NARRATIVITY IN TEXT CONSTRUCTION
AND SELF CONSTRUCTION*
The paper tries to suggest parallels between the study of narrative organization in psychology
and the philosophical trends towards a decomposed view of the human mind. It starts
off from an analysis of narrative organization in modern memory research. The substantial
message of this research from the point of view of narrative studies is threefold: it emphasizes
the importance of schematization in memory, as opposed to mere associative
structures; it shows that among the possible schemata narrative organization is the most
available and most universal one; as to the content of narrative schemata it shows that they
are closely tied to our naive theories of human action. In a psychological sense, the cohesion
of narratives is tied to their use of intentional attribution. We apply our schemata of
human action to understand the plot of narratives. The Hume-Mach style empiricists, and
later on modern novelists have been struggling for a long time with the place of Subjects
in a totally decomposed vision of the world and the mind. This modern emphasis on a lack
of coherence is recently becoming connected to the issue of narrativity in non-trivial ways
by philosophers like Daniel Dennett. This trend accepts the idea of decomposing the self
and other unifying constructions. However, the human need for coherence is accepted by
them, and rather than proposing cohesion based on solid Egos, they propose different varieties
of narrative theories regarding the self. These proposals have a strong Humeian flavor
with their emphasis on the constructed but useful nature of the self concept. Their intellectual
novelty is, however, that they try to find the sources for constructed coherence
The paper argues that the philosophical and psychological narrative theories of the self
have relevance to the study of literary narratives. Part of modern literature in this regard
can be seen as a human experiment in facing the lability and soft construal of human integrity.
0324–4652/2003/$20.00 Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest
© Akadémiai Kiadó Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht
Neohelicon 30 (2003) 1, 187–205
* The presentation here borrows heavily from an earlier version (Pléh, 2002). I would like to express
my thanks to Ernõ Kulcsár Szabó to invite me to present my ideas to a literary audience.
While working on the paper I was supported by a Hungarian research grant NKFP 5/ 0079/2002.
All novels, of every age, are concerned with the enigma of the self.
Milan Kundera: The art of the novel, p. 23
THE UBIQUITY OF NARRATIVE PATTERNS
Modern humanities and social sciences had come several times to the conclusion that
narration is a very special feature of human nature, and therefore, it is somehow a key
to understanding humans. At first, this train of thought was mainly psychological and
concentrated or rather limited its attempts to the study of the relationships between
memory organization and narrative patterns. Provocative ideas were developed vis a
vis the dominant world view, regarding elementary associationism especially.
In classical psychology, the issue of narration first emerged in connection with a
critic of association as an explanatory concept. The British experimentalist, Sir Frederick
Bartlett (1932), the French clinician Pierre Janet (1928), and the Russian educational
psychologist Pavel Blonskij (1935) have all advanced narration as a basic
non-associative organizing principle of the human mind. For Bartlett, narratives were
the key moments in schematic memory which was already characterized by Alfred
Binet (Binet and Henry, 1894) as the mirror of thought. Blonskij (1935) also believed
that narrative organization is the key to “logical memory”. The French clinical theorist,
Pierre Janet (1928) even claimed that logically organized text was a key to rationality,
since the origin of rationality should be looked for in interpersonal coordination.
More distant intellectual antecedents can also be traced since this first narrative
trend in psychology was part of a dissatisfaction with elementaristic experimental
psychology at the turn of century. The dual memory system proposed by Bergson
(1896) can be interpreted as a duality between the memories of the body (habits) and
meaningful, personalized memories. The human brain is a storehouse of habits, but it
only provides an access route to personal souvenirs, which themselves are not identical
with any “memory traces”. In order to interpret and personalize something, a royal
way is to assimilate it to a schema, provide a story-like narrative structure to the random
data of our memory system. (For an interpretation of Bergson along these lines
see Pléh, 1989).
The French social school of psychology, partly reflecting on Bergson, went further.
For them, the personally interpreted experiences of Bergson turned into socially
constructed experiences. They moved to a position that denied the existence of “raw,
uninterpreted experiences” altogether. In this process, narrative organization became
a key element of human life. Maurice Halbwachs (1925, 1950, 1992, 1994) in his
work on collective memory, that still is the standard reference point for studies on historical
memory, presented narratives as being responsible for the social nature of our
memory in two regards. Social groups build up their community life by inventing and
sharing stories, thereby creating a common interpretation of experience. The “substance”
of community life is inherent in stories. The social aspect, however, has a
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structural side, as well. Narrative organization prevails even in our most private memories,
in our dreams and daydreams as well. Structurally, all our experience is socially
organized. There is no such thing as socially non-interpreted mental content. Whatever
comes to our mind, becomes intelligible through the intervention of the “social
moment”, and this social moment is provided by narratives.
The social aspect for Halbwachs was an “intentional issue”, and not that of the relationship
between stable external and internal objects. In this way, with the rejection of
the “objecthood” of memory, Halbwachs opened a road towards constructive theories,
both regarding memory and in constructing the person (Pléh, 2000).
Their philosophical roots notwithstanding, these first narrative theories failed to
become paradigm setting alternative approaches to psychology and in the humanities.
They had relatively little affinity with the philosophies of their time, and while they
had a clear conception about the role of schemata and their social origin, they did not
succeed in winning the interest of epistemologists, and did not succeed in trying to
propose a general theory on the origins of Self and personhood based on the notion of
narrative schemata. Interestingly enough, the strong alternative paradigm at the time
of the first narrative theories was articulated in the domain of the psychology of perception
as Gestalt theory.
The first narrative models were also insensitive to the dramatic changes going on in
their own time in the narrative patterns of modern European literature. On the other
hand, it is true as well that early constructionist theories of selfhood in philosophy
were also uninterested in the issues of narration. The recent affinity between these
three areas indeed indicates a definite change in cultural climate. This is rather a present
day development, as well as the search for parallels between changes in contemporary
prose writing and our conception of identity and the Self.
NARRATIVES IN PRESENT DAY COGNITIVE STUDIES
The high time of narratives in psychology has come back from the late sixties on.
Now, however, the narrative patterns were imported to psychology from folklore, anthropology
and literary studies, and while they infiltrated psychology, they had soon
reached a level of generality touching upon philosophical issues such as the relationships
between story telling practices and our naive notions of personhood.
Through the rediscovery of the works of the Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp
(1928/1958), anthropologists realized that strict rules or regularities are hidden behind
the fantasy rich world of our tales. Tales are by far not the terrain of irregularity and
unconstrained fantasy. Rather, they are characterized by a limited number of “roles”
and “functions”, they have a culturally constrained repetitive structure.
In this new trend, narratives started to carry two basic notions for social sciences
and the humanities: order and “surplus value”. Order implies that connected discourse
is no more a mirror of the chaos of the world, but rather, follows a set of constraints.
These constraints embody an underlying pattern that goes beyond the mere
concatenation of propositions. In the new, linguistically minded trend this suggested
NARRATIVITY IN TEXT CONSTRUCTION AND SELF CONSTRUCTION 189
to look for a pattern that goes beyond individual sentences to find the real patterned
meaning in discourse. In actual research, this would both mean an emphasis on the
“surplus value” of discourse as compared to a set of individual sentences, and an ideology
which sees a world view hidden in the organization of text (Greimas, 1966,
Todorov, 1969). The new structural approach to stories had some resemblance to the
previous starting from social schematization and constraints, but with a stronger linguistic
emphasis. It also has similarities to earlier Gestalt approaches, but now, with
the linguistic turn in full force, the “enemy” is not the idea of elementary sensation,
but atomic sentences.
Psycholinguists have come in touch with this structural approach to narrative organization
through revitalizing the concept of schemata. Narrative patterns turned into
something crucial for the psychologists, because they promised to provide a substantial
anchoring point for the otherwise elusive concept of schemata. Schemata interpreted
in a narrative way are not simple products of the constructive powers of the individual
mind, rather, they are interpreted as being anchored in an external social order.
The patterning inherent in narration promised to give a really interpreted view of
schematization, that had unexpected consequences for our conceptions about ourselves.
EMPIRICAL STORY RESEARCH IN PRESENT DAY COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY
Out of the mysterious and chaotic fabric of life, the old novelists tried to tease
the thread of a limpid rationality;
in their view, the rationally accessible motive gives birth to an act,
and that act provokes another. An adventure is a luminously causal chain of acts.
Milan Kundera: The Art of the Novel, 58.
In modern psychological research on discourse memory usually two types of processes
are highlighted: integration and selection. Whatever one remembers from a
text is at the same time more and less than the text itself. Bridging informational gaps
between the different propositions becomes part of the representation, which is a coherent
causal chain (Schank, 1975). Complex and unclear texts, on the other hand are
simplified and converted into a more logical version. In this process we act as if we
had found the leading propositions underlying the text.
These general principles are valid for remembering all sorts of texts. Why are narrative
texts so special, why are they for examples so much easier to understand and remember
than other texts? (See a detailed argument for this ease in Zinchenko, 1961.)
Present day psychological studies look for the explanation of this superiority in the
general organization of narrative patterns. While the organizing moments are easy to
mobilize, they can turn into overall mental models at the same time, keys to the understanding
of other processes such as the interpretation of real events.
190 CSABA PLÉH
SOME RELEVANT FEATURES OF NARRATIVES
(A) They represent a temporal organization where the order of some (the critical)
propositions is assumed to be the order of events in real life. Due to this feature, narratives
are apt to be used and treated as causal models of events and actions. Labov and
Waletzky (1967) used a distributional analysis to formalize this in spontaneous narratives.
Narrative clauses in spontaneous story-telling are partially ordered thus providing
the basis for “narrative time”. This has an interesting developmental aspect, as
Bruner and Luciarello (1989, Bruner, 1996) highlighted it: temporal perspective in the
child’s mind is formed in the process of story telling. One can of course go further,
and claim as Janet (1928) already did, and as Ricoeur (1965) and others do today, that
the psychological time dimension comes from narration altogether (see about this
(B) Stories as a special type of narration require a hero, who has a system of goals,
as well as a perspective. Perspective (who’s vision of the world do we use) characterizes
not only higher literary forms but all narratives. The hidden philosophy of stories
is given by the problem solving path of the hero within a motivational field created by
the goal system. The essence of this “philosophy” is the coherence in the actions of the
hero. A further step is provided by the idea that heroes are intentional agents, and that
human actions performed by these agents form causal chains based on reasons and
causes (Schank, 1975, Graesser, 1996). From a developmental perspective this suggests
that by distinguishing between outside (“real life”) events, the inner life of the
hero, and the reactions of the narrator, story telling practices foster the distinction between
objective reality and mental reality. (See the volume edited by Bruner and
Hastie,1987 on this process of differentiation.) This aspect of stories has the challenging
implication that narration is somehow intimately tied to our models of personhood
and Self. The world of narration would be making the connection between the real
world and our inner world (our Ego?). Narratives provide us, rather than being mere
reports, also perspectives, the help to “give meaning” to whatever happens to us
(Bruner and Luciarello, 1989).
MEMORIAL SCHEMATIZATION OF NARRATIVE DISCOURSE
What sort of explanatory models do predict memorial schematization observed in real
life and in the psychological laboratory? To make a long story short, several decades
of experimentation basically came to the conclusion that our cognition is regulated
here as well as in person perception, action interpretation, and many other areas of social
psychology basically by an anthropomorphic naive psychology about the causes
of human action. Complicated events of real life, and the stories narrating them are
made coherent and understandable by relying on a system of expectations using a
model of human action.
NARRATIVITY IN TEXT CONSTRUCTION AND SELF CONSTRUCTION 191
Recall of narratives in this view is a selective and integrative reconstruction based
on our action schemata. Narrative schemata are easy and they appear early in life, because
they do rely on an early model of human intentional action that is supplemented
by a perspective providing pattern of narration. Contemporary research on memory
and psycholinguistics of text attempted to provide a more explicit version of these
schemata in several forms. The different models can be sorted into two types, form
based and content based models of narrative schematization. Initially, due to the enthusiasm
for the structural models discovered in Propp (1958) psychologists also
looked for the sources of schemata in the text itself, following the “linguistic turn” of
philosophy in psychology as well. Structural models proposed for a given corpus of
texts by Propp (1958) were extended and rewritten as a generative system of rules able
to produce an open and infinite set of stories. The most elaborate example was the
grammar for Eskimo folktales proposed by Colby (1973). According to the processing
application of this model by David Rumelhart (1975), recall would be directed by
these rules. Basically, more embedded episodes would have a lesser chance to be recalled,
and some types of grammatical nodes would have a higher chance to be recalled.
Several models of story grammars were proposed following Rumelhart. Essentially,
all of them treated stories as a series of embedded attempts trying to achieve a
Goal, as the simplified higher level structural rules indicate.
(1) StorySetting + Episode
(2) EpisodeState + Attempt
(3) AttemptPlan + Action + Outcome
Two aspects are rather relevant for our concerns here. First, these seemingly formal
(syntactic) rules are also based on the organizational principles of human action,
as a careful reading of the “morphology” of Propp shows it. An action-based pragmatic-
semantic model stands behind the apparent “syntax” of these models. What else
does rule (3) represent than the fact that according to our folk psychology Actions are
preceded by Intentions, and Actions are interpreted as successful or unsuccessful in
relation to the Intentions or Plans?
Beside this category analysis, some content-based models were also formed that
reconsidered the seemingly “grammatical” relationships between events and actions
in a narrative as motivational relationships between “naive psychological categories”.
“Who Done What Why” is the organizing principle as it was phrased most clearly in
the Causal Chain model of Roger Schank (1975, Schank and Abelson, 1977).
All of these models received empirical support from experimental studies. “All”
implies here that both types of models had a half dozen varieties in the heyday of story
grammars. Grammar-like models received their psychological relevance from higher
recall of structurally higher nodes and a better recall of Attempts, than Plans or States.
Regarding the content-based models, higher recall of the main causal chain was observed
and also more recall of Causes in physical actions, and higher recall of reasons
regarding interpersonal scripts (László, 1986). The real test came, however, when pre-
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dictions of the different models were compared over the same experimental material.
Black and Bower (1980) and Pléh (1987) showed using multiple regression models
for recall patterns based on the different story structure proposals, that the models that
relied on the action system of the hero in assigning structure to the stories had a higher
predictive power than the ones relying on a purely formal model. The kind of narrative
research based on this naive social psychology has been flourishing ever since.
Graesser (1992, 1996, Graesser and Clark, 1986) even developed a special on line
questioning model to analyze how immediate is the construction of causal chains during
These results coming from cognitive psychology imply that the key for the simplicity
of simple stories , the special schema we looked for (the schema that is so easy,
appears so early in life, and is so much universal) should be looked for in the naive
psychology of human action. In understanding stories, we mobilize our naive social
psychology about the structure of human action and about the usual motives for action.
Coherence is found by the hearer-reader through the projection of these motivated
action schemata to the story. The specificity of traditional simple stories lies in
the fact that due to the prototypical motivations in a given culture, and due to the simple
transparent narrative point of view, this action organization can be revealed easily
and unequivocally on the part of the understander (see about this László, 1986, Halász,
László and Pléh, 1988).
There is a further question regarding the origins of these interpretation patterns.
The initial questions regarding what gives pattern to simple stories, find an answer in
“naive social psychology”. One has somehow to answer the upcoming next question:
where do patterns of naive social psychology originate from? Through its intimate
connection with the issue about the origin of a “theory of mind” in humans, there are
rival solutions here. One of them would basically state that some kind of intentional
and earlier even teleological attribution is a modular feature of the human mind developing
very early on (Gergely, Nádasdy, Csibra, and Bíró, 1995, Csibra and Gergely,
1998), while others would claim in their similarly non-essentialist approach that this
naive theory develops as a very result of experience with narrations (Bruner, 1985,
1990, 1996), I should add, also carrying a strong social emphasis about the origin of
our attributing schemata. Thus, a search for coherence underlies our schematization of
stories, and this coherence is basically found by “turning on” our machinery of intentional
attributions, and thereby reconstructing a causal chain that consists of causes
and reasons that lead to these events. This is the view of the classical writer, too, as the
Kundera motto indicates.
The empirical research on remembering narratives that seemed to be originally a
rather “down to earth” empiricist project, through the seemingly innocent notion of
“connected discourse” and “schemata” did become tied to issues touching upon the
“frame problem” of the entire enterprise of human cognition.
NARRATIVITY IN TEXT CONSTRUCTION AND SELF CONSTRUCTION 193
NARRATION AS CONSTRUCTING COHERENCE
AND THE CRISIS OF COHERENCE
That is the point where the narrative frame issue becomes intimately tied to the crisis
of modernity and to the problem of the relations between the changes of narrative patterns
and a crisis in our view of ourselves. In present day intellectual contexts
narrativity is entertained not only as a “low level, down to earth” theory about actual
narrations, but also as narrative metatheory. There is a remarkable basic similarity in
the way narratives become central in experimental psychology, in the study of development
and in the cultural and philosophical theorizing about the centrality of narration.
At the same time, new patterns of narration take shape. The extended narrative
conceptions define themselves as contrasted to the essentialism of the classical view
of man (see about this opposition Bruner, 1985, 1990). Essentialism in this regard is
the belief in a postulated stable Ego as a starting point, and a stable world of objects.
This is replaced by a world that is socially constructed through our narratives, and
with a constructed Ego, rather than the Ego being a Cartesian starting point (Dennett,
The narrative philosophical interpretations take a special look on the mind and
personhood. They attempt to construct a new vision of Consciousness and the Self on
this basis. This line of thought sets off from the concept of dissolution and distribution.
When it looks for metaphors of the mind, it compares it to the issue of integrating
large empires like the British Empire where due to communication problems things
seem to be disintegrated, there is no real center. Human mind is likewise characterized
by spatial and temporal disintegration or distribution. The narrative metaphor in this
argumentation becomes an integrating tool. The disorganized events in our mind get
organized through the mediation of stories we tell to ourselves. The unity of consciousness
and self disappears as a first step and comes back through the back door as
narrative integration (Dennett, 1990, 1991, Dennett and Kinsbourne, 1992). This type
of metatheory is among the first ones to make a close connection between two sorts of
“crises” regarding coherence going on within European culture. One is the crisis of
narration, the other the crisis of the Self-concept.
In the 20th century, there were several waves of feelings to the effect that not only
our outer world fell apart into pieces and became incoherent, but our internal world as
well. We could start from a “Once upon a time Order”, the harmony between the
world of God, the stable Self and the stable patterns of Narration. This age is characterized
by transparency. In the good old days of early modernity, Cartesian unity and
transparency governed everywhere (Latour, 1993). The intentional stance (Dennett,
1987) could be taken regarding all the three realms that are of interest to us. The World
was created by an intentional God (the argument from design), our internal world of
experience was transparent to a self-conscious intentional agent, the Mind, Soul, Ego,
or Self, and the Stories we wrote were also about intentional Heroes who carried
clearly identifiable Plans. The whole world was to be characterized by stable intentional
agents. (See about this heritage and its multiple crises Toulmin,1990, and especially
the volume edited by Dorothy Ross, 1994.)
194 CSABA PLÉH
The dissolution of this unity and the birth of a “distributed or deconstructed view”
of the human mind was first proposed by the most courageous of the empiricists, David
What we call a mind, is nothing but a heap or collection of different perceptions, united together
by certain relations. ... The mind is a kind of theater, where several perceptions successively
make their appearance.
D. Hume: A Treatise on Human Nature. Vol. 1. 436, 438.
He clearly realized that this vision had dreadful consequences for the notion of personal
There are some philosophers who imagine we are every moment conscious of what we may
call our self ... for my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble
on some particular perception or other, ... I never can catch myself at any time without a
perception. ... And were all my perfections removed by death, and could I neither think, nor
feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I should be entirely annihilated.
D. Hume: A Treatise on Human Nature. Vol. 1. 436, 438.
This attitude was never trivial to take. Following Hume, the questioning of unity and
its reassertion came usually from rival ideological camps and therefore from different
sources. As a bold generalization one can claim that the proponents of disintegration
were usually progressives who believed in the power of empiricist attitudes and science,
by far not being pessimistic about their conclusions, and the trends reemphasizing
unity were usually closer to church powers and to religious ideas about an immortal
soul (Goldstein, 1994).
In the debates of nineteenth century on the issue of a substantial Self there was a
constant give and take between the “religious” and the “empiricist” critical theories
(Carrithers, Collins, and Lukes 1985). The idea of a disunited Self came along several
times during these debates. It showed up in the French empiricist epistemology of
Condillac and others, and in the radical positivist views of people like Mach (1897,
1910). There was always a strong counter reaction. In French intellectual life, the radical
deconstruction proposed by the body image theories of Condillac were opposed by
the mid-century school philosophy of Cousin that reinstated “Moi” as a starting point
(see Goldstein, 1993). Seen in this context, the psychopathological ideas of Charcot
and Janet about the dissolution of personality, as well as those of Freud at the other
end of the continent were less radical proposals than seen at first sight: the contemporary
and earlier empiricist deconstructions were much more radical in their intent.
THE NEED FOR COHERENCE
Our present intellectual world can be characterized by two types of dissolutions (or, if
you prefer, crises). The first one is the dissolution of the stable Ego that was already
characteristic of the late 19th century philosophy and psychology that became with the
NARRATIVITY IN TEXT CONSTRUCTION AND SELF CONSTRUCTION 195
words of the Hungarian philosopher Kristóf Nyíri (1992) “impressionistic” in its
search for stable reference points. The same goes on in the most up-to-date
connectionist approaches to the mind (McClelland and Rumelhart, 1986). Their emphasis
is laid on a “nothing but” approach to the mind (knowledge is nothing but a pattern
of activation in a neural network), and on overwhelming parallel processing and
distributed representation all question the conventional Cartesian unity of the mind. It
is still the best introduction to this radical connectionism. There is not too much space
left in this for the Ego: it is in a way dissolved in the multiplicity of the parallel and in
themselves meaningless multiplicity of computations and connections. Churchland
(1995) gives a comprehensive radical interpretation for all of this by stating that all aspects
and issues of human inner mental life would on the long run be simply identified
with neural models.
The other, parallel dissolution or disintegration went on in the realm of culture.
One dominant aspect of this in 19th century had been a dissolution of traditional patterns
of narration. There are interesting parallels here between artistic practice and
philosophy. Kristóf Nyíri (1992) analyzed the affinities between the elementaristic
theory of mind proposed by Ernst Mach (1897), and the school of impressionistic
painting. The strong drive to liberate yourself from anything secondary, knowledge
based (top-down), anything schematic and a search for undeniable, original certainty
lead to pictorial and epistemological impressionism: the real raw stuff of both would
consist of patch-like pieces of experience. There was, however, a similar trend in
questioning the validity of traditional narrative schemata and the underlying naive application
of the intentional stance as well. There are interesting parallels between giving
up the idea of a causal chain in the outside social world of the novel, and questioning
the presence of an integrative Ego in the inner world of the novel. (Kundera, 1986
gives an interesting survey along these lines.)
In the new types of narrations taking shape in 20th century the God-like image of an
author with all encompassing knowledge is replaced by either a direct presentation of
the inner world, or with a description of external behavior with no preassigned perspectives.
Narration dominated by the intentional stance is replaced by a presentation
of internal mosaics like already in Proust or Joyce, or in the French Nouveau Roman,
or in the theoreticians and practitioners of postmodern literatures. Among the later
ones, Hassan (1987, 1990) tries to make a connection between new writing and the
“deviations of the self”. He lists the slogans about the dissolution of the Self that have
a tragic connotation (divided Self, downgraded Self, dissolved Self, and so on), but after
this exercise, he makes a postmodern turn. He arrives to the conclusion that by
questioning the selves of the hero and the writer, and hereby by playing with the narrative
point of view, new playful narrative structures may emerge.
With the birth of the modern novel in Proust, Joyce, and Musil, writers show that
Kundera is right: they were experimenting with knowledge structures, and prefigured
a narrative concept of identity (including with all of its crises) well before it was formulated
as a theory of mind by philosophers.
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The relationships between the issue of Self and narrative structures was already realized
by some of the classics of narrative research in psychology, without relating
them to the issue of literature. Frederic Bartlett (1935, p. 311) himself said:
There may be a substantial Self, but this cannot be established by experiments on individual
and social recall, or by any amount of reflection on the results of such experiments.
Samuel Beckett (1987) gives a similar interpretation for the importance of the multiple
and non-conscious construction of the Self in Proust:
But here, in that ‘goufre interdit a nos sondes’ is stored the essence of ourself, the best of our
many selves and their concretions that simplists call the world.
S. Beckett: Proust. 31.
There are tragic, and ambiguous, ironical overtones as well in the literature regarding
the dissolution of the Self. Both do leave one central issue open, however. When we
dissect the Self into elementary experiences and their relationships, and narration into
narrative morsels, do we make them disappear by this very act? Did the Self really disappear,
or do we only claim that compared to the primary stuff of experiences it is only
secondary? (That is the way, for example, Beckett interprets Proust.) Did narration
disappear, or is it only a secondary organization compared to the primary thread of
discourse? Did we manage to radically eliminate coherence, that is usually accounted
for by the Self and by narration, or we only made it secondary rather than using it as a
Narrative metatheory as a non-essentialist view of coherence takes the second option.
Rather than postulating a substantial Self, the coherence of our internal world comes
around by milder means, by story telling.
The issue of coherence in communicative terms implies that the partners, A and B
have to follow a mutual, joint model. They have to allow each other to reconstruct
similar relationships between the individual propositions. This is referred to as the
maxim of relevance by the communication model of Paul Grice (1975), and as the issue
of higher order models of intentionality by Dennett (1987).
Seen from this perspective, traditional narrative schemata with their mobilization
of intentional action interpreting moduls are rather powerful coherence-building devices.
One of the clearest aspects of the transformation of these in modern “high literature”
concerns the changes in the comprehensive Plans of action from the point of
view of the Hero and/or the Narrator. Its presence gives coherence to classical narratives,
be it fairy tales – he wants to marry a king’s daughter, sets out into the world, and
through many obstacles gets her, or bourgeois novels – he comes to the big city, wants
to make a career, relying on relatives and women, reaches his goals. The comprehensive
message of the literary work is tied to the intentional system of the hero. The final
meaning (the life philosophy embedded in classical narration) of the work is the idea
that there is a continuous, intelligible life, with initiatives of human Agents, who are
full of Plans. These Plans give coherence of the man and of narration, as Kundera
NARRATIVITY IN TEXT CONSTRUCTION AND SELF CONSTRUCTION 197
Of course, classical narration had many varieties, but they were sharing these underlying
assumptions. Classical detective stories hide the plan that makes the events
coherent, and it is the task of the reader, or Mr. Holmes to reveal them. But it is possible
to reveal them because they do exist. Something different is happening in modern
literature. It spoils this “super plan”, this goal system encompassing the entire novel.
Kundera (1986) sensitively presents how this type of goal coherence is ruined in the
novels and realities of Franz Kafka. The hero is subjected to non-transparent Plans of
others, and these Plans do not become clear even till the end of the story. The continuous
goal system disappeared before Kafka as well. It is replaced by the world of inner
experience in Joyce, and in Proust, as analyzed by Beckett the action based logic of
narration and the actions of the hero are replaced by an undifferentiated network of experience,
imagery, and souvenirs.
The identification of immediate with past experience, the recurrence of past action or reaction
in the present, amounts to a participation between the ideal and the real, imagination and direct
apprehension, symbol and substance. Such participation frees the essential reality that is denied
to the contemplative as to the active life. What is common to present and past is more essential
than either taken separately.
S. Beckett: Proust. 74.
The whole work of Proust is not merely an essay on memory, but a practice in the relationship
between unconstrained unintentional memory, and “voluntary memory”, the
“uniform memory of intelligence”. “…his entire book is a monument to involuntary
memory and the epic of its action” (ibid., 34).
The comprehensive Plan disappears not only in the impressionistic presentation of
the internal world but also on the level of behavior. In this third type of modern writing
the external behavior is not characterized by clear Plans. Rather, things just happen to
the hero, and he acts reactively, and tries to give meaning to the actions only afterwards.
The continuous world of intentions is replaced not by an inner world of experience,
but by the world of behavior. Think of some of the acts of Mersault in The
Stranger, or to the beginning acts of Belmondo in Au Bout de Souffle. The reader and
the viewer are immediately presented by pieces of behavior, without enough preparation
for the setting, and without a possible intentional interpretation. The individual
experiences and acts are not presented as parts of an encompassing Plan. They can
only be given a local interpretation. He shot the cop asking for his papers, but this happened
so fast that neither he (the hero, Belmondo), nor we, the viewers had any chance
to build up a plan to motivate the deed (Au Bout de Souffle). In a secondary way, we
give interpretation to something that already happened. We make a story out of it like
psychoanalysts, but the unique uninterpreted act preceded the story, while in classical
narrative patterns the starting point is the story with its intentional layout, and unique
events fill the slots in a secondary way. Classical narration, while it certainly uses a
narrative pattern, treats the pattern in an essentialist way, with a belief in the integrative
Self, the events being only manifestations of this. This is in accordance with the
top-down style of writing, and with the ideal of an omnipotent and omniscient writer.
198 CSABA PLÉH
The key scene from The stranger illustrates this lack of narrative buildup relying
Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky
cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every
nerve in my body was a still spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave,
and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. And so, with that crisp, whipcrack
sound, it all began.
Albert Camus: The Stranger. 76.
The murder by Meursault is rather different from that of Lafcadio in the Caves of the
Vatican by Gide. His act is quoted as the classical example of action gratuite. This is
an act of “no motive” however, only in the sense of bringing no utility to the actor.
Otherwise, Gide makes it sure that we see it as planned, intentional, premeditated action.
Lafcadio even laughs in advance how much trouble will the police have in dealing
with a crime sans motive, with an unmotivated crime.
It’s not so much about events that I’m curious, as about myself. There’s many a man thinks he
is capable of anything, who draws back when it comes to the point... What a gulf between the
imagination and the deed !... And no more right to take back one’s move than at chess. Pooh! if
one could foresee all the risk, there’d be no interest in the game!
A. Gide: Lafcadio’s Adventures. 186.
Of course, there are plenty of more recent examples for the dissolution of intentional
coherence. In this respect, Christine Brooke-Rose (1986) presented a rather interesting
outline for the changes in writing so typical of modern (and of course postmodern)
literature. First came the defocalization of the hero. That was already present in the
19th century. Think of the well known comparisons regarding the Waterloo battlefield
descriptions by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables where you have an epic enumeration
combined with a panoramic view and a clear presentation of the scenery, with the
scene of Fabricio del Dongo being part of the great battle in Stendhal’s Chartreuse de
Parme without really knowing it. The entire scene is defocussed: we see the hero as
being entirely out of the intentional plans of the agents, unaware of their plans, and
even of them being agents. He does not even realize he is seeing the great man he came
for. He is part of the battle without knowing he was there.
This is defocussing of the intentional plans, indeed. But this was further combined
with a defocussing of the “survival value” of the hero. Present day heroes are no more
close friends of ours as Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, or Rastignac, to that effect.
In the vision presented by Brooke-Rose (1986), the postmodern riot against character
and stability actually eliminated anything that would contribute to the coherence
i.e., anaphoric and referential signs, and only the egocentric or deictic signs would
work. There are, however, signs of hope (if you like) according to her. Character shall
come back through the back door, through science fiction and stabilization of the
postmodern play with fiction.
NARRATIVITY IN TEXT CONSTRUCTION AND SELF CONSTRUCTION 199
COHERENCE WITHOUT SUBJECTS
The concept of communicative coherence allows us to look for inner coherence in a
non-essentialist way and to avoid the usual pendulum-like shifts between disintegrated
and essentialist views of the Self. The notion of coherence might be a help in
finding some peace in the chaos of the world without necessarily committing ourselves
to another round of essentialism. The philosophical system proposed by Daniel
Dennett (1987, 1991, 1994, 1996) has some intellectual promise here, especially since
he consciously connects the two types of dissolutions, that of the Self, and of the narrative
patterns. For postulating coherence, he does not need a hypothesized subject.
The coherence of inner life (the Self, if you like) will be a “soft notion” for him, a
“gravitational point” of all the stories we tell ourselves.
For classical empiricist theories like Condillac and Mach, body image was the central
source of coherence. Beside emphasizing our general tendency to attribute continuity
to things we name, the other anchoring point is found by Mach in the concept of
the body. Here Mach reiterates and modernizes an idea already apparent in the work of
Condillac, and later on taken up by several theories both in comparative and in clinical
psychology (Henry Head, Frederick Bartlett) that take the body schema, the representation
of our body as central to the Self concept. “As relatively permanent, is exhibited,
further, that complex of memories, moods, and feelings, joined to a particular
body (the human body), which is denominated the ‘I’ or ‘Ego’” (Mach, 1897. p. 3).
This centrality of the notion of body image did not disappear in present day discussions.
It is certainly textbook material in psychology and it is seen in new neuropsychological
theories as well. Antonio Damasio (1994) in his work on the representation
of emotions and their role in the shaping of our goal system claims that the emotionally
laden representation of our body is the central core to our Self concept.
Dennett (1991) is his view on consciousness also gives a central role to the body image
in the reduction of our notion of the Self. However, his new original point is the
use of the narrative metatheory.
Dennett basically claims for a soft and constructed theory of Self that is even softer
then the body image notion.
A self, according to my theory, is not any old mathematical point, but an abstraction defined
by the myriads of attributions and interpretations (including self-attributions and self-interpretations)
that have composed the biography of the living body whose Center of Narrative
Daniel Dennett: Consciousness explained. 426–427.
Without a narrative excursion this very metaphor was already present in the philosophy
of arithmetic proposed by Frege (1884) who already uses the metaphor of soft notion,
and the very image of gravitational points.
I distinguish what I call objective from what is handleable or spatial or real. The axis of the
earth is objective, so is the center of gravity of the solar system, but I should not call them real
in the way the earth is real.
G. Frege: The Foundations of Arithmetic. 35.
200 CSABA PLÉH
Dennett is clearly aware of the ethical implications of a system based on soft notions.
This issue was raised many times since the time of Hume, and it was indeed one of the
main resources of the essentialist moralistic arguments (see Perry, 1985).
The task of constructing a self that can take responsibility is a major social and educational
project... The only hope… is to come to understand, naturalistically, the ways in which brains
grow self-representation. ...
If you think of yourself as a center of narrative gravity, on the other hand, your existence depends
on the persistence of that narrative (rather like the Thousand and One Arabian Nights,
but all a single tale), which could theoretically survive infinitely many switches of medium…
and stored indefinitely as sheer information.
Dennett, ibid., 429–430.
[Exegi monumentum aere perennius...]
Horatius, Carm III. 30, 1.
This is similar conception though with some ironical twist to the one proposed by
Sir Karl Popper (1972) about World III, namely that culture can in principle survive
the destruction of its objective carriers. Here, the similar view is claimed for the relationships
between bodies, programs, selves, and narrative constructions. (See about
this Pléh, 1999.)
Dennett has his own ironies, of course, what would you expect from a constructionist
theory. He quotes a novel mocking deconstructionism by David Lodge.
According to Robyn [she is the postmodern theorist] (or, more precisely, according to the
writers who have influenced her thinking on these matters) there is no such thing as the “Self”
on which capitalism and the classic novel are founded – that is to say, a finite, unique soul or
essence that constitutes a person’s identity; there is only a subject position in an infinite web
of discourses – the discourses of power, sex, family, religion, poetry, etc. And by the same token,
there is no such thing as an author, that is to say one who originates a work of fiction ex
nihilo. ... As in the famous words of Jacques Derrida ... “il n’y a pas de hors – texte”, there is
nothing outside the text. There are no origins, there is only production, and we produce our
“selves” in language. Not “you are what you eat”, but “you are what you speak”, or rather
“you are what speaks you”, is the axiomatic basis of Robyn’s philosophy, which she would
call, if required to give it a name, “semiotic materialism”.
David Lodge: Nice Work, 22.
In the view of Dennett, there is no internal agent in a Cartesian Theater who would
make things coherent. Coherence comes as a relaxation point in forging intentional sequences
out of the events coming to us. The use of the intentional stance is the macroscopic
side of the constructing work of our brain. There is microscopic one, too, that is
valid over shorter periods. Dennett and Kinsbourne (1992) apply the narrative metatheory
to the order of milliseconds as well to create a theory of consciousness. Essentially
they claim that there are no central moments of consciousness. In our brain we
are making Multiple Drafts of every incoming event (another narrative metaphor),
NARRATIVITY IN TEXT CONSTRUCTION AND SELF CONSTRUCTION 201
and there is one of these that under normal circumstances is treated as being a conscious
stage in information processing. But that delimitation is also a constructive and
slightly artificial notion.
For the same sequence of events several “stories” are created. There is none being
more basic than the others.
How can you reconcile this fragility with a theory that otherwise claims taking the
intentional stance as basic? Dennett protects himself against this challenge by allowing
two different levels. You are entitled to use the intentional stance for the entire
system, but not to its individual operations. But always remember, the application of
the intentional stance is an evolutionary and economic hypothesis, that does not allow
or require to postulate real agents in the brain.
This is a two level theory, like the one proposed by Bergson (1896) a century ago.
The novelty of Dennett is twofold. For him, the second level, the level providing us
with meaning and coherence, does not require a disembodied mind. This level is set
into a narrative and intentional model that in principle will have an evolutionary story
to it (see Dennett, 1994, 1996).
But if Self and all these things are soft notions, why can we talk about their crisis?
The evolutionary argumentation might argue for simplification. We have essentialized
our stances for thousands of years using notions such as soul, Self, mind, etc.
When we are replacing them with narrative constructions, we do not have to be so passionate
as the traditional empiricists were. The skeptical seriousness of finding the
emperor naked should or could be replaced by a lighter and more narrative attitude to
this newest questioning of the Self as a starting point.
Dennett of course, has his own critics. One of the most telling examples from the
“neuro essentialist camp” is Paul Churchland (1995, p. 266) who criticizes him
sharply for reintroducing in his narrative model a linguistic type of model for human
consciousness. Dennett in his view pulls back the wrong prototype for cognition
namely language, then “(2) makes it the model for human consciousness, (3) gives
parallel distributed processing a cursory pat on the back for being able to simulate a
‘virtual instance’ of the old linguistic prototype, and (4) deals with his theory’s inability
to account for consciousness in nonlinguistic creatures by denying that they have
anything like human consciousness at all”. This criticism is rather misfired. Dennett
(1987, 1994) always stands for continuity in his speculations about the origins of human
cognition. While he has a slight linguistic bias, this is not necessarily a disadvantage,
if you consider us a speaking, and even story telling species.
Psychoanalytic theory also phrased an interesting criticism, not directed specifically
against Dennett, but more generally against exclusively narrative approaches to
the Self. Narrative metatheory of course is a driving force in some reinterpretations of
psychoanalysis as well. Starting from Ricoeur (1965) an approach has taken shape
that sees in the psychoanalytic discourse not an unfolding of an internal essence, not a
symptom of some natural sequence of libidinal development, but a series of constructed
narratives, and psychoanalysis is a joint reconstruction of a new narrative between
the analysts and their clients. As appealing as this approach is with all of its hermeneutic
overtones, it is interesting to consider what Arnold Modell (1993), himself a
202 CSABA PLÉH
research oriented psychoanalyst, thinks of it. In his view, the narrative approach can
only reveal and touch upon the temporal aspect of the Self, the other aspect remains
tied to the representation of the body itself. “The literary analogy cannot be followed
very far, because the coherence of the psychoanalytic narrative is ultimately derived
form the bodily Self and its affectionate memories” (Modell, 1993, p. 182).
Dennett himself is not entirely exclusive in his narrative metatheory. At least as far
as the concept of Self goes, he is happy with the representation of the body but wants
to supplement it with the narrative metaphor.
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