Narrative Truth

Meaning which is contained in myth, art, music and all forms of culture. It applies most directly, however, to storytelling. Narrative is story which may or may not be materially true, but—as is the way with stories—it has a shadow-meaning, ranging from the trivial or obvious to a deep, rich source of a lifetime’s reflection. Narrative, to be distinguished from allegory, works fine just as a story if you don’t want to look for the meaning beneath it; allegory’s purpose is its deeper meaning. You don’t by any means have to explore the meaning to enjoy a good narrative, whereas if you stay on the surface of an allegory, you are missing the point. Allegory “speaks otherwise” (Greek: allos other + agor speak).

This dual character—true and untrue, using narrative truth to communicate material truth, being both story and having something else to say—is shared with any work of creative imagination. A Jane Austen novel, say, which is untrue, since it is fiction; but is true, in that it traces character and manners with meticulous accuracy. Elizabeth Bennett certainly existed, as a real and rounded description of a lady of that age, station and temperament, and she has our affection; yet she certainly did not exist—she is a child of Austen’s imagination. This narrative, poetic ambiguity is the hot centre of our culture. It is also the victim of widespread misunderstanding, owing to the error of not knowing the difference between testimony and story.

Testimony works on the single dimension of material truth: if it deviates from material truth, it is bad testimony, so it is crucially different from story. Story works at two levels: the medium of the story itself (true or untrue), and the shadow it casts in the form of insight into truth at a depth which will demand (and reward) thought and reflection. Or the medium may take the form of a painting, which is both untrue and true, or music, which cannot be seen in terms of truth or untruth at all. The medium, in whatever form, invites you to reflect, to sing, to pray, to build social capital, to face the same way as your neighbours, to sustain a point of reference in your life which is secure from the suspicion of being squalid. The idea that allegory—or religion, whose grammar is allegory—should be taken for the literal truth is an extraordinary failure of mature judgment. A work of art—especially the work of art called religion—makes the question of whether it is true or not absurd. It is a category error and should not be asked. You might as well ask whether Schubert’s String Quintet in C major Deutsch No. 956 likes broccoli.

Narrative, then, may or may not report the material truth. But it can lead to the discovery of both material truth and implicit truth, as an explorer in search of the Holy Grail may discover and map real mountains and rivers. Story uses experience, giving it permanence and meaning; distilling memory into works of art to be encountered, reflected on and loved—the features by which you can recognise a place and a community. The community’s stock of stories is intrinsic to its identity, to its culture and character. Its narrative is something which it recognises as its own, gives a name to, and uses as an expressive statement; without making the mistake of supposing the story to be true, any more than—despite being inspired by it—it would think that the Milky Way is made of milk. Story has emotional depth; hearts reach out to it; it may even be believed. That doesn’t mean it is held to be materially true. Belief—the word, and the bundle of meanings with which it is linked—comes to our literal-minded age from a story-rich antiquity. It can be traced to the ancient Germanic root, galaubjan [to hold dear]; the Latin for “to believe” is credere, which comes from cor dare, to give [one’s] heart.N26


Fluency vs. insight

The difficulty that plain speaking faces in communicating ideas which are complex and have emotional depth has been noted many times: the message itself may be rejected, or it may be just too big to talk about, or the storyteller herself may be far from having worked out the material truth buried in it; or she may be at risk. The curse of Cassandra was to be right but ignored: everyone just carried on dancing; it was Salome that got results—but then she was a dancer. The prophets with the biggest things to say were intensely aware of the limitations of plain speaking. “I am not eloquent,” Moses admitted; “I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue.” Isaiah’s “unclean lips” had to be purged with a live coal. Ezekiel was mute for a time. Jonah ran away to sea—and to his adventures inside a whale—rather than argue with the notoriously hard regime of Nineveh. “I held my tongue and spake nothing, though it was pain and grief to me”, says Psalm 39, on the ropes. Even the great Catholic liturgy, as the theologian Catherine Pickstock argues, was afflicted with a stammer.N27

A solution is to turn complex truth into a story. The story can be about anything but—if the cultural and artistic depth explored by narrative and allegory is dedicated to the service of its people—the work of telling it, being reminded of it, exploring it, celebrating it, dancing it, or living it has the effect of binding a community together intensely. And the invention, or performance, of a good story (like dance) takes a person as close to fulfilment, and to having a deeply good time, as it is possible to get. The risk in this is that allegory may acquire a life of its own, becoming story for its own sake, with no shadow-meaning—no purpose other than entertainment—and losing all sense of dedication to the community. Not that there is a problem with the existence of such materially-true narratives, but there is a profound loss for the community if stories exist only in that single dimension, leaving it with a narrative tradition that misses the point. Story is like a washing line: it is what is hanging from it that matters. The literal mind, seeing only the washing line, and never realising what it is for, leaves society unclothed, in a state of narrative deprivation. Probably the most famous expression of regret about this reduction of story to only entertainment—and surely the most impressive exit in English literature—is from Tennyson (and Monty Python):

. . . behold an arm,
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
That caught him by the hilt, and banish’d him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere.N28

What is waving farewell to us here is a robust confidence in the idea that the narrative, manners, traditions, beliefs and ceremonies of the society in which a person belongs are fit subjects for celebration. The pre-industrial (and, even more so, the pre-Reformation) society of Europe acknowledged traditions and principles, often far from intuitively obvious, which had evolved through trial and error over a long period; they were taught to young people who participated in rites of passage to mark stages towards full membership of society. But they were not beyond challenge, and this was reinforced by such fragmenting advances as firearms, the waning of carnival, the slowly-evolving market economy and the Enlightenment’s passionate and breathless surrender to reason. Confident, located values have been slipping into the bosom of the lake for a long time now, picking up speed around the time when Tennyson wrote his “Morte d’Arthur” (1842), but spanning several centuries of deepening artistic doubt as to how to replace them.

Allegory itself, of course, has lived on, but it has retreated by degrees into the private sphere. It tells stories about grief and love; it explores ironic space; it may be serious or just fun. It will be a matter of life-giving expression for the community, and for the resilient future. But nowadays it tends not to be, and Alasdair MacIntyre reflects on the consequences:

The contrast, indeed, the opposition between art and life provides a way of exempting art—including narrative—from its moral tasks. The relegation of art to the status of an essentially minority activity and interest further helps to protect us from any narrative understanding of ourselves.N29

Lean Logic brings whatever values and insights it can to the task of holding community together. If a robust market economy is not around to do that job, it will have to be done by a robust culture; if culture does this, you can call it anything you like, but Lean Logic calls it religion (Latin: ligare to bind + re intensely). It is the binding-together of people with stories, music, dance, emotion, spirit, death, ecology, caritas—all really about the celebratory making of community, but “speaking otherwise”, and real enough to give your heart to.N30


Related entries:

Invisible Goods, Dirty Hands, Truth.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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