Two Recent Articles, Expanded

Right now I’m writing several lectures that I’ll present at conferences and events this spring, so today’s blog is written by my double–my deamon voice, as Phillip Pullman would say–who will expand ideas in recently published articles.

Two articles of mine are now available in print or proto-print. One is a fairly long omnibus review, “Narrative Selves Create Memories”, published in the open access journal Narrative Works 8 (1/2), 106-126. I discuss four books published in Oxford’s Narrative Psychology series. As good as each of these books is, reading them together led me to my concluding section, “Why I am not a narrative psychologist”. Here I discuss what, on my account of selves and storytelling, the books leave out. More exactly, I ask whether the books follow through on expressions of their own best intentions; for example, Jens Brockmeier writes that “We start with a story”, but does he actually understanding stories as the starting point for experience?

To present something of that argument differently than I do in the article…. One of Jacques Lacan’s notions that has stuck with me over years since I used to read him is his description of the infant as a zero, a null entity, an empty signifier. To stick with the semiotic metaphor, I believe that stories are what that signifier comes to signify, and in that same process of learning stories, the child develops her capacity to signify. Our narrative resources–most basically, the stories we know–fill in the initial emptiness of who we are. And these resources give us the capacity to become more than who we presently are. And, some stories are better resources than others. Much of my work on Shakespeare involves making a case why his stories are better resources. It’s not exactly the content of the stories; rather, it’s how his stories are generative. They generate variations on themselves, in part because they are already variations on earlier stories. And they generate a curiosity for more stories.

For those who don’t already know Narrative Works, published at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., I hope my review essay will be an introduction to it.

My article “Does Medicine Need Universal Values?” should be available in the advance online version of Society. The print version will follow. I am part of a symposium of responses to the book Hostility to Hospitality by Michael and Tracy Balboni, in which they argue that more attention to spiritual care would help people, which is easy to agree with, but also that there should be an “equal partnership” between medicine and religion. The latter argument causes me considerable problems. Throughout my career I’ve written about spiritual aspects of illness and care. I’ll never get my thoughts straight, nor do I think it’s necessarily a good objective to do so. Writing the Society article was another step in the process.

Again to jump to the end of the article, much of the difference between how the Balbonis understand the world and how I understand it comes down to the usage of the words immanence and transcendence. In the Balbonis’s world, which they would claim as being Christian, immanence and transcendence exist in opposition to each other. They associate immanence with materialism in a reductionist sense. Their immanence is the end point in what Max Weber, whom they cite extensively but selectively, calls disenchantment. That’s not at all my understanding of immanence. Here I offer a longish quotation from David Hinton, in his Introduction to his translation of the Tao Te Ching.

“In the lexicon of early Taoist texts, heaven is a synonym for Wayheaven’s most primitive meaning is simply ‘sky.’ By extension, it also comes to mean ‘transcendence,’ for our most primal sense of transcendence may be the simple act of looking up into the sky. By association with the idea of transcendence and that which lies beyond us, heaven also comes to mean ‘fate’ or ‘destiny.’ But this unsurprising complex of ideas is transformed completely when early Taoism adds ‘nature’ or ‘natural process’ to the weave of meaning, for then heaven becomes earth, and earth heaven. Earth’s natural process is both our fate in life and our transcendence, for self is but a fleeting form taken on by earth’s process of change–born out of it, and returned to it in death. Or more precisely, never out of it: totally unborn. Our truest self, being unborn, is all and none of earth’s fleeting forms simultaneously.”

As I understand Hinton, what he says becomes a most useful interpretive gloss on what Shakespeare is getting at in Prospero’s speech following the masque he stages: “These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and // Are melted into the air, into thin air” (The Tempest 4.1.161-163). We are all of Shakespeare’s characters simultaneously, all and none of earth’s fleeting forms. We materialize into life, stories are told, enacted, and reenacted, and then we melt back into the air. Funny thing is, institutional, professional medicine doesn’t believe that any more than the Balbonis do. There are multiple ways to separate immanence from transcendence. I believe the Tao is correct that all these separations lead to grief.

Or, separating immanence from transcendence leads humans to grief. Way just is. Is Shakespeare then no Taoist, because in his world there is forgiveness or not, and whether or not matters? Hinton points out that Lao Tzu was too compassionate to be consistent with his own ideas. He felt compelled to witness the grief he saw around him. Way just is, heaven and earth just are; humans care.

I’m happy to send pdf copies of these articles to anyone who doesn’t have other access, especially the article in Society. Write me at arthurwfrank@gmail.com.

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