The wonder of narrative, when you come right down to it, is that we can discern it at all. The French composer Nadia Boulanger spoke of la grande ligne, the “long line” that holds together a composition, but as her pupil Aaron Copland reminded us, you can search every note and rest and find no evidence of it. Likewise, we think of stories as narrative unities, but can find the mortar that binds them neither in nor between the words of which they are composed.
The natural conclusion, perhaps, is that we breathe life into narrative by the act of observing. Until someone reads it, the book on the shelf contains only the potential for narrative. It is a record of one narrative, the author’s, waiting to be revived as another. That we’re so reliable at resurrecting those inert remains has dulled us to the magic that goes into the feat.
What is even more remarkable: we’re fairly competent at resurrecting the same narrative—of, at least, something recognizably like it. Even if we grant that the narrative itself is not in the play, most of us can agree that Macbeth is a story about a man driven reluctantly to grand ambitions with bloody results. The closer we scrutinize, of course, the more we can discern the differences. Your Macbeth may be more about the consequences of marrying into political ambition; mine, about how fate nullifies the retributive value of apparent justice. That only lends weight to conclusion that we’re the authors of the narratives we seem to find in art and literature, but it’s difficult to escape the regularity with which a work like Macbeth makes us into roughly the same kind of authors.
Faced with a behavior that is both commonplace and unexplained, we’re prone to file it away as a kind of character trait. Telling ourselves stories is an innately human behavior, we say knowingly; we’re narrative animals, after all. We’re violent animals, too, but there the consequences are more severe, so we’re less complacent. Our habit of teasing narratives out of arrangements of sound, light and markings is rarely so problematic, and so is allowed to continue without the same sense of urgency.
What do we get out of it, this trick of resurrection? From narratives we can summon themes—that we pit our own ambitions against the complex machinery of history at our own peril, for example. We can arrange those themes into combinations that enthrall us, edify us, enlighten us. All of that comes later, though. When it comes to narrative, our primary concern, the first thing we look for, is the long line.
That continuity, it would seem, is the desire that drives our fascination with narrative. We want to find some evidence of continuity, and so we do. It is a ritual of aspiration, repeated endlessly throughout our society and between, as far as we’ve been able to find, all cultures. We seek narrative continuity because we want ourselves to be continuous.
That’s the tricky part about our capacity for self-reflection. I can think about the things I once did and my reasons for doing them only by drawing a distinction between the person remembering and the person remembered. If I would not do now what I did then, it is because I am, in some sense, not the same agent I once was. That break in continuity suggests my impermanence, not only in the long run, but from moment to moment.
To combat that sneaking suspicion, we practice narrative. It is, in a sense, practicing the possession of something like a soul. Every story that we tell ourselves, ever time we compare notes, we are testing our capacity for discerning le grande ligne. If we can find the soul that animates the body of a symphony or of a play, then maybe we can find the narrative that ties our memories to what we’re doing and thinking in the present moment, and on through to our aims for the future.
Whether or not we manage to transmute that into something with ontological substance may not matter all that much. Look at poor Macbeth. At one moment, he is content to serve great men; the next, he is consumed by the ambition to be honored as one. The chaos and bloodshed of that bloodiest and most chaotic of Shakespearean plays is the result of his inconsistency. How do we know that our own wavering allegiance to moral and principle might not, in the next moment, plunge us into violence and despair? So we search out those moments, looking for the long line that like a thread connects them. Macbeth’s fatal change of heart is not a random, inexplicable leap from one state to another, not the replacement of one moral agent with another one altogether. In that it charts change along a traceable continuity, even damnation can be one of the comforts of narrative.