Cycles and Progress

It is a fairly common idea among those who study the origins of life that the regular pulsations of nature as we know it on earth —the alternation of the seasons, of day and night, the waxing and waning of the moon and the rising and lowering of the tide— may have provided the crucial impetus to abiogenesis. Even if the chemical compounds necessary for life may be found floating, say, in an interstellar cloud, the absence of cyclical alternations in that environment would likely guarantee that no more complex organic system should ever evolve. We need the pulsations, the gentle rocking, that the circadian, the lunar, and the seasonal cycles provide.

–Justin Smith-Ruiu, “The Reckoning of Time”

The whole neigborhood was in an uproar, setting off firecrackers. I lighted sparklers and pinwheels for the children, liked to see in their eyes the fearful wonder that I had seen as a child. Lila persuaded Melina to light the fuse of a Bengal light with her: the jet of flame sprayed with a colorful crackle. They shouted with joy and hugged each other. Rino, Stefano, Pasquale, Enzo, Antonio transported cases and boxes and cartons of explosives, proud of all those supplies they had managed to accumulate. Alfonso also helped, but he did it wearily, reacting to his brother’s pressure with gestures of annoyance. He seemed intimidated by Rino, who was truly frenzied, pushing him rudely, grabbing things away from him, treating him like a child. So finally, rather than get angry, Alfonso withdrew, mingling less and less with the others. Meanwhile the matches flared as the adults lighted cigarettes for each other and cupped hands, speaking seriously and cordially. If there should be a civil war, I thought, like the one between Romulus and Remus, between Marius and Cilla, between Caesar and Pompey, they will have these same faces, these same looks, these same poses.

–from Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend

We are living, supposedly, in a boom time for narrative, or for the recognition of the role of narrative in human affairs. For the last few years, since the “power of narrative” became a refrain picked up in mainstream U.S. culture, I found myself asking what the alternatives might be, and how we might conceive of the imagination, in a mode other than that of storytelling.1

For one, I think we can oppose a narrative form to that of a mythical or cyclical presentation. Perhaps narrative becomes prominent in times that think of themselves as particularly novel or unprecedented. Narrative, after all, is constructed by means of a progression of events, a distinction made between a beginning and an end.

A narrative can draw on something recurring, something like a myth, of which a story is just latest instantiation.

Today we also see cyclical accounts broken down into narrative. Weather becomes climate becomes climate change. Over a long enough time, you find the beginning and end of temporality itself. The James Webb telescope attempts to look back into the past, not to better understand the regular cycles of celestial phenomena in the present, but to discern the governing narrative that created these–temporary–regularities. Narrative can be generative; even life, defined by the ability to reproduce itself, had a start. But in a time of narrative, instability rules.

  1. For one recent answer to the question, see Peter Brook’s Seduced by Story

Tags storytelling novelty new strange