Narrative as nourishment

Ellen Spolsky

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Tragedy arouses pity and fear, poetry teaches and delights, history keeps us from repeating our mistakes, and bedtime stories soothe drowsy children into sleep. Or do they? The first three claims have clearly expired, and now Elizabeth Kolbert tells us that many recent bedtime books for children seem to be about "figuring out ways to put off going to bed" ("Goodnight Mush," 91). If we are skeptical about the power of texts to work in the ways we are told they were intended, we are still interested, as Kolbert's essay shows, in exploring the possibility that literary texts act in the world.1 The virtual universality of storytelling would seem to support the even stronger claim that its actions advance the well-being of the individuals and groups who know how to make use of stories. Narratives, in Jerome Bruner's description (1991), do their work by serving individual understanding, but are also in the service of larger cultural agendas, in all their variety. Narratives seem to colonize human brains with forms that are well suited to negotiate among different brain modules,2 within sensory and social environments. Bruner says that "we organize our experience and our memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrative stories, excuses, myths, reasons, etc. . . . , [and] we use narratives as tool kits to accomplish this" (6). He also calls them "prosthetic devices" that "operate as an instrument of mind in the construction of reality" ("Narrative Construction," 4). But notice the switch in agency between these two claims: at first, "we" use narrative, and then, it uses us, on behalf of "mind." This hint of bi-directionality was picked up by David Herman, a later exponent of the "activity theory" of narrative, whose 2003 article, "Stories as a Tool for Thinking," expands some of the most important suggestions Bruner made about how narrative works at "constructing and representing the rich and messy domain of human interaction" ("Narrative Construction," 4). Herman sensibly continues to fudge the question of which is the user and which the tool. With the benefit of more than a decade of interdisciplinary cognitive theorizing, the circularity of influence is now widely accepted: narratives exist in dynamic relationships with the minds and imaginations of their creators and audiences.3 Herman agrees with Bruner that narrative "functions as a powerful and basic tool for thinking" ("Stories as a Tool for Thinking," 163), fitting us to our environment by helping us make satisfying sense of it. But he then also describes how storytellers act upon their environment by "opportunistically exploiting narrative structure" (169) in situations not normally thought of as primarily narrative. They may, for example, write up reports of scientific experiments or medical case histories, intervene in disputes by testifying in court, or otherwise resolve confusions by introducing background stories that change the participants' evaluation of events (163). Further, by exploring what Bruner calls the unexpected, the noncanonical "breach[es] of legitimacy" ("Narrative Construction," 15) with which stories typically concern themselves (more on this below), storytellers may imagine and describe counterfactual models of social structures, suggesting alternatives. Framing a possibility by means of a revised story is a first step to bringing about change in conventional public narratives, as it is with private narratives. No wonder, then, that narrative is ubiquitous and storytelling universal: it has work to do in the world, in the minds of individuals and in the community. Herman makes clear how both stories and storytellers act and are acted upon, even if the way they act can't any longer be expressed in the aphorisms we associate with Aristotle and Horace. Once we agree that narratives, broadly understood, have useful work to do in human lives,4 and if we have established the usefulness of understanding narrative as a tool that serves both individuals and communities, that both acts and is used, the next step theorists may want to take is to enrich the study of narrative acts by investigating their biological function, as suggested by the analogy of narrative as nourishment. It is my goal, in this chapter, to display the benefits of understanding narrative as food for a specific need: food to feed representational hunger. 5 I will first suggest some of the directions in which current work in cognitive science and in interpretive theory encourages us to elaborate a parallel between people's need for food and their interest in telling and in hearing stories, and then I will suggest two theoretical concerns that this elaboration serves.The naturalness the obviousness even of understanding narrative as nourishment was suggested by Thomas Cranmer in his preface to the first English Bible printed in England in 1549. Chastising those who objected to the provision of vernacular Bibles for all English Christians, Cranmer remarks: "I would marvel much that any man should be so mad as to refuse in darkness light, in hunger food, in cold fire, for the word of God is light, food, and fire" (Cranmer STC2079). One hundred years later, the argument for free access to texts still had to be made. In the Areopagitica of 1644, Milton writes that "books are as meats and viands." . . . some are healthful, some rotten. Even those that may themselves be unwholesome serve the "discreet and judicious reader" by helping to "confute, forewarn, and illustrate."6 The comparison had not soured three centuries later when Karl Popper claimed that we are "most active in our acquisition of knowledge perhaps more active than in our acquisition of food" ("Evolutionary Epistemology," 243). Understanding narrative as metabolism acknowledges the way in which a story and its readers are part of a mutually supportive and self-regulating homeostatic system.7 Both stories and audiences are enlivened by intentionality; they talk to each other and are mutually arousing. What Herman describes as "opportunistic" storytelling (interventions of narrative strategies in order to organize or clarify a situation in need of management) can be seen from a biological perspective as a self-motivated process that appears parallel in many ways to metabolism.8 Flagging energy is the need that unbalances the human body, that triggers the release of the chemical that produces hunger pains, that provokes the search for food to replenish energy. It suggests that it may be interesting to consider telling stories, hearing them, and reading them as a process that works in the same homeostatic way. Recent research in cognitive linguistics suggests that eventually neurobiologists will be able to describe narrative activity both the production and the comprehension of stories as an evolved, embodied process, like language and like metabolism.9.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationToward a Cognitive Theory of Narrative Acts
PublisherUniversity of Texas Press
Number of pages24
ISBN (Print)9780292721579
StatePublished - 2010


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