A panel of three professors from various departments spoke at a forum on Feb. 25 about the nature and function of narrative in life: the importance of both coherence and transcendence in narratives, the relationship between narrative and history, and how narrative is both necessary and insufficient to understanding life.
The Lyceum, a student group associated with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, holds the Liberal Arts Friday Forum during parents weekend each semester, according to Lyceum president and senior Riley Lindsay.
This semester’s panelists included Associate Professor of English Dwight Lindley, Associate Professor of History Matthew Gaetano, and Assistant Professor of Theology Cody Strecker.
Lindley contrasted a strand of Western literary tradition represented by Virgil, John Milton, Leo Tolstoy, and George Elliot with one represented by Homer, William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Charles Dickens.
Lindley said Virgil, Milton, Tolstoy, and Elliot focused on the horizontal aspect of narrative, which emphasizes coherence.
“The narrator in that horizontal conception that prizes inner coherence is filtering the data that you get in the narrative so that it all fits within this coherent arc of character development moving through the plot,” Lindley said. “The narrator gives us what is most essential to that, and carefully controls what is let in so that it all makes sense.”
He contrasted this with the vertical dimension, embraced by Homer, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Dickens, which deals with transcendent elements of a story.
“The vertical dimension of narrative is referring to all of the places where the narrative makes us feel that the narrative is not enough, that there is something desired here which transcends anything that is said,” Lindley said.
He said both dimensions are necessary to any great narrative.
“I think great narrative and even good narrative — if pressed, I might even say all narrative — has both a horizontal dimension, trying to attain internal intelligibility, and yet all narrative also has this vertical dimension of transcendence that escapes our capacity for intellection, and that both of those together, actually, are what make it good, make it feel real, make us prize it. Certain parts of the tradition have swung more towards one axis or the other, but I think we desperately need both.”
Gaetano discussed narrative in the context of the distinction between historicism and the philosophy of history.
“Philosophy of history is I think often used when we are talking about some kind of narrative for the entire history of universal humanity, say narratives of progress — the Whig narrative where everything has been leading up to Anglo-American freedom, or I think Hegel is an example of a philosopher of history, where everything is leading up to the unveiling of spirit and Prussian constitutional monarchy.”
He said this idea of one coherent narrative of history, while sometimes called historicism, is actually in tension with how he would term historicism: contextualizing everything to the point of rejecting objectivity and transcendence.
“History is the master discipline because everything has a history, and everything is nothing but history,” Gaetano said. “In other words people are just trapped within their own historical, cultural, geographical contexts. There’s nothing outside of history; there’s nothing genuinely transcendent.”
Gaetano said German historian Leopold von Ranke’s view offered a middle ground between philosophy of history’s totalizing narrative and historicism’s tendency toward relativism.
“There is not a path towards a final end, at least in this worldview of history, where progress has finally unveiled what we really are,” Gaetano said. “There’s something vital, a narrative character, but not that single narrative that some of these other philosophers espouse.”
Strecker addressed what theology should look like, as the gospels are written as narratives.
Strecker said chronology in narratives implies cause-and-effect relationships.
“Temporally earlier things cause temporally later things, but not vice versa,” Strecker said.
Strecker said the gospels include at least one notable exception.
“There’s at least one moment in the life, the narrative of Jesus,” Strecker said, “that doesn’t fit causally into the whole of the sequence, and that is the event of the transfiguration of Jesus.”
Strecker said the transfiguration doesn’t fit the cause-and-effect pattern of the gospels in which suffering comes before glory.
“Causally we must say that the glory is still following the suffering, even as it is chronologically preceding it,” Strecker said.
Strecker said one reason for this out-of-place element is that “life is not fully representable in narrative.”
This point stood out to junior Michael Frost, a Lyceum board member, who attended the event.
“I particularly liked Dr. Strecker’s point about the insufficiency of narrative to capture a life,” Frost said. “I thought that was rather profound and important for thinking about books that we find hard to deal with or lives that we have trouble fitting into a story.”
Strecker ended his talk with a question: “Can a life be blessed that ends in violence, suffering, fear, and silence?”
“Transfiguration says yes,” he said. “Glory might be found in places that don’t fit our stories but no less indicate a life of blessedness. Certainly narratives are important for life, but failures adequately to narrate our own lives or the lives of others maybe do not point to an inadequacy of those lives but rather the incompleteness of narrative in relation to life.”