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The Sorrow of Life Stories
"All sorrows may be borne if you may put them into a story or tell a story about them." Hannah Arendt uses Isak Dinesen's beautiful proverb as the epigraph to "Action" in The Human Condition. This chapter is based on the remarkable theme of the "disclosure of the agent in speech and action" (HC, 24), followed by its corollary: it is in narrative that the disclosure of the "who" is fulfilled, thanks to the weaving of the web of relationships between agents and the circumstances of action. What is lost, at least for a moment (it is explored a little later in "the frailty of human affairs" [HC, 26]), is the burden of these sorrows in the epigraph. Hence my question: what resources does the "story" have to make sorrows bearable?
It is in examining this question that I would like to enrich and reinforce the conclusions of Richard Kearney's On Stories. I will do this by adding the adjective acting to that of suffering, referring to the acting and suffering person. This topic is not absent in On Stories. The three case histories explored by Kearney-Joyce's Dedalus, Freud's Dora, and Spielberg's Schindler-are about sorrows, whether they be the torments of hysteria or the unspeakable horror of the death camps. In this way, sorrow is in each case the answer to the question that opens the book: where do stories come from? However, in none of these cases does the story make sorrow bearable: Molly's final soliloquy in Ulysses does not achieve this effect. Similarly, Dora is not cured (perhaps because her case was used to verify a theory that would take shape more so in Freud's biography), and the suffering of extermination exceeds the resources of narrative-cinematic as much as literary. If sorrow is neither absent nor resolved in Kearney's journey through personal narratives, it goes no differently in the national narratives and archetypal images: the founding myths of Rome, the humiliating representations of the Irish by the British, the distorted relationships of Americans and their others-the border crossings that prove to be the source of an alienation that makes neighbors into strangers.
What then can I add to this ensemble of stories generated by the innumerable figures of sorrow? I propose a reflection on the capacity to bear, to endure, that is generated by narrative. A void remains to be filled in the concluding chapter of On Stories, "Narrative Matters." This chapter centers, like Arendt's "Action," on the relationship between the narrative and the acting person. Kearney shows himself to be concerned by the postmodern critique of traditional narratives, whether fiction or history (coinciding paradoxically, though for opposite reasons, with the negationist criticism of the Shoah). At stake is the persistence of the very capacity to narrate in a time of fragmentation and the dispersion of human experience in its totality. In his response, Kearney finds support from what seems to validate the persistence of the capacity to narrate, exemplified in the perennial nature of the categories of narrative theory drawn from Aristotle's Poetics; it is the link between narrative and action that is at the center of the theory, which is a matter of mythos, mimesis, or catharsis. The basic argument is that life itself is in search of narrative "because it strives to discover a pattern to cope with the experience of chaos and confusion" (OS, 125).
Cast in these terms, Kearney's argument leaves me enough leeway to join suffering to action. However, following Aristotle, what is said of life is recentered on action in order to introduce the topic of mimesis, the mimesis of action, by virtue of the thesis taken from the anthropological part of the Nichomachean Ethics, according to which action "is always conducted in view of some end" (1094a2). One can thus affirm that "each human life is always already an implicit story" (OS, 137).
But does not sorrow come to cast its shadow on the teleological version of human action that secures the primacy of action in the theory of narrative? Does it not place in doubt the assertion according to which it would be the life of each person that would "always already" be an implicit story? My suggestion here is that the arguments that follow the definition of narrative as "mimesis of action" or "acting persons" would emerge reinforced by the addition of suffering to action, whether it be a matter of redefining mimesis as "re-creation," catharsis as "release," phronésis as "wisdom," and finally ethos as an "ethics" concerned with a persisting self-identity, which endures through a life of memories, projects, and one's presence in the world.
How would this widening of the referential base of narrative be carried out? It would need to recapture the theme of mourning by revealing its narrative component. To this end, I will rely on the rapprochement, suggested in my La mémoire, l'histoire, l'oubli, between what Freud says in "Mourning and Melancholia" about the distinctive features of mourning compared with melancholia and Freud's comments in "Recollection, Repetition, and Working Through" on the distinctive features of recollection when "working through" frees it from repetition. But, as Kearney has done in On Stories, I will not make psychoanalysis the only resource for a reflection on the narrative component of mourning. Psychoanalysis operates under the restrictive conditions that comprise the rule of "telling all," the abandon of free association, the role of transference and countertransference. I want to hold up the experience of analysis as a model and guide concerning the ways of facing tragedy and sorrow in the normal circumstances of life, those of ordinary neurosis.
It was these circumstances of tragedy that I took as my reference point in "Evil, a Challenge to Philosophy and Theology," included in Figuring the Sacred. I return to my attempt to learn a lesson from the rapprochement between "Mourning and Melancholia" and "Recollection, Repetition, and Working Through." The title of the first essay does not evoke narrative at all but introduces the idea of the work of mourning, onto which I will graft my theme of the work of narrative as applied to sorrow. The situations to which mourning reacts are situations of sorrow: the loss of a loved one or of an abstraction set up in place of this person. As for the "work of mourning," it consists of this: "the testing of reality, having shown that the loved object no longer exists, requires forthwith that all the libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to this object. Against this demand a struggle of course arises." There follows Freud's description of the "large cost of time and cathectic energy" that this obedience of the libido to the orders of reality requires, in spite of the continued existence of the lost object in psychic intimacy. The detailed realization of each order laid down by reality is the work of mourning. Is it not to a work of memory that the work of mourning can in its turn cathect? Is the feeling of mourning not based on complaints that melancholy has transformed into "plaints" (Ihre Klagen sind Anklagen)? Is it not these complaints and accusations that narrative struggles to tell differently?
This suggestion finds support in Freud's second essay. Here it is the tendency to act out (passer à l'acte), which Freud sees as a "substitute for memory," that occasions a transition toward narrative. The patient, Freud writes, "does not reproduce the forgotten fact in the form of remembering but in the form of action; he repeats it, obviously without knowing that he repeats it." Freud explains the phenomenon in terms of the link between resistance and the compulsion for repetition. This is where the obstacle to remembering resides. It is then the "translaboration" or "working out" that makes recollection a work, the work of memory. Is this not, once again, a contact point for a narrative that should be called a labor of narrative? Does this work of narrative not lie in the transition between what I call in Time and Narrative the "configuration" constitutive of emplotment and the "refiguration" of life by the practice of narrative? The work of narrative would thus be the narrative form of "working through."
It is in widening this breach in the direction of the work of mourning, with which all acting and suffering beings are confronted, that I return to Kearney's closing statement in On Stories in order to amplify it and reinforce it (OS, 156). Yes, "all sorrows may be borne if you may put them into a story or tell a story about them." But narratives that are able to make sorrows bearable and to make us able to endure them constitute but one element of the work of mourning. Peter Homans, in The Ability to Mourn, shows that this work, which all of psychoanalysis seeks to explore, extends from the whole of our archaic and infantile beliefs to our disappointments and disillusions, and in general to everything in our existence that bears the mark of loss. Loss is the overarching pattern into which sorrow fits. It is this that I implied in my 1986 essay on evil. It spoke initially about mourning to address speculative explanations in the form of theodicy and evoked a broken dialectic, perhaps close to what Kearney is developing in The God Who May Be. The essay continued by referring to work carried out in the field of action (evil is that which must be fought) and completed in the transformation of feeling: at this point I evoked the work of mourning put at the service of appeasing the complaint. It is here that the work of narrative constitutes an essential element of the work of mourning understood as the acceptance of the irreparable.
My conviction is that the final chapter of On Stories, "Narrative Matters," emerges reinforced by the addition of suffering to acting, of sorrow to praxis. It works better than ever thanks to this expanding of the ways "of making our lives into life-stories" (OS, 129).
The Crisis of Authority
QUESTION: One of the main arguments in On Stories and Strangers, Gods, and Monsters is that we live in a time of crisis-crisis of imaginative identity, crisis of imagination, crisis of legitimation, crisis of authority. In American and Western society, we have witnessed the collapse of a number of major national and international institutions-from the Catholic Church (due to the abuse scandals) and corporate capitalism (Enron and Wall Street post-9/11) to the basic practice of the United Nations with regard to the Iraq debacle. How do you think philosophy might best respond to this climate of crisis?
PAUL RICOEUR: A key problem today is authority. Authority is disappearing from our world. When Hannah Arendt asks, "What is authority?" she immediately adds, "What was authority?" But what has vanished? I would say it is the right to be ordered or obeyed without having to be legitimated, because the great problem of authority is legitimation. After the 1970s, there was a suspicion of anyone having authority. This crisis laid bare the very structure of authority, which is the role of hierarchical relationship among equalitarian relations-or to put it in a spatial metaphor, a vertical relationship crossing a horizontal one: living together as equals on the one hand and obeying orders on the other. Authority has to be legitimated. It is the capacity to give reasons in a crisis situation. Before, of course, one had to give reasons, but in a sense, authority worked by a kind of social inertia because it was learned. The antiquity of authority was considered enough because it had a long past in itself. Authority relied on memory.
Nowadays people need explanations for authority. In his book On Justification, the French sociologist Luc Boltanski argues that today everyone must be able to justify what she or he does, and that this necessity to be justified in each situation is new. In the past, the very fact that there was "authorized" authority meant "it was so." But today authority is always in question. As we say in French, Qui t'a fait roi? We always look for another authority behind authority. It is regressive. Where is the end point? Is there something indefinite in authority or a kind of ultimate point where something will be authorized by itself? It is the lack of this ultimate point of reference that defines our modern situation. To go beyond these generalities, I should distinguish between some typical situations, because authority does not work the same way according to different circles of allegiance. Following Luc Boltanski, we may distinguish between five or six different "worlds" or "cities." Concerning the grammar of grandeur, we could say that in a traditional society the model would be the king. But in a modern democratic society, what is the paradigm of grandeur? We are not "great" in every respect. We are great according to certain rules of estimation. In a city of creativity or inspiration, for example, among artists and writers, the paradigm of greatness is the recognition of creativity, and we have many criteria for this. It has to do with the capacity to produce something new. But if you speak of the city of fame, if you speak of sports, for example, a great cyclist, you are great according to quite different rules-for example, recognized performance, because fame here is to be recognized in the opinion of others. You are not necessarily great in domestic relationships, because fame is something larger than the family. Still, in our modern society, the model of the couple involves what the Greeks would have called the oikos, the home. The relationship between father, mother, and child is one part of it; the relationship between the sexes another. In medieval society, for the traditional aristocracy, for example, we could say that the model of the home was prevalent. The French or British court was both a house and the central power. The model of the home absorbed the political relationship. Then in the merchant bourgeois relationship, the capacity to exchange, and to invent new modes of exchange, became the prevalent model of the city. Today the Internet is the typical model of a world expansion of the relationship of merchants. Everything is merchandise.
QUESTION: Where does authority reside now?
RICOEUR: Today political relationships are part of our system, but only partial relationships in the sense that we are not always concerned with voting, giving our opinion in opinion polls, or taking part in political meetings. But we remain citizens; the authority of the state still obtains. It concerns only part of our activity, but at the same time it is the condition of all the other relationships of the modern nation-state-this is especially so in Europe. Here the problem of authority is brought to its extreme because there is no end to the problem of legitimacy. What makes the authority of the governing power from Hobbes and Machiavelli to Hegel, for instance, is the recurring question, who or what possesses the right to corrupt others? Because the problem of authority becomes that of sovereignty-what is so supreme that there is nothing higher? Then we come back to the core problem: what makes legitimate a hierarchical relationship in our democratic tradition of equality? This was the problem of Tocqueville in Democracy in America. Coming from Europe, where there was the presupposition of aristocratic superiority, he encountered a society in America where there was no theoretical supremacy, no superiority. Where, therefore, was the recognition of superiority to come from? That was Tocqueville's question. And then, we have Rousseau, of course, speaking of the "labyrinth of politics."
Excerpted from TRAVERSING THE IMAGINARY
Copyright © 2007 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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