Grand Narratives

When I was in London, I had a long talk with a friend of mine who said something that struck me. He said that in his life, he wanted a “grand narrative.” And he had gotten one: he’s a musician, composer, and rock star. He had decided on things he wanted to do in his life, and he had done them, and they did in fact create a grand narrative — a fascinating story. His biography would be a terrific read.

I think many, perhaps most, people don’t want a grand narrative. I’ve known many that do, but then I spend my time with writers and artists, and they are more likely to want their lives to be fascinating stories. They are more likely to want grand narratives. (Although many of them don’t want grand narratives either — they simply want to do the work, and have the work speak for them.)

It seems almost vain or frivolous to want a grand narrative for one’s life — as though one should be satisfied with the work, and with a measure of security that allows one to do the work. And yet, it’s hard not to want a fascinating biography, a life in which unexpected things happen. At least, I find it hard not to want that, and after all, here I am writing this post at a coffee shop in Budapest. That’s pretty dramatic, isn’t it? And here I am telling stories about my life, on this blog, and Facebook, and even Twitter.

The pictures I’m going to include in this post are from the Hungarian National Gallery, the art museum I visited yesterday. Here is the art museum, which is housed in the castle on Castle Hill.


Pretty dramatic, isn’t it? I think it’s hard not to want a certain amount of drama and excitement in our lives. And to be honest, what I’ve noticed is that the people who want it, who want the grand narrative, tend to get it. They do in fact tend to have dramatic lives, the sorts of lives that would make good biographies. I suppose that to a certain extent, we all get what we want, what we expect for yourselves, because that’s what we work for.  (Not completely, of course, which is why I qualified that statement.  But our expectations do seem to determine our possibilities, at least in that what we don’t want or believe we can have, we usually don’t try for.)

This is the castle from below, when you’ve climbed down the hill and are ready to cross the Chain Bridge.


And this is the Chain Bridge, which is also pretty dramatic, with all its lions. I think every bridge needs lions, don’t you? Lots of lions, as many lions as possible and as good taste will allow. We all need lions to add drama to our lives.


And finally, here is me on the Chain Bridge, in front a beautiful design and some graffiti. That’s so Budpest: the Art Nouveau decoration and the graffiti both.


Many of my favorite writers and artists did have grand narratives. Isak Dinesen, Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keefe . . . They did not necessarily have happy lives, and the problem with grand narratives is that they’re not always happy. I’d like to have the grand narrative and the happiness both. But I understand what my friend meant by wanting a grand narrative. I want one of my own, and I think I’m doing a pretty good job of creating one — well, as much as I can. And then, I also want to do the good work . . .

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6 Responses to Grand Narratives

  1. Amber says:

    Wow! Beautiful post! I am learning so much from you and I love to visit all the places you photograph with you so thanks for sharing! Your style is so poised and elegant. I want a grand narrative (ego talking) but I also want to accomplish my goals so that I am able to give back in secret. I would like to help others without an audience and I want to have more so I can give freely without worrying about my own financial difficulties. As always thanks for the beautiful post!


  2. organelle says:

    One could well imagine that the writer’s life is one of mere reflection or ecstatic translation; yet, in fact, along with every divergence from our naive imaginings, the writer’s life, indeed, anyone who craves or demands a life beyond the pale… such lives and minds become like living ladders. And though spectators may admire them, the one who made them climbs them.

    The writer is ascending by art of demonstration, not merely executing the gestures of the elite recordist. To create something meaningful, writing takes flight from a life and mind already hopelessly driven skyward in hunger of vistas unseen and largely unsought by those who will merely consume, however ardent and beautiful the experience of the reader may be. The participant’s contribution to the writer and the writing is perhaps almost equal, yet it is estranged in its mode. To read is most obviously a step removed from the maker, in whom perspectives come to life as birds or children, sing, form patterns, and depart. Spring shall come again, we remind ourselves as the sky grows silent of their ardent flight.

    Our works are wings, as much as they are projects. They lift us to see from on high once more, restoring precious novelty and suggestion in a world of endless amputations, denotations, and specificities. We make the wing that lifts us, and from there we raise each other to another order, together.

  3. Teodor Reljic says:

    This reminds me of something an American poet had told me while I was interviewing him for a magazine some years ago. It wasn’t the most pleasant of interviews – he was a Pulitzer winner, and felt no qualms about making it known that the interview was a waste of time for him – but he said something that stuck with me.

    Poetry, he said, needs to confront prose. Because prose narratives – there are exceptions, of course – lead us to believe that life is about just stacking up experiences and accomplishments. Poetry, on the other hand, helps you to appreciate the moment; and the cracks in between the ‘grand narrative’…

    • Hmmm. I’m not sure I agree with that. Depends on the kind of prose. Virginia Woolf, for example, is definitely not about stacking up experiences and accomplishments. Actually, I can’t think of any particular prose writer who is about stacking up experiences and accomplishments? I mean, James Joyce, Henry James, Margaret Atwood — they are all about appreciating particular moments. Also, there’s a difference between experiences and accomplishments. Accomplishments are about other people — they judge whether or not you have accomplished something. Experiences are things you have for your own sake, to have them. And they can be large, like climbing a mountain, or small, like planting a garden.

      I’m not sure a grand narrative is about stacking up experiences and accomplishments either. It’s about getting to do wonderful things, but as defined by you — the wonderful things you want to do. So I don’t know, Teodor. It sounds a bit to me like your poet was trying to justify poetry, which I don’t think needs justification . . .

      • ‘Grand narrative’ can be many things, a quest, a vow, an adventure, not being the candle hiding in the basket, a pain that won’t go away until you
        do something about it. I have read more than once that inspiration brings with it, the shape it wants.; a tome or a poem. Narrative, grand or just
        ‘there’ haunts us until we learn how to live with it.

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