Seduced by Story
“Brooks’ deep analysis of narrative and storytelling also demonstrates that the tools of the humanities often have far-reaching utility well beyond their supposed boundaries.”
Peter Brooks has set his sights on one of his deep professional passions, narratives, for they are foundational to the human condition and imperative to our ability to imagine the world. As with any technology, they can be used well or poorly, for the ethical and unethical, and as a form of truth telling or deception. The late Neil Postman might warn us about advertising and the need to defend ourselves against the eloquence of seduction. So, too, with stories.
Thirty years after his groundbreaking, Reading for the Plot (1992), that led the “narrative turn” in literary studies, he returns with a sequel. Why, one might rightly ask, is the sequel needed if we have already taken “the turn?” Because now more than ever we need a reminder that narratives can manipulate, deceive, and motivate in ways that shape not just individual behavior, but also mass movements.
He begins with a broad synthesis of work spanning the social sciences and humanities to set up his analytical approach. We are taken on heady ride through structural linguistics, cultural anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and, of course, literary criticism. He then uses wide-ranging exemplars from pop culture to classical literature as cases that can be illuminated by his theoretical framing.
In the first chapter, he convincingly argues that human thought is crafted in terms of stories, and those stories construct our reality. This is a compelling discussion, for it taps into the confluence of language, thought, and culture. It would be tempting to see his approach as a form of linguistic determinism (i.e., language determines worldview). Of course, this is not the case. Humans have too much agency; some of our stories are powerfully hegemonic while others operate to overthrow them; and stories morph over time and many are discarded altogether. In sum, reality (whatever that is) is understood and given meaning through narrative.
The second chapter seeks to further unpack narrative by asking how do we know what we know? And it is here that all manner of bias, deception, and manipulation slips in. Because narratives are cultural constructions, they do not have to be burdened by facts, and have no reason to be tethered to any reality. Going back to Neil Postman’s critique of advertising, he would underscore that narrative thrives in a post-fact world of postmodern fictional construction. You either like the narrative or you don’t based on style, aesthetics, or ideological bent.
The third chapter focuses on the listener, for without them a narrative goes to its ephemeral death. Of course, listeners are only as good as tellers. Thus, there is a relational symbiosis between them. Though Brooks does not discuss it, Roland Barthes’ notion of readerly versus writerly texts seems an appropriate and useful intervention. Readerly texts have common plots and stock characters that require little interpretive effort on the part of the listener/reader (e.g., Harlequin novels). Writerly texts demand some listener/reader heavy lifting to interpret and understand the narrative. Brooks is also particularly keen on the charisma of oral storytelling. And much in the vein of Postman, he argues that much greater attention needs to be paid to how stories are told and how they operate on their listeners—especially when stories are deployed in politics, the law, and as a discourse around national identity.
In the fourth chapter, Brooks pushes the constructedness of narrative yet further. He argues that the existential experience of living in real time is “blind.” We can only construct a coherent and meaningful narrative of past experience. Toward this end, novels power our imaginations and help us understand what is going on in the minds of others, thus helping us to gain both some measure of sympathetic and empathetic identification. As he so eloquently observes, “The ego learns its own shape by trying on others. The more cognitively challenging the process, the better. That’s why we need the novel.”
Here Brooks diverts us into the thought world of Mikhail Bahktin, a Russian philosopher whose ideas on language and society got him sentenced to long-term stay in a gulag in the late 1920s (this was subsequently commuted, and he was exiled to Kazakhstan). Through his notion of “dialogism,” Bahktin saw the society as an infinitely noisy place where meaning had to be constantly negotiated and renegotiated among participants. There was no necessarily shared worldview or sets of meanings. That was all up for grabs through a kind of linguistic democracy. One can only imagine how that went over with the authoritarian regime in Moscow.
Of course, the fact that language is a social and relational also means that it has no baked-in moral or ethical imperative. Citing Machiavelli, Brooks notes provocatively that language allows us to lie. Indeed. But whether the narrative is shaky, full of lies and inaccuracies, or honest attempts at the truth (whatever that is), Brooks notes that, in their imperfection, fictional characters are trying to communicate with their readers about who they are and how they tick.
The penultimate chapter explores the relationship of narrative and identity. Brooks leans toward the work of distinguished French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur contends that we can narrate our lives, but we are not its author. This suggests that we select the bits we like, discard what we dislike, make others up, interpret them, reflect upon them, and weave them into something of a coherent story. One can only conclude that our language-driven narratives are, in part, fictions created by our highly active imaginations.
Stories, it turns out, are both used and abused. They are also constructions and often with fictional elements. The final chapter applies Brooks’ insights to law in America, a province not often associated with the likes of narrative analysis. From the most mundane court case to those heard by the Supreme Court, all are founded on the layering up of facts and evidence that become the scaffolding in the construction of a particular story. Critical to the Supreme Court’s current state of affairs, Brooks notes that decisions made in that august realm commonly trade on continuity and precedent (in legal terms this is known as stare decisis). Without it, the public can get the rug pulled right out from under it, and the legitimacy of the court can get thrown into question. Brooks, then, takes us through recent decisions concerning Roe v. Wade and Miranda, which completely upend the doctrine of stare decisis. He can only conclude that the Supreme Court is in decidedly uncharted waters to their and the nation’s peril. Brooks’ deep analysis of narrative and storytelling also demonstrates that the tools of the humanities often have far-reaching utility well beyond their supposed boundaries.