Monday, 20 June 2016

Natasha Suicide (Funeral Portraits Part 2)

Natasha Suicide has lived up to her name. Or died up to her name to be exact; the anti-human, anti-life Russian beauty. I've meet her on an online forum where she was avidly commenting about Depressive Suicidal Black Metal. Her beauty was stunning — elegant face, straight blonde hair, large green eyes — but there was something alien hidden in those expressive eyes, like she was there but not really, like she could turn into the chick from The Exorcist at the flip of a switch. 

When we'd chat from time to time she always threatened suicide and I knew she wasn't a poser, like the slut from Fight Club, feigning suicide just to get Brad Pitt's fat juicy cock. Natasha was the real deal. I mean, Russians are fucked!! Ever heard of Chernobyl? She lived in a town just like that, some fucking Stalinist monotone industrial nightmare, Elektrovorsk or some shit. You don't need a nuclear disaster to want to die if you live there. Hell, you're basically born dead. Speaking of Russians, have you seen the hoards of sick fucks, dressed in rags like zombies, who went to see Metallica and Pantera when they first played there after the fall of the Iron Curtain? More than one million rockers came to the show in Moscow. Were those musicians on that stage or Gods descended from a leaden sky? Poverty breeds a special kind of metalhead, a true kind, a dangerous kind. But, back to Natasha, I live in Canada and there wasn't much I could do to help her. And why bother anyway? Why help someone when you can sit back, study their self-destruction in slow motion, and wait for inspiration to strike.

When she abruptly deleted her Facebook profile I knew her time has come. She was gone from the online world and probably from the physical world as well. I only found out the gory details later on from the list of internet comments her suicide had spawned. Yuliana, one of the nurses, was more than happy to spill the beans in exchange of some social media attention. Natasha's suicide was probably big news in the small industrial town and fate had placed Yuliana in the thick of the action. At first I thought the nurse might exaggerate a bit for dramatic effect but everything she said fit perfectly with my idea of Natasha's macabre style.

Natasha had jumped from the tenth floor of her apartment building. Alas, she didn't die right away. Within minutes, they managed to pile her skinny, broken body in an ambulance, and rush her to the ER. She had a gas mask on her face, nobody knew why. One of the paramedics removed the mask and handed it to Yuliana as they reached the hospital. Even though agitated and shocked, Yuliana swears there were strange black patterns on the eyes of the mask, like satanic, occult symbols drawn with a marker. Then the paramedic nodded toward Natasha, unable to speak. When she looked at the mangled body on the stretcher the nurse gasped; Natasha's head was all covered in duct tape, like a weird mummy, tufts of blond hair sticking out here and there, blood seeping through the gaps. Her black "Life is Pain" t-shirt and cut off jeans were soiled with blood and barely held together a slim body that was but a bag of bones. Her tiny bare feet were twisted at weird angles from her shinbones and knees. She looked like a doll that suffered the vicious tantrum of some insane child in the middle of playing doctor.


No amount of practice could ready Yuliana for this sight. The norms of her training flashed in her mind like some weird abstractions.


First and foremost, they needed to make sure the patient was able to breathe. Then they'd try to stop the massive bleeding and probably get a blood transfusion. But if the patient's mouth and nose were sealed by duct tape Natasha could asphyxiate and choke on her own blood. With trembling hands that seemed miles away Yuliana grabbed some scissors and started cutting through the grey mask. Soon, a gargling sound came from deep inside Natasha's throat. That meant she was still alive. Yuliana cut faster, all the way to the temple by Natasha's left eye.  Blood stuck to the tape and scissors like jelly. When the nurse unglued the cover from her mouth and nose and her left eye, Natasha's jaw fell down on her neck like an unhinged plate. A black thing coated in blood slid out of her mouth.  It was her iPhone. The gore didn't penetrate its slick case. It seemed like Natasha had pulled out her teeth and sliced the tendons of her jaw prior to the jump in order to better fit the device in her mouth. The black earphones still protruded from its jack and black strings went to Natasha's ears.

She's still listening to music, Yuliana realized as a cold shiver went through her. Mechanically, she removed one of the ear plugs. As if the nurse pressed the wrong button on a twisted robotic doll, Natasha began convulsing and screaming, spit and blood flying from her exposed tongue. Except what came out of Natasha's throat, Yuliana insisted on clarifying, was not so much a scream but sounded more like the squeals of a stuck pig. Natasha's left eye, the one not covered by duct tape, also opened and stared at Yuliana, bulging with hatred. That green eye now tinged with pure red rage. The nurse said that she was suddenly, irrationally afraid for her life. As if that mangled, ruined body would somehow manage to pull itself together, get up, and chew on the fringes of her sanity. Rip at it with that horribly dislodged jaw. Frantically, Yuliana placed the earplug back in Natasha's ear and the dying girl instantly stopped convulsing. The green eye squeezed shut and Yuliana swore she saw tears roll out of it. But that might just be her bullshit. Then the dying girl's body was rocked by puking fits as a black, reeking substance gushed from her ruined throat, drowning the already soiled phone. And then Natasha went still, a hideous doll, nurses in white uniforms gaping at her, a faint vibration of sad music still spilling from her phone into her skull and the sudden silence of the ER.     

Autopsy revealed that Natasha had also ingested a lethal amount of pesticide prior to her jump, Yuliana was happy to share. Natasha just wanted to be on the safe side, I thought, and do a thorough job. Suicide is tricky business. Hitler ate a bullet, popped a cyanide pill, and had ordered his body burned. Natasha was far worse than Hitler, trust me on this, although you won't find her name in stupid history books. She hated all life and the pest of humanity. She knew her enemy well, she strategized. She knew the deceitful hideous thing would cling to her with its slimy limbs like a rejected and obsessive lover, and she needed to battle it with all her strength. Fight it till the end, fight it in style.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Emil Cioran and Depressive Suicidal Black Metal (Part 1)

There are many interesting connections between the work of nihilist philosopher Emil Cioran and the art of Depressive Suicidal Black Metal (for short DSBM). This should come as no surprise since Cioran authored such books as On the Heights of Despair, The Trouble with Being Born, and  A Short History of Decay. Throughout his life, Cioran had suffered from insomnia and the pest of lucidity and deep awareness in a cold and meaningless universe. Trapped in a painful dilemma, Cioran hated living just as much as he did dying. While he praised suicide, he always lamented it coming too late, like all actions rooted in a mind on the brink of madness. Despising a moribund God, Cioran only craved the dark forgetfulness of the complete void, which he received when he was blessed with dementia in his old age. 

In this post I just highlight a deep, organic connection between Cioran's early remarks on despair and the grotesque and the dark imagery of DSBM. Cioran wrote On the Heights of Despair at the age of 20, and already considered himself an expert in the problem of death. This fragment is from his early book.  

Despair and the Grotesque

"Among the many forms of the grotesque, I find the one whose roots are steeped in despair more unusual and complex. The other forms have less intensity. It is important to note that the grotesque is inconceivable without intensity of feeling. And what intensity is deeper and more organic than despair? The grotesque appears only in very negative states, when great anxiety arises from a lack of life; the grotesque is an exaltation of negativity.

There is a mad launch toward negativity in that bestial agonizing grimace when the shape and lines of the face are contorted into strangely expressive forms, when the look in one's eyes changes with distant light and shadow, and one's thoughts follow the curves of similar distortions. Truly intense and irrevocable despair cannot be objectified except in grotesque expressions, because the grotesque is the absolute negation of serenity, that state of purity, transparence, and lucidity so different from the chaos and nothingness of despair. Have you ever had the brutal and amazing satisfaction of looking at yourself in the mirror after countless sleepless nights? Have you suffered the torment of insomnia, when you count the minutes for nights on end, when you feel alone in this world, when your drama seems to be the most important in history and history ceases to have meaning, ceases to exist? When the most terrifying flames grow in you and your existence appears unique and isolated in a world made only for the consummation of your agony? You must have felt those moments, as countless and infinite as suffering, in order to have a clear picture of the grotesque when you look at yourself in the mirror. It is a picture of total strain, a tense grimace to which is added the demonically seductive pallor of a man who has struggled along horrible, dark precipices. Isn't this grotesque expression of despair similar to a precipice? It has something of the abysmal maelstrom of great depths, the seduction of the all-encompassing infinite to which we bow as we bow to fatality. How good it would be if one could die by throwing oneself into an infinite void! The complexity of the grotesque born out of despair resides in its capacity to indicate an inner infinity and to produce paroxysm of the highest tension. How could this intense agony manifest itself in pleasant linear curves and formal purity? The grotesque essentially negates the classic, as well as any idea of style, harmony or perfection.

It is evident to anyone who understands the multiple forms of inner drama that the grotesque hides secret tragedies, indirectly expressed. Whoever has seen his face grotesquely disfigured can never forget it, because he will always be afraid of himself. Despair is followed by painful anxiety. What else does the grotesque do if it doesn't actualize fear and anxiety?" (Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair

Shining is a pioneering DSBM band, formed by the controversial Niklas Kvarforth. The philosophy of the band is the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment through physical and mental self-destruction. To illustrate this concept, Niklas is known for cutting himself on stage and even feeding bits of his flesh to members of the audience. Needless to say, many Shining gigs would end up with Niklas being taken to the nearest ER. The frontman also prides himself on the fact that his music can drive people to commit suicide as he hates not only humanity but everything that lives and breathes and grows. Even plants and trees, God dammit!!

The cynically named Lifelover band was also based on a self-destructive, nihilistic concept. Tragically, but not surprisingly, one of the founders, Jonas Berqvist, has died of a drug overdose. He explained the use of his mask on stage by the fact that usually his corpse paint would start running and become very messy as he sweated playing his guitar, so he decided to wear the painted balaclava or ski-mask instead, which gave him an even more sinister and grotesque look.

Silencer was a brief presence in the landscape of DSBM and their only album Death-Pierce Me has received cult status mostly because of the lead vocalist's, Nattram, terrifying, animalistic, high-pitched shrieks. Strange rumors about the enigmatic frontman abound, but it's NOT TRUE that he cut off his hands and sown pig's feet to the bloody stumps for the pictures above (more on that here). However, that would have been a very metal and kult thing to do. The fact that the pig's feet are only props doesn't take away from the sordid, disturbing character of the pictures.

I don't know of any DSBM band to have used these images of a supposed Russian Sleep Experiment that took place in the '40s. But they would fit perfectly on a DSBM album cover. The Russian Sleep Experiment is actually a horror story published on Creepypasta that follows five patients who were given a gas that would eliminate their need for sleep. After 15 days, the tale goes, the subjects began engaging in bizarre acts of self-mutilation and self-cannibalism. Their behavior became less and less human, their speaking slowly changing into alien shrieks. As the experiment got out of control the researchers were ordered to kill the nightmarish guinea pigs. "What are you?" one of the doctors asked the last of the remaining subjects. "Have you forgotten so easily?" the mangled patient replied. "We are you. We are the madness that lurks within you all, begging to be free at any moment in your deepest animal mind. We are what you hide from in your beds every night. We are what you sedate into silence and paralysis when you go to the nocturnal haven where we cannot thread." 

"I long to be free, desperately free. Free as the stillborn are free." (Emil Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born)

Friday, 1 April 2016

The Troop, IT, and the Poetry of Decay

I finished "The Troop" by Nick Cutter a week ago but it still echoes within me like the aftershocks of a major earthquake. What an exhausting yet orgasmic ride! The book grabbed me from the first pages and I was under its spell till the last page, and will probably feel its pull till the day I'm gone. It made me moan and groan, gasp and scream and mumble to myself like a lunatic. Maniacally, I underlined almost every sentence, the pencil my only defence against the horror. Visceral, like any self-respecting body horror story, but also infinitely disturbing and drenched in metaphysical anguish. "The Troop" is tied to Ryan C. Thomas' "The Summer I Died" as the sickest, scariest book I've ever read. Just like the torture of Tooth by Skinnyman in Thomas' masterpiece, Shelley's killing of Ephraim makes me scream and pull my hair out every time I think of it. I loved both Tooth and Ephraim like actual friends and their unbelievable torment and untimely demise makes me want to go to their graves and weep and mutter late words of consolation. It's not real, you say, just fiction, but their suffering feels all too real to me, just like my suffering for them.

The plot of The Troop is simple. For the weekend, Scoutmaster Tim Riggs is with his troop of scouts on the Falstaff Island, close to Prince Edward Island on the Canadian East Coast. The troop consists of five fourteen year olds: Kent, Ephraim, Max, Shelley, and Newton. On the first night they have an unknown guest, Tom Padgett, who had just escaped from Dr. Edgerton's facility. Needless to say, Dr. Edgerton is a sadistic mad genius with no regard for human life. Tom carries an infection, his body is taken over by worms, monster worms, conqueror worms — technically called "hydatid worms" — that take over your organism and give your brain the command to eat, eat, eat. Only it's not you who gets fed, it's them. They grow inside you and then, when you've fed yourself into starvation, they leave your hollowed system and conquer another host. These genetically modified worms are nothing but a biological weapon the military was experimenting with.

The island becomes the site of dangerous experimentation, and the Scoutmaster and his scouts are the guinea pigs.

Now, the plot thickens when we find that one of the boys, Shelley, is a psychopath who revels in making other beings suffer; spiders, fish, cats, dogs, other people, you name it. The panic that strikes his mates when the infection begins to spread is sweet music to Shelley's ears. The island becomes his playground where he finally has the opportunity to enact his twisted blood-games. All in all, with conqueror worms and a sadistic killer on the loose, shit is bound to hit the fan on the island.

Nick Cutter's original lyrical style is on full display when he describes the five boys through the eyes of Scoutmaster Tim: "All boys gave off a scent, Tim found — although it wasn't only an olfactory signature. In Tim's mind it was a powerful emanation that enveloped his every sense. For instance, Bully-scent: acidic and adrenal, the sharp whiff you'd get of a pile of old green-fuzzed batteries. Or Jock-scent: groomed grass, crashed chalk, and the locker room funk wafting of a stack of exercise mats. Kent Jenks pumped out Jock-scent in waves. Other boys, like Max and Ephraim, were harder to define — Ephraim often gave off a life-wire smell, a power transformer exploding in a rainstorm.

Shelly...Tim considered between sips of scotch and realized the boy gave off no smell at all — if anything, the vaporous, untraceable scent of a sterilized room in a house long vacant of human life.

Newton, though, stunk to high heaven of Nerd: an astringent and unmistakable aroma, a mingling of airless basements and dang library corners and tree forts built for solitary habitation, of dust smoldering inside personal computers, the licorice tang of asthma puffer mist and the vaguely narcotic smell of model glue — the ineffable scent of isolation and lonely forbearance."

Scoutmaster Tim is caught off-guard by the appearance of hungry Tom on the island. Tom is nothing but a shuffling corpse. Not strictly as zombie as his diet consists of more than brains: some algae and foam from inside a sofa bed are good enough for Tom; whatever he can stuff in his mouth and chew on. When the Scoutmaster reaches for the radio to get in touch with mainland and signal an emergency, Tom becomes violent, grabs the radio and smashes it on the floor. He then has a coughing fit, and some spit splashes on the Scoutmaster's face. Thus, Tim Riggs becomes infected. The conqueror worms will grow and eat him up from inside. He's a dead man walking.

Next, Tim manages to neutralize the intruder and tie him up on the couch. He's feeling unwell and hungry. Confused, he helps himself to more scotch straight from the bottle. The boys soon realize that there's something wrong going on in their cabin and that their master is unable to cope. Kent, their informal leader, is the most vocal of the bunch. When they see the worms crawling out of the dead man's body and they notice that Tim is losing weight at an alarming speed, they realize Tim carries an unknown, terrible disease. Led by Kent, they mutiny. Together, they isolate Tim in the closet of the cabin and lock the door with a key. To celebrate his victory over an adult Kent takes a drink from Tim's scotch bottle. Thus, Kent too becomes infected.

Psychopathic Shelly observes these developments with a cold, calculating eye. His sick and twisted mind takes center stage when he decides to linger by the Scoutmaster's closet when all other boys go outside. A bar of light comes into Tim's makeshift prison, from the small space between the door and the floor. Shelly decides to cover that light with two dishtowels and tape them in place, while singing to his master in a mocking voice:

Nobody loves me
Everybody hates me
I'm going to the garden to eat worms,
to eat worms
Big fat juicy ones, long thin slimy ones
Itsy-bitsy crawly-wawly woooorms.

At this point I realized I knew Shelly from somewhere. He reminded me of Patrick Hockstetter from Stephen King's IT. Patrick is one of the members of Henry Bowers' gang, the bullies who terrorise the loser club led by Stuttering Bill. Like Shelley, Patrick is a major creepazoid. He keeps a pencil box full of dead flies, which he kills with his ruler and shows it to other students. Like Shelly, who drowns his cat Trixie while sporting a hard-on, Patrick takes small, usually injured animals or stray dogs and locks them in a broken refrigerator in the junkyard, leaving them there to suffocate. In a fit of vague jealousy, Patrick also asphyxiated his infant brother when he was only five. Although they have different builds — Patrick is chubby, while Shelley is more tall and slender — they both have moonfaces devoid of emotion, slack and doughy, and their eyes are blank, alien.

Sketch by RayDillon
In Stephen King's book Patrick plays a minor role, just one of the kids who go missing, a victim of Pennywise the Clown. But who's the crazy clown in Nick Cutter's book? A moment's reflection shows that Shelley is Pennywise. Shelley is the disease, the crazy clown from outer space, the bringer of blood and chaos, the firestarter. This line of interpretation is consistent with Cutter's portrayal of Shelley throughout the book. Shelley is the first who realizes that Kent is infected and Kent punches him in the face in a desperate effort to keep the creep quiet. "Shelley just stood there. A trickle of blood run from his split lip like heavy sap from a tapped maple tree. Did he even notice or care? The empty vaults of his eyes filled with vaporous white, reflecting the lightning that flashed over the buffs. They became the glass eyes of a toy clown." Progressively throughout the book, the other boys grasp Shelley's lack of humanity and refer to him as something rather than someone. Shelley's The Thing. Shelley's IT.

But what about the hydatid, conqueror worms? Aren't they the real danger, the real disease? The relation between the mutated worms and Shelly is complex and requires a study in itself. What Cutter emphasizes is that, when Shelley eventually becomes infected, he welcomes the worms, he identifies himself with them. He wants to be their parent and help them grow and annihilate everything. Shelley and the hydatid worms are two aspects of the same disease, of a mindless cancer that aims to obliterate everything that moves and bleeds. Once the worms infect Shelley, he thinks of himself as being pregnant with them. He's both their mother and father. "His stomach was a swollen gourd. It bulged through his shirt and over the band of his trousers. Its pale circumference was strung with blue veins and sloshed with a dangerous, exciting weight." Shelley promises the worms inside him to kill Max and Newton. "First I have to kill them. Then I'll be alone. Then I can give birth in peace. Then we can all play."

Clearly, Cutter is a great portretist, a lyricist reminiscent of Ray Bradbury. However, his poetic inclination doesn't impede the fast-paced action of the novel but augments it with a deeper psychological layer. His description of Ephraim sitting on a boulder and brooding about whether his body's infected with worms and how to pull them out is burnt in my brain and will haunt me forever. Ephraim is Kent's challenger, they're both athletic Alphas. When the island gets hit by a storm, the boys decide to take cover in the cellar, wanting to avoid the cabin with the dead guy and their sick Scoutmaster. But it's clear that Kent is also infected. Nonetheless, the former brave leader wants to join the others. Ephraim beats Kent up, a bit more savagely than the situation required, given that Kent was already weakened. Moreover, Ephraim has anger management problems, mostly because of an unhappy childhood, overshadowed by an abusive father. So Ephraim takes Kent down and punches him again and again, his first working like pistons. But in the process he touches Kent's infected blood. The skin of his knuckles is cut open, Kent's blood is under his fingernails. Is that how the worms wiggle in? Did Kent accidentally give Ephraim the disease? Once they're in the safety of the cellar Shelley is quick to ask Ephraim these questions, and take sadistic pleasure in gradually breaking the other kid down mentally and physically.

"Shelly could tell that Ephraim was afraid that whatever was in Kent had gotten into him — it'd leapt between their bodies, from Kent's lips to Ephraim's hand, swimming in on the rush of blood. Shelly knew Ephraim was scared and he foresaw a great profit in nursing that fear along. It would be easy. Ephraim was so predictable — so predictably stupid.

Of course, Shelley hadn't seen the teeny-tiny worms at that point — but he'd understood that the sickness, whatever it was, scurried inside of you, ate you from the inside out. That's what made it so scary. This wasn't a bear or a shark or a psycho axe-murderer; those things were bad, sure, but you could get away from them. Hide.

How could you hide from a murderer who lived under your skin? [...]

Shelly had a method of probing, of opening doors in people that was uncanny. He rarely used this gift — it could get him in trouble. But he was able to spot the weak spots the way a sculptor saw the seams in a block of granite; one tap in the right spot and it would split right open.

I saw something, Eef.

That was all it had taken. The smallest seedling — he'd slit Ephraim's skin, just the thinnest cut, slipping that seed in. If Shelley did some additional work, well, maybe that seed would squirm into Ephraim's veins, surf to his heart, and bloom into something beautiful. Or horrible. It didn't matter which to Shelley."

Masterfully, Shelley plans the seed of doubt in Ephraim's mind. Thinking himself infected Ephraim becomes distant, obsessive, and stops talking to Max and Newton, his real friends who only wish to help him. When after the storm the boys decide to go look for food, Ephraim tags along, but his thoughts are leaden with fear, heavier and heavier, paralyzing anxiety.

"Sometime around midafternoon, Ephraim sat down and refused to get up.

"That's it. I'm not walking anymore."

They had come to a copse of spruce trees. The air was dense with the scent of pine. [...]

Ephraim sat on the moss-covered rock with his fingers knit together in his lap. His body position mimicked a famous Roman sculpture that Newton had seen in a history book: The Pugilist at Rest. Ephraim looked a bit like a statue himself. His skin had a slick alabaster hue, except for around the lips and the rims of his nostrils, where it had a bluish-gray tint. Newton had a scary premonition: IF THEY LEFT EPHRAIM HERE AND CAME BACK YEARS LATER, HE WAS SURE EEF'S BODY WOULD REMAIN IN THIS FIXED POSITION — A STATUE OF CALCIFIED BONE."

Besides being an amazing lyricist, Nick Cutter is a masterful painter of decay. With surgical precision he manages to capture the weeping of flesh. Weeping, in his writing is sometimes used as a metaphor for bleeding. A wound, a cut, weeps. When it bleeds, meat weeps. In Cutter's universe organic matter is damned. It's a cursed universe. Everything that lives and breathes is destined to agony. In the words of philosopher Emil Cioran, "life is too limited and too fragmentary to endure great tensions." (Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair) The Romanian philosopher argues that death is imminent in life, it's not a reality outside of life, but buried deep into the very source of life. Life breeds death. Such a fragile phenomenon, it can only be understood as an abnormal materialization of death, a grotesque disease. "The flesh," Cioran also writes, "is neither strange nor shadowy, but perishable to the point of indecency, to the point of madness. It is not only the seat of disease, it is itself a disease, incurable nothingness, a fiction which has degenerated into a calamity. The vision I have of it is the vision of a gravedigger infected with metaphysics." (Emil Cioran, The New Gods)

In a way, Nick Cutter is a gravedigger infected with metaphysics. He knows all the faces of death and can see it in the smallest details of everyday life. Just like Leibniz's theory of monads or David Bohm's Holographic Principle, in Cutter's world each part of the universe is a reflection of the whole. And Cutter is an expert in capturing those bits of reality that uncover the disease eating at the guts of the whole cosmos. Here's one of those mundane scenes rich with metaphysical insight:

"Last summer, Max had shared his house with a family of shearwaters a much fleeter version of a puffin. They colonized the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic, nesting in the rocks. But due to a population explosion, shearwaters had began to nest in the houses of North Point. They'd chip away the Gyprock exterior, tugging loose Styrofoam and pink insulation to make room for their nests.

A family of shearwaters made one above Max's bedroom window. In the morning he'd crane his neck and see the daddy shearwater poke his head out of the whole he'd chipped in the house's facade, darting it in both directions before arrowing out over the water to hunt.

Max's father, however, wasn't impressed. The lawn was covered in Styrofoam and pink rags of insulation. The birds would wreck the home's resale value, he griped — despite the fact that he'd lived in North Point all his life and would likely die in this house. He drove to the Home Hardware, returning with a bottle of insulating foam sealant. He clambered up a ladder to the nest, shooed the birds away, stuck the nozzle into the whole, and pumped in sealant until it billowed out and hardened to a puffy crust. He climbed back down with a satisfied smile.

But the shearwaters were back the next day. They'd torn away at the sealant, ripping it off in chunks with their sickle-shaped beaks. Now the lawn was covered in Styrofoam, insulation, and sealant. Max's father repeated the procedure, believing the birds would relent. But shearwaters are cousins to homing pigeons — they always come back. I should shoot them, Max's father groused, though he could never do such a thing.

Still, he was angry — that particular anger of humans defied by the persistence of nature. He drove back to Home Hardware, returning with another can of sealant and a few feet of heavy-duty chicken wire. Using tin snips, he cut the wire into circles roughly the size of the hole. Clambering up the ladder, he made a layer cake of sorts: a layer of sealant, the chicken wire, sealant, wire, sealant, wire. Okay, birds, he'd said. Figure that out.

Max returned from school the next day to find a dead shearwater in the bushes. The daddy — he could tell by its dark tail feathers. It lay with its neck twisted at a horrible angle. Its beak was broken — half of it was snapped off. It's eyes were filmy-gray, like pewter. It'd made a mess: shreds of sealant dotted the lawn. But his father's handiwork held strong. The daddy bird must've broken its neck — had it become so frustrated, so crazy, that it'd flown into the barrier until its neck snapped?
When Max's father saw the dead bird, his jaw tightened, he blinked a few times very fast, then quietly he said: I just wanted them to find someplace else to live.

In the middle of the night Max had been woken by peeping. The sound was coming from the walls. Max padded into his parents' room. His father rubbed sleep crust from his eyes and followed Max back to his bedroom. When he heard those noises, his face did a strange thing.

At three o'clock in the morning, Max's dad had climbed the ladder. His housecoat flapped in the salt breeze. Using a screwdriver and vise grips, he tore out the sealant and chicken wire, working so manically that he nearly fell. By the time he'd ripped it away the peeps had stopped. He'd reached deep inside the hole, into a small depression he'd had not realized was there. He placed whatever he'd found in the pockets of his housecoat with great reverence.

In the kitchen, his face was white with shock, he laid them on the table: the mama bird and two baby birds. The mama bird's wing was broken. The babies were small and gray-blue, still slick with the gummy liquid inside their eggs. All three were still."

In Cutter's universe caring leads to death. The daddy shearwater's care for its family leads to its destruction. Life is limited and fragmentary. The bird was programmed by Mother Nature to answer the distress calls of its baby birds. Equipped with a limited range of behaviors, the slightest change in the environment — the layered cake of sealant and chicken wire built by Max's dad — leads to the shearwater's self-annihilation. Life is mad. In a gruesome instantiation of Einstein's definition of insanity, the daddy shearwater tries the same thing over and over, peeking away at the sealant, while expecting a different result. Care and love, the things that stay at the heart of life, are nothing but harbingers of death. In the words of Dr. Edgerton, "love is the absolute killer. Care. The milk of human kindness. People try so hard to save the people they love  that they end up catching the contagion themselves. They give comfort, deliver aid, and in doing so they acquire the infection. Then those people are cared for by others and they get infected. But that's people. People care too much. They love at all costs. And so they pay the ultimate price."  On this sobering picture, Mother Nature is nothing but a dying hysterical whore, crushed by the fear and guilt of being alive, yet desperately fighting for each and every breath, blindly clawing handfuls of earth and worms and stuffing them in its toothless, gaping maw.

All in all, "The Troop" is a remarkable novel, entertaining yet literary, warm yet visceral. I recommend it to all who have the strength to face the real horror behind the veils of the mundane and the stomach for the ugly metaphysical truths crawling inside it.    

On a brighter note, here's a Six Feet Under song with relevant lyrics. 

My face shows no emotion
The mind of an animal behind human eyes
Restrained with a rope
Crudely tied to wrists and ankles
Eyes jellied from chemical injections
Devoid of all compassion
I place no value on human life, life
Body temperature drops rapidly
But death comes slow
Post-mortal muscle reflexes
Repeatedly choked
Your torture brings me pleasure
Your torture brings me pleasure
Your torture brings me pleasure
I climax as I murder
A mass of empty flesh
Chosen to die brutally
Not one has survived
My torture and abuse
Unbearable pain and cruelty
Hatred for all fucking life
Hatred for all fucking life
Hatred for all fucking life
Abducted, beaten and murdered
A slow, cold-blooded death
Bones have been boiled
And removed of all flesh
Your torture brings me pleasure
Your torture brings me pleasure
Your torture brings me pleasure
I climax as I murder
Tortured until your death
Loss of blood drains from you now
Out leaks the human soul
Out leaks the human soul
My face shows no emotion
The mind of an animal behind human eyes
Devoid of all compassion
I place no value on human life
Body temperature drops rapidly
But death comes slow
Post-mortal muscle reflexes
Repeatedly choked
Your torture brings me pleasure
Your torture brings me pleasure
Your torture brings me pleasure
I climax as I murder
Burning, I'm burning your blood
Burning, I'm burning your blood
Burning, I'm burning your blood
Burning, I'm burning your blood
Burning, I'm burning your blood

Monday, 4 January 2016

On Galen Strawson’s Criticism of Narrativity

“The greatest hazard of all, losing one's self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.  No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss - an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. - is sure to be noticed.”  Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

     Picture by José Roosevelt

1. Introduction

This paper challenges Galen Strawson’s proposed distinction between two ways of experiencing the self: the Synchronic and the Diachronic. While the Diachronic experiences his self as existing in the past, present and future, for the Synchronic the self is fully in the present. According to Strawson, a Diachronic view of the self is an essential ingredient of adopting a Narrative attitude towards one’s self. By contrast, a Synchronic or Episodic personality has no need for defining one’s self through narrative. I will argue that this distinction is in tension with our ordinary concepts of self and identity. These concepts have essential connections with the commitments and self-constituting decisions we make. We usually define ourselves in terms of what we care about or what we take to be important and Narrativity is just our way of keeping track of these crucial commitments (MacIntyre, 1981; Taylor 1989; Frankfurt 1998; McAdams 2001). These conceptual connections become prominent when we consider widespread phenomena like losing one’s self or going through an identity crisis. I will argue that the Narrativity view of the self, the view criticized by Strawson, has the conceptual resources to accurately describe and explain these phenomena. By contrast, Strawson’s proposed distinction is in direct conflict with these significant psychological facts and cannot account for our intuitions regarding them. In the next section I will present Strawson’s characterization of the distinction between the Synchronic and the Diachronic and his arguments against the Narrativity view of the self. In the third section I will reject the distinction and argue in support of the Narrativity view. Then, in section four, I will explore some connections between adopting a Narrative view of the self and having a good, happy life.

2. Strawson’s criticism

In his paper “Against Narrativity” (2008) Galen Strawson argues against the idea that we do or should experience our selves as a narrative. First, he criticizes the psychological thesis that we do experience our selves as a narrative and, secondly, he rejects the ethical or normative thesis that thinking of our lives as narrative “is essential to living well, to true or full personhood.” (Strawson 2008, p. 189) Strawson draws the distinction between two psychological types: the Diachronic and the Synchronic. The Diachronic experiences his self in a different way from the Synchronic. He thinks of himself as something that was there in the further past and will be there in the further future. In contrast, the Synchronic does not think of himself as something that was there in the remote past and will be there in the future (Strawson, 2008, p. 190) Although an Episodic is able to remember his past experiences and plan for his future, he has limited interest in these temporal dimensions because he experiences himself as present. An Episodic is aware that his childhood memories are of himself in the sense that he is the same human being as he was in the past. However, this does not imply that he is the same person, or that the way he experiences his self now involves anything about the past. The Diachronic type, given its concern for past and future, is more inclined to adopting a Narrative outlook towards his life. Narrativity involves telling a story or giving an account of one’s life. In contrast, Strawson takes himself to be an Episodic: “I have absolutely no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without form. Absolutely none. Nor do I have any great or special interest in my past. Nor do I have a great deal of concern for my future” (Strawson 2008, p. 194)
Strawson stresses that the Episodic form of experiencing one’s self does not imply that one is not informed by one’s past and not responsible for it. To make this point vivid he uses an analogy between psychological or ethical development, on the one hand, and musical development, on the other. “The past can be alive in the present simply in so far as it has helped to shape the way one is in the present, just as musicians’ playing can incorporate and body forth their past practice without being mediated by any explicit memory of it.” (Strawson, 2008, p. 193)
The supporters of the ethical Narrativity thesis argue that taking a narrative stance towards our lives is crucial for having good lives. In reply, Strawson claims that “those who think this way are motivated by a sense of their own importance or significance that is absent in other human beings.” (Strawson, 2008, p. 196) He argues that other types of ethical personality are not interested in questions of the unity of their lives, but rather they are only concerned with the present “It is just that what I care about, in so far as I care about myself and my life, is how I am now. The way I am now is profoundly shaped by my past, but it is only the present shaping consequences of the past that matter, not the past as such.”(Strawson, 2008, p. 198) On this point Strawson strongly agrees with Earl of Shaftesbury who writes: “The metaphysicians … affirm that if memory be taken away, the self is lost. [But] what matter for memory? What have I to do with the past? If, whilst I am, I am as I should be, what do I care more? And thus let me lose self every hour, and be twenty successive selves, ‘tis all one to me; so long as I lose not my opinion (i.e. my overall outlook, my character, my moral identity). If I carry that with me ‘tis I, all is well… The now, the now. Mind this, in this is all” (Shaftesbury 1698 – 1712, p. 136-137).
To sum up, Strawson argues that both the psychological Narrativity thesis and the ethical Narrativity thesis are false. They are based on hasty generalization from one psychological type of ethical personality to all types of personalities. Strawson argues that there are normal people living fulfilling, ethical lives who do not experience their selves in narrative terms and who should not do it either. For these types of people adopting a narrative outlook would be dangerous and unhealthy, and such an outlook should not by any means be forced on them.   

3. The Psychological Thesis

In this section I will challenge Strawson’s distinction between Synchronic and Diachronic and I will argue in support of the psychological Narrativity Thesis. My challenge is based on folk-psychological descriptions of the related phenomena of having lost one’s self and having found one’s self. I suggest that a criterion of adequacy of accounts of the self or personal identity is whether they have the resources to account for widespread phenomena like losing one’s self or going through an identity crisis. The concepts of self and identity are closely related with the ideas of losing one’s identity or not knowing who one is. In other words, a self is something which can be lost and then regained; one’s identity is something which may be in crisis. Thus, a view of the self should have the conceptual resources to illuminate these central uses of the concept and to explain the phenomena they are meant to describe. I will argue that Strawson’s description of the Synchronic or Episodic psychological type is based on a misconstrual of the ordinary concept of the self and cannot make room for the conceptual possibility of describing such common realities like having an identity crisis. On the other hand, the Narrative view of the self has the conceptual resources to describe and illuminate these significant experiences. 
At different points in our lives we have the sense that we don’t know who we are anymore, that we have lost our identity, and this feeling is accompanied by a sense of anxiety and alienation. To take a concrete example, let’s suppose John decides to study psychology and dreams of discovering the hidden mechanisms of our minds and make contributions comparable to those of Sigmund Freud or Carl Gustav Jung. After finishing his undergraduate and graduate studies John already has a few papers published and starts working for a private clinic. John discovers that he enjoys having money and buys a new car and a new apartment. Then, he meets the girl of his dreams, gets married and has children. He has many patients and gradually becomes swamped with work. He applies standard therapeutic techniques and he tells himself he will soon invent new, better ones. However, working with patients and meeting the commitments of family life becomes so overwhelming that he barely has time for research and publishing. One day, when in his mid-thirties, John reads a biography of Jung and learns that the great psychologist had made his major contributions while in his late thirties. John feels a pang of anxiety. His modest contributions are no match for those of the famous theoretician. Something in his life did not go well; at some point he must have made a wrong turn. He suddenly feels alienated from his job and thinks that he lost his way. Something essential has been forgotten. John cannot recognize himself in the life he currently lives. It suddenly appears empty, devoid of meaning and purpose. After a few weeks of intense deliberation John decides to resign his job, get a divorce and buy a cabin up in the mountains where he can intensely psychoanalyze himself and make momentous psychological discoveries. This new-found meaning and purpose fills him with intense happiness.   
This familiar type of case points to some important features of our ordinary concepts of self and identity. These features are emphasized, in one form or another, by defenders of the Narrativty view of the self, both philosophers and psychologists (MacIntyre, 1981; Taylor, 1989; McAdams 2001; Schectmann 1997). Having a self or identity involves the possibility of going through an identity crisis. An identity crisis means that the person does not know who he is and what to do; the agent is essentially disoriented. Solving an identity crisis involves making a decision, undertaking a commitment or taking a stand on a crucial issue (Taylor 1989, p. 27-28; MacIntyre 1981, p. 203-204). The idea of losing one’s self essentially implies that the agent knew who he was at some point in the past and now has lost that knowledge. Put differently, the agent was himself in the past and now no longer is. So, in a sense, one would place one’s self in the past rather than the present, which no longer reflects one’ self. In addition, the ideas of decision and commitment imply not only that one’s present self cares about one’s future self, but also that one’s present self is one’s future self. For the commitment to be effective one ought to presuppose that one is oneself in the future. One does not make a commitment in front of someone else but in front of one’s self. One does not know what to do in the future and one decides regarding one’s future, not someone else’s. This conceptual remarks show that one’s present and future are essential in constituting one’s identity. When one is disoriented and alienated we say that one has lost one’s way. This spatial metaphor implies that one has to retrace one’s steps and find one’s way again. In other words, one needs to search into one’s past in order to know what to do in the future, how to get to one’s destination.
I think the psychological phenomenon of losing one’s self described above and the conceptual connections involved in its description pose a difficulty for Strawson’s proposed distinction between Episodics and Diachronics. The problem is: how can Episodics experience the anxiety produced by an identity crisis? First, there is a conceptual aspect to this difficulty. Second, the phenomenon also calls into question one of he key differences between the Synchronic and Diachronic; the idea that the Synchonic has limited interest in his past and limited concern for the future. With regards to the conceptual issue, it seems that the very idea of an Episodic psychological type is in tension with our ordinary concepts of self or identity. Losing one’s self implies that one does not experience one’s self as present or given. Conceptually, it involves the notion that one existed at a moment in the past and one has lost himself or has lost his way. Thus, one is no longer in the present. But being Synchronic means that one experiences one’s self as present. In consequence, if we accept the existence of a Synchronic psychological type we became unable to coherently describe widespread phenomena like going through an identity crisis. Arguing that the Synchonic type does not actually go through identity crises would be missing the point. The criticism is that once one has a self or identity it should be at least logically or conceptually possible that one goes through a crisis. This is perfectly compatible with the existence of people who do not in fact have such an experience. However, a view of the self should make room for the logical possibility of losing one’s self and one’s knowledge of one’s self.
Turning to the second point, it was indicated that on Strawson’s view the Synchronic has limited interest in his past and limited concern for his future. However, the possibility of losing one’s self uncovers a different reality. When one goes through an identity crisis one feels alienated from one’s present life and experiences a lack of purpose. One’s past becomes central for one’s identity because this is where one is; since one has lost one’s self.  Thus, in this case, if one cares about one’s self, one cares about one’s past. In addition, one does not care about one’s past as it is in the present, as Strawson suggests. By definition, losing one’s self means that one has lost something important along the way, that one is no longer in the present. In other words, one is interested in one’s past as past, not in one’s past as it is experienced in the present. As Charles Taylor emphasizes, one needs to do work of retrieval and retracing one’s steps and crucial decisions. (Taylor 1989, p. 27-28) But this work of retrieval and self-searching is essential because the individual no longer has a sense of purpose or direction. And this sense of purpose is crucial because the agent cares about his future; he cares about his life having meaning and direction. In the example above, John cares about doing groundbreaking research in psychology. This is what gives him direction and purpose. This is why he feels anxiety when he compares his modest achievements with those of famous psychologists. In consequence, John engages in soul-searching and, implicitly, becomes concerned with his past and future selves. His past and future matter to him. In other words, one can try to find one’s self only if one thinks that one existed in the past and that one will exist in the future. Once we appreciate these phenomena and the conceptual connections they uncover, we can see that someone with a Synchronic outlook cannot experience an identity crisis because they have limited interest in their past and future. But this is not an additional difference between the Synchronic and the Diachronic, but rather it shows that the Synchronic type is a philosopher’s fiction. Having a self implies the possibility of going through an identity crisis which, in turn, logically demands that the person cares deeply about her past and future.
As indicated in the previous section, Strawson relies on the analogy between psychological development and musical development to characterize the Synchronic’s relation with his past: the past is implicitly absorbed in the present in the way a musicians’ hours of practice are implicit in the quality of his performance. Similarly, as the quote from Earl of Shaftesbury reveals, one’s moral personality is fully in the present as long as ‘I am as I should be’. That is, as long as “I lose not my opinion (i.e. my overall outlook, my character, my moral identity).” (Shaftesbury 1698 – 1712, p. 136-137) However, this characterization hinges on the fact that the person’s moral commitments are not lost or forgotten, that they are fully present. But what if the agent loses track of her moral identity? What if the person faces a terrible moral conflict and they do not feel that they are as they should be? Isn’t that the time when the past and one’s memories become important as a guide to the future? The time when the agent ought to engage in lucid deliberation and focus on one’s past and one’s development? It becomes clear that Strawson does not consider the possibility of going through identity crisis, and, as suggested above, it is this possibility that reveals the temporal, Diachronic dimension of our experience of the self.
In reply, Strawson might argue that what really distinguishes the Synchronic from the Diachronic is that the Synchronic does not experience his self as being in the remote future or the remote past, while the Diachronic does. However, this criterion must be put in conjunction with the limited concern criterion because it does not carry too much weight on its own. For instance, someone might have a lot of concern for his near future but not for his remote future. He might have well-defined goals regarding his career but no precise retirement plans. With regards to his career he may have a strong Narrative outlook; he may explicitly concerned about the shape of the story of his professional life and about projecting a certain image, being a leader, and role model. Clearly, Strawson will not accept that this person qualifies as a Synchronic on his account. Moreover, we can imagine that the agent has no definite idea of what retirement will be like and whether he himself will be there or whether he will be like a different person. After all, if the agent defines himself in terms of his career then, once his career is over, he will find other things to care about and identify himself with. In other words, he will be like a new, different person. Similarly, a Diachronic does not necessarily have to experience his self as having been there in the further past, in his childhood, let’s say. The fact is that we normally start spinning life-stories and making projects when we are teenagers. At least in our Western culture, that is the time when we have to take a stand and answer some questions regarding who we are and what we care about. But then that is where we start our quest and caring about our selves just means caring about the quest, a quest which may have nothing to do with one’s childhood. However, this does not take away from the fact that one who does not identify himself with his childhood self may be a strong Diachronic. To sum up, I think that Strawson must rely on the limited interest criterion when drawing the distinction between the Synchronic and the Diachronic type. The Episodic, as opposed to the Diachronic, has no special concern for his past or future and experiences his self as given in the present. But my argument above, based on the concepts of losing one’s self and going through an identity crises, shows that caring about our self implies caring about our projects and commitments which necessarily go beyond the present and extend into our past and future.
So far, I have shown that phenomena like going through an identity crisis reveal that we are Diachronic in our experience of our selves; that, to the degree that we care about ourselves, we also care about our past and future. However, this conclusion is not enough to support the Narrativity view of the self. As Strawson points out, Diachronicity does not, in and of itself, imply Narrativity. Being Diachronic means experiencing one’s self as existing in the past and future. In addition, Narrativity involves telling a story or giving an account of one’s life (Strawson 2008, p. 201). This account captures key events of the past and also offers a way of approaching the future. In response, I maintain that once we grasp the intrinsic link between having a self and the possibility of losing one’s self, it becomes clear that Diachronicity must involve undertaking a Narrative outlook. Losing one’s self necessarily involves an interest in our past and future. We perceive it as a gap between our commitments and values and our present lives. I suggest that any attempt to fill that gap must take the form of an account or a narrative of key events of one’s life. As Taylor suggestively puts it: “Our lives are in the space of questions which only a coherent narrative can answer. In order to have a sense of who we are, we have to have a notion of how we have became, and where we are going” (Taylor, 1989, p. 47) In the example used above, John perceives a gap between his commitment to becoming a famous psychologist and his present life. This sense of alienation leads him to question whether achieving his dream is still important to him, or whether, in the meantime, having a family-life became more important. In effect, he will either renew his initial commitment or dedicate himself to family-life and forget about his previous ambitions. Following Taylor, I suggest that answering these crucial questions must take the form of giving an account or telling a story. Thus, John may say to himself: “I thought that being a famous researcher was important for me but then I met Sally and discovered the power of love”, or, “At the very beginning I wanted to be a famous researcher but then I got sidetracked by family-life and lost my focus. However, now I found my way again”. This shows that in order to move on John must give an account or explanation of what happened to him; he must structure his experience in the form of a meaningful story. Either way the main events which occurred in his life will be assigned a new meaning and significance relative to his decision. This new account will also dictate the meaning of John’s projected future; it will give him a sense of direction and purpose. The events of the future will become interpretable by reference to this projected goal. To sum up, I suggest that highlighting the intrinsic connection between having an identity crisis and trying to find answers to crucial questions in the form of an account of one’s experience shows that Diachronicity must involve Narrativity; that is, caring about one’s past and future demands offering an account of one’s life.
These remarks also reveal that, in direct contrast to Strawson’s account, the Narrativity view of the self has the conceptual resources to describe and illuminate phenomena like losing one’s self and going through an identity crisis. Having an identity, on Taylor’s view, is having settled answers to questions regarding what is important to one. For instance, by describing myself as a Christian or a communist I situate myself with respect to certain values or commitments. These values offer a sense of direction and purpose. An identity crisis occurs when one either loses track of those commitments or finds one’s own life to be in tension with them. This experience is accompanied by feelings of disorientation and confusion. The agent needs to find his way again. This involves reexamining the initial questions, reopening those issues, and engaging in lucid deliberation and introspection with respect to them. The agent has to determine whether his crisis was triggered by his losing sight of his own values or by the fact that those values no longer capture what he really cares about. Either way, the process of introspection will result into an account of what happened to the agent, of why and how he has lost his way. For instance, the Christian may blame Satan for implanting the seeds of doubt into his mind and the communist may try to explain his social apathy by reference to the power of the capitalist system to tranquilize its members by creating false consciousness. This account will include answers to what the agent takes to be central questions regarding his own life (e.g. whether to worship God, whether to be a social activist) and thus offer new meaning and purpose.   
Towards the end of his paper, Strawson concedes that “If I were charged to make my self-understanding explicit, I might well illustrate my view by reference to things I (Galen Strawson) have done, but it certainly would not follow that I had a Diachronic outlook, still less a Narrative one” (Strawson, p. 206) That is, although Strawson would explain who he is by reference to what Galen Strawson as a human being did in the past, it does not follow that the present Galen Strawson experiences one’s self as being in the past. But I think this claim is in direct contrast to our pre-theoretical intuitions. When someone gives an account of who they are we assume that the person in their account is who they are. If someone in their thirties says “After graduating university I decided to become an academic”, the hearer assumes that the ‘I’ refers to the speaker’s self. If the speaker adds the qualification “…but that’s only Galen Strawson the human being, not really myself”, the hearer is inclined to understand this as a departure of the speaker’s present self from their past self. That is, as an expression of change of commitments and values. Neither one of theses natural interpretations is consistent with Strawson’s suggestion. If one is charged with making one’s self-understanding explicit, it is presupposed that there is continuity between the person indicated in the story and the person telling the story. The account, after all, is supposed to explain who the person is, their sense of self, what makes them who they are. I think this intuition is clearly captured by the idea of commitment. When someone tells us who they are, they speak of their crucial commitments and values. When they refer to what they did in the past, the actions denoted are supposed to express what they cared about, what defined them. If they explicitly distinguish between their past self and their present self then those commitments are no longer in force and no longer express their self-understanding. Thus, in contrast to what Strawson suggests, the fact that we explain our selves to others by offering an account of our lives shows that we experience ourselves as being there in the past and that we still subscribe to the commitments captured in our story; it indicates that we are essentially Diachronic and Narrative.
In conclusion, I claim that Strawson’s notion of a Synchronic or Episodic psychological type – as someone who experiences their self as fully present and has limited concern for their past and future – is a philosopher’s fiction. This theoretical construction is in conflict with our ordinary concepts of self and identity as things which can be lost during an identity crisis, and can be subsequently rediscovered or reinvented; as things which give our lives meaning and purpose. By contrast, I argued that the Narrativity view of the self has the conceptual resources to capture and illuminate the relations between our notions of self and identity and the connected concepts of undertaking self-constituting commitments, self-searching and self-finding, and the ideal of having a meaningful, purposeful life. I think this shows that instead of positing different personality types, we can distinguish different degrees of Diachronicity and Narrativity. People may care more or less about their past and future. Their commitments may be more or less explicit and they may be more or less aware of them. However, as long as they are functioning agents they must be oriented towards what they think is important and worthwhile, in a space of crucial questions with settled answers.  

4. The Ethical Thesis

In this section I turn to the second thesis rejected by Strawson, the ethical or normative thesis. This thesis states that thinking of our lives as narrative “is essential to living well, to true or full personhood.” (Strawson 2008, p. 189) I think the defenders of the psychological Narrativity view should be careful when specifying its normative import because a descriptive requirement has no normative implications. If we actually do have a Narrative outlook then the norm that we ought to have one is pointless. It is a norm which cannot be broken because it is conceptually impossible for us, as agents, not to have a Narrative attitude[1]. I think the intuition that there is a connection between Narrativity and leading a full, meaningful life can be unpacked by considering the phenomena of losing one’s self and experiencing an identity crisis. When going through an identity crisis one loses one’s narrative and becomes disorientated. This crisis leads to feelings of alienation and anxiety. It involves either forgetting one’s commitments or perceiving a growing gap between those commitments and one’s actual life. This perceived meaninglessness and emptiness leads to unhappiness. By contrast, the regained narrative, the reestablished self, results in a new sense of purpose and happiness (Brännmark 2003) Now, if there is anything normative about this it hinges on our desire to be happy and avoid alienation, disorientation, and confusion. Losing one’s self is caused either by forgetting who one is or by systematically failing to live up to one’s commitments. The forgetting can be fought by a conscious effort to keep track of one’s commitments, of what one thinks is important. This involves making those commitments explicit and constantly keeping track of where one is in relation to them. Moreover, making one’s narrative explicit makes it easier to remember. If one loses sight of it and becomes disoriented it is easier for one to find one’s way again. In addition, one should be open to reevaluating those commitments and not follow them rigidly[2]. To sum up, there are two central interrelated hypothetical norms associated with the narrativity view of the self. First, one should keep track of one’s narrative, of one’s position relative to what one cares about. Second, one should be ready to reevaluate one’s commitments[3].
Following the first norm can have important benefits. Not having one’s commitments explicit in a narrative form gives one a sense of fragility and helplessness. To use an analogy, a hiker has a better chance of getting lost if he does not use a marked trail. If our crucial decisions and the commitments they imply are not used as sign-posts guiding us then our will is not focused and we tend to lose our selves easily. This lack of direction and sense of identity leads to unhappiness. Furthermore, one’s ability to solve inner-conflicts and difficulties is diminished. To illustrate, a gay jewish person, Amiram, who believes in God is tormented by his religious establishment’s obduracy with respect to homosexuality. Such a conflict may have devastating consequences for his life, leading to a profound sense of alienation and inadequacy. However, because Amiram has his commitments explicit, he is able to draw a difference between his belief in God “as a voice of absolute compassion and truth” and the voice of the religious establishment “which may change its laws in response to social and economic developments” (see Halbertal and Koren, 2006). The ability to draw such distinction and preserve one’s commitments intact leads to a profound sense of liberation and happiness.
With respect to the second norm, if an agent becomes aware that there is no correspondence between his crucial commitments and his life he should be willing to reevaluate those commitments. After all, maybe he does not care as much about what he thinks he cares about. The gap between his values and reality may signal that other things have become important for him. Maybe John’s dream of being a famous psychologist should be replaced with the ideal of being a good family man. This acceptance of one’s potential for change may also give rise to a sense of liberation. One is not stuck in the jail of one’s previous choices. This ‘readiness for anxiety’ is also a way of avoiding profound alienation. An agent may assess his life as meaningless or unfulfilled if it does not reflect his strongest commitments. If the agent is not sensitive to the idea that his commitments may be revised he may become trapped in a permanent state of dissatisfaction and self-pity.
Strawson’s proposed Synchronic or Episodic personality is in conflict with our intuitions regarding what makes a good life. An Episodic, by definition, does not care about his past and future. But then, when faced with an identity crisis (assuming this makes sense), he won’t appeal to his past and show no concern for his future, and, thus, he will become trapped in the present moment. However, by definition, in the case of losing one’s self, the present is found lacking and the individual feels profoundly alienated from his life. In this circumstance, our intuition is that the person must find a way out; they must either retrieve a lost meaning from their past or construct a new meaning. This intuition is based on our conviction that people care about themselves, their own happiness and the meaning of their lives. But Strawson’s view cannot do justice to these intuitions because it cannot capture the connection between our sense of happiness and our sense of purpose or meaning. The individual, on Strawson’s picture, may become paralyzed in a ruined present by his lack of concern for his past and his future. Such a possibility is doubtful for both psychological and conceptual reasons.
Once we grasp this connection between the Narrativity thesis and the good life, we can see that Strawson’s critical remarks miss their target. Strawson emphasizes that some types of ethical personality are anchored in the present and their past is important only in relation to their present selves. But this is consistent with the narrativity view, as long as one has one’s identity shaping commitments in front of one’s eyes or as long as there is no obvious tension between them and reality. However, the narrative structure of our identity becomes explicit once we face an important issue which forces us to retrieve and reconsider our commitments. Thus, as long as Strawson accepts Taylor’s point that our commitments and values are central to our identities then he is forced to accept the Narrativity view because Narrativity is just our more or less conscious way of keeping track of these commitments. When we answer crucial questions about our lives we start spinning a story which gives us a sense of direction. As Harry Frankfurt puts it: “A person who cares about something is, at it were, invested in it. He identifies himself with what he cares about in the sense that he makes himself vulnerable to losses and susceptible to benefits depending upon whether what he cares about is diminished or enhanced” (Frankfurt, 1989, p. 83). Thus, in order to criticize the Narrativity view Strawson would have to reject either the thesis that we identify ourselves with what we care about or the claim that what we care about takes the form of a narrative. But Strawson does not explicitly consider the first thesis and the second one is directly connected to the first. If one cares about something and defines himself in certain terms then he will, implicitly or explicitly, give an account of the important events of his life in terms of his crucial commitments.

5. Conclusion

I have argued that Strawson’s criticism of the Narrativity view of the self misses its target. Stawson constructs a straw man in the sense that he does not clearly articulate the main intuition which animates the Narrative view. Champions of the Narrative account like Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre and Harry Frankfurt base it on the idea that we define ourselves in terms of what we care about, in terms of our projects and ideals. Given this investment we see our lives in narrative form, a narrative which tracks our success or failure in achieving our goals. This narrative may be more or less explicit, but losing it results in a sense of disorientation and alienation. At that point one needs to take a stand and retrieve and reconsider one’s valuative framework. In this context, one’s past and future became of essential importance for one, given that the decision to take a stand is based on one’s profound desire to be in control of one’s life and give it meaning and purpose. The concept of a Synchronic or Episodic personality does not make justice to the idea that when we care about ourselves we care about the values and commitments we identify with and, in consequence, about whether our lives reflect those commitments. Having this care presupposes that one experiences one’s self in the present, past and future.


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Frankfurt, H. (1998) The Importance of What We Care About, Cambridge University Press.

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[1] A similar tension between a constitutive and a normative requirement is identified by philosophers discussing the nature of meaning and belief (Glüer and Wikforss 2009; Steglich-Petersen 2006).
[2] Heidegger captures this insight by saying that one should be ‘ready for anxiety’ (Heidegger, 1927)
[3] These norms cannot be followed mechanically and, when considering them, one should display a certain degree of discernment and sensitivity to one’s particular circumstances. In this respect I agree with Strawson that adopting a Narrative outlook does not always have good consequences and is not intrinsically connected to being authentic. The Narrative attitude can sometimes lead to various degrees of self-deception. However, I don’t think these remarks show the falsity of the psychological Narrativity thesis, but, rather, they indicate an important difficulty when it comes to articulating its ethical or normative import.