Sunday, 24 October 2010

We are our own stories

Read a couple of interesting journal articles this week, both from Literature and Medicine Journal.

The first, The Narrative Shape of Traumatic Experience by Jane Robinett, looked at how two writers dealt with their traumatic experiences of war through their novels, and in particular, looking at the particular narrative structures they used to achieve this.

I picked up this article because Robinett starts it by writing about work by trauma theorists "...who insist on the fundamental 'inaccessiblity of trauma.'". These theorists are supported by neurobiolgists such as Bessel Van der Kolk, whom, Robinett writes, "...holds that because people who undergo psychological trauma suffer 'speechless terror...the experience cannot be organized on a linguistic level' and thus becomes not only inaccessible but also unrepresentable." Robinett's article challenges this view by analysing two novels about the experiences of war: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh. Both authors saw active service: Remarque served in the German army in WWI and Ninh served in the North Vietnamese army in the Vietnam war.

Through her analysis of each of the novels, Robinett finds similarities in the use of narrative structure and language that she believes illustrate an effective expression of trauma in linguistic form. Some of the techniques she describe as particularly effective in conveying the horror of war and the narrators' experiences of trauma include jarring shifts in tense and in point of view; plain and flat language; and silences. For example, she quotes sections from both authors' books and comments:

"...neither narrator comments or elaborates on the events. Instead, silence surrounds these fragmentary narratives, isolating them within the larger narrative...They occur almost casually, with the flatness that psychological trauma produces in its constrictive forms. The language and syntax are unvaryingly straightforward..."

Robinett describes several other instances of how each author uses narrative structure and technique to successfully portray the horror of war. This is of interest to me as a writer, in that I can look at the techniques used and see how I might modify them for my own writing. As a researcher, I found Robinett's article interesting both from the perspective of how the trauma theorists have used a neurobiologist's work to support their own theories and from the manner in which she challenges the trauma theorists' views through the analysis of the two war novels.

The second article I read was Evolution, Human Enhancement and the Narrative Self by Neil Scheurich. Scheurich writes about evolutionary psychology theory and the ethical concerns it raises for some; narrative as a way to cope with consciousness; medical and psychological enhancements as threats to human identity; and transhumanism. Which is a helluva lot for one article. Although there isn't one particular thing in the article that directly relates to my own research, I nevertheless found everything he wrote interesting. But if I had to pick one quote from the article that sums up what he is on about, I think this is it:

"Language and narrative are thus the means by which determined biology gives rise to ambiguity, uncertainty and the only kind of self-reflective freedom that could make sense to us."

Which he summed up in his conclusion by stating "...after all, narrative itself is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy."

Any link between Robinett's and Scheurich's articles is probably tenuous at best. But what I take away from both of them is that we are our own stories, and that they way we choose to tell them helps us to define who we are, and in finding some kind of definition or shape for ourselves, we find a way through life that helps us deal with whatever it is we've been given in this life: brain, genes, environments and experiences. And that this holds true for ourselves as humans, and, as writers, for the way we choose to tell our stories through characters. Which, in a roundabout way, comes back to neuroconstructivism in that it is all about context dependence: who we think we are shapes the stories we tell about ourselves; and the stories we tell about ourselves shapes who we think we are.

At least, I think so...