Sven Birkerts has an article in The American Scholar that’s long but well worth reading. It starts off as if it’s going to be a typical kids-today rant (“In class they sit with their laptops open on the table in front of them….”), but once he gets onto the idea of narrative it picks up steam:
The idea of “narrative creation” carries a great deal in its train. For narrative—story—is not the same thing as simple sequentiality. To say “I went here and then here and then did this and then did that” is not narrative, at least not in the sense that I’m sure [David] Linden intends. No, narration is sequence that claims significance. Animals, for example, do not narrate, even though they are well aware of sequence and of the consequences of actions. “My master has picked up my bowl and has gone with it into that room; he will return with my food.” This is a chain of events linked by a causal expectation, but it stops there. Human narratives are events and descriptions selected and arranged for meaning.
The question, as always, is one of origins. Did man invent narrative or, owing to whatever predispositions in his makeup, inherit it? Is coming into human consciousness also a coming into narrative—is it part of the nature of human consciousness to seek and create narrative, which is to say meaning? What would it mean then that chemicals in combination created meaning, or the idea of meaning, or the tools with which meaning is sought—created that by which their own structure and operation was theorized and questioned? If that were true, then “mere matter” would have to be defined as having as one of its possibilities that of regarding itself.
We assume that logical thought, syllogistic analytical reason, is the necessary, right thought—and we do so because this same thought leads us to think this way. No exit, it seems. Except that logical thought will allow that there may be other logics, though it cannot explicate them. Another quote from the Harper’s article, this from Greenberg: “As a neuroscientist will no doubt someday discover, metaphor is something that the brain does when complexity renders it incapable of thinking straight.”
He goes on to “the idea that contemplative thought is endangered” and the thought that “the novel is the vital antidote to the mentality that the Internet promotes” and discusses Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, proceeding to a meditation on “aesthetic bliss”:
What thou lovest well remains—and for me it is language in this condition of alert, sensuous precision, language that does not forget the world of nouns. I’m thinking that one part of this project will need to be a close reading of and reflection upon certain passages that are for me certifiably great. I have to find occasion to ask—and examine closely—what happens when a string of words gets something exactly right.
I’m sure everyone who reads it will find things to disagree with, but I found it stimulating and I wanted to share it.