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Monday, 12 July 2010

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Rich Puchalsky

I have a very different sense of your life-as-narrative -- that part of it that you present here -- than you do, of course. I write "of course", but actually I'm sort of surprised. It reminds me of a post you wrote a while back that you presented as an atypical Acephalous post that seemed to me, because it concerned yet another bad happening, to be completely typical.

I write narratives, too, though mine tend to be about finding some kind of pattern in social relations. This poem, for instance. I bring this up because I've written a comical sort of poem about this blog: your drinking song. (I won't bother to link to it yet again.) It presents a narrative in which one more car crash is quite acceptable, even planned for in advance -- another verse can always be added. It's already kind of absurd to see all of the incidents strung together, so one more doesn't make a sea change into absurdity, any more than a monthly superhero comic ever features the hero saying "My gosh! Here's Power Dude punching me out again! How likely is that?"

And that where the whole self-from-narrative thing abruptly derails. Another car hitting you is hitting your real self, not the imaginary SEK that you create through narrative. Of course it's not just adding another verse. It throws you out of narrative because it's too much.

So your return to narrative here seems good, I guess, because it means you're coping. But I'm not sure whether your extended narrative is really serving you at this point. You write about things that hurt you, and I always figured that dark comedy was, you know, how you coped. If that's your life-as-narrative, though, it's a very incomplete one. (OF course, this blog isn't where you put all your narratives. You may write completely differently elsewhere. What you think of as narratives may not be written at all.) Anyways, you write about your wife when you've just gotten a panic attack connected with her. Writing about family is personal, of course, so I'll take it down a register: you write about your cat when it's just knocked something into the Roomba. If you're going to consider your life to be the narratives you write about it, don't forget about the other genres that aren't being written.

Anyways, glad you're feeling better.

Ahistoricality

Like Rich said, glad you're feeling better.

But like Rich said, while this may be helpful to your self-understanding, it's not, I think, going to translate well for the rest of us.

Take this: absurd narratives are, by virtue of their absurdity, unbelievable

That's just wrong. Absurdity happens. To everyone, at some times and in some degrees. Like bad things happening to good people, absurd things happen to people with otherwise coherent narratives. Absurdity is not, in itself, unbelievable; actually, to paraphrase Mark Twain, narrative coherence is much less plausible in real life.

Life is not real until it comes into language, but those words are meaningless until they cohere into narrative.

When you're stronger, perhaps, we'll talk about that one.

SEK

It's already kind of absurd to see all of the incidents strung together, so one more doesn't make a sea change into absurdity, any more than a monthly superhero comic ever features the hero saying "My gosh! Here's Power Dude punching me out again! How likely is that?"

This is a painfully apropos analogy, but as you note, there's a point at which the genre becomes stale and it's just too much to bear. That's the point I hit when I realized I was a repeat: "Hit by a car again?" But now I'm being glib. It wasn't nearly so neat. It was more like being twelve and shelling out $30 for a year's subscription to your favorite comic, then receiving the same issue, which happened to be a particularly terrible one, every month. For the first eleven, you could cope, but that last issue forces you to recognize that all those lawns you mowed, all those gardens you weeded, all those hedges you trimmed and all those pools you cleaned were not merely for naught, but a perpetual repetition of the same bad experience. At a certain point, you break.

Another car hitting you is hitting your real self, not the imaginary SEK that you create through narrative.

The experience is real, as are the bruises, but it's not part of me until I make it so. That doesn't mean it's imaginary, but until I deal with it, incorporate it into my sense of self, it's just a happening. I'm not sure that makes sense, which is why I brought in the Augustine and Beckett: for Augustine, it all makes sense, and is rational and orderly; whereas for Beckett, it's "the mess," and how we deal with "the mess" makes us who we are. I'm obviously, if not congenitally, of the Beckettian persuasion. I am who I understand myself to be, and I can only understand myself through the stories I tell myself about myself. (There's obviously a little Stein thrown in there, which, I suppose, not surprisingly.)

You write about things that hurt you, and I always figured that dark comedy was, you know, how you coped.

It is. It absolutely is. I just lacked sufficient darkness to deal with this incident at this particular moment, if that makes sense.

SEK

But like Rich said, while this may be helpful to your self-understanding, it's not, I think, going to translate well for the rest of us.

What do you mean?

That's just wrong. Absurdity happens. To everyone, at some times and in some degrees. Like bad things happening to good people, absurd things happen to people with otherwise coherent narratives. Absurdity is not, in itself, unbelievable; actually, to paraphrase Mark Twain, narrative coherence is much less plausible in real life.

Absolutely. But it's usually parceled out over time, not squished into two months. That's the thing, I think: I'm fully capable of accepting that I live an unusually absurd life; it's only when those absurdities press against each other like a line for the john at a pub with only one that I feel the pressure of them. Seriously. I can handle absurdity—wouldn't still be here if I couldn't—it was the repetition of this particular one, at this particular time, that left me incapable of integrating the experience into my narrative of self.

JPool

Hmmm. I guess I'll take credit for "brave face", though this feels a bit like claiming to have invented the phrase "pardon my French."

There's a nice bit at the end of The Madness of King George, where someone observes to the now mostly functional King that "You seems more yourself." The King pauses and reflects "Yes. We had always been ourselves, but we had forgotten how to seem ourselves." Obviously that's a bit of an extreme case. Taking time out to break down a bit and process trauma is a very fine thing to do, but deciding to make your way back into the world afterward is also necessary. Inevitably there's a bit of faking it until you make it involved in this.

It's a ticky balance, though. Mike Birbiglia, reflecting on his experience ignoring his problem with sleep walking until it became actively life-threatening (Act One of this show), notes that denial is necessary to achieve many otherwise impossible things in life, such as deciding to pursue a career of stand-up comedy or completing a dissertation. It allows you to keep going when the only seemingly rational option is to throw up your hands and walk away. In the wrong circumstances, however, denial can also kill you, because it keeps you from recognizing those things that are bigger than you where you really do need help.

That's part of becoming an adult too, and you're right to say that becoming such is a life-long process.

SEK

I guess I'll take credit for "brave face", though this feels a bit like claiming to have invented the phrase "pardon my French."

I didn't mean to suggest you invented the phrase ... more like you're the person who got me to say my name twenty times until it didn't sound like I owned it anymore.

Ahistoricality

What do you mean?

I mean that if anyone tries to "transform the scattered detritus of" MY "life into neat meaningful narratives," I will be inspired to increase the absurdity of their existence.

I understand the cumulative shocks you've experienced, and the fugue state of the last few weeks, and I'm thrilled that you're feeling better and coming back to share your writing with us. But I had an oddly negative reaction to this presentation of a personal experience as transcendent truth which I'm trying to express gently.

SEK

I had an oddly negative reaction to this presentation of a personal experience as transcendent truth which I'm trying to express gently.

It's not "transcendent truth," though, so much as "livable life." I'm not cutting to the essential core of anything, I'm merely making my life make sense to me, which is what I always do, but was unable to when it turned into a 56 car pile-up. I could deal with 55 cars, but 56 was just one too many. Another way to understand this is in light of opposition to psychoanalytic theory, because it's based, for the most part, on the fact that it requires imposing other people's narratives onto your life. I don't believe these narratives are universal, because the coping mechanisms individuals design to deal with their circumstances are as variegated as the circumstances themselves. The only thing I believe is that, for me, I can't make sense of my experiences if I can't find a form in which to express them. (And I'm really trying to avoid all that I've been reading the past few days, because as much as I love Beckett, I know he drives others batty.)

Ahistoricality

I don't believe these narratives are universal, because the coping mechanisms individuals design to deal with their circumstances are as variegated as the circumstances themselves.

Actually, I don't think that's entirely true either [I'm smiling, really], but either way it didn't come through to me on first or second reading.

The only thing I believe is that, for me, I can't make sense of my experiences if I can't find a form in which to express them.

One of these days I should read (or, at least, experience) Beckett straight, instead of getting dribs and drabs second-hand. So many books, so little time....

JPool

I didn't mean to suggest you invented the phrase ... more like you're the person who got me to say my name twenty times until it didn't sound like I owned it anymore.

I think I understand what you mean, but I'm surprized that you didn't get the reference.

I think I have other things to say, but I'll let them mull a while before posting.

Rich Puchalsky

"The only thing I believe is that, for me, I can't make sense of my experiences if I can't find a form in which to express them."

Well, I'm going to try to rewrite what I wrote above a bit more clearly. I think that, even during your June 28 - July 8 time, you did find an internal narrative with which to express your experiences. That narrative was "Geez, I'm a guy who is always getting hit by cars or something." You write: "there's a point at which the genre becomes stale and it's just too much to bear. That's the point I hit when I realized I was a repeat: 'Hit by a car again?'" OK, so you have a narrative. The bad-luck guy is actually a very common narrative in Jewish story. *It's just not a narrative that you actually want.*

So... that's why I'm not quite sure what to make of this. Coping by turning your life back into narrative can be good in the short run -- in the short run, you just have to cope -- but can be hazardous in the long run if it's the wrong narrative.

How can it be the wrong narrative, when, after all, events are actually occurring? The car didn't hit you in fiction, it hit you in reality. Are you supposed to just think happy thoughts and focus on the positive, or something?

No. But, long term... the point of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" (I haven't read it) is that there really isn't any narrative to reality, right? Things just happen. Absurd runs of bad luck happen to some people. If that's what's most important, then I think that you need to reconsider the whole life-as-narrative thing. If, on the other hand, you really think that you can change how you think of your life, if not what actually happens, through narrative, then you probably want to write in a different genre, both in your internal tales-told-to-yourself and the kind of actual writing that you do. As your last few sentences in your post above imply, you already seem to be thinking about doing that.

I'm not sure what I'd think about that kind of attempt, for most people. But for someone who writes a lot, it may help.

Roy

Claiming that you've come up against the incomprehensible absurdity of life is itself a pretty standard narrative.

I'm sorry you got hit by so many cars, and I hope you feel better soon. But your tone is verging a bit into self-pity. It's hard to feel the drama in your trauma, when the absurd violence of the world impresses itself on us daily: Another car bomb, really? Another environmental disaster? Another civil war?

Maybe instead of worrying so much about reconstructing your narrative around the irreducible absurdity at the heart of existence, you should make more of an effort to look both ways before crossing the street. Just an idea.

SEK

Rich:

The bad-luck guy is actually a very common narrative in Jewish story. *It's just not a narrative that you actually want.*

Point taken. I was bristling against the wrong narrative, which made it feel not like a narrative at all because it wasn't one I wanted to own.

If, on the other hand, you really think that you can change how you think of your life, if not what actually happens, through narrative, then you probably want to write in a different genre, both in your internal tales-told-to-yourself and the kind of actual writing that you do.

That's the plan. We'll see how long I can stick to it.

Roy:

But your tone is verging a bit into self-pity. It's hard to feel the drama in your trauma, when the absurd violence of the world impresses itself on us daily: Another car bomb, really? Another environmental disaster? Another civil war?

If you want self-pity, I can post what I wrote during that period; this, however, is about a bout of depression, and if you're writing about depression, even if it's after-the-fact, you're writing about an emotional state in which self-pity figures strongly. There's no getting around that. As to the second half of that, it makes me wonder whether you've ever had to struggle with depression, because that's either 1) the absolute worst thing to say to a depressed person or 2) the exact thing a depressed person always tells him- or herself. In either case, it's not that helpful to people in the state of mind I'm trying to describe here.

Maybe instead of worrying so much about reconstructing your narrative around the irreducible absurdity at the heart of existence, you should make more of an effort to look both ways before crossing the street.

And that will prevent people from backing into me in a parking lot how?

JPool

See, I would have just called Roy an asshole.

Yes, it's useful (and a good tool of perspective for me) to remember that we (all of us commenting here) live lives of relative privilege and comfort compared to most of the world's population. But there's nuerotic response to trauma and misfortune (Why does God, fate, the universe keep doing these things to me?) and then there's system overload. As SEK has indicated, the former is a symptom of the latter, not the other way round.

JPool

As far as the rest of it goes, I think I'm with Rich. If you have a tendency to understand yourself through narrative, then it is probably going to be more effective to shift towards a functional narrative than to try and ditch narrative entirely.

Personally, while, contra Hayden White, I believe that the impulse to narrative is hard-wired (though the form that it takes is highly culturally variable), my personal sense of sense doesn't take the form of a coherent narative. Instead, I'm pretty comfortable with a set of fragmentary and multiple narrative elements. I think this is part of why what I find valuable in therapy is different from the norm. I don't find it all that useful to identify "I do this, because I had experiences x, y and z," though that can be interesting in its own right. Rather, what I enjoy is the chance to talk reflectively with someone I don't owe anything else to about how I'm coping with my life right now. Being forced into a single narrative feels confining and false for me, but I know that this is different for many other people.

tomemos

"It's hard to feel the drama in your trauma, when the absurd violence of the world impresses itself on us daily"

Philip Larkin had a nice (and true) line here, in a letter he wrote: "Yours is the harder course, I can see. On the other hand, mine is happening to me." Maybe, Roy, when you're laid up with injury or malaise, you'll make sure to reflect on the fate of earthquake victims or whomever.

"Maybe instead of worrying so much about reconstructing your narrative around the irreducible absurdity at the heart of existence, you should make more of an effort to look both ways before crossing the street."

Good advice. Scott should also make more of an effort not to get stranded in Europe by volcanic ash, and not to contract cancer.

Luther Blissett

Scott, I can't follow all the crap in this thread. I just want to say that last winter-spring, I lost my wife through divorce and my father from cancer, I was living in a new place and feeling overwhelmed at a new job, and for a good while, I had very little sense of how the "new me" connected to the "old me."

I think Durkheim would this as an anomic situation. I certainly felt as if all the millions of coping strategies I had concocted for 33 years no longer worked. I felt lost -- I felt like I had lost me.

Which is simply to say: I think I know how you feel. You've been in my thoughts. Hit me up on Facebook if you'd ever like to talk (you might still have my phone number from an MLA beer session).

Roy

You know what, I missed the cancer and forgot about the kidney stones and some of the other tribulations, so let me own up to my assholishness and apologize.

SEK, I'm sorry.

And Tomemos and Jpool, I will certainly try to keep some perspective when life knocks me around. As I have learned to do.

Rich Puchalsky

It's good that Roy decided to take the less trollish path.

So, Scott, is there anything that you want us to do to help you with this? I mean, normally I'd guess that the answer would be no, or at least that the best thing would be to talk with someone like Luther B above. However, if you're really thinking of a sort of program of self-guided literary therapy, we can at least opine based on sustained attention to what you've written. I was going to suggest that maybe you should try a nature poem. Yes, it's an overdone genre, but it encourages attention to whatever is around you. And when you look at your own poem and find instances of the pathetic fallacy, it's sort of a guide to how you're feeling. I think it might be a helpful experience.

But then I realized that you sort of already do this, don't you? The parodies of the Zork games that you write are, in a way, nature poems. They feature your immediate environment as a series of traps.

Maybe you could vary your environment a bit? When I lived in L.A., I discovered that within a 3 hours drive in each compass direction, there are mountains, two different kinds of deserts, an ocean, redwoods, and other cities. It's amazing to drive out of L.A. in the summer and suddenly find snow on the ground as you go up a hill. I highly recommend the one-day drive out and back as a weekend thing, if you have a car and the money for gas.

JaneDoe

Hi Scott,

I have never posted except for lurker amnesty, but I feel very compelled to post this.

Who you are is so much more than the sum of your experiences. And way bigger than those thoughts that keep your mind occupied, but do nothing to get to the truth of you.

You ARE the truth and how you relate that to the world (and why you want to) are separate issues. You are good. You have had some bad moments, but the truth of who you are is always there and it is always good. Your experience finds a niche in this goodness, but the goodness never leaves you. THAT is your truth. Everything else is how you want to present it and the narrative you would like others to take away.

I totally agonized over posting this for a while. I'm only familiar with the academic references in the sense that I have heard of some of them! And I suspect your regulars will not like my views any better than the Christian right wing.

Still, I think these views are not the same.

So anyway, I'm not an academic, but I love reading you ( I learn a lot here) and it has distressed me that you are in a dark place.

I am sending lots of light and positive energy your way.

Be well.

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