The stories that define life’s parameters are called meta-narratives …
The stories that define life’s parameters are called meta-narratives by people who represent their false selves as philosophers. Meta-narratives define the world and the purpose of living and how time works and what wealth is for and where we’ve been and where we’re going, among other things.
The End of Civilization is a meta-narrative. So are Utopia and Ecotopia, stories in which humans have learned to Live In Peace With Human Nature and With Their Planet. So is Laissez-Faire Capitalism, where The Market Will Make You Free, and Marxism, where History Will Make You Free, and Christianity, where Christ’s Passion Has Washed Away Your Sins. Techno-futurists believe that The Singularity Will Make You Free Except That You’ll Have To Live In A Hard Drive.
A distinguishing characteristic of meta-narratives is their susceptibility to capitalization.
Meta-narratives can look a little silly when presented this way, but if yours or mine malfunctions, we’re in what is called, in philosophical terms, deep shit. R.D. Laing says schizophrenia occurs when a family’s or culture’s meta-narrative breaks down to the point where the individuals trapped in it stop believing in it.
2011 sees us surrounded by meta-narratives that are no longer doing their work of keeping us sane. If I had titled this essay Free Energy From The Peaceful Atom or Get Rich Flipping Houses, or Work Hard And Save Your Money And Prosper, I wouldn’t have given much help to your false self in its struggle to maintain the illusion of its existence.
Instead, you would have retreated into a less absurd meta-narrative, which might go something like The Marauding Hordes Won’t Make It Through My Minefield and Get My Krugerrands, which preserves your false self in the same way you preserve a bushel of peaches: first you kill all the bacteria, and then you seal yourself away from further contamination.
5. The usual response when a meta-narrative breaks is to go through an uncomfortable period of wondering if you have a self at all and then lie like crazy to get things back to where they were before the break, as when a fundamentalist Christian looks at a fossil and declares it an invention of Satan. Conservatives who insist that the free market doesn’t contain the seeds of its own destruction are doing the same thing, as are liberals who insist that entitlement programs—including the one that supports the Pentagon—haven’t bankrupted this country.
My own meta-narrative, which is in need of repair on a number of fronts, is that Brilliant Writers Always Become Rich and Famous.
It’s hard to experience the breakdown of your meta-narrative as anything but violence to your false self and your family and your community, and such perceived violence begets more violence, usually in the form of scapegoating. New meta-narratives can be forged out of the scrap of broken ones, and there’s always a low-life demagogue out there forging one from the basest, nastiest, ugliest, most fearful and least sane parts of the human psyche. The reason those demagogues prosper is that the story they offer is better than nothing, which is what the false self is in the absence of a good story. For people who have butchered their real selves to feed their false selves, the choice is simple enough: buy into this cheap-ass fiction or wink into non-existence.
6. R.D. Laing has a wonderful experiment that demonstrates how threatened we can get about the the boundary we’ve erected to preserve our false self from the world. Anybody can perform it:
1] Swallow the saliva in your mouth.
2] Sip water from a glass and swallow it.
3] Spit in the glass, and then sip from the glass and swallow.
4] Sip water from the glass, spit it back into the glass, sip from the glass again and swallow.
Laing points out that we can handle the first two, but that three and four cause great anxiety even though they are only variations on the first two.
Our anxiety stems from a confusion about what’s inside and what’s outside, and the sudden consequent knowledge that the boundary of the false self is both arbitrary and permeable, and always in danger of collapse due to an encounter with the real world. For the false self, authenticity is contamination. So things that cross the false self boundary need to conform to rigorous standards of purity. For these reasons, most of us have hard rules about what we put into or take out of our mouths, nostrils, or any other orifice.
Laing mentions that in moments of ecstasy, as when making love or when under the influence of psychotropic drugs—or both—the rigid boundary of self softens, and authentic experience is possible. Governments concern themselves with the sex lives and drug use of their subjects because sex and drugs (and even rock ‘n’ roll) can create a borderless and storyless self, one that by definition will not be a part of a national or global meta-narrative.
Substitute the borders of a country or a farm or a city lot for the borders of the body and you can see how people can get so upset over illegal immigrants and youth gangs, especially the ones who don’t work their fields or serve them Big Macs or keep their houses and lawns clean.