A narrative to end all narratives?
Alice: But I don’t want to go among mad people.
The Cat: Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.
Alice: How do you know I’m mad?
The Cat: You must be. Or you wouldn’t have come here.
A common feature of the kind of madness that modern psychologists call psychosis is delusion, that is, a perception of events that does not conform to experiences of the majority of people. A person with a psychosis may be subject to audial or visual hallucinations, that is, experiences they have that other people are not experiencing. It is not uncommon for a person with a psychosis to have a sense of self-importance or extraordinary ability, called a delusion of grandeur; this sense is sometimes accompanied by a feeling that one is so important that others are conspiring to thwart his efforts or bring him harm, which is called a paranoid delusion. People living with those who have been diagnosed with a psychosis sometimes report that the psychotic is convinced that he alone is sane and the the rest of the world is crazy. Whatever its content may be, delusional thinking involves a narrative, a story that the thinker is weaving to make some sense of his or her experiences.
The very idea of delusion presupposes a correct narrative, deviation from which constitutes fantasy. What is considered correct can vary considerably from one time to another—one need only recall that there was a time when the narrative that the earth was fixed in space and that the sun, planets and stars all rotated around it was so firmly established that alternative accounts of the relative positions of heavenly bodies was considered preposterous. Even at the same time, there can be significant differences among narratives. The Qur’ān, for example, claims to correct the mistaken narrative of the Christian gospels that Jesus died on the cross—Jesus was not crucified, says Qur’ān 14:157, it appeared to some that he had been. From the perspective of one who accepts the narrative of the Qur’ān as the true standard, the appearance of the crucifixion of Jesus may have been a hallucination, and the gospel narrative is an example of delusional thinking.
Consensus is not necessarily a reliable criterion of what is actually the case. Indeed, logicians regard the appeal to popular consensus an informal fallacy, called argumentum ad populum. It is absurd to believe that something must be true simply because most people believe it, equally absurd to hold the contrarian belief that something must be false simply because most people believe it.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900), who by popular consensus was, or at least was becoming, insane during the years when his most often-cited works were written, famously wrote “There are no facts, only interpretations.” If he was sincere in writing those words, of course, he cannot have believed that to have been a factual claim; it was merely a statement of how he interpreted things. It was his narrative of the moment, one that presumably helped him make some sense of what he was experiencing.
Narrative, the telling of stories, is most often done with language, although it is also possible through images such as wordless cartoons or mime. Language has been regarded with particular suspicion both by some individuals and some traditions. Consider the Daoist saying, “Those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know.” Or consider the character Hugo in Iris Murdoch’s novel Under the Net, who says in chapter four to the first-person narrator:
“All the time when I speak to you, even now, I’m saying not precisely what I think, but what will impress you and make you respond. That’s so even between us—and how much more it’s so where there are stronger motives for deception. In fact, one’s so used to this one hardly sees it. The whole language is a machine for making falsehoods.”
There were (and perhaps still are) some Buddhists who seemed to agree with Hugo’s claim that “the whole language is a machine for making falsehoods.” The Mādhyamika philosopher Candrakīrti, for example, can be interpreted as having held the position that propositions and propositional thinking have a place in the world of commerce (vyavahāra) and other practical goal-driven enterprises, but they have at the very best an asymptotic relationship with the greatest good, nirvāṇa, the eradication of the causes of personal and social turmoil (duḥkha). A philosopher on one of whose principal works Candrakīrti wrote a commentary was Nāgārjuna, who praised the Buddha for having shown that liberation (śiva) consists in the silencing of narratives (prapañcopaśama).
I have written about prapañca as narrative before in a squib suggesting that the Buddhist notion of prapañca is that it is “pointless narrative.” Candrakīrti’s praise of silence (tūṣṇīm-bhāva) as the route to liberation suggests that he may have regarded all narrative as pointless and troublesome. If that was indeed his view, of course, he courted the same dilemma as Nietzsche would have courted if he thought it was a fact that there are no facts, or that the Daoist Laozi courted when he said in chapter 56 of Daodejing that those who know do not say and those who say do not know (知者不言、言者不知。)
Creating narrative is what people do. Every culture is a culture of story-tellers. It could even be said that what we call culture is little more than story-telling. There may well be no way of avoiding narrative so long as the brain is alive; this may be the case for spiders who build webs as well as for human beings who write books and then build cathedrals in which to asseverate what has been written. Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti were creating narrative when they said the the way to peace is to find a way to stop creating narratives.
It could be the case that narrative becomes a problem only when people believe narratives that create in their minds hopes that cannot be fulfilled or expectations that cannot be met. The Buddhist, for example, who uncritically accepts the narrative that the root causes of turmoil can be eradicated through mindfulness may be setting up an expectation that can lead only to frustration when the goal remains elusive. The ethicist who places an emphasis on the questionable premise that agents have freedom of will may be transmitting a narrative that leads to the avoidable condemnation of those whose essentially involuntary actions are unwelcome in mainstream society. Nations and would-be nations that take collective actions on the basis of the narrative that there are inalienable rights to which everyone is entitled may be promoting conditions in which citizens are constantly invited to be indignant about their rights (which are, after all, entirely fictitious) having been abridged.
A good deal of religion, philosophy and politics consists of pernicious narrative. To conclude, however, that because some narrative is pernicious, all narrative must be pernicious is to fall prey to the inductive fallacy, a form of thinking that, according to the narrative of mainstream logicians, may lead to conclusions that prove disappointing.