05 May 2015

Returning to the Concept of Narrative Morality - Briefly

The picture is cropped, focused, sized,
and tells a story - but what happens next?
Narrative is a form of linguistic expression that tells a story. It really is this basic. It need not be constrained by the mores of chronology, or the strictures of a particular point of view, tense, tone, setting, or any other thing. Narrative, however, IS about change. There is a beginning, and there are points in the narrative which come after the beginning, and there will be an end of one sort or another.

Narrative's purpose is to be told - whether to oneself, or to others, or to some undefined audience which may or may not include various listeners and authors. And a narrative remains untold until it is finished; it is an inherent frustration of this linguistic format to leave a narrative unfinished, untold. This does not necessitate a climax or denoument, or any other "standard" narrative format for the end of a story, but rather so long as there exists the possibility for the narrative to continue, there is some unfinished aspect to the character of the narrative - and to some extent, this is an aspect of narrative common to all stories. Wherever an author or authors might think to end their story, whether by design (here's the conclusion, etc.) or accident (the author died before the work was completed, etc.), the audience may well ask "what next?" and it is an intelligible, reasonable question to ask of the story so long as a continuation can be imagined and articulated. Narrative, it seems, cannot fulfill its own purpose.

So narrative is linear in format if not in content, restrained in this way as are all things bound by the rules of our four-dimensional existence. Through that sequence, the presence of change makes the transition from one part of the sequence to another intelligible by allowing differentiation. Narrative also has a purpose - that of being told - and by its nature it seems that purpose cannot be completely fulfilled. Even from these basics the morality of narrative seems to arise for me: It is imperative (good) that the narrative be told, but it is to be understood that its telling will never be complete. Striving for completion is not necessarily bad insofar as it does not impede the good (which right now is just the imperative of actually telling the story), but it is also essentially nonsensical. And there are other, even more elemental goods that arise: change is good. We cannot at this point say how much change is good, but that it exists is good within the framework of a narrative; it is existentially good because it allows the narrative to be told, splitting up an indistinguishable linear experience into segmented, differentiated parts with relationships to one another (at the bare minimum, the relationship of being included in the same narrative by their author or authors).

The knowledge of these goods sheds light on another facet of narrative that, it quickly becomes apparent, is necessary to the good of the narrative by virtue of its effect on the purpose and change of a narrative: the narrative focus. Like change, linearity, purpose, and incompleteness, focus is a fundamental aspect of any narrative. It arises from the nature of language: without going too far afield into linguistics as opposed to narratology (which is the proper topic of this screed), a word spoken is also every other word not spoken. Language, the substrate of Narrative, is inherently focusing. Narrative focus cleaves that which is part of the narrative from what which is not part of the narrative - that which will be told, and that which will not be told. It is not a clean delineation: from what a narrative explicitly includes, an audience may deduce the probable existence of some aspects of the narrative not explicitly told (the plot of a mystery depends on this principle, for example). This ragged limn is the happy playground of the close reader. But at some indefinite point there would seem to be a limit to the determinations that can be made from a finite narrative, and this limit is helpful to the telling of a narrative because it limits what the author must complete in order to approach (but, remember, never quite attain) completeness. Focus is a good insofar as it aids the completion of the narrative; it would seem that it is possible for focus to also be a bad thing - too much of it, and we lose all sense of meaningful change. Like change, then, focus is good, but it remains unseen how much focus is a good thing. Probably, change and focus - and their proper amounts - maintain a delicate yin and yang (possibly also forming a tripod with linearity, in that too little time spent on a narrative - or too much - compresses or dilutes the focus and change contained within its limits?), and it is this good tao which is so ineffable and indispensable to a "good" narrative. But this is not an investigation into the proper qualities of good narratives. It is a simpler task taken up here; to simply identify what is fundamentally imperative (good) for narratives. A narrative without focus is everything, which is an unchanging totality. It is not a narrative. Focus is imperative to narrative, and good.

For a narrative, being told is the purpose, and therefore good. Its focus, its changes, its linear duration - these are the fundamental aspects of a narrative which are imperative for its telling, and therefore their existence is also good. If one were to derive one's own morality from the morality of narratives at this point, it would not be so hard to make a start:
  1. It is good to tell the narrative --> it is good to act, to live life, to exist, as opposed to inaction and non-existence.
  2. Acting, living life, existing: these are accomplished by focusing, by changing, by enduring - though to what degree one must do these things is somewhat unclear.  
  3. It is impossible to complete - to do all the good there is to do. 
Obviously, this appears extremely general. It is the most vapid seed of a morality, almost totally undefined, but it also seems like it could be used as a general compass rose for a more complete map of human morality as derived from our favorite form of expression, the narrative. The fleshing out of this correspondence and its implications for our own moral understanding does not seem impossible, or even improbable. The foothold has been crossed, and ground found upon which to stand. It might even be a good and useful project; it seems like there could be a lot of use for a morality derived from the morality of the Narrative. These problems are not the issue. 

The issue seems to be that Narrative's morality must be justified. Why is narrative so important to us? What does it do for us? These appear to be linguistic and cognitive questions, digging into Narrative's rich human substrate.