Life in Search of Narrative

The 20th-century French philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote in his 1991 essay Life in Quest of Narrative that life is “an activity and passion in search of a narrative“. Indeed, it is hard to overstate how important the stories are to us, human beings. Narrative is a medium through which we make sense, interpret, understand, identify, and, ultimately, decide on how to act. Or not to act.

In one of its nefarious manifestations, a narrative can be used as propaganda. Therein is the danger of our reliance on stories to make sense of life. We are susceptible to manipulation through carefully crafted narratives that prey on our psychological biases.

Recently I watched an interview with one Russian sociologist and philosopher about the ongoing war in Ukraine. His explanation of propaganda was very interesting (and fearless) – the task of propaganda is not to convince you to do something but rather to offer reasons that justify inaction. Seen in this light, it is easy to understand how such narratives can be convincing. We all want to feel good about ourselves and it is generally easier to do nothing than something.

This also shows how much we are influenced by stories. If it is shocking to me that someone can complacently believe a lie, that is to a significant degree because I do not identify with this particular narrative. I have other blind spots though. If something has made it to the story we tell ourselves about our identities, it can be difficult and painful to discard it, even if necessary.

In a passage from his Narrative Identity essay of the same year, Ricoeur talks about the narrative constitution of identity, be it personal or of a community. His words gain additional weight when read and considered in the current historical context.

“… after a long journey through historical narrative and fictional narrative, I asked the question of whether there was any fundamental experience that could integrate these two major types of narrative. I then formed the hypothesis that the constitution of narrative identity, whether it be that of an individual person or of a historical community, was the soughtafter site of this fusion between narrative and fiction. We have an intuitive precomprehension of this state of affairs: do not human lives become more readily intelligible when they are interpreted in the light of the stories that people tell about them?… It is thus plausible to endorse the following chain of assertions: self-knowledge is an interpretation; self interpretation, in its turn, finds in narrative, among other signs and symbols, a privileged mediation; this mediation draws on history as much as it does on fiction, turning the story of a life into a fictional story or a historical fiction, comparable to those biographies of great men in which history and fiction are intertwined.”

Ricoeur, 1991

keep exploring!

Image credit: Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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