Life … is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills.
What is the meaning of life? The question always makes my mind go blank. Then a negative answer comes. It has none. It has no more meaning than a cubic metre of space 17,000 miles above my head.
What if I had to give a positive answer? I sometimes wonder about this but nothing ever sticks. Every time I consider the question I have to start again from nothing. It’s just happened again. This time it strikes me that the answer ‘It has no meaning’ isn’t negative or disappointing. It’s celebratory. It’s the only answer that grasps the value of life and the nature of its value – apart from being true.
Some rephrase the question: ‘What’s the point or purpose of life?’ I don’t find this helps. It seems like asking ‘What’s the point or purpose of the universe?’ and I think the answer to this question is plain. ‘It has none. It just is.’ Any other answer diminishes its implacable grandeur (Camus’s phrase) – apart from being false. The existence of the universe may have value but it doesn’t have meaning. So too the existence of life.
The mind-blanking question (‘What is the meaning of life?’) isn’t Socrates’ great question: ‘How should one live?’ Could a positive answer to the mind-blanking question help with Socrates’ question? I don’t know, because I don’t know what a positive answer would look like.
It helps to replace ‘of’ by ‘in’ and ask ‘What is meaning in life?’. Susan Wolf makes the point in her book Meaning In Life And Why It Matters. I’m going to follow her, and I’m going to call meaning in life ‘Meaning’ with a capital M. So the question is now ‘What is Meaning?’
Would an answer to this question help with Socrates’ question? Many probably think so. I don’t. As far as I can see there may be quantities of Meaning in a terrible life.
Many people think Meaning has something to do with narrative, narrativity. If they’re right, we need to know what narrativity is before we can work out what Meaning is. So what is narrativity?
I’ll use ‘Narrative’ with a capital ‘N’ as a name for a psychological trait: if one is Narrative, if one is a Narrative type, then (here’s the definition) one naturally experiences or conceives of one’s life as having the form of a story, or perhaps a collection of stories, and in some manner lives in and through this conception.
What’s it like to live like this? I don’t know. But many people believe they do know.
They think the notion of Narrativity captures something profoundly important about life. According to John Davenport, ‘each person’s individual identity is, or depends on, an understanding he has of his life in narrative form, as a development from his past towards his future prospects, ending in his death’.
This seems crazy to me; but Davenport has a lot of support. Jonathan Franzen says that ‘our identities consist of the stories we tell about ourselves’. Oliver Sacks says ‘each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”, and ‘this narrative is us, our identities’. Alasdair MacIntyre says ‘we all live out narratives in our lives and … understand our own lives in terms of the narratives that we live out’. Ruthellen Josselson, Amia Lieblich, and Dan McAdams say ‘we are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell’. Charles Simic says ‘we make sense of our lives not just by ferreting out the facts, but by turning them into stories, so we can bring past events to life’. Jerry Bruner says ‘self is a perpetually rewritten story’; ‘in the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives’. They think Narrativity is psychologically inevitable.
They also think it’s a good thing. Others think it’s not inevitable, but essential to a good life. ‘An unnarrated life is not worth living’, according to Richard Kearney.
Jean-Paul Sartre disagrees:
a man is always a teller of stories, he lives surrounded by his own stories and those of other people, he sees everything that happens to him in terms of these stories and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.
But one has to choose: to live, or to tell stories …
Sartre thinks Narrativity is anti-life, inescapably inauthentic, bad faith, mauvaise foi. Julian Barnes seems equally suspicious when he writes of ‘the narratives we turn our lives into’. So does Iris Murdoch: ‘man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble the picture’. This, for her, is a large part of the reason why ‘the self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion’. Narrativity may be a fecund source of Meaning, but it’s likely or even certain to be junk – junk Meaning.
Narrativity usually involves taking up some relatively large-scale or overarching perspective on oneself and one’s life. Some Narrative types have a strong sense (accurate or not) of the shape of their life considered as a whole (it’s a play with seven acts, according to Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It). But that picture of things may be relatively rare. Others live their lives more like a weekly comic. It’s always a story, perhaps an adventure story, perhaps perfectly glum, perhaps ruefully humorous in the style of Bridget Jones’s Diary (see also Facebook).
Many get captured by a new life idea for a fortnight or so, an idea that they live through and that seems at the time the key to things. Then another idea comes along, as Emerson puts it:
Gladly we would anchor, but the anchorage is quicksand. This onward trick of nature is too strong for us … Once I took such delight in Montaigne that I thought I should not need any other book; before that, in Shakespeare; then in Plutarch; then in Plotinus; at one time in Bacon; afterwards in Goethe; even in Bettine; but now I turn the pages of either of them languidly, whilst I still cherish their genius.
In some people this Tristram-Shandyism happens mainly when they’re young. In others it continues through life. A book or a film or a song sweeps us into a new view for two or three days, or a week. One doesn’t have to be Narrative for this to happen.
I’m still not clear what Narrativity is. But it must involve something more than the eight basic platitudes about life that I’m about to list.
(1) Locke. All ordinary people can ‘consider [themselves] as [themselves], the same thinking thing, in different times and places’. They satisfy John Locke’s famous definition of a person: They’re fully self-conscious, able to think about themselves specifically as themselves, in the past, present, and future.
(2) Self-History. Almost all ordinary people have a reasonably good grasp of their own history – basic facts about their own life. (I say ‘almost all’ because there are people whose memory of their own pasts is profoundly garbled, even though they don’t count as mentally unwell. Some people ‘come to believe their own stories by constantly repeating them’, as Leibniz remarked. Hume saw this too: ‘liars … by the frequent repetition of their lies, come at last to believe and remember them, as realities’.)
(3) Timeline. All ordinary people know how old they are, more or less precisely. They’re pretty clear about where they are on the standard timeline between birth and death.
(4) Knowledge 101. In our world one thing leads to another in a highly regular fashion, from making coffee to writing PhD theses or bringing up children. Nearly all of these happenings and processes have relatively well-defined beginnings and ends and typical intermediate stages. We’re constantly and vividly aware of this.
(5) Explanation. Causal knowledge, causal explanation, is fundamental to our lives. Causal explanation almost invariably involves temporal order. It’s an understanding of how one thing leads to another or connects to another. We’re sometimes said to be Narrative because narrative explanation is fundamental to our lives. But narrative explanation very often turns out to be nothing other than standard causal explanation: ‘this happened because that happened’.
(6) Psychology. Vast numbers of crucial facts about our lives concern our mental states – hopes, fears, beliefs, desires, goals, memories, intentions, and so on. These standardly involve awareness of connections between past and future, and are crucially involved in the doings and happenings that structure our lives.
(7) Action. We’re constantly engaged in intentional action, and almost all intentional action involves some anticipation, thinking ahead, planning, knowledge of steps to be taken, calculation of possible consequences, what if? thinking, thinking that has causal and temporal and psychological matters as part of its content.
(8) Temporality. We all experience ourselves temporally simply in living from moment to moment as we do, making coffee, going downstairs, remembering one thing, anticipating another.
Well, I said they were platitudes – superplatitudes. They’re all true of all or almost all of us. But it doesn’t follow from this that we’re Narrative types. Narrativity must be something more than (1) to (8). For one thing, the idea that we’re fundamentally Narrative creatures was meant to be a great recent insight. But if any combination of (1) to (8) is enough for Narrativity then it’s entirely banal.
More bluntly: it’s certainly not true that all of us are naturally Narrative; not as I understand the notion. Some people are naturally non-Narrative. Some, like myself, are profoundly anti-Narrative. We conform to the eight platitudes, but we don’t in any way conceive of our lives as having the form of a story.
So much for Narrativity. What’s it supposed to have to do with Meaning, that is meaning in life? Is one of them integral to the other? I don’t think so. But what is this Meaning? I’ve already said that it isn’t the same as value: Meaning may have value, but it isn’t the same thing (after all, many other things may have value). Nor does ‘Meaning’ mean ‘point’ or ‘purpose’. It may be most intense precisely when there is no point or purpose in the offing.
I want to try a different line, starting from the fact that Meaning must have something essentially to do with being interesting – with Interest (I’ll give it a capital ‘I’). Interest is surely necessary for Meaning (if Meaning, then Interest) and I think it’s also sufficient (if Interest, then Meaning). It doesn’t follow that they’re the same thing, but I’m going to assume they are, for now (Meaning = Interest) and see what happens.
The question ‘What’s the relation between Narrativity and Meaning?’ is now the same as the question ‘What’s the relation between Narrativity and Interest?’ And the answer seems very plain. There is no necessary relation. One can live a fabulously interesting and profoundly picaresque life with no natural thought of one’s life as a narrative or development or ‘story’. I think of my friend Bruce Chatwin. The view that the deep form of his life is picaresque isn’t undermined, but rather confirmed, by the fact that he had a lifelong interest in nomadism; nor by the fact that a childhood experience provided the original motive for the journey he records in his book In Patagonia.
Narrativists may still insist that narrativity is at least necessary for Interest in life, but this seems obviously false. The claim that Narrativity is sufficient for Interest seems no better. Sisyphus the Bored could be a profoundly Narrative type without his life being interesting either to him or anyone else (Sisyphus is condemned to roll a boulder up to the top of a hill for all eternity, only to have it slip from his grasp before he gets there, so that he has to begin all over again).
If this is right, Meaning doesn’t require Narrativity. Each can exist without the other.
Can Narrativity at least increase Interest/Meaning? We should certainly consider this suggestion. But it may also be that Narrativity can decrease Interest/Meaning.
Sisyphus the Bored might be far better off without constant vivid narrative awareness of the terrible sameness of his life. I think his best hope is to follow Epictetus and find freedom in full acceptance of what he cannot change. He needs a very stiff dose of what is now called ‘adaptive preference formation’.
Couldn’t Narrativity tend on the whole to increase Interest=Meaning? It’s possible, but I doubt it. But suppose it did. Wouldn’t this be a point in its favour? Again I doubt it. Even if Interest is good, all other things being equal, it can all too easily be bad. For one thing, Narrativity can be the more interesting in proportion as it’s more self-deceived, and self-deception is very rarely if ever good. And terrible events can be extremely interesting. I don’t mean that they can be fascinating to learn about, although they can. Nor do I mean that being interesting is a good or redeeming feature of terrible experiences – something that makes them somewhat less bad. The Interest of something terrible can reside wholly in its terribleness. It can be all bad.
It’s true that we ordinarily use ‘interesting’ as a term of commendation, but there’s no necessary link between Interest and positive value. A clinically depressed person’s narrative obsession with the course of his life might be intricate and florid in its narrative detail, and in that sense amazingly interesting – but not therefore good.
Rowland Mallet makes the point to his cousin Cecilia in Henry James’s Roderick Hudson:
True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out – you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.
I’m using ‘Interest’ as short for being interesting. We think of it as a more or less objective property that things may have or lack. Being interested is different. It’s an explicitly subjective matter, and it’s obvious that the two things can come apart: when Sisyphus is neurologically rigged in such a way that he finds his life inexhaustibly absorbing, we think he’s just wrong.
Even so, it seems that Interest isn’t really an objective property. When you’re enthralled by things I find dreary and vice versa, neither of us need be making a mistake. Most of us find chess pretty interesting, but it might bore an omniscient creature. There’s a delicate discussion of this point by William James in his paper ‘On A Certain Blindness In Human Beings’. He quotes at length from Robert Louis Stevenson’s luminous essay ‘The Lantern-bearers’. ‘The ground of a [person’s] joy,’ Stevenson says, ‘is often hard to hit.’
Is it true that Interest isn’t an objective property? I sometimes feel uncertain about this. Some Terran works of art seem objectively and irreducibly full of Interest. Martians, however, may sincerely disagree, and I’m going to assume that Interest is ultimately subjective. It doesn’t matter in the end: either way, we get the conclusion that Narrativity is neither necessary nor sufficient for Interest=Meaning.
That’s my first conclusion. The second is that Interest=Meaning is no more likely to be good than bad. A life that lacked it could be far better than one that had it. (‘May you live in interesting times!’ is used as a curse, whatever its disputed origins.) If Job’s ingeniously varied tortures had continued indefinitely, his life would have continued to be remarkably interesting, and so full of Meaning; but also hellish. Hitler’s life was extremely interesting, full of Meaning.
So Meaning is no more likely to be good than bad. But we can focus on Good Meaning and ask a new question: ‘What’s the relation between Narrativity and Good Meaning?’ Many, perhaps, think that the answer is that Narrativity is necessary for Good Meaning (if Good Meaning, then Narrativity) even if no one thinks that it’s sufficient (if Narrativity, then Good Meaning). I disagree, for reasons that should already be apparent, but it may be helpful to say a little more.
What is the general form of a human life high in Good Meaning? Susan Wolf focuses on Good Meaning, and says that it ‘arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness, and one is able to do something about it or with it’. Subjective interest must couple with an objectively worthwhile pursuit.
I don’t agree that one always needs to do something; I don’t think there has to be any project or pursuit. Otherwise, though, this seems a pretty good proposal. The only question that remains, once we accept it, concerns the range of worthwhile pursuits.
Here there’s a danger of being too restrictive. We mustn’t set up a hard ranking that places one kind of pursuit (say art) inflexibly above another (say farming or fishing). We shouldn’t rule out intensely hedonistic lives. For any human activity, there are some who have an extraordinary gift for it. Some are brilliant at pleasure, indefatigable pleasure virtuosos. Their hedonism may overflow with Interest, Good Meaning, and it needn’t be at anyone else’s expense.
‘This isn’t right,’ you say. ‘These people are lotus-eaters, and the lotus-eating life lacks Good Meaning.’
It’s true that lotus-eating is often taken to imply a wasted life; but there’s more to pleasure than lotus-eating. A person may live a simple and unreflective life of never-diminishing joy in the natural world (Tom Bombadil in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings). Sex is important. A person may live a life of extraordinary sexual intensity, never-staling engagement in sexual love and the ‘multi-level interpersonal awareness’ that – as Thomas Nagel says – it essentially involves. When Enobarbus says of Cleopatra that
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale Her infinite variety
he takes her Interestingness to be grounded in her defects:
Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies, for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish [promiscuous].
Variety, however, isn’t necessary when it comes to not going stale: unvarying custom has its own astonishing intensities, as much in sex as in other things. The highest reaches of sexual love aren’t in tension with fidelity (they’re unattainable without it). This isn’t in any sense a matter of constraint, unless squares having to have four sides is a matter of constraint.
‘No’, you say. ‘You’re trying to cast doubt on the idea that Good Meaning requires Narrativity, but you’re not really thinking things through. Take your own case of long-term sexual love—or perhaps any real love. It essentially involves Narrativity, an explicit sense of a shared past. A Narrative outlook is an essential prerequisite of the most intense forms of interpersonal intentionality, the core of sexual love.’
This may seem true to people who are themselves naturally Narrative. Non-Narratives know it’s false. Perhaps it is true for Narratives. Good for them, so long as they don’t start claiming that Narrative sexual love is essentially higher or deeper than non-Narrative.
There’s no point in arguing about this. There are areas of life in which we perfectly misunderstand one another. This is almost always because we assume that others experience things more or less as we do. I suspect that this is one of those cases, cases in which we’re mistaken because we can’t really believe or imagine that others are completely different from ourselves, not really – and we’re wildly wrong (sometimes comically, often tragically). There are things I read about what other human beings like and feel that I can’t really believe – not really – even though I have good and even decisive reason to believe they’re true.
In the present case the mistake is about the way the past works in love and friendship. Its good effects can be invisible, and involve no explicit memory. It can function like musicians’ or athletes’ intense rehearsals, which are vividly alive in their present performance even when they have no memory of specific past practice sessions.
The past, then, can be very important in the complete absence of Narrativity. That’s one point. There’s another, no less central: the past needn’t be of any importance. Why was Michel de Montaigne’s friendship with Etienne de la Boétie perfect? ‘Because it was him, because it was me.’ That’s it. There are Wahllosverwandtschaften (apologies to Goethe), vertiginous, immediate, unchosen affinities between human beings. Profound friendship doesn’t require any ability to recall past intense shared experiences, nor any tendency to accord them importance. It’s shown in how one is in the present. Montaigne finds he is ‘better at friendship than at anything else’, although ‘there is nobody less suited than I am to start talking about memory. I can find hardly a trace of it in myself; I doubt if there is any other memory in the world as grotesquely faulty as mine is!’
The same goes for sexual love. The Narratives are wrong about love and friendship.
Even if they’d been right their point wouldn’t have touched the lover of the natural world, or skyscrapers, or beetles, or game theory. Deepening knowledge of some subject may intensify the pleasure it gives, but deepening knowledge doesn’t require Narrativity, which is by definition an attitude to one’s own life. Narrativity is not required for pleasure among hills, among ruins, pleasure in the seasons, pleasure in the grandeur of evolution. Even if one feels a connection with one’s personal past, it needn’t be distinctively Narrative in character. Certainly it needn’t involve any sense of one’s personality, either explicit or implicit, as persisting and developing over time. I have no such sense, like Goronwy Rees:
For as long as I can remember it has always surprised and slightly bewildered me that other people should take it so much for granted that they each possess what is usually called ‘a character’; that is to say, a personality with its own continuous history. I have never been able to find anything of that sort in myself … How much I admire those writers who are actually able to record the growth of what they call their personality, describe the conditions which determined its birth, lovingly trace the curve of its development. For myself it would be quite impossible to tell such a story, because at no time in my life have I had that enviable sensation of constituting a continuous personality … As a child this did not worry me, and if indeed I had known at that time of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, the man without qualities, I would have greeted him as my blood brother and rejoiced because I was not alone in the world; as it was, I was content with a private fantasy of my own in which I figured as Mr. Nobody.
‘No,’ you say. ‘You’ve focused on the example of love and friendship. They’re very interesting subjects, but you’re missing the central point. Narrative experience has great and special Interest/Meaning in and of itself – great Good Interest/Good Meaning.’
Reply. This may be so for some. Narrativity can take its place alongside a multitude of other possible sources of Good Meaning.
‘No! You’re not getting it. It’s not just that Narrative experience is a source of Good Meaning. It’s a unique source. It confers Good Meaning on life in an unmatchable way. It constitutes Good Meaning in a foundational manner. Human life is “an activity and a passion in search of a narrative”, as Paul Ricoeur says. This fact about life places a fundamental constraint on Good Meaning. It must involve Narrativity.’
Reply. I disagree. Ricoeur’s claim seems to me to be flat false considered as a factual claim, and an extraordinarily bad idea considered as a general recommendation about how to live. Good for some, possibly; certainly bad for others. Some (including perhaps Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor) think Narrativity is a necessary part of a good religious life. This seems another great mistake, entangled as often as not in a fantasy of Quest. It’s connected to the fact that almost everything that passes for religious belief in human beings is really about self, and that, as William James said, ‘religion, in fact, for the great majority of our own race means immortality, and nothing else’. Hysterical self-concern is lived delusionally as intense concern with God; Narrativity is more likely to lead to a uniquely repugnant pseudo-religious life.
‘No! Can’t you see that one’s “experiences must be actively unified, must be gathered together into the life of one narrative ego by virtue of a story the subject tells that weaves them together, giving them a kind of coherence and intelligibility they wouldn’t otherwise have had. [For] this is how the various experiences and events come to have any real meaning at all”?’ (David Shoemaker, reporting a view he rejects).
Reply. This is dreadful stuff. The ‘must’ is wrong if it’s meant to be an ethical, good-life ‘must’. Even if weaving one’s experiences together could give them a kind of coherence they wouldn’t otherwise have had, this could so very easily be a bad thing, involving lashings of falsification and fantasy – irremediable self-deception, self- alienation. ‘The search for unity is deeply natural,’ as Iris Murdoch says, ‘but like so many things which are deeply natural may be capable of producing nothing but a variety of illusions.’ It is perhaps our fate as human beings that this is far more likely to happen than not.
Suppose we put the normal case (the case of self-deception) aside, and imagine a case in which the coherence that someone discovers in their own life is not fantasy. Suppose we add that this discovery is, for the person in question, a wonderful thing. Is it then unmatchable, as Good Meaning – Triple-A Good Meaning?
No. It’s just one form of Good Meaning among others. Plutarch thinks that
the foolish overlook and neglect good things even when they are present, because their thoughts are always intent upon the future; but the wise by remembrance make even those benefits that are no longer at hand vividly existent for themselves …
Insensible and thankless forgetfulness steals upon most people and takes possession of them, consuming every past action and success, every pleasant moment of leisure, friendship, and enjoyment. Forgetfulness does not allow life to become unified, as
when past is interwoven with present … Those who do not preserve or recall former events in memory, but allow them to flow away, make themselves deficient and empty each day and dependent on tomorrow – as though what had happened last year and yesterday and the day before had no relation to them, and had never happened at all.
Plutarch has, perhaps, no inkling of Montaignian liberation. He’s less inclined to fly in the moment with Marcus Aurelius, The Earl of Shaftesbury, Ruby Tuesday and Barnaby Rudge. I’m sure he’s right that memorious Narrativity is, for some, a particularly rich source of pleasure: not to be wasted. It doesn’t follow that it’s necessary to a good life. Those who don’t enjoy it, or who just don’t do it, aren’t therefore ‘deficient and empty’. They simply have other interests and pleasures. All experience of Meaning, meaning in life, lies in the quality of experience in the present moment. Certainly you can enjoy thinking narratively about yourself; that’s one thing you can do in the living moment of experience. But there are many other things.
I began with a negative answer to the old question about the meaning of life: ‘It has no meaning.’ I suggested that the grammatically negative answer was ethically positive, celebratory, indispensable to understanding the value of life. Recently I learnt a grammatically positive answer from the Italian comedian Corrado Guzzanti. ‘The meaning of life is life.’ (‘Qual è il senso della vita?’ ‘Er senso della vita è la vita.’)
In full the quotation runs as follows. ‘The meaning of life is life. The end of life – he means death – is the end.’ (Er senso della vita è la vita. Er fine della vita è la fine.) This seems the sum of wisdom on the question of the meaning of life. I think my negative answer is effectively equivalent to Guzzanti’s, but he puts it better. I don’t know whether he was inspired by Goethe, who wrote, in a letter to Johann Meyer in February 1796, that ‘the purpose of life is life itself’.
Galen Strawson teaches philosophy in Austin, Texas. His most recent book is Things That Bother Me (New York Review Books, 2018).