Are the Stories We Live True?


Are the Stories We Live True?

Good people try to live the sorts of stories that will solve the problems of their lives as reasonably and realistically as they can. Meanwhile, evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. When I first spoke in public about my view (later published in A Good Look at Evil) colleagues either treated it as a fantasy or as something a girl would like to think, poor dear.

Some years have passed and now everyone has what is called a “narrative view.” People who scorned it — and me with it back then — now act as if it’s what they always believed. I’ve been quoted and paraphrased, with and without attribution, and by now should at least have had an heroic statue or a city park dedicated in my name.

What went wrong? The later narrative-ites didn’t take over the key part of my narrative view. That we live stories, they agreed. That the stories we live are true stories? That not so much. That people of evil intent work hard to erase our stories? That not at all.

Why not? Why did the accepted view come to be that we do live “stories,” only they are fictions. Stuff we tell ourselves, stuff we make up, delusions we embrace, not true stories.

What I’m describing has been mostly the view of the intellectuals. Regular people don’t hold with this. If Sally says she found out her husband was cheating on her or Joe says his Daddy beat him – and neither is a notorious liar — Sally and Joe are believed. So what barrier do intellectuals bump up against that they think insulates them from the truth of such reports?

Coming and going and sideways, there’s still Freud’s notion of the unconscious. Freud still persuades the intellectuals that the real reasons they act or refrain from acting are “unconscious.” If you too think this, no one’s report will seem credible to you and you won’t be credible to yourself either. The quickest way to get out from under Freud’s long shadow and restore the self-trust needed for creative living is to see my column, “Freud and Fraudulence.” No charge for this therapy.

Besides Freud, there are additional reasons for the reluctance of the intellectuals to believe themselves or each other. Here I’m drawing on a book by Bernard Harrison, What Is Fiction For: Literary Humanism Restored, which sheds light on why it’s become hard for intellectuals even to read novels straightforwardly, if the novels include clear characters and legible plot lines. The English-speaking philosophers put up one sort of barrier and the Continental (i.e. French) philosophers put up a different sort.

In the English-speaking world, one kind of empiricism (associated with Bertrand Russell and the early Wittgenstein) held that a statement is true if and only if it refers to (or can be analyzed as referring to) discrete sense data like “red.” That highly abstract view of truth would regard the complex sentences of ordinary tales or novels as cluttered by countless, meaningless add-ons.

What about the Continentals? They refuse to credit meta-narratives (grand, unifying stories) and finally any narratives. Why? Here the reasons are plural and less clear. They dance away from the person trying to grasp them.

There is Gilles Deleuze, (Here I refresh my memory by drawing on Steven Smith’s recent account of Deleuze in Full History.) For Deleuze, all acts, past or future, appear outside of chronological order; we have the option of foregrounding any of them without regard to whether they have happened in the past or will happen in the future. They dazzle us and impinge on us in a “now” that is ever dancing, ever new.

Of course, in novels – as in the stories that occur in real life — there is a sequential plot line and it unfolds chronologically. When Sally married Joe, she did not know that he would cheat on her. She came to suspect it, the evidence built up, till finally it was all too clear. If everything occurs in a dancing “now,” then Sally’s story never occurred. Not the way she lived it.

Or take Michel Foucault, another French philosopher. He “deconstructs” any text into a center, where the narrative voice belongs to the powerful, while the powerless are found suppressed at the margin. Our task, when we approach a narrative, is to upend these unjust power relations. The manifest plot line merely furnishes a false consciousness, which awaits our saving inversions.

Does nothing happen in the world aside from crushing and being crushed? Same old same old? Is that your autobiography? Am I the only one here who’s had an interesting life?

Or take Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida, who claim that no telling of a story can have a fixed meaning because virtually all the words combined in the telling are dependent, for their meaning, on relations with other words, which in turn depend on still further words. So any telling of a story becomes a hall of mirrors where we never see what seems to be on view, but instead see reflections of reflections.

What are all these men telling us? Are they of any help when we deal with real happenings?

Memory takes me back to an incident years ago. I was in conference with one of my professors. He was chair of the Religion Department at the university where I was a grad student.   “Abigail,” he said to me, “you and I have been here for almost an hour, all alone, talking together in a room with the door closed. This is adultery!”

What his approach lacked in subtlety it made up for in manipulativeness. He was saying to me – who had no such idea – you have gone too far to turn back now. You have nothing to lose so you had better continue in my direction.

Can I parse this with the aid of Bertrand Russell’s empiricism? I did experience a string of sense data, smells, sounds, visual patches, but taken in isolation they would have been entirely useless to me in that situation. Sure there are sense data but they are anchored in the reality of a married philosopher who enjoys institutional authority and is plotting to get a female grad student into his prurient clutches.

Looking across the channel, can the worldly French philosophers help in this situation? Let’s see.

“Adultery” is neighbor to “adulterate”which is proximate to “contaminate” which reminds me of … blah blah blah. It’s verbal vertigo and it doesn’t help.

Try again. The chair of department is in the central position. The grad student is at the margin. Okay. True enough. But I like the guy. I think he’s been clumsy and obvious, the opposite of the seductive devil he takes himself to be. My real chore at this point is to get past an awkward moment, where I am sincerely embarrassed for him, and get back to the real basis for our connection: institutional and philosophical.

There are real stories happening all about us. The best novels train us to notice them, as the best paintings train to see in the real world what they have captured on the painted world.

Ordinarily I stay away from ontology (the theory of being). And from metaphysics (the theory of the relations between whatever things have ultimate reality).

However, in this case, I venture into ontology or maybe metaphysics. Everything that is not a story is an abstraction – something lifted out of the richly textured story where originally it was found.

Our stories are the most real thing there is.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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