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.

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James Matthew Wilson
James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.


  1. “The truth of a national community may be manifested by traditions and customs, but it is founded on narrative, myth, or story.”

    I’m glad you brought up the narrative stage on which all ideas stand forth. I’m surprised more people haven’t commented so far, actually. But then again, myth is my pet topic. It seems to me that man is primarily a story-teller. Related is an interesting post here. Who is worth reading about the priority of mythos? or those who disagree, of course?

    “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.”

    There are few things I would readily agree with fully, but this bit I must. Reason is only possible because of our stories.

  2. “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.”

    Modern phenomenologists would find it truly frightening-could they grasp the fullness of the statement-that Alisdair MacIntyre declared this loss of the ability to think in narrative and therefore properly think about ethics to be no less dire than a humanity that had completely lost the ability to reason mathematically or scientifically, a humanity without the cumulative knowledge of Pythagoras, Archimedes, Galileo, Newton, or Einstein.

    And yet, though I am no great lover of Modern visual art, music, or poetry-your main examples-many a modern or postmodern work of literature reveals and adopts as a theme precisely the kind of madness that occurs when the ability to think in narrative is lost. These stories, though perhaps not the kind of high poesy and myth-making many conservatives would praise, is nonetheless an important and sometimes beautiful representation of a grounded moral reality with groundless, amoral characters.

    Perhaps this is just one literature lover’s reading of texts that will be forever tinted with the the stain of mankind’s eternal pining for the “Transendental Signifier,” to use the postmodern term for God, but I think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s works, Henry James’ perspectival masterpieces, and more recently Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved,’-to name a few-whose works use narrative strongly to make interesting and sometimes compelling ethical assumptions about the world.

    I guess what I am saying is that I agree with you completely that there is a tragic vein in our art that has forgotten how to properly ethicize due to a loss of narrative but that, on a deeper level, Derrida and the postmodernists make it clear that their argument is not against moralizing from any particular story as long as we realize that all stories stem from unrelated, non-transcendent, groundless thoughts. That is the postmodern a priori that governs today’s discussions about art and allows art without any narrative, and therefore without any moral purpose or meaning, to be considered art at all.

  3. Thanks for these two comments. I would tweak them only slightly. I agree with Stewart that we are in some real sense “story-telling animals.” But I do hope that my post seems to emphasize to others, as it does to me, not only the importance of narrative, but also the importance of reasoning. Rather, I was hoping to move us beyond a kind of dualistic thinking on the question of narrative in hopes that my argument might overcome what I perceive as one weakness in the Romantic position (there is another weakness: the belief that national community, as opposed to more limited sorts, can really provide a lasting and adequate account of ourselves to us). The Romantic distrust of discursive reason — one which partly derives from a misreading of Burke, I might add! — leads to a kind of anti-intellectualism I find not merely intolerable but preposterous. Rather than being such a beast myself who is grudgingly trying to find a place for the intellect in a world that should be built of stories, I was trying to write from the perspective of a Thomist who must realize his competent reasoning to things divine through logical reflection depends upon the power to think teleologically, and that power always founds itself upon story.

    I appreciate the rather profound reflections also offered here on narrative and the postmodern novel. I agree with the observations, but perhaps should add that the essay I attached to this post, and to which this post serves as a sort of explanatory preface, is primarily an attack upon modern art that takes aim at the failure to appreciate how narrative works in such art even as it insists such are never ever ever succeeds in leaving narrative behind. I highlight this, because perhaps the reader will find its direction unanticipated given the discussion in my post.

  4. “Rebellious modernists sought to escape narrative but succeeded only in rendering it exogenous. The techniques of atonality, free verse and abstraction that led to this “turning out” of narrative have done their work and seem good for little else. They are radical not in making possible the “new” in art, but in curtailing its depth and variety. Too often, they are like obstacles between our desire to understand our own existence and the narratives that make such understanding possible.”

    You carefully say “too often,” modern artistic techniques like atonality, free verse and abstraction are obstacles to the unification of rational understanding and narrative. This is undoubtedly the case as one can only strain the frontal lobe to find meaning in so many urinals and chairs covered in plastic-wrap, or words splattered randomly on a page as a demonstration of human haplessness. However, as much as I prefer traditional art forms, why do I feel strangely accustomed and even drawn to engaging some of these postmodern peices. Perhaps it is because, like the Pound quote in your article, that they are “the most fevered morsels broken off from dramatic monologues.” I prefer context almost every time, but there is something to be said about a work if its visceral and fevered pitch snags a reader, listener, or observer and demands a context from them. This too rare occasion is, of course, operating within a narrative framework, as you have so eloquently demonstrated and therefore is not always, though maybe too often, exogenous.

    Thank you for this fine article.

  5. Mr. Donavon’s kind and enlightening comment immediately reminded me of a passage from the “thematic essay” I include on the description of a course I teach called “The New World.” I’ll paste it in here, if only to echo his remarks:

    . . . when one confronts modern letters, making a case for the venerable or perspicuous nature of any book becomes more problematic even as the interest a beginning college student would take in those books becomes easier to attract. For, at least two of the most common attributes of what people call the modern, “modernity,” is its pluralistic instability and its sense of itself as something other than the past, the traditional. To employ a figure of speech, when we look at a modern text, we are often more likely to see an image immediately more, if not entirely, familiar to us and yet we find that face distorted, ungraspable, even confused after the fashion of, say, Picasso’s early cubism.
    As such, depending on the modern work at which we look, we may at once be repelled and intrigued; we sense that its difference from works of the past may not be an attractive one, but it is one in which we nonetheless often presume we share.

  6. One could ponder the reason that our religion is rooted not in a catechism or a Summa, but in biography. We trace our beliefs to forms that are primarily narrative: parable, prayers, prophecies, psalms, sermons, and histories. Even St. Thomas was confused about the reason for this. Why didn’t God leave us a clear statement, a Summa? Why a sermon on the mount rather than a seminar in the synagogue? But in truth, we don’t really follow a doctrine, or an idea, and still less an ideology. We follow a person, one who claims to be truth itself, God himself. And if truth is, ultimately, this person, then truth is ultimately a personal subject, not a separated object. Personal subjects have biographies. This being the case, the biography is the superior form of knowledge.

  7. Albert Schweitzer gazes at Hippopotmus and discovers his “Reverence For Life” and the vital need to accept Reason into Theology and Mr. Wilson looks at something like a Rothko and exhorts us to accept Theology into Reason. I am unable to assert with any confidence which might possess a stronger narrative , the Hippo or the Rothko. As a lover of nature, I’d tend toward the Hippo but then, I remember my ma Babs standing next to me as I looked at a Braque and insistently ask “What do you like or dislike about it…? What do you see? What is it telling you? Tell Me!

    Is there a lack of narrative in all modern art? Ernst’s “After the Rain” tells a dark story of a devastated post war Europe. Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie tells a tale of the electric frisson of urban regimentation and all the while, recalling the lattice work of an apple tree’s branches within the grid of a Netherlandish farmscape. Jackson Pollock unleashes jazz rhythm and layered time in his canvases, taking us into the pogo-room of our neuron rich mosh pit of a modern distracted brain. Currently, Anselm Keifer explores numerous strains of story and myth in his scabbed impasto of geologic force. Bacon slashed a story on the canvas that would make the Brothers Grimm wince. The preternaturally odd Mathew Barney trashes caution and turns myth into a parade going by at 85 mph. Cubism may be “confused” as you assert but it ably attempts to convey that moment of shock when the industrial age created a far more faceted world. While there is no small amount of blank space or dense navel-gazing in Modern Art, I cannot quite agree that even the idiotic flower puppy is completely devoid of narrative. Even the silly has a story to tell, not to mention a provenance to build so as to validate the acquisition of silliness for sums that would leave Croesus gawking in a cold sweat.

    The vicarious agora of this media entertainment age certainly has attempted to shoulder aside and blot out any memory of our formative myth in its mad rush to anoint us moderns as a race of supermen but it remains short of it’s goal because there remains, fortunately, an authentic parallel culture of people and their everyday life of familial memory , historic recollection and interaction. This thirst for authenticity and a larger narrative is returning people to Faith and we are watching as the age-old battle of Reason vs. Theology unfolds in a packaged and programmed circus full of red meat and invective.

    That said, I wholeheartedly agree that we desperately need to re-embrace history, myth, narrative, the spoken word and, in the end, arrive at that next Renaissance Schweitzer yearned for when we might see science and theology as conspirators in a richer narrative rather than adversaries in an edited one. I’ll take my Hippo in a Cezane rendering of planes.

  8. If I understand Mr. Sabin properly he has not understood the article attached to my post. Far from denying the presence of narrative in modern art, I tried to show how the effort to escape narrative actually resulted only in a transformation of narrative. It was pushed “outside” the painting, so that the painting exists within an “exogenous narrative.” A Pollack is one case in point: the creation of the painting, its genesis, is significant in a peculiar way to the meaning of the finished painting. One hasn’t grasped the painting’s meaning until one has grasped its origin — and while this may be difficult, and while this difficulty may be more trouble than the painting is worth, we cannot simply say the painting its without narrative. Again, the narrative ends up exogenous to the painting; conversely, the painting gets put into the narrative.

    I would agree with a Philistine-sounding complaint like, “Why can’t art jus’ tell stories anymore?” I would agree. But I would insist that said “art” has not really escaped but transformed the exemplary function of narrative. We feel this when we observe how much of the life of, say, Pollack and his times we want and need in order to appreciate one of his paintings.

  9. Granted, I have the malady of watching traffic during the game because I dawdle relentlessly, but I don’t believe I was immune from understanding your essay, just at partial variance with it. Your reply gave me a better understanding and Pollack was a great demonstration of your thesis but again…..I am not sure, such as with the case of Keiffer or even the Mondrian I mentioned, that all modern art, even abstraction (some, certainly not all) has a narrative exterior to the canvas….then again, your cryptic and illustrative summary comment “the painting gets put in the narrative” may have already applied itself to this question specific to Keiffer and Mondrian. Has it?

    Could Goya’s nascent abstractions, as Rembrandts were, be discounted in a like manner by those who did not want to observe the life of Goya or Rembrandt….. or El Greco for that matter….. that existed in their paintings in order to appreciate them? This is not an accost, it is what it is…..What am I not comprehending here?

    Ye are a task master JMW, you caught me responding before reading your attached post…..eeehhh, ahhhh…wellanderIbutta.

  10. One of the biggest *non*-commercial activities on the Internet is the creation of stories through fanfiction. Writers in essence tell each other stories based on books, movies, TV shows – the raw material of our *current* mythologies. Many conservatives would probably disapprove – the material is often sexual, and not often well-written, but the storytelling element is dominant.

  11. I can’t say that I’ve seen any of the fanfiction stories that stefanie mentions. However, I’m quite sure that the “classic” fairy tales and myths that many of us enjoy were not as sleek (or exciting) at their first telling. The beauty of the oral tradition is that the story gets “better” (for lack of a more precise word) during each rendition.

    The need to tell a story and to participate in listening (or online reading) of a story is wired into the human psyche. Interactive video games are another example of people using the internet to weave a story. I’ll be the first to admit that many of the games are very violent; however the role-playing by the participants lends credence to the Bard and Burke’s thoughts of life being a stage (of sorts).

    I fail to see the “artistic value” of urinals or feces-smeared figures. I have seen a great deal of modern art from various artists. Some disgusts me, some saddens me; I like some of it.

    I have yet to see a “modern” (style) sculpture or painting or to hear a “modern” atonal musical composition that fills me with awe or joy.

    (I also believe that 99% of the modern architecture I’ve viewed is devoid of any “soul;” let alone proportion or joy….That’s another discussion though.)

    We have lost so much by living in nuclear families and the growth of mega-cities and suburbia. I am thankful that I live in a small town nestled in a rural area. My children and grandchildren have learned to love nature and to tell stories around a campfire with their families and at Scout camp. “Mythos” is still alive in some quarters.

    Please forgive me if I have strayed from the article or completely
    missed the point of the article. :-\

  12. Just a note on structuralism, I think that structuralism at its best is still useful in that it provides a methodology to connect stories and analyze the tradition which surrounds our stories. The problem occurs when this is taken too far or where as Derrida suggests we forget that the center, and the story, is both fluid and multiform, in the words of Albert Lord.

    So I see structuralism as a useful framework for connecting dots, as long as we don’t forget that the center is arbitrary, and the story fluid.

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