‘Drinking the Kool-Aid’: Does Narrative Kill? [Part One]

In her article ‘The Necessity of Narrative?’, director Deborah Pearson critiques narrative, viewing it as a storytelling tool which is morally suspect because it necessarily erases those people and experiences which do not fit into a particular version of events. This article prompted some heated discussion in the theatrical blogosphere, including a blog response from director George Hunka on the question of ‘Narrative Authority’. In this two-part post, I would like to focus on a few passages from both Pearson’s and Hunka’s articles, both of which are critical of narrative, and suggest in response that narrative is actually morally desirable. In this first part, I will present Pearson’s and Hunka’s statements, and in the next part, give a few reasons why I believe narrative can teach Truth, increase empathy, and point out the existence of a God-authored narrative in reality.

Pearson describes narrative as ‘psychologically comforting’, a ‘kind of coping mechanism or security blanket’. She suggests that stories arise out of fear, ‘fear that our lives may never find a final resolution’, which leads us to flee ‘frustratingly fluid reality’ by imposing meaning upon our experiences. The idea seems to be that this meaning we impose, since it is supposed to comfort us, necessarily excludes anything we find uncomfortable. Pearson is concerned that the selectivity of narrative – ‘shamelessly omitting facts and events in search of a coherent story’ – leads to the erasure of those who do not fit the story: ‘when these rules [of narrative] are applied to a political situation…the omissions and cuts are real people with real experiences’.

If Pearson is concerned that seeing the world in terms of narrative allows us to ignore anyone who does not fit our story schema, George Hunka sees narrative as a tool through which the storyteller exercises oppressive power over another. He explores the artistry of directors such as Richard Foreman and Howard Barker, who eschew or destroy narrative. Hunka writes that

those formal experimentalists who dispense with traditional narrative, in at least some cases, are engaged in the politically and metaphysically radical project of restoring meaning-making authority to the individual spectator rather than imposing that interpretation on an audience-as-collective. When one gives oneself over to or ‘loses oneself’ (in that particularly evocative term) in a narrative, one gives that authority over to another — that is, the storyteller, who always has ideological ends of his own…

He then makes a comparison between ‘losing oneself’ in a story and ‘drinking the Kool-aid’, a reference to the Jonestown cult in which accepting authority led to death by mass suicide. Hunka suggests that giving oneself to a story leads to ‘the death of the imagination, the suicide of individual agency itself’. The disruption of narrative, Hunka writes, ‘is a politically and socially as well as individually liberating radical project,’ one which is worth undertaking, ‘even if it must be at the cost of allowing the self to be absorbed in a story told over the campfire – indeed, to find oneself, not to lose oneself, in the theatrical experience’.

I appreciate Pearson’s concerns that the necessary selectivity of narrative can erase from sight those who do not fit the narrative. For example, the American idea of ‘manifest destiny’, which stated that it was America’s divine destiny to spread over the North American continent and so bring democracy and freedom to the world, was used as an excuse to steal land from Native Americans. Because their right to live in peace on their tribal lands did not fit the narrative, that right was ignored. The story of ‘manifest destiny’ tried to erase even the existence of Native Americans, as when American historian Francis Parkman wrote in the preface of his 1851 book The Conspiracy of Pontiac that the tribes were ‘destined to melt and vanish before the advancing waves of Anglo-American power…’ Pearson is right to point out that political narratives still have the power to erase the existence and rights of minority groups. However, I would argue that narrative does not necessarily silence the oppressed; it can also give them voice.

In addition, I disagree with Hunka’s assertion that the destruction of narrative brings freedom to the audience member. On the contrary, I would argue that narrative itself can bring freedom, increase love, and restore hope. In my next post, I will explain how this can be the case.

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