Friday, January 15, 2016

Remedial Retconning


The following is a text given out at a small workshop for ESL teachers:
An Evening with Friends

Every Saturday night, four good friends get together. When Jerry, Mike, and Pat arrived, Karen was sitting in her living room writing some notes. She quickly gathered the cards and stood up to greet her friends at the door. They followed her into the living room but, as usual, they couldn’t agree exactly on what to play. Jerry eventually took a stand and set things up. Finally, they began to play. Karen’s recorder filled the room with soft and pleasant music. Early in the evening, Mike noticed Pat’s hand and the many diamonds. As the night progressed, the tempo of the play increased. Finally, a lull in the activities occurred. Taking advantage of this, Jerry pondered the arrangement in front of him. Mike interrupted Jerry’s reverie and said, “Let’s hear the score.” They listened carefully and commented on their performance. When the comments were all heard, exhausted but happy, Karen’s friends went home.

After reading it, we were asked what the text is about. We had no context, just a bare text. All we had to go on were the clues to be gleaned from the text itself. Normally, ambiguities in meaning are resolved as the story goes along. This text exploits the multiplicity of possible meanings to achieve its effect of prolonged ambiguity. Usually ambiguities cancel themselves out through a process of elimination until according to normal expectations only a single answer to the question of "what the text is about" remains. Here, instead of the multiple possible meanings canceling each other out, they line up to avoid resolving ambiguities.

There are two answers to the question of what this paragraph is about. The group of friends got together to play music, or they got together to play cards.If you think they got together to play cards then Karen's recorder refers to a device for playing musical recordings, like a stereo. Or it could refer to the musical instrument. Similarly with "Jerry eventually took a stand ...." or the with the word "play." An important element for the card-playing interpretation is the sentence "Mike noticed Pat's hand and the many diamonds." "Diamonds" could be about the card suit or it could be an offhand remark about jewelry and unimportant in the overall meaning of the story.

Some detail catches our eye and we make it disproportionately important, it doesn't fit in as well with the other other details, therefore ...? It's more important or maybe it doesn't mean much. But in the larger context of the reader's life, music maybe more frequent than card-playing, or vice versa.
Turning our attention away from this curiosity to thoughts and memories of our past. So incredibly much happens in the course of a day, there is so much to remember just from yesterday and before yesterday there thousands of days just as busy and eventful before it. How and why do we remember this and not that? Why the crush with little Suzie Jenkins, but not all the times teacher was kinda mean to her? If we were to examine our memories carefully and with inhumane attention to detail and possible ambiguities, would we concoct the same story of our life that we told ourselves yesterday?

And if it's not the same story doesn't this destroy the whole notion that a person's life is a story with a narrative structure? The exigencies of the present push us to revise the past, not in some neurotic mischief of pretending that something didn't happen, but to pull other events forward into the foreground and push others into the background. Same text, different story.

* * *

If the same events can be used to tell different stories, doesn't this destroy the whole notion of a person's life as a narrative? If the same life can tell different stories, then what is the self? What is the ego? Is there even a "what"  to be discussed?

I can imagine some naive twit objecting that multiple interpretations means that a person is free to choose whatever arbitrary "story" fits the needs of the moment. We call people who do this liars and con artists. People who believe their own lies we call neurotics.

These questions and objections lead to an interesting problem: what does it take to believe in one's new reinterpretation? What does "believe" mean here? Endless repetition of one's new story will not manufacture belief. It only leads forbidding clarification (= questions) and bullying others into agreement.

I vaguely recall a passage from Pascal's Pensées about if one acts like a Christian: praying, going to church, confessing, etc, then belief in God and in the Truth of Christianity would become progressively easier. It is unnecessary to believe or have some feeling of certainty. It is necessary to oppose the psychological and spiritual resistance to living the "new" story. Or the Freudian term "cathexsis" can be used. Or "emotional and spiritual investment." Make no mistake: underlying all of this is chaos, formlessness and an absence of Truth, Being and Goodness. Our brains did not evolve to recognize truth and goodness.

The answer to the question of what belief means here is simple enough. You act in accordance with the story. The more that can be assimilated into the new narrative, the more believable it becomes. This part is nothing new. It's the old tale of emotional investment. In keeping with the economic metaphor, sometimes investments go bad and bankruptcy is declared. A person has to start over. Sometimes pieces of the past can be salvaged, sometimes not. I don't remember which one, but it was one of the James's in 19th Century America that came up with notion that some statements are not true yet. The truth of living a reinvented life is in the living of it.

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