A narrative is a story, true or false. The academic discipline of narratology (1976) confirms that the meaning of narrative remained steadily unreliable from the days of the Romans until recently, when partisanship and digital truthiness really brought out its potential as a passive- aggressive insult. The commonplace that you’re entitled to your own narrative but not your own facts wasn’t true then, either. Picking the right facts has always been the secret of a strong narrative.
In Classical rhetoric, the narratio (from narro, “I narrate”) was the story. It followed the exordium, which sets out the premise in a sneaky manner likely to secure your pre-emptive agreement. The Romans, as usual, lifted this from the Greeks, who called it the diēgēma and placed it after their mythos. If you think that you’re entitled to your diēgēma, but you can’t pick your mythos, that would be a false narrative. The Greeks followed diēgēma with chreia (anecdote), which we now know is not the singular of data. Narrative always was a contranym: a “Janus-word” whose homonym is its own antonym. Like cleave, which means both to divide and to unite, a narrative can be true and false, and possibly at the same time. Early modern propagandists and novelists exploited this, as in Francis Barlow’s sub-truthy True Narrative of the Horrid, Hellish Popish-Plot (1682), whose unreliable narrative resembles that of the unreliable narrator in a novel.
Dr Johnson noted that the lives of the poets tended to be “mournful narratives”, but also recognised that their literary narratives could be ctional. He called an account a “tale, a narration” and an episode an “incidental narrative, or digression in a poem”. Poe called his only novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), but the same device denotes the truth in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). Relativism is not a new problem, but an old rhetorical device involving the semi-plausible cobbling together of bits of information and a violent insistence on their veracity. Our innovation is to take disliking a narrative or the imagined politics of its narrator as sufficient grounds for dismissing its veracity. This is why my narrative is true and your narrative is problematic, but his narrative is fake news.
In politics, narrative is now less synonymous with events than with their exposure as a pack of lies. The relativists at Merriam-Webster cite Michael Grunwald in Time magazine (2012) on narrative as a pejorative: “The rise of the Tea Party and the weakness of the Obama economy have fuelled a Republican narrative about Big Government as a threat to liberty.” The Romans would recognise this implicit dismissal of other people’s narratives as a snarky refutatio, but some moderns may wonder if shooting the messenger in this manner is an epic self-own.
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