The Mess Inside: Narrative, Emotion, and the Mind by Peter Goldie

The death of Peter Goldie in late 2011, as is increasingly becoming evident, was an immense loss to philosophy. Few thinkers move so deftly between the rarefied atmosphere of analytic metaphysics, moral psychology, and ethics, and the real stuff of life, of who we are in our living rooms when we think about our lives. The posthumous publication of The Mess Inside, which was already completed at the time of his death, brings Goldie’s considerable insight to bear on the role of narrative in our lives. Not, as one might suspect (or hope), the role of fiction. But rather the role that our autobiographical narrative thinking has when we reflect on past actions (and errors), present plans, and future possibilities.

Goldie describes his view as a modest narrativist view. He disavows the strong narrativist stances of Alasdair MacIntyre and Marya Schechtman in which our self narratives constitute our selves. But equally he distances himself from anti-narrativists such as Galen Strawson who maintain that narrative has no role at all in establishing who we are. Goldie threads the needle with an account of narrative that acknowledges its capacity to provide narrative structure—coherence, meaningfulness, and evaluative and emotional import—to our lives without binding us to a fictionalizing metaphysics.

One of the distinctive components of Goldie’s view is found in his account of free indirect style, which he borrows from the literary critic James Wood. In literature, free indirect style facilitates an emergent dramatic irony as evaluative and emotional terms flit between a narrated subject and a narrator. Goldie argues that something similar occurs in our autobiographical narratives, where we also invest the actions of our narrated subjects (ourselves) with evaluative import: I think back now on my foolish behaviour at the office party last year. There, the regretful foolishness is projected by me as narrator on my own past action. This kind of self-reflective bootstrapping helps me to think through my past in preparation for a better, less foolish, future.

Equally important, perhaps, is Goldie’s use of the French notion of tâtonnement, which is a kind of tentative, groping towards something. It has a technical use in economics that Goldie, as a former investment banker, was no doubt aware. But here it characterizes the jumbled, blurry perspective we have on ourselves, a perspective that we revise again and again through our narrative thinking. It is, or can be, a lengthy process, but the narrative sense of self that emerges provides us, so Goldie maintains, with all we want and need in a narrativist account of the self, without the unfortunate fictionalizing metaphysical tendencies of strong narrativist theories.

There is a great deal here (much more than my brief survey permits me to show) to agree with, to question, and to outright reject. And there will undoubtedly be a fair amount of thinking, narrative or otherwise, spurred by Goldie’s substantial and subtle contribution. One only regrets that Goldie’s further participation in the conversation has come to a close.

Milestones

Milestones don’t mean anything. A marker noting the 12th mile down a road is no more significant than the marker for the 17th mile. Unless of course you are the one walking down the road.

This past week I saw two milestones. The first has to do with running. I passed my previous highest total number of running minutes for a year. Which makes it the most I’ve run in over 10 years. And we are still in October!

This morning I also finished reading my 75th book of 2012, thus meeting the 75 Books Challenge of the group I participate in over on LibraryThing. So far it has been a good year for reading, and I’m glad I filled out the set with Alice Munro’s latest collection of stories. But I’m more pleased with the fact that I have written a short review for every one of the books I’ve read this year. That has been a lot of fun and it is something I intend to continue with in the future.

The other thing about milestones, when you see them along a road you are walking down, is that you just keep on walking.

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro

Almost any story you choose to read by Alice Munro will better than almost any other story you might have read, even those by Alice Munro. There is something lulling in the cadence of her sentences, her observational choices, her sudden turns that are not turns at all. Something that makes you think, as you read one of her stories, that this is it, this is what real life, a certain life at least lived in a certain place and time is like. Honesty might be a word for it, if fiction can be honest. I hear the voice of my mother, or an aunt, or one of my grandmothers in these stories and I think, even if I disagree with what they are saying, that’s the way they see it.

Of the stories in this collection, I would single out “Amundsen” for its clash of naïveté and self-serving motives, “Haven” for the unflattering portrayal of familial relations, and “Train” for the way it treats a life as iterations in a quest for solidity and peace. But I might just as easily have chosen any of the other stories.

The final four pieces in the collection are grouped together under the title “Finale”. These are, Munro says, “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” In them, Munro looks at a few incidents of her childhood that cast her, momentarily, in an unfavourable light. They are, some of them, shameful thoughts or actions that she may be excising. In “Night”, her father reassures her. “People have those kinds of thoughts sometimes.” And it is precisely what she needs to hear in order to overcome her anxiety driven insomnia. Other regrets, such as not attending her mother’s final illness, death, and funeral are not assuaged by the calm comfort of a wise father. “We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do—we do it all the time.”

Highly recommended.

Wild Writers in Waterloo

On November 2nd and 3rd, Waterloo will cut loose with the Wild Writers Literary Festival. Presented by The New Quarterly, in association with Words Worth Books, hosted at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, with loads of worthy local sponsors, the WWLF consists of a number of talks, workshops, panels, and performances. It’s a mixture of paid and free events, and with three parallel sessions throughout the day on the 3rd, there ought to be something for anyone interested in reading and writing.

There are so many excellent writers participating that it would be hard to pick even one or two I am most keen on hearing, but perhaps Michael Crummey, Alexander MacLeod and Andrew Hood stand out, unless they were pipped at the post by Elizabeth Hay, Alison Pick, and Carrie Snyder.

I hope that WWLF is a huge success and returns yearly.

Note: you need to sign up in order to attend even the free events, so do be sure to register.

In the north

I have an affinity for rock. Rock emerging from the surface of the earth – insistent, unmitigated, regal. Stones, not so much. Where I grew up in south western Ontario, we liked to say that we had a hundred and fifty feet of topsoil. Each spring stones as big as cantaloupes would sprout in my grandfather’s cornfields. They would need to be “picked” before the spring ploughing could commence. Stones are an annoyance. A deathly annoyance for my grandfather. Rock, by contrast, is elemental.

 

Chippewa Falls

Chippewa Falls

 

Almost three hours drive from my childhood home, on the way to Toronto, there are protrusions from the Niagara escarpment that border the highway. Rock! How I used to relish seeing those nubs on our rare travels that way. Years later I saw plenty of rock in Sweden, and also Nepal, as well as the rolling Gatineau hills near Ottawa. But a recent first visit to northern Ontario has set a new benchmark for rock.

 

Pancake Bay

Pancake Bay

 

If you are planning a visit to northern Ontario, I recommend choosing the last weekend in September. If possible, arrange for brilliant clear blue skies during the day, and crisp cold nights with a full moon. Push the blustery autumn storms into late October or November so that the lurid palette brushed on to the oak and maple and birch leaves can work its wonder. Then take a drive northward from Sault Ste Marie towards Wawa on the Trans Canada highway. And just marvel.

 

Agawa Bay

Agawa Bay

 

Oh, and be sure to keep an eye out for some serious rock.

 

Agawa Rock

Agawa Rock