by Michael Angerer
It seems that the most desirable thing to achieve in life is harmony – that is, at least according to many religions and a sizeable number of personal coaches. Your life is supposed to run along like a well-crafted symphony: all dissonances are to be resolved at the end. That is also the principle at work in biographies and autobiographies, in history books and all kinds of other texts: superimpose a tight narrative structure on it, and your chaotic life might even make sense. As in a good detective story, every little detail that you cannot safely ignore is eventually made to fit. The problem with this kind of approach is that the human capacity for understanding is sadly limited; trying to fit everything – new pieces of information on Facebook, Twitter, news alerts – into your view of the world will result in the perfect echo chamber: an echo chamber inside your head.
Of course, it is just so much easier to think of events as happening in a clearly structured way: with a beginning, an end and a storyline in between. For example, disjointed episodes and incongruous facts can conveniently be arranged around a central figure – a figure like the heroes of the epics of old, or a figure like Caesar or Napoleon. They are crucial to our understanding of the world as populated by stories. In a sense, the novels of Fielding, Dickens or Balzac are only more elaborate examples of this primal need for a centralised structure: they lead us on into a complex world full of apparently unrelated characters, but at the end of the journey all of these narrative strands are ingeniously tied back together into a satisfying bow. As readers of reality, we act no differently, making each memorable fact we encounter a part of the story as we look back upon it.
The pretension to explain everything is probably what makes crime fiction so appealing: in a world of inexplicable horrors and dysfunctional relationships, we can find a voice of reason restoring narrative order. The so-called golden-age detective novel has allowed Agatha Christie to rival Shakespeare and the Bible in popularity: the total number of sales of her 85 books is estimated to range between 2 and 4 billion. In such narratives, detectives – whether Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple – act almost explicitly as authors: they examine different events, include different voices and redact and edit different episodes in order eventually to present a fully coherent story. Such claims to universal knowledge and understanding have, of course, often been challenged, from the sprawling literary joke that is Tristram Shandy to the more recent nouveau roman and poststructuralist thought; but none of these have achieved the cultural supremacy accorded to simpler narratives. Even if it seems quite banal to say so, humans are conditioned to make sense of everything they encounter – but this may turn out to be a dangerous habit.
Now, the social phenomenon that is the ‘echo chamber’ has been widely discussed in the context of the current political situation; we alternatively blame the far right, the far left, Facebook, or any news network of our choosing for creating echo chambers where dissenting opinions are drowned out to create a single harmonious narrative. In the wake of divisive events like the 2016 vote for Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, and the increasing radicalisation of political discourse on the Continent, commentators like to stress how important it is to draw your information from diverse (and, indeed, discordant) sources; Facebook has again pledged to combat the spread of fake news among its users. But throwing the term ‘echo chamber’ around to explain cognitive dissonance does not change the fact that this is really an unavoidable part of the human condition: however well-informed we are, however diverse our sources may be, information is still unified and rationalised inside our head. Both by dismissing and by rationalising opposing views, we try to be the author, the detective in our own lives: neatly fitting divergent opinions into our story of things as they should be.
Not only does this sort of thing simply not work; it also creates further rifts in society as opposing parties alternatively claim the moral high ground over those who supposedly accept facts without questioning them: they are lovingly called ‘sheeple’, a wonderful word that, incidentally, has been in use since at least the 1940s – the phenomenon is not new. Occasionally, it seems it is not so trite as you may think to say: no one has a monopoly on the truth. The vital thing to remember at all times is that we cannot claim to understand everything that is going on; if we could, we would have sorted this mess out by now. By all means do read up on different sources and divergent opinions; but be aware that there will always be some things that lie beyond the limits of your understanding. Why not treat life like Sterne’s Tristram Shandy or Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: you are welcome to read it, enjoy it, interpret certain parts and formulate different hypotheses – and still, you will always be left with an ever changeable cock and bull story that defies comprehension. Rationalising every little bit away into a linear narrative will only ruin the fun for everyone.
There is naturally a certain irony in writing this very article, trying to make sense of the fact that one need not make sense of everything. It is true that narratives are important for the way we understand texts, history, philosophy and, most mysterious of all, other people; it is equally true that it is useful to recognise the existence of many different narratives so you can properly argue your point. But it is just as important to be aware that just like this article, your point nevertheless remains incorrigibly subjective, trapped forever in the world you know. Not all dissonances can conveniently be resolved in the grand finale; you might as well enjoy them.