I admire born storytellers.
Public speakers, high school teachers, friends of parents at a cocktail party, all of whom can talk about buying carrots at a grocery store with Dickensian conviction, with Tolstoyan prose, as if painting the grand narrative of their life each time.
As a writer, I have often struggled to understand the thrust of their captivating narratives. While I am shackled by mundane detail, limited by a tendency to self-correct, they seem immune to my self-destructive tendencies. It is recently that I have discovered the key to their success — an unabashed manipulation of time.
Admittedly, the phrase “manipulation of time” evokes images of some Asimovian tampering of the gossamer of space-time. What I mean instead, is an ability to construct literary time in their stories in the same way as the great novelists of the past three centuries.
Time in novels — or rather temporality — runs in the opposite direction from time in the real world. In daily life, real time is unceasing; each moment is equal in both measurement and finitude, continuously pushing us into an unknown future. In novels, however, temporality is fictive, distended — subject to suspense, dilating near momentous occurrences and dependent on the “emplotment” of only those disconnected events that are significant to the plot.
In real life, our most significant experiences are interspersed between the prosaic details of life — sitting in a car, a morning routine, homework, cooking dinner. However, our memory is rarely faithful to this temporality.
Reminiscence is inherently novelistic — dominated by our impulse to package all our experiences as narratives. When friends at Yale ask us to describe our lives at home, we structure our answers with storybook chronology — a series of childhood experiences, family holidays, enduring friendships and failed relationships and most importantly, those serendipitous events that defined us growing up. We do the same thing when we describe our college experiences to friends back home.
This is naturally so, for we are shackled by the limitations of conscious memory. If we give each moment in time the same importance, we would lose all sense of that which is significant in our lives. However, the overbearing impulse of memory to “narrativise” goes in the opposite direction, forcing us to gloss over the prosaic. We delude ourselves into thinking that life is faithful to memory — that each day needs to be marked by some significant success, some growth, some momentous event that can be neatly packaged into narrative memory.
Our best experiences and those moments of serendipity are rarely as atemporal as we make them seem. A 3 a.m. walk with your best friend that inspired you to change your career aspirations was probably preceded by weeks of intense self-appraisal and debilitating ennui. Yet, all we remember is one epiphany — not the rigmarole that led us there.
And the greater our distance from the subject of the stories we tell or consume, the less we focus on the prosaic — the context — and the more literary our conception of time becomes. We hear stories from our grandparents about their siblings’ lives as a string of triumphs and blunders in simple chronology — that they decided to study mathematics at Imperial College London, never the context surrounding that decision. We are surrounded by narratives, inundated by them in the articles and books we read or the television shows we watch. Most importantly, a narrative worldview satisfies our tireless search for meaning in the cosmos — allowing us to portray failures as turning points that led to something better or subsequent successes as climaxes in our arcs of redemption.
I am not necessarily opposed to this ideology — I’d rather give in to this ubiquitous narrative impulse and believe that everything happens for a reason than stare into the cold, hard abyss of a meaningless universe. Why not view our lives as the Greeks viewed their tragedies — defined entirely by action, propelled forward only by active choice and contained in a web of teleologies?
Simply because if everything is configured to happen for a reason, this configuration has to be a gradual event — contained within our mundane infinities. The gradually-spreading mist of cosmic wisdom, not sudden flashes of divine insight, precipitates life-changing events.
Narratives are totalizing, obsessed with creating artificial meaning as if we are the sole authors of our lives. Instead, we should use the prosaic as our yardstick for real significance. It is the foundation of our ethics, locating action within cosmic eventness. It validates our indefatigable struggles as the seeds that bear the fruit of later meaning. It is our bulwark against hasty judgement, forcing us to sever the seemingly facile link between unilateral blame, logical consequence and collective condemnation.
This is most important when we find ourselves in another inevitable rut — criticising ourselves for not having ascended to new heights, for having jumped from our previous milestone to the next. Life at Yale, unlike our narratives of our time here, is largely occupied by the prosaic — the journey that leads us to that milestone, the injections of serendipity that propel us along this uphill climb. Appreciating this gives us space to breathe, to fail, and the courage to surrender our decisions to the capricious whims of fate.
Resisting the urge to narrativize, and embracing the prosaic, can become our attempt not to saturate the world with so much manmade ideology that we become deaf to the voice of divine wisdom.
Pradz Sapre is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin college. His column, titled ‘Growing pains’, runs every other Monday.