Monday, April 27, 2009

Whence narrative?

Recently, I happened to be coordinating a public discussion on literature at the National Research Foundation. Being the organizer of the discussion, my objective was to explore, with the aid of an English Literature professor and a writer/critic, fictional narratives as inroads to humanness. Indeed, what could have been more profound than that! Still, my “ulterior” motive was to compare literary narratives to scientific ones.
Psychologists use personal narrative routinely, as a way to explore their patients’ personalities, but I was more interested to see if there was some connection to non-personal narratives, such as the Big Bang Theory, or the Evolutionary Theory. Then the question came from a member of the audience: why does the brain produce narratives? In a way, the question relates – to a higher level – to the structure of memory. And yet, memory has a biological foundation. What could that foundation be?
I am no expert, but the only way that I could have answered the question (“whence narrative?”) would be to point out our “sense of time”. Why do we have a perception of time? Obviously there have been evolutionary reasons for it. The interchange of light and darkness and the resulting circadian rhythm commission us with the sense of “before”, as distinct from “now” and “after”. And yet: of all the things that modern physics tell us about the Universe, of all the quantum paradoxes of electrons being at many places at the same time, the most unimaginable of all is that time does not flow but is still. That time is an “illusion”. This seems not only counter-intuitive (so much of modern physics is) but unimaginable. A universe where time is like length, or width, a dimension upon which points stretch and exist regardless of us being there, of time being still in other words, is a universe without narrative. Therefore, a universe without before, now and after. Our minds are evolved to produce narratives and therefore the only way we can comprehend anything succinctly and effectively is by incorporating it somehow into a narrative. The more explicit the narrative the more comprehendible the object, and vice-versa. Abstraction, the loss of narrative, equates with artistic amnesia, it makes time freeze to a still, space reduced to a point and communication to a silent pause.

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