When I went to the Oxford University Press blog this morning, I saw this post about The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, a book by neuroscientist Bruce Hood. "Who we are is a story of our self," the blurb explains, "a narrative that our brain creates."
The notion that narrative is a precondition of self-awareness and self-understanding is one that we've already seen in essays by Barbara Hardy and Alasdair MacIntyre (login required for both readings). Hardy writes that "In order really to live, we make up stories about ourselves, about the personal as well as the social past and future" (5). It would be wrong to regard narrative, she maintains, as merely "an aesthetic invention used by artists to control, manipulate, and order experience"; rather, narrative is "a primary act of mind transferred to art from life" (5). MacIntyre, referencing and building on Hardy, argues that human actions only become intelligible when understood as part of some real or possible narrative, and he goes on to say that "I can only answer the question 'What am I to do?' if I can answer the question 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'" (138).
For MacIntyre as for the neuroscientist Hood, in other words, selfhood is inherently narrative, and so it should come as no surprise that both authors — MacIntyre in his essay, Hood in this transcript of his interview for Brain Science Podcast — believe that the word "character" is the right word to use, not only for the invented individuals of fictional works, but also for all of us, living our real (narrativized) lives.
If the only way we can experience our lives is in narrative terms, if to be a self is to be a character, and if in general the language we use to analyze works of fiction turns out to be the right language to use for describing real experience, then we face an interesting problem: how do we distinguish fiction from reality?
And we face an interesting opportunity: if we look at a work of fiction such as "The Yellow Wall-Paper" or "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" through the lens of these ideas about experience, narrative, selfhood, and character, do we see anything there that we didn't see before?