Cambridge University Press 2002 icon

Cambridge University Press 2002

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We are made in such a way that we continually look for the causes of things. The inevitable linearity of story makes narrative a powerful means of gratifying this need (whether accurately or not is another issue, which we will come to shortly). No wonder, then, that many of the greatest narratives (the Babylonian War of the Gods, the Book of Genesis in the Bible, the Aeneid, Paradise Lost) are narratives of causation on the largest scale. Epics like the Aeneid traditionally tell of the origin of a nation. Some, like Genesis and the War of the Gods, tell us about the origin of life itself. Sometimes these two - the origin of the nation and the origin of life on earth - are the same:

You know, everything had to begin, and this is how it was: the Kiowas came one by one into the world through a hollow log. They were many more than now, but not all of them got out. There was a woman whose body was swollen up with child, and she got stuck in the log. After that, no one could get through, and that is why the Kiowas are a small tribe in number. They looked all around and saw the world. It made them glad to see so many things. They called themselves Kwuda, "coming out."2

N. Scott Momaday's rendering of the Kiowa myth of origin not only tells how the Kiowa people came into being, but it also answers other questions of causation: Why are there so few of us? Why do we love the world so much? How were we named? Myths and epics are kinds of narrative that, among other things, explain the world for us in terms of cause.

But the issue of reading causation in narrative is not restricted to myths and epics. Narrative itself, simply by the way it distributes events in an orderly, consecutive fashion, very often gives the impression of a sequence of cause and effect.

"Please," he implored, "give me one more chance!"

Suddenly she felt a headache coming on.

Reading these two lines of narrative in succession, one automatically con­nects her headache with his emotional outburst. In the real world, the headache could arise from any number of causes: hypoglycemia, a stroke, migraine, barometric pressure. But given the information we have, and the narrative form in which we have it, we will read a causal connection whereby what comes after (her headache) is triggered by what went before (his pleading). Some might contend that we need more than this to allocate cause. In a classic study of the novel, E. M. Forster argued that there is a major difference between a narrative like "The king died and then the queen died" and one like "The king died and then the queen died of grief." The difference, he argued, is that the latter shows causation.3 Nevertheless, as Chatman argues, the sequencing of narrative works on us so suggestively, that we often don't need the explicit assignment of cause to be encouraged to think causally.

[T]he interesting thing is that our minds inveterately seek structure, and they will provide it if necessary. Unless otherwise instructed, readers will tend to assume that even "The king died and the queen died" presents a causal link, that the king's death has something to do with the queen's. We do so in the same spirit in which we seek coherence in the visual field, that is, we are inherently disposed to turn raw sensation into perception. (Story and Discourse, 45-6)


Must narratives show cause?

As I noted in Chapter Two, there are narratologists who require a clear causal sequence as an essential defining feature of narrative, though in this book, I (along with others) am casting my net more broadly, defining narrative as "the representation of events," whether bound together by a clear sequence of causation or not. A quest story, for example, can include many events that come one after another without causal connection (first the knight sinks into a bog, then he is set upon by wild rodents, then his pants catch on fire ...), yet it would be difficult on that score alone to say that it is not a narrative. Here is an instance where the term narrativity may help. For, if the sense of causation is not a defining feature of narrative, it is so commonly a feature that we can say that its presence increases narrativity.

Narrative by its arrangement of events gratifies our need for order, of which perhaps the commonest is the kind of order we have just been discussing, the perception of cause. If this can make narrative a gratify­ing experience, it can also make it a treacherous one, since it implicitly draws on an ancient fallacy that things that follow other things are caused by those things. The Latin phrase for this fallacy is "post hoc ergo propter hoc" (literally: "after this, therefore because of this"). Barthes goes so far as to call this fallacy "the mainspring of narrative. ... the confusion of conse­cution and consequence, what comes after being read in narrative as what is caused by" ("Structural Analysis," 266). Bad social science frequently ex­ploits the force of this narrative illusion. "Teen Crime Rate Drops 18% after Uniforms Introduced in Local Schools." Such a headline, in effect, is a short narrative, trading on the seductive force of this common confusion whereby mere consecution (one thing following another) is taken to suggest cause.

Another way of putting the propter hoc fallacy is the rule that scientists cut their teeth on: a correlation does not establish a cause and effect re­lationship. The author of this book had a grandmother whose narrative consciousness in this regard was quite strong. For example, she found that our visits to her house invariably correlated with heavier-than-usual sunspot activity. I am not entirely sure what she was getting at, but my assump­tion is that she was making a causal connection between the occurrence of sunspots and our visits. It is easy to laugh at my grandmother's sense of causation because the two events (sunspots and our visits) are separated by so great a distance. But for millennia, astrologers have been invoking the same narrative logic over distances extending from events on earth to stars that are many light years beyond the sun. In less obvious (and there­fore more insidious) forms, this same narrative sleight-of-hand thrives on a daily basis in political speeches, sermons, advertising, legal disputes, and many other forms of public discourse. Often, of course, these narratives draw their power from what we want to be the case ("Use these breath mints and, we guarantee, your loneliness will be at an end"). Desire, wed­ded to the suggestiveness of narrative succession, is an awfully powerful combination.

But it isn't just our human desire, plus illusion, that makes us suckers for this logic. We fall for it in part because so often during our lives we have actually experienced stories (true ones) in which post hoc ergo propter hoc seems to be vividly confirmed. First we lean back in the chair, then we fall over backward. After all, cause and effect work sequentially, just as stories do. In the Newtonian universe, which is the universe we grow up in, effects always follow causes. So there is a good empirical basis to explain why, when reading narratives, we should be tempted to apply this paradigm more quickly than we ought to. The error lies in passing from the valid assumption that all effects follow their causes to the false one that to follow something is to be an effect of that thing. A cause can in fact be any number of things, or any combination of things, that precede an effect, not necessarily the thing the narrative draws to our attention. Conversely, we could say that scientists, conducting their experiments, are trying to write narratives that are so uncluttered by competing elements that cause and effect are genuinely demonstrable in the stories they tell.

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