Friday, June 24, 2011

Life not as exciting as stories, except perhaps for the mentally ill

Most everybody has seen this brief retelling of Kurt Vonnegut explaining narrative arcs and coming to the conclusion that "people think their lives are supposed to be like" those of the characters in stories.
Our lives drifts along with normal things happening. Some ups, some downs, but nothing [that will] go down in history. Nothing so fantastic or terrible that it'll be told for a thousand years. "But because we grew up surrounded by big dramatic story arcs in books and movies," [says Vonnegut,] "we think our lives are supposed to be filled with huge ups and downs! So people pretend there is drama where there is none."
I recalled that lecture when I read this passage in the May 30, 2011 New Yorker about mentally ill people:
If a person goes from being a political martyr to a mental patient in just a few days -- the sign of a successful hospital stay, by most standards -- her life may begin to feel banal and useless. Insight is correlated with fewer hospital re-admissions, better performance at work, and more social contacts, but it is also linked with lower self-esteem and depression.
This also recalls the end of the Albert Books film "The Muse," when Sharon Stone's character, who had presented herself as a magical character with the power to evoke brilliance from blocked writers, is nabbed by the men in white coats. Yes, I guess real life as most people lead it is pretty dull compared to a schizophrenic's identity as a world-saver or a hotly pursued secret agent.

1 comment:

voncookie said...

I'm trying to think of how to comment on this, because I'm not sure if I agree or disagree. As someone with a mental illness, I can say that yes, there is a sense (when one is episodic) that life has purpose, structure, and even a narrative arc at times. When one is no longer episodic, there is also a huge sense of suffering, which, contrary to the article you cited, doesn't bring ONLY a sense of depression and low self-esteem -- rather, it makes you want to write a memoir. So really, it's all just a question of genre. Life remains interesting, but it no longer remains *pure* fiction.