Image: Blind monks examining an elephant, Hanabusa Itchō, 1652–1724.
Here we present the winners of New Philosopher Writers’ Award XXVI: Change. Once more, we received a record number of entries from around the world, from Milan to Texas to Canberra to London. In first place is writer Michael Ellis for Stories of change and in second place is Beloit College Emeritus Professor of English Tom McBride for Heraclitus on talk radio. Click here for more details on next quarter's award.
By Michael Ellis
"When all is said and done, how do we not know but that our own unreason
may be better than another’s truth?"
W.B. Yeats, The Celtic Twilight
You may have heard the one-thousand-year-old parable of the blind six and the elephant. Imagine yourself as blind and inclined to learn what an elephant looks like. You approach the beast, with five others, and each of you try to see it by touching different parts of the animal. You feel satisfied that you’ve found the truth about the elephant’s appearance – a distinct mental image. ‘The creature looks like a snake,’ you cry touching the trunk. ‘No, it looks like a tree,’ you hear someone remark about the knee. ‘It looks like a rope,’ calls another, regarding the tail. But who is right? The parable proclaims, ‘though each is partly in the right, all are in the wrong.’
There’s a good chance you can imagine situations where you feel that you could declare, ‘but I know I’m right.’ Right? This parable imagines what later came to be known as the Rashomon effect – the phenomenon of recalling the same event differently. The Rashomon effect stems from Akira Kurosawa’s 1950s ground-breaking film Rashomon, which depicts the death of a samurai told three times from differing perspectives. First is the bandit’s version, who claims to have beaten the samurai in a duel after seducing the samurai’s wife. The wife’s account is that, after being assaulted by the bandit, she fainted with dagger in hand, awaking to find her husband stabbed and killed. Last, through a medium, the samurai alleges that his treacherous wife forced him to stab himself with her dagger. Each story offers an alternative slant on proceedings, and each story loosens the viewer’s grasp of the truth. The truth is not the only thing disrupted by the Rashomon effect; it also asks us to reflect on how storytelling changes us. And how we are just one perspective among others.
But herein lies the troubling aspect of being an individual in an everchanging social world. Do our narrative identities change when other people tell their stories? Sarah Polley’s film Stories We Tell offers insight into the way narrative identity warps under the weight of competing perspectives. The film excavates layers of memory within a family unit in an attempt to uncover the truth at the core of her family’s story. Their stories, often revealing and deeply personal, portray the fallibility of memory. Their conflicting memories constitute the compelling way narratives build our identity, helping to make sense of our place in the world.
In Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley is unsettled by the constant questioning and mystery surrounding the identity of her biological father. Her siblings tease her about not looking like Michael – her siblings’ biological father and the man who raised Sarah. Michael even jokes with Sarah, asking ‘who do you think your father is this week?’ Sarah searches for her biological father, as rumours lead her to Montreal where her mother starred in a play. Harry, the director of the play, is shown to be Sarah’s biological father. This revelation, though a relief to Sarah, complicates the story she tells about her identity and underlines how our stories are constantly changing.
Later in the film, Harry confesses his trepidation surrounding his attendance at Diane’s funeral. He remembers vividly his encounter with Michael; it remained burned into his memory and into his life’s story. But Michael had forgotten that Harry was ever present at Diane’s wake. For Harry, the day was filled with uncertainty and regret for attending the burial and imposing on the family that he was not yet a part. For Michael, the day centred around his family’s grief, without regard for Harry’s presence. Yet when Michael discovers that Harry was at the funeral and his closeness to Diane, the narrative of that day is forced to yield and change, considering Harry’s perspective on proceedings and Michael’s relation to him.
Clearly this is complicated by the tenuous truth of eyewitness testimony. Memory has been shown to be fallible; if one accounts their story multiple times, then the story can evolve and change beyond any resemblance of its humble beginnings. The interpretation of witnessing a fatal car crash, for example, can differ widely from witness to witness. Personal interpretation of such an event depends on learnt socio-cultural values and norms, which take a lifetime to develop. Memories, of course, are not like replaying a videotape; rather they are an expression of how we see the world, encoded with our values and a product of our innate potential to create meaning. And this potential toward meaning can be corrupted and distorted by the stories and perspectives of others. We have all experienced this type of misshaped truth, playing games as children of whispered messages to one another. Our stories garble with each mumbled message; the truth a muddle of multiple viewpoints.
Each of our life stories can be reimagined and changed through our continual retelling. And each of our stories are manipulated endlessly by others, sending ripples through our lives. We change our individual narratives through others’ differing perspectives on them, like light refracting through a prism and bending in infinite directions. The narrative that Sarah weaves, for instance – that Michael is her biological father and her siblings blood relations – requires her to unbind her grip and reprise a new story, allowing for Harry’s perspective to become integral to her life. Our narrative identities become pliable when bent and stretched by storytelling.
Yet our life narratives must hang together as a cohesive and coherent thread. In fact, Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues for the “narrative unity of a human life” in which an individual’s life is seen as a connected story and not an accumulation of discreet events. MacIntyre believes this establishes the possibility for a properly civil and moral life. Without our ability to bind together all our discreet events, our identities would be a jumble of incoherent reveries that wouldn’t tether us to the social world in which most of these events take place. As our narrative identities hang together throughout our lives, they are reshaped and changed by the imposing force of competing stories; our lives become a civic playground where we gossip and grow; we exist among a site of narrative chatter that helps determine how we see ourselves and where we stand in others’ stories.
Of course, this is all very anti-Cartesian. Descartes elevation of the “I” as the original truth, beyond the vast illusion of the external world, severs the cogito as a free-floating entity, untethered to the consequences of the social world. In this vision of reality, we would be free from criticism and critique. But we would be caught in a solipsistic limbo unable, however long we sat thinking, to know ourselves without the opaque mirror held to us by other people’s stories. We would be stuck unchanged and unknown. Indeed, we uncover our personhood through our interactions with other people. We are one among others. So, whether you see a snake, a tree or a rope, the person you think you are relies on what others see and often what they tell. Even if that is constantly changing.