Trust Me

One of the easiest mistakes to make when reading a story is ignoring the narrator. Not ignoring what the narrator says, but ignoring who the narrator is. Like an eye witness on the stand in a murder trial, a narrator’s biases, perception, and credibility ought to be carefully criticized.

Among the most suspect narrators are autobiographers. Who could possibly be less reliable than somebody testifying to their own great deeds? Giacomo Casanova would likely be forgotten today if he had not published outlandish memoirs of his adventures and sexual conquests. Similarly, Benvenuto Cellini would only be known as a relatively minor Renaissance artist if not for his (quite literally) incredible autobiography which features not only daring feats, but supernatural beings. But there is good reason to question the reliability of even less outrageous autobiographers. Neither the Confessions of Augustine nor Rousseau are totally reliable since each man had a specific agenda in writing about his own life. Benjamin Franklin was notoriously self-serving in his public and professional life, so why not in his autobiography?

Even more academic work must be critically examined for author bias. Herodotus, “the father of history”, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Plutarch was similarly more interested in the stories of his Parallel Lives than the facts. (To say nothing of the fact that both Herodotus and Plutarch include anecdotes about events and conversations that they could have no way of knowing.) And how could Tacitus be objective about the lives of the early emperors of Rome when he was a member of the Senate that had lost so much of its power to those princes?

What is easier, but no less important, is to assess the biases, perceptional flaws, and reliability of fictional narrators. Faulkner has a habit of telling his stories through very unreliable narrators. The mentally retarded narrator Benjamin in The Sound and the Fury obviously has perceptional issues that make it very difficult to be sure what is actually going on. Similarly, his older brother Quentin’s deteriorating mental health makes him an unreliable narrator. In As I Lay Dying the narrators include a very confused little boy, a dead woman, and a young man sent to a mental institution. Clearly they are not all capable of telling the entire story.

Obviously the reader of any story cannot simply take everything the narrator says at face value. That is not to say that the narrator or the story itself should be totally discounted. Despite the observations above, not one of the books that I have mentioned is not worth reading. You can trust me, right?

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Beer of the week: Post Road Pumpkin Ale – Halloween is tomorrow, so we are well and truly into the season for pumpkin beer (and pumpkin everything else.) The Brooklyn Brewing Company makes some fine brews, not the least of which is Post Road. This pretty orange beer pours with a fluffy head and smells of gingerbread. The rich, full body of Post Road is balanced nicely by tingling carbonation and spice. It evokes thoughts of warm pumpkin pie without trying to taste like pie. It is still a beer, and it tastes like a beer. A good one, at that.

Reading for the week: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving – This story is a Halloween classic. What I have never considered before, however, is the fact that Irving does not tell the story in his own name. Before the story even begins, Irving tells us that it was “found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker”. Is the story more or less reliable because it was found rather than written by Irving?

Question for the week: This post is about narrators of stories and histories, but what about purely philosophical writings (if such a thing exists)? How much must one know about Kant’s background before he can seriously study Kant’s writings? How much does it matter which pseudonym Kierkegaard used for a given work?

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Government Built to Last

In The Gettysburg Address Lincoln expressed the American “resolve… that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Much more revolutionary than the idea that a government can be “of the people, by the people, for the people” is the idea that such a government (or, indeed, any government) can exist in perpetuity. The historian Tacitus, who principally recorded the transition from the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, had reason to be skeptical on that point.

“All nations and cities are ruled by the people, the nobility, or by one man. A constitution, formed by selection out of these elements, it is easy to commend but not to produce; or, if it is produced, it cannot be lasting.” This does not sound good for the United States. The United States Constitution was indeed difficult to produce. If Tacitus is correct, then it cannot last. Despite his unequivocal language, the very fact that Tacitus bothered to write The Annals seems to show some optimism.

Tacitus did not write about the degradation of the Republic because he found it particularly interesting. In fact, he was “everywhere confronted by a wearisome monotony in [the] subject matter.” He wrote about political corruption under the first emperors because such a study is instructive “to distinguish right from wrong or what is sound from what is hurtful”. And if Tacitus really believed that his histories could be instructive, what else might he have hoped for? Perhaps he hoped that with adequate instruction, men might not only be able to produce a good governmental constitution, but they might actually succeed in making it last.

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Beer of the Week: NightTime Ale – Since winter decided to perform an encore, I am still drinking winter ales. NightTime is exceedingly dark and has a fluffy, light brown head. If poured aggressively there is even some cascading in the foam. Of course the cascading is not as impressive as with nitrogenated beers such as Guinness Draught., but it is still pretty neat. The aroma is of over-ripe guava, pineapple, and earthy hops. The beer is very, very smooth and it tastes strongly of piney hops. This is a very strong beer, both in alcohol content (7.9%) and in flavor. As the packaging says, this beer is “not for the lunch crowd.”

Reading for the Week: The Annals by Tacitus, Book 6, Paragraphs 33-35 – The first of these three paragraphs is a commentary on why the author has undertaken the work itself and of the importance of recording history. The other two paragraphs present the forced suicide of Cremutius, another Roman historian. Cremutius was accused of treason for the way he portrayed Caesar’s killers in his writings. As he left the Senate, he said, “To every man posterity gives his due honour, and, if a fatal sentence hangs over me, there will be those who will remember me as well as Cassius and Brutus.”

Question for the Week: Can anything created by man endure forever? Let alone a particular government.