Wednesday, April 15, 2009

When meta-narratives go bad


I teach in a low-residency MFA program at Pacific University outside of Portland. Twice a year, I go there for 10-day residencies. My colleagues and I conduct workshops, read new work and lecture about writing.

My lecture this June will be about meta-narratives, those stories that define what kind of world we live in. For example, one of my students hints at his own meta-narrative when he writes that he gets freaked out at the idea of raising children in a world like this one. He thinks his children might starve or die in a war. I suspect he has the same shock of recognition I have when faced with the iconic skull scenes in the "Terminator" movies.

So The End Of Civilization is a meta-narrative. So are Utopia and Ecotopia, stories in which humans have learned to Live In Peace With Human Nature or With Their Planet. So is Laissez-Fair Capitalism, where The Market Will Make You Free, and Marxism, where History Will Make You Free, and Christianity, where Christ's Passion Has Washed Away Your Sins.

A distinguishing characteristic of meta-narratives is their susceptibility to capital letters.

Although meta-narratives look silly when reduced to their bare bones, if yours breaks it's a serious loss. A good book from the '70s, Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenanc," says that if you use logic to slice through the meta-narrative of culture, you will find nothing on the other side and you will go mad. An opposing idea, one explored by science fiction writer J.G. Ballard, is that culture is the mask we put on reality. If you're alienated enough, you can see through the mask to what lies behind it. And then you will go mad.

These days, we're surrounded by meta-narratives that no longer do their work of keeping us sane. Free Energy From The Peaceful Atom is broken, as is You Can Get Rich Flipping Houses, as is Work Hard and Save Your Money and Prosper. The usual response when your meta-narrative breaks is to lie like crazy in an effort to repair it, as when a fundamentalist Christian looks at a fossil and calls it an invention of Satan. Republicans who claim that free markets don't contain the seeds of their own destruction are doing the same thing. People who believe we'll need airports in 20 years are telling themselves the world hasn't run out of cheap oil.

My own meta-narrative, which is in need of repair on a number of fronts, is that Brilliant Writers Always Become Rich and Famous.


It's hard to experience the breakdown of your meta-narrative as anything but violence to yourself and your loved ones and your community, and such perceived violence begets retaliation and scapegoating. New meta-narratives can be forged out of the scrap of broken ones, and there's always a low-life demagogue out there forging one from the basest, nastiest, ugliest and most fearful parts of human nature.

The longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer, writing about the crowds who cheered Mussolini and Hitler, said "a rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of individual existence."

Then he said, "The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or holy cause."

Hoffer suggests that meta-narratives are arbitrary constructs with no meaning other than the ones we give them. Thus a fundamentalist Muslim and a fundamentalist Christian and a fundamentalist Buddhist (they exist) are psychologically identical. They are all idolators. They worship sacred books rather than ponder them. A few guards at Guantanamo intuited this phenomenon when they threw copies of the Koran into toilets and struck at the heart of the fundamentalist meta-narrative.

The hope I have for my students is that they will learn to write, and in doing so, learn to ponder. That way, they can remain individuals in the face of zombie mobs collectivized by inhuman meta-narratives. They can find a way to combat the anxiety of being alone in their skulls. They can make meaning in a world where entire political movements, economic systems, religions and countries have revealed themselves as murderous frauds. The dismal alternative is to support oppression and become oppressors themselves simply to give their lives the illusion of meaning.

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