrong story do we begin asking how a narrative may structure (or distort) our view of how things really are. And eventually we ask how story, eo ipso, shapes our experience of the world. Psychoanalysis, for example, asks how a patient's way of telling about her life affects how she lives it—Oscar Wilde's life imitating art transferred to the analytic couch.
But let us stay a while longer with narratives of the imagination and with the question of how fiction creates realities so compelling that they shape our experience not only of the worlds the fiction portrays but of the real world. Great fiction proceeds by making the familiar and the ordinary strange again—as the Russian formalists used to put it, by "alienating" the reader from the tyranny of the compellingly familiar. It offers alternative worlds that put the actual one in a new light. Literature's chief instrument in creating this magic is, of course, language: its tropes and devices that carry our meaning-making beyond banality into the realm of the possible. It explores human plights through the prism of imagination. At its best and most powerful, fiction, like the fateful apple in the Garden of Eden, is the end of innocence.
Plato knew this all too well when he banned the poets from his republic. Tyrants knew this truth without Plato's instruction, as have all revolutionaries, rebels, and reformers. Uncle Tom's Cabin played as great a part in precipitating the American Civil War as any debate in Congress. Indeed, debates about slavery were banned from the floor of Congress after one of them led to a caning, and this lent the power of rarity to Harriet Beecher Stowe's remarkable novel, setting the travails of slavery in a narrative of suffering responded to by human kindness. And a century later, as we shall see, the novelists, poets, and playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance set the stage for the antisegregation ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education by humanizing the plight of African-Americans living with the mockery of Jim Crow's separate-but-equal doctrine.
That classics don who complained to me about Freud's domestication of the Oedipus legend had a point—in turning Oedipus into a lesson, Freud had sapped the play's power to create imaginary worlds beyond psychoanalysis. For dramas like Oedipus Rex, even though they have the power to end innocence, are not lessons but temptations to reconsider the obvious. Great fiction is subversive in spirit, not pedagogical.
There seem to be two motives for looking closely at what narrative is and how it works. One is to control it or to sanitize its effects—as in law, where tradition forges procedures for keeping the stories of plaintiffs and defendants within recognized bounds, or where legal scholars explore the kinship among claims that constitute a putative line of precedent (as when they set the limits on stories about "attractive nuisance"); or as in psychiatry, where patients must be helped to tell the right kinds of stories in order to get well. The other motive for studying narrative is to understand it so as to cultivate its illusions of reality, to "subjunctivize" the self-evident declaratives of everyday life. Its practitioners are literary—critics in all their guises and also creators, even the occasional Peter Brook.
Until recent times, relations between these two differently motivated types, anti-fabulists and fabulists, have been remote, each regarding the other as somehow soiling. But the two have grown closer. Now there is a new and respectable genre of legal scholarship, "law and literature," devoted to their shared dilemmas, with the novelist-critic Janet Malcolm writing searchingly about law stories and law professors like James Boyd White producing searching essays on the metaphoric role of Heracles' bow in the law. But though they have grown closer, their kinship is not like that between, say, biology and medicine or physics and chemistry—pure and applied or abstract and concrete. Yet the fabulists and anti-fabulists have at least come to know they must borrow from each other—though it is still obscure what coin is involved in the transaction.
Some points are becoming clearer. Literary narrative, to achieve its effect, must have its roots in familiar territory, in the seemingly real. Its mission, after all, is to make the familiar strange again, to transmute the declarative into the subjunctive? Where better to do it, for example, than in the stifling familiar reality of the family, as with Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, which begins in banal family routines and ends by plumbing the darkness of domesticated madness and decay? Or where better than in a courtroom, with its stately and ordered mise-en-scène and established procedures for exploring our obsessional search for order and justice?
Legal stories used in courts—as opposed to literary representations of them—however constrained they may be by procedural rules, also need to evoke familiar, conventional realities, if only to highlight the offending deviations from them. So law stories, too, draw on established narrative tradition. As Robert Cover remarked in his classic 1983 article, "Nomos and Narrative":
No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. For every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture. Once understood in the context of the narratives that give it meaning, law becomes not merely a system of rules to be observed, but a world in which to live.
Excerpted from MAKING STORIES by Jerome Bruner. Copyright © 2002 by Jerome Bruner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. The Uses of the Story
2. The Legal and the Literary
3. The Narrative Creation of Self
4. So Why Narrative?