The word ‘narrative’ comes from the Latin word ‘narrativus’, meaning ‘to tell a story’. That is exactly how we come to understand what a narrative is- a linear description of a series of events, usually with a standard beginning-middle-end form. However, what is worth considering is what the need for narrative says about the human mind.
If you cut out the words of a book individually, put them into a bag, then took them out at random, they would be meaningless in one sense, whilst being meaningful in another sense. They would be meaningless because of the fact that the words were random. Words have many definitions, some argue that there are as many definitions as there are instances of the word. What gives that word meaning is how it is used. If it is plucked at random, devoid of context, there is nothing with which to qualify the specific instance-meaning of the word.
That aside, we each have individual understandings of words. These understandings are personal. They are based on such things as our experiences of the instances of the word in the world, our dispositions, and our mood at that moment. If I say ‘shoe’, you may think of a smart brown leather shoe, you may think of a New Balance trainer, you may think of a child’s first shoe fitting. That evocation of mind is personal to you. You may even think I’m saying ‘shoo’, as in to push away an animal or unwanted visitor. What this shows is that a sign (I.e. ‘shoe’), without qualifying context, only has the meaning we suppose it to have. Its meaning can be more clearly designated with greater levels of description. However, short of experiencing the shoe, there is no way of having an objective understanding of the article in question. My subjective utterance ‘shoe’ becomes an objective form to be re-subjectivised in an ontological void.
The fact that we need to impart meaning on a word, that we cannot let it be objective, is telling of the nature of narrative. Whilst narrative can mean the structure by which we form a story, it can also be understood as the framework by which we impose a meaningful order into the world. We may assert thus- the world of sense data which we accumulate is nebulous detached pieces of information until we impose structure upon it. Returning to the bag of words, I’ve plucked out the word ‘shoe’, next I pluck out the words ‘put’ and ‘on’. Those three words placed together would instantiate in most minds the basic sentence ‘put your shoe on’ or something to that effect. But without any deliberation for that sentence to mean anything, the jury is still hung on whether those words must confer the meaning of the apparent sentence. The fact of matter is, we naturally create structure upon perceiving the letters.
Words are of course not the only things we group together for the sake of comprehension. We group people together to create ‘races’, ‘cultures’, ‘religions’, ‘political members’ and so on. We create colour charts, explaining which colours go with which other colours. We create genres through which we categorise varieties of music, film, book… What I am interested in impressing upon here is that one thing we are highly disposed towards grouping is events. The grouping of events is how we form narratives. If we take an event, entirely at random- ‘the pound takes a rapid drop in value against the euro’, it seems to have meaning. However, the reason it has meaning to us is because we provide the statement with the context of recent history (the causes of the drop), the implied values of the objects in the sentence-event relation, and our projected understanding-values of the sentence. Simply put, we unconsciously apply a prior narrative to the sentence-
Beginning- The pound and euro were separately established
Middle- Economic events cased a shift in relational values between the two currencies
End- New values of the two objects ‘pound’ and ‘euro’ are re-established
Now, the recording of events as a narrative can be divided into ‘official’ and ‘personal’. On the hand of ‘official’, we understand ‘history’ as a subject. What we mean by this is a shared consensus of events, perspectives and details, put into an agreed order. It is true to say that historians and enthusiasts don’t merely learn details, but apply a level of criticism to the selection of details and conditions, but at heart, there is always a level of agreement for ideas to be shared and understood.
On the ‘personal’ level of narrative, we have our inner perceptions of events, which can include both our constructions, via memory or agenda, of events into histories. It also contains our applied assumptions of events which create context for our understandings of things in the world, our confabulations.
When we consider narrative in literature, we are always experiencing a narrative as chosen by the author. They may draw upon shared assumptions, but these shared assumptions are still chosen by them. A selection of events is chosen and formed into a narrative by the author solely. Unlike with history, the selection of details and perspectives is less arbitrary because the author wishes to construct a preconceived whole, and the narrative is a framework by which they execute their plan. What I wish to draw here is that every idea and perception we have, has an implied narrative to it; nothing is free from narrative. It is how we make sense of things, by forming connections and using relations as meaning signifiers.
One fascinating example of this is the Salvador Dali and Louis Bunuel film Un Chien Andalou. The film is constituted of a series of unrelated, abstract events. It doesn’t make any sense, and it isn’t meant to make sense either. However, people still put an incredible amount of effort into interpreting the film, even when fully in the knowledge of its absurd, meaningless nature.
Fireworks are a fascinating example of how relevant narrative is to us. They may be a series of explosions in the sky, varying in size, pattern, colour, loudness, for example, but somebody has orchestrated the variations and sequence of the display. If every one was blue, the display would feel dull, but remove blue from it and it would all feel too bright. What it needs is a balance in aesthetics, however, since the display is sequential, this must be done through a linear framework. The curator of a firework display crafts a narrative. The interesting issue here is- what exactly is the story? We must conclude that the story is one which doesn’t actually contain characters or events, just elicited experiences of varying kind and quality.
One way of understanding what is creating the narrative in the display is by understanding the fact that colours are meaningful to us. Goethe wrote a fascinating book about what colour means to people (click HERE to read more). These meanings seem to be, by and large, shared meanings. Whether these feelings are culturally and ontologically derived (I.E., from society, nurture, and nature) or whether they are innately formed is up for debate. To pick two examples, he says of the colour blue that-
“This colour has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful- but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose”,
whilst he says of the colour yellow-
“In its highest purity it always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serence, gay, softly exciting character”, and when moving towards orange “all that we have said of yellow is applicable here, in a higher degree. The red-yellow gives an impression of warmth and gladness, since it represents the hue of the intenser [sic] glow of fire”.
We see that we have a narrative without content because the feelings stirred in us actively imply content into the narrative, however unconscious it may be. Each colour has a psychological meaning to us, and exposure to that colour reminds us of things to which the colour corresponds- orange and red to fire or blood or flowers, blue to seas and skies. When two colours are put in sequence, a narrative starts to form. Seeing red then blue may evince in us the feelings of fire, then water. These interpretations are personal. The curator of the display creates a highly subjective narrative in the conscious mind of the viewer through objective forms.
What we see is that humans don’t merely put events into a narrative form to create linear meaning, but to personalise and subjectivise events and phenomena. We imply unconscious narratives to each individual phenomenon so we can fit them comfortably into our inner narratives.