John Crowley on Narrative

From the November issue of Harper’s magazine, a lovely essay on narrative by [the acclaimed sf/fantasy author] John Crowley: A Ring-Formed World. It begins (my bold):

I have recently developed a crank theory, for which I can adduce no real evidence, that the human sense of time has its origins in story, or is at least bound up with the telling of stories. If, as science suggests, we were nomadic creatures for a very long time, changing place often — as the mountain gorilla, one of our fellow primates, does today — then the lives of our ancestors would have been shaped by the sense of leaving one place and moving on a path toward a new place. As we went on, we would form a memory of the earlier place and what we did there, and we would begin to imagine the new place. Would it be better? Would we regret leaving the old place? Once, we were there; now we are here; soon we will be elsewhere. Passing between Here and There, we are in narrative.

This appeals to my sense that narrative is an essential part of human cognition; it is a bias, in the sense that we force narrative (“everything happens for a reason”) onto random events; it is a feature, in the sense that it is a heuristic for exercising how we understand the world, and how we would deal with hypothetical situations.

Crowley has some interesting things to say about ‘story’ vs. ‘plot’, and how narratives, novels, establish causes to bring about effects (while in the real world, we understand it through observation of causes that *produce* effects).

This is essentially what Alfred Hitchcock’s concept of the MacGuffin implies: if the workings of the MacGuffin — the gimmick in a story, the thing sought or feared by its characters — will not bring about the desired ending, it’s not the ending but the MacGuffin that must be changed.

And Crowley discusses the apparent ‘freedom’ of fictional characters.

I want to show that the limits that fictional characters seem to suffer are what make them finally more free than we are, not less, and more consequential in their realm than we are in ours. This is why we are drawn to them, why we never forget them and their acts.

And how fiction embodies meanings not often found in real life.

Time in fiction, like love in fiction and streets and houses and blood and money in fiction, is made only of meaning, unlike the ribbon that we ride, or that rides through us, which is indifferent to human need.

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