Devon, PA. Here is something for you that no one will dispute: all complaints about modernity, including those that fit under the rubric of “conservative,” are arguments about stories. Much more than mere competing narratives that attempt to describe the modern world, these complaints are essentially arguments in defense of story itself.
The disciplinary disputes among Historians illustrate this fact most obviously, since the major trends in that field during the last century have been away from particular or more-or-less grand story-telling toward a positivistic mapping of the surface of things. Some postmodernist or modernist immediately chirps, “Yes, the triumph of space over time!” And some conservative observes, “How sad. Where shall the young discover their heroes?” The reader may recall that Prince Charles of England began sponsoring a summer school a few years back dedicated to a renaissance of story-telling in History.
But the argument about and defense of stories extends well beyond the sheltered halls of academic research-even though popular books of History tend to retain the form and sense of elegant narrative and to eschew, thereby, the standards of academic History. Wendell Berry has justly and accurately observed in his writing that the rise of isolated small societies centered on taste preferences and consumption (the modern nuclear family in its suburban home) has resulted nearly in the extinction of story-telling. Far from sitting semi-circle about the hearth to while away the hours of darkness with good talk and laughter, the members of modern families retreat from one another to their individual televisions and watch in total passivity as narrative spectacles unfold before their eyes. Understandably, Berry contends the loss of story-sharing amounts to the loss of community. A family that does not tell tales together and that does not work together, can scarcely be said to live together and certainly lacks the bonds that seal physical propinquity as communal solidarity.
Berry’s observations-which so many of us feel in the blood-offer a humbler and more domestic account of what the German Romantics (those Brothers Grimm, for instance, who shall never simply be called the Grimm Brothers) and the nationalist and patriotic movements to which they gave rise argue in terms of race or national community. So dissolvent has the fluidity and concupiscence of modern capitalism proven, that the modern citizen is perpetually in danger of forgetting the organic national body of which he is a part. Modern citizens are atomized masses of equal individuals held together-to the extent they are held together-only by the force and sway of laws. They can hold themselves together by an internal desire rather than external coercion only if they know the truths that all of them hold in common; and those truths cannot be mere maxims, which are abstract, “portable,” and in some sense placeless. The truth of a national community may be manifested by traditions and customs, but it is founded on narrative, myth, or story. When we all hold the same stories in our heads and hearts, this account runs, we shall share in something more profound than an abstract moral and legal consensus; we shall take on roles in an epic of blood.
Mass culture and the modern marketplace, which reduce the freedom of the human mind outside of the workday to a menu of preferences and consumer choices cause us to lose interest in, and to forget how to tell and hear, the stories that overcome-indeed render unreal-our loneliness. The triumph of the administered state, with its exclusive love of efficiency and an elaborate but mechanical bureaucratic rationality scours the surface of society to rid it of stories and remolds that surface according to its own geometrical principles. This much we see. And so it has been the endeavor of many, since the long days of Swift, Burke, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, to fight in defense of reality as-in essence-a narrative or dramatic structure. Tradition and story are our exclusive means of access to the truth about ourselves and God’s creation, they tell us. The entirely abstract components of modern rationalism are, conversely, a source of untruth whose lies possess a frightening and vulgar efficacy.
The modern structuralists and phenomenologists-in diverse, sometimes overlapping, ways-nuanced such accounts, and gave them the appearance of philosophic rigor by suggesting we could analyze without destroying stories. Their methods insist that rational abstraction is founded on narrative and always returns to it dialectically.
From quite a different tradition, Alasdair MacIntyre’s world-changing tetralogy, beginning with After Virtue (1980), instructs us that ethical thinking, and indeed all reasoning, is teleological in nature. When our reason sets to work, it is always thinking in terms of a telos, an end, a purpose; reason always envisions a kind of story about how someone discovers and gets to the purpose for which he was made. If one cannot think about what the story of a good man’s life looks like, if one cannot imagine the flourishing, happy man whose image is the fulfillment of that life, then one can hardly begin to ask the ethical questions about good and evil that confront us daily in our own life stories. MacIntyre shows us, in other words, that the antinomy critics and advocates of modernity both produce-an irreconcilable distinction between reason and imagination, or abstraction and story-is a false one. We all live and think within a particular story that, when reflected upon, appears as a tradition, and our tradition is not a prejudice or blindness but the outgrowth of a story whose very existence makes our reasoning possible.
Thus, to the extent that modernity elects in favor of abstract reason over narrative, the modern person deprives himself of the possibility of self-reflection. He may try to speculate abstractly regarding the nature and validity of the ethical principles and customs with which he lives, but he will at best produce bad arguments to justify them. Eventually, he shall conclude they must be irrational expressions of his will about which there can be no argument. MacIntyre, thereby, suggests that the Romantics and other discontented products of modernity are at once all too modern and yet harbingers of an old truth. They cannot explain why this man or that should feel compelled to learn the stories of the tribe, as it were, and yet they understand something invaluable lies hidden there.
Marcel Detienne has proposed that the relation between the logos of reason and the mythos of story is even closer than MacIntyre indicates. For the ancient Greeks, Detienne tells us, they are effectively the same. Mythos, story telling, is simply the reasoning of a primarily oral culture; abstract reasoning always takes place within the immediate occasion of a story and so the means to see from what an idea is actually abstracted always remains present. Logos comes into being only once written culture develops. At that point, the rehearsal of a particular story ceases to be the immediate and evident context for reflection on an idea. The idea will still be an abstraction-that is, it will be abstracted by its discussants from an increasingly distant, eventually forgotten, narrative occasion-but it will float free, as if created from nothing. This liberation of the abstract idea, as MacIntyre would imply, may quickly become the cause of its death-and, before the idea itself finally dies, reason itself will have ceased in its proper operation.
Detienne here reminds us of a difficult truth. It is not the rational content of abstract reasoning that is deadening and that has caused rational, philosophic, and (more recently) scientific discourses to appear like the soul-killing munitions of a deracinated and meaningless modernity. Rather, when an idea or a discourse becomes entirely abstract-when logos so fully comes into its own being that it completely extricates itself from mythos-it loses its identity as an idea. In a word, it ceases to be rational.
Allow me to rephrase that: the idea does not become irrational, for nothing we do can erase the mythos that gave it birth. Our discussions, or talk about ideas, become themselves irrational. In abandoning story, we lose the ability to reason about erstwhile rational propositions. We do lose, as the Romantics understood, the ability to know ourselves. And we lose a sense of living in community. But more devastating even than these great but sufferable loses, we lose the ability to live as rational animals.
The inherently narrative basis of reality and reason, then, is something that remains in effect regardless of our own arguments about it or discussions of it. We may well argue about the importance and moral authority of this story or that one, but we never escape the condition of mythos. Burke was correct to equate the modern scene with the tragic stage, and to follow the Bard more boldly in hinting that all the world is a stage.
As someone committed professionally and practically to reflecting on modern art, I have tried to provide an account of how its apparent abandonment of narrative functions. If all reality is grounded in mythos, then how can an abstract painting, a lyric poem, or a dissonant piece of modern music even pretend to escape that ground of its being?
In the latest issue of American Arts Quarterly, I offer an extended reflection on just this question, concluding that-among other things-one can properly interpret much of modern art as not containing a narrative as its content but as being some of the content (a character) in a narrative exogenous to itself. “Unleashed from the Exemplar: The Fate of Narrative in Modern Art” begins:
So successful was the advent of modern poetic, musical and visual art in disrupting the critical vocabulary that we have all but lost the means to account for how art actually works. So blinding was its revolutionary blast that we sometimes fail to distinguish the various courses these arts took during the modernist period and often assume modern art effected more radical changes than it did. Abstraction in painting, dissonance and atonality in music, and free verse in poetry stand of a piece, historically, insofar as they denote the singular attributes of modernist art, but their evident formal differences signify very different relations to what I argue is the exemplar all art imitates-narrative. Most critics of modernism have long contended that it sacrificed narrative in favor of some kind of rarefied formalism, but what has been less fully appreciated is that such sacrifice was imperfect at best and deluded at worst. Modernist artworks, especially at the thought-silencing extremes of abstraction, have themselves become characters in the story of art, no more “liberated” from the conditions of time and narrative than their predecessors. This is a detour in the historical practice of art, the classical understanding of the fine arts as poesis, the making of plots.
As a final note, let me add that readers of Front Porch Republic would likely find much pleasure in this magazine and may take great heart in its supporting institution’s noble mission.