Friday, April 04, 2008

The Narrative of Life

"Living is easy with eyes closed,
Misunderstanding all you see,
It's getting hard to be someone,
but it all works out.
It doesn't matter much to me."
--John Lennon, Strawberry Fields Forever
In a story, the narrative is how a story is told - typically by a narrator. And behind this narrator is the author (the person doing the typing, in this case). But, what if, like in fiction, "real" life were narrated? Not to say that there is a person "telling" our life's story in any one's head; rather, I'm asking: Is the narrative of our lives already written?

Let me give an example of what I mean. A basic narrative might be:

We attend grammar school, and then we move to high school, and next to university/college, and then we go to work for 20-35 years, after which we retire and enjoy life (that last bit seems to come rather late in life, doesn't it?).

Does this narrative sound familiar? We can add subplots into it, such as we don't go to school and go straight to a job. Or we get married and buy a house - or have children, or all of those. We change jobs. We get divorced. Maybe through in a hobby or two, and a vacation, and so on. But, in the end, the basic narrative seems to be intact.

Now if we go with this metaphor of life being narrated, then it begs the question: Who is the author? If we are characters in life, living a narrated "tale of life," then who is writing the story? Are we original characters or archetypes? It would be a shame to find out we weren't as original as we thought - just pulled from a history of similar characters and given a new name. Or does being original really matter, so long as the story is compelling?

Of course, all of the above is just a metaphor. In fiction, metaphors are used to compare things. They allow us to look from different perspectives, from new vantage points. And, they obviously work outside of fiction - in real life. At the very least, all of this might be used to say that fiction and life have more in common than we normally imagine.


Jeff Edwards said...

A few things come to mind when reading your post. First, your comment about retirement: I think of the expression, "Youth is wasted on the young." Then, as you describe the "typical" path a life might take, I wonder: Have you ever played the board game called Life? It's a perfect concrete example of what you're describing. You start off, make a decision to attend college or go straight to work, choose a profession from a stack of cards, maybe have children, etc.

Now, we need to remember that our concept of a "typical" life is rooted in our experiences, and is not truly "typical" across the world.

But, to answer one of your questions, I believe we are generally falling into archetypal roles. Like the game of Life, we make some choices, and other "choices" are made for us by the drawing of a card or the rolling of a die. Then, we follow along that new path as expected.

Of course, in my own mind, I plan to shake things up a bit when my son graduates from college. At that point, I plan to make some radical career change -- some sort of dramatic change where I leap from the career ladder and pursue some other winding path. Only time will tell if I break free from my "scripted" life or follow along obediently until my denouement.


William Jones said...

Jeff - I quote Benjamin Franklin quite often. In particularly, my youth was wasted on my youth. :) There is some irony to the common expression that "Life starts with retirement."

And you're right, the "typical" life I described is for mainly Western culture - although something akin to it is spreading around the world. All in all, there really is no "typical."

Yes, I have played "Life," the game - and I suppose "Life," the life. :) In the game, the "choices" are somewhat false in that they are predetermined (shuffled maybe, and randomized by dice), but is that choice or luck of the draw/dice? Of course, that same question extends into the topic at hand. What are the choices?

I guess fiction imitates life - or is that life imitates fiction.... I just need to find out what genre I'm in - that will reveal the ending (maybe).

Jeff Edwards said...

I was going to mention something about the board game being too dependent on chance rather than choice -- by the draw of a card, you're earning the salary of a doctor or a teacher, for example -- but doesn't this happen to us in life, too? Maybe there's an unexpected pregnancy early in life and someone must go right to work instead of pursuing further education, or maybe a person has a great desire to be a fighter pilot but has terrible vision and must choose another vocation.

Well, I don't normally wax philosophical so I will end this. Which brings up another thought: In Douglas Winter's book of interviews, FACES OF FEAR, he found that a great many of the horror writers he interviewed were either agnostic or atheists. I wonder how that plays into this discussion...?


Heather said...

This is why I read. It helps to take my mind of the everyday grind.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think back on how I took so much for granted when I was younger, and I wish I hadn't. But we can't live backward, although we might accomplish far more if we could.

The commentary about the layers of characters creating characters reminds me of a book. I'm having a hard time with the title, but it was filmed as "The 13th floor." OH, now I remember: Simulcron 3

Steve Buchheit said...

I think it all depends on how one looks at life. If you're looking into the past, sure, it looks narrated. However, looking forward, where's the narration? Predetermination vs. free will, it's the same argument. As to the question of being original or archetypal, well, it's all archetypal in the end, isn't it. We may think we're being original, but when viewed from a distance, and genericized, it's all archetypal. That's because that's what archetypes are, isn't it?

Sure, Sartre is all well and good, but there are pressures and ramifications of our decisions that we as free people are unwilling to accept, so many choices, paths if you will, that aren't even considered because we can't foresee their ends. Let's say right at this moment I take up my wife's suggestion that we just sell everything and move to France. Sounds impulsive, dangerous, new. However, I know three people who have done similar things (one to Ireland, one to New Zealand, and another to Washington). So that wouldn't be all that original, as I have a template, even though such an action would be very unique for me.

When we make life changing decisions, we feel like were taking that new path, but at best we are taking the path less trod. Doesn't make them any less special, neither does staying on the more well trod paths. What makes the difference is if the traveller is being true to themselves as to which path they need to be on.