Childhood and the Dangers of the Storied Self

Stanley Hauerwas rejected the Kantian foundation of ethical systems, and the concomitant scientific understanding of “rationality,” that construes the ratio of moral agency as one of choosing a discrete course of action over another in his 1977 essay, “From System to Story”[1]:

It is our contention that the tendency of modern ethical theory to find a functional equivalent to Skinner’s “scientific analysis” has distorted the nature of practical reason. Ethical objectivity cannot be secured by retreating from narrative, but only by being anchored in those narratives that best direct us toward the good.[2]

After all, he reasons, what lies at the base of any act of willing is not sheer choice, but a set of imaginative vistas that predetermine, or at least undergird, what the moral agent even thinks is possible, much less necessary, within a reasonable arc or plot. And, Hauerwas stipulates, this constant function of the imagination usually goes unnoticed by the moral agent anyway. Nevertheless, those imaginative moves form us prior to any decision making. And he calls this imaginative capacity of the person “character . . . as displayed by narrative.”[3]

One way of trying to restate Hauerwas’s turn to narrative character is to say that decision making is preceded by and founded upon the story a person tells about themselves, the person’s narratival attempt to make sense of themselves. Hauerwas was not the first nor is he the last to turn to narrative, of course. Before it animated ethics, we find it in hermeneutics and metaphysics, especially French and German philosophy. And perhaps even before philosophy, at least in modernity, we find it in psychoanalysis, exemplified in Foucauldian accounts of narrative therapy. Following Freud, psychoanalytic thought speculated that healing the integrity of the person after trauma or rupture required not medical or technological intervention, but rather a talking cure, a retelling of the self to the self that uncovers the trauma and leads to understanding and restoration.

The psychoanalytic turn to narrative—and subsequent turns—raises an important question, as Hauerwas recognizes: if the storied imagination precedes moral decision making, what guarantee do we have that we are judging fairly between narratives? To put it more poignantly: How do we know that the story the self tells is the story that will heal, rather than cause further trauma or dysfunction? After all, he claims, while such a narrative account of ethics might not secure a necessary foundation, nevertheless, “these narratives are not arbitrarily acquired.”[4] In so asking, he exposes the inability of the “standard account” to answer any such question.

Rather than appealing to some ontological foundation, Hauerwas leans further into the story: “What allows us to check the truthfulness of these accounts of our behavior are the narratives in which our moral notions gain their paradigm uses.”[5] This is not a solipsistic affair, as he acknowledges, but rather involves a community that comes before me, if not after me as well. After all, he says, when the narratives of my life are “checked against themselves as well as against others’ experiences,” I discover the sense of my life.[6] Herein, Hauerwas postulates something like the aesthetic notion of fittingness as the rubric for ethical storytelling.[7] Do my actions make sense, do they fit within the narrative arc of my moral life?[8] “I can not make my behavior mean anything I want it to mean, for I have learned to understand my life through the stories I have learned from others.”[9]

Hauerwas argues that stories are a kind of knowledge, and can function as “analytic tool[s].”[10] In that spirit, I would like to test his postulate, if not expand it in a decidedly Augustinian direction. I, too, am concerned about our ability, as well as our desire or lack thereof, to test our narratives. And how better to test the turn to narrative than with and from within narratives themselves?

I have selected three novels that all make self-narrative central to the plot. Moreover, each plot is intensified or complicated through the introduction of amnesia or a dissociative disorder in the protagonist, with some important exceptions that I will discuss momentarily.

Testing the turn to narrative is hardly original; this path has been well trod in a variety of philosophical and theology keys by folks like Richard Kearney, Rowan Williams, and Martin Laird, not to mention Augustine himself, perhaps to the first Christian theologian to abuse and then use properly self-narrative.

What might be particular about what I have to say is that I have also attempted to address this matter from within a view to the spiritual or pastoral, employing the work of John Robinson, a researcher who looked at self-narration of early childhood spiritual experiences as a form of knowledge. For Robinson, this knowledge remains persistent into the adult years, and shapes how adults tell their stories. Borrowing Robinson’s insight, I would like to know whether and how these novels, and others, shed light on how early, sometimes traumatic, experiences, shape and are shaped by the stories we tell about ourselves.

I have selected The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco[11]; Piranesi by Susanna Clarke[12]; and Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin.[13] Each novel makes amnesia (or the complications of memory) and self-narration central to the plot. Each demonstrates surprising outcomes for self-narrators. Finally, each novel acknowledges, if even just tacitly, the necessity of charity, or neighbor love, for a successful self-narration. The failure to love leads to almost certain calamity. And while fidelity to love does not guarantee safety, it does ensure the integrity of self-narration.

Eco’s The Prague Cemetery is a story about the fictional Simone Simonini, grandson of the author of the famous letter to Abbe Barruel. Simonini, in Eco’s tale, is an accomplished forger and writes the ur-text that, in Eco’s world, at least, would become The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Clarke’s Piranesi tells the story of Matthew Rose Sorensen who is kidnapped and transported magically to the House, an architectural structure full of statues and flooded halls that stretches endlessly. Vodolazkin’s Laurus is the story of Arseny, a Russian peasant and grandson of a healer. Following his parents’ and grandfather’s death, Arseny becomes a healer himself for a time, and then embarks on a journey wherein he becomes a holy fool, a monk, and then a cenobite.

All three of these novels turn to some extent on memory and the loss of it, and the effort to regain it through self-narration. Simonini wakes at the beginning of The Prague Cemetery and does not know who he is, although he remembers important people he has met. So, he adopts the Freudian strategy of a talking cure to heal his amnesia, although, knowing at least that he’s a fraud of sorts, he decides to write a diary instead of meet with an analyst. This strategy is complicated, however, by the appearance of his alter-ego, a Jesuit priest, Abbe Dalla Piccola. Piccola also writes in the diary in a different voice, a different hand, and with different moral aims. Which ego will triumph?

In Piranesi, Sorensen does not know his name, nor when he came to the House. He keeps a journal, consisting of many volumes, most of which he has no recollection of writing. It seems that prolonged exposure to the House has deleterious effects on long term memory. Sorenson reviews his journal regularly, keeps an index of important themes, and certain events cause him to go back to those earlier journals.

In Laurus, Arseny never really loses his memory, but during his stint as a holy fool, he has a tendentious grasp of time and identity, which seems to be a result of his renouncing his name and receiving another, and not just a new name, but a new vocation as fool. However fragile that relationship of succession and name, Arseny nevertheless maintains a continuous dialogue with his deceased lover, Ustina, and at one point even begins to call himself Ustin (perhaps in her memory). Although having given up on his own identity, his life grows around a persistent purpose: to redeem her lost, and damned life, and in the process redeem his own from the guilt of her death and damnation, as he regularly reminds her.

But self-narration does not always heal the wounds and trauma in the ways our characters would like it to, or that we the readers might expect. Simonini successful traces his story to the decisive moment of trauma, in which he wakes to find the Jesuit he has been masquerading as is now a self-directing, dissociative identity. That moment was a black mass in which he was raped by the psychotic woman he and others had been drugging for years in order to fuel suspicions about the Freemasons.

Simonini never countenances the possibility that his deceitful living might wreak a far greater trauma on himself and his psyche. While he overcomes, toward the end, his dissociative condition, he never overcomes the self-delusion that has fueled his entire career. This self-delusion becomes his not-so-tragic flaw and downfall.

Piranesi, on the other hand, uncovers the truth of his bondage and his memory loss. Unlike Sminoni, his two identities never resolve into one. Indeed, he shares toward the end of the book, that he knows he is not Piranesi, as he was named by the antagonist. Nor, however, is he Matthew Rose Sorenson, although that is how everyone in this world recognizes him. Rather, he is the "beloved child of the House.” The time in the House has changed him, or the person who emerged from the House is substantially different from Sorensen. Here Clarke turns to a theme with which Eco led. The protagonist reflects on how he is different from Matthew and Piranesi, not so much in appearance, or even in memory, but in affect, in his desires. “This, I suppose, is where I differ from both of them—Matthew Rose Sorensen and Piranesi; I find I do not care greatly about clothes.” And not just clothes, but possessions of all sorts and money, too. are all things that he tries to avoid. Matthew had them, Piranesi does not want them; but he, the man who walked out of the House, only has a liminal attachment to the shadowy things of this world.[14]

Vodolazkin, likewise, gives us a character, the form of whose particular identity is not flat or static, ontologically given, or even a necessary component of his being. That is, Arseny’s identity, the character of his person is compiled over time and through experience, pathos, and the result both of his lived vocations across four different names, and the stories those names tell. In fact, it is the blending together of these stories that compel and illuminate an integral action at the end of the novel. While it costs him the moral integrity of his name, and his life, his action saves the life of another. This dramatic conclusion of one life given for another signals another theme: that of a being for and being called for another.

This notion of identity as compiled through narrative is precisely where we might expand or forward Hauerwas’s postulate in an Augustinian direction. In each novel, charity, as a decidedly self-denying, other-oriented virtue, drives the recovery or failure to recover identity. Early in The Prague Cemetery, Simonini chooses to not share, not narrate the story of what he loves—that story is not all that interesting, in his opinion. Rather, it is what he hates that drives his narrative. True, he does not love much besides good food; but he hates all sorts of things and people, especially the Jews. Simonini’s perverted self-love and hatred of the other empower him to tell many and sundry lies, and to convince himself of their veracity.

Piranesi, on the other hand, explains that he keeps his journal ultimately for the sake of “16,” the person he has not yet met (he’s counted 13 corpses or remains, which, with himself and the other, make 15 people of whose existence he is sure). It is Piranesi’s great leap of faith that 16 will presumably, and inexplicably, read the same journal, will imbibe the narrative. Piranesi tells 16 that he is willing to forgo any other identity than being a beloved child of the House, which for him means caring for the House through his presence, and caring for all those others in the House besides himself, even those to come. And while, or perhaps because, most of the House’s residents are all dead, Piranesi, the child of the House, asks, Who will care for the dead? It is not until he realizes how altruistic his rescuer is that he is willing to accept a new vocation, although one that remains a calling for, a being for, others.

Like Piranesi who writes for the sake of another he has not yet met, Arseny tells his story to Ustina. He carries on living for the sake of her redemption. He has embraced the Holy Fool Foma’s instruction to “Disown your identity . . . Disown yourself completely” as a religious vocation; yet his explicit disavowal is implicitly a vow for the sake of others. Calling demands selflessness. For Arseny, as for Piranesi, identity arises and grows from the calling of charity to be for another.

True narrative is true calling, as Hauerwas realizes. Our stories are ultimately not ours alone to make or tell. So, an appeal, implied in this essay, to fittingness as a justification or rubric for moral action, is an appeal to the social or communal foundations of self. We and our stories are tested in the fires of a dialogue that we did not start and we will not finish.

We might entertain, as I have, the idea that moral fittingness in self-narration requires self-sacrifice for it to be true narrative. That is, it requires a disposition or habit of charity that would admit self-abnegation if required. Both Piranesi/Matthew Rose Sorenson and Arseny embrace such being for, or self-sacrifice, throughout their stories; Simonini never does, abhorring an other-oriented disposition, choosing instead to sacrifice others.

While Piranesi and Arseny may come to understand self-sacrifice more fully, it would seem that they both possessed the virtuous impulse to be for others early in their stories. For Arseny, his is a story which initially begins as a healer, a story he received from his grandfather, who was a healer before him. While that story is dramatically intensified upon the death of Ustina and their baby, it nevertheless remains consistent in Arseny’s disposition toward and for the other. In Piranesi’s case, his disposition seems to be infused by the House, by his baptism in the flood of the tidal waters that wash the House. This infused disposition turns Matthew Rose Sorenson into a caretaker, “the beloved child of the house” who, in turn, loves others, even the dead.

By contrast, Simonini was raised in a home filled with contempt and suspicion. Neither the narratives received from his grandfather, nor the ones he tells of his childhood are true narratives, either in content or sincerity. As a result, his own self-narrative becomes and remains corrupted, distorted, and self-consuming.

Of course, the question of how the experiences of childhood influence or determine personal identity is a timeless one, prompted here by the significant role that childhood, as a development or psychological state, plays in our novels. For our purposes, we may ask more specifically, what happens, or what is gained in childhood that makes it possible to tell our stories later in life?

John Robinson, the American religious educator who worked with the findings of Religious Experience Research Unit at Manchester College, Oxford (now the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre at the University of Wales Trinity St. David, hereafter R.E.R.U.), considers childhood not just as a fixed chronological period or phase of personal development, but as an aspect of the person that remains with the person for life.[15] Robinson considers the Platonic facility of sunagoge, or synthesis, what he calls synthetic comprehension (the ability to put things together), as an aspect of the person, manifest in childhood, but fundamental to later states of life.[16] The acquisition of analytic thinking does not undo the immediacy or solidity of our childhood experiences or the ways they continue to shape us, to put us together.

Where this connects to the matter of personal identity in Piranesi, Laurus, and The Prague Cemetery is Robinson’s insight that the synthetic experiences of childhood, especially the ones we might consider religious experiences, are never solipsistic or isolated moments of self-revelation or the revelation of an abstract God. Rather, they are “immediate“ and “unquestionably real” experiences of “something real” outside of the child, immediate and real experiences, experiences that constitute a “self-authenticating” “original vision” that informs the self, even the adult self.[17]

Robinson demonstrated the existence of this remainder of childhood in the adult self in his book The Original Vision, written 12 years after the launch of a massive study of religious experience narratives by the R.E.R.U. The study surveyed and complied the stories of more than 4000 participants, all adults. Robinson was struck by the sheer number of stories that came from childhood. In 500 or so (more than 15% of the respondents) cases, participants reported to having momentous experiences as children. These experiences, themselves rooted in the bedrock of a child’s experience of the world, become constitutive of the spiritual identity of these respondents, informing that identity well into the adult years.

We see our three characters draw in different ways on the knowledge of childhood, the “original vision.” Arseny and Simonini present the most obvious cases, albeit in converse ways, telling and plumbing their childhood stories even up to their deaths. Piranesi, on the other hand, knows nothing of his actual childhood; he is born again, so to speak, in the House, and is strengthened by a second childhood (a second naïveté, perhaps?).

Nevertheless, these three stories share the common thread of childhood as a “self-authenticating” knowledge, a persistent aspect of the person that affects the quality and integrity and even the value of their lives. Stories make us human, as Richard Kearney provocatively argues.[18] And, more precisely, this knowledge is narrated not in solipsistic ways, but in terms of charity, the disposition toward others, as a virtue that constitutes identity.

We return, then, to Hauerwas and his narrative ethics, the claim that storied imagination undergirds moral agency as what we call character, a character formed developmentally and in community, “from stories I have learned from others.” True, each of the characters explored above learned stories, whether true or false, whether healthy or dysfunctional, from others. But they did not learn all their stories from others, or even how to tell those stories. Piranesi’s and Arseny’s childhood (or childish) experiences of abandonment force them to craft stories independently, even if they tell those stories to an audience at a distance.

How do these childhood stories, which for Robinson possess a value beyond their empirical veracity, play a part in the moral formation of the character? Robinson’s chastening of the developmental model of childhood in favor of an understanding of childhood as a persistent knowledge, as well as his attention to childhood spiritual experiences, suggests groundwork for a theological anthropology, not only of children, which could not only clarify the need for more attention to the power of childhood experiences for children, but the value of those experiences, especially as narrated, for adults, for reopening, if you will, those experiences for the spiritual development of adults, for whom childhood has become “closed.”[19]

Moreover, such a renewed theological anthropology carries promise for those responsible for adult spirituality, theological education, and so on. For it is educators, clergy, pastoral care givers and others who encounter storied selves like Arseny, Simonini, and Piranesi on a daily basis. If, as Paul Ricoeur once said, “life can be understood only through stories that we tell about it, then an examined life is a life recounted,” how might a theological anthropology driven by a fresh appreciation of the constitutive nature of storytelling for identity renew educational and pastoral work?[20]

[1] Stanley Hauerwas with David Burrell, “From System to Story: an Alternative Patter for Rationality in Ethics,” in Stanley Hauerwas with Richard Bondi and David Burrell, Truthfulness and Tragedy: Further Investigations in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977, p. 15–39), 16.

[2] Hauerwas, “From System to Story,” 17.

[3] “From System to Story,” 20 (emphasis mine).

[4] ”From System to Story,” 20. What’s more, so he argues, the language of “necessity” is misleading insofar as “part of the ‘necessity’ is the character of the actors…” (19).

[5] ”From System to Story,” 21.

[6] ”From System to Story,” 21.

[7] ”From System to Story,” 23: “[F]ittingness cannot have the necessitating form desired by those who want the moral life to have the ‘firmness’ of some sciences, but it can exhibit the rationality of a good story.”

[8] ”From System to Story,” 29: “By structuring a plausible response to the question, And what happened next?, narrative offers just the intelligibility we need for acting properly.”

[9] ”From System to Story,” 21.

[10] “From System to Story,” 26.

[11] Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery, trans. Richard Dixon (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2010).

[12] Susanna Clarke, Piranesi

[13] Eugene Vodolazkin, Laurus, trans. Lisa C. Hayden (London: Oneworld, 2015).

[14] I take this to be a poignant allusion to Pevensie children of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and their relationship to the world outside of Narnia following their initial adventure.

[15] John Robinson, The Original Vision: A Study of the Religious Experience of Childhood (New York: Seabury, 1983), 8.

[16] Robinson, The Original Vision, 18-19.

[17] Robinson, The Original Vision, 16, 22.

[18] See Richard Kearney, On Stories (London: Routledge, 2002), 3ff. For Kearney, human existence itself is “storied.”

[19] Robinson, The Original Vision, 24.

[20] Ricoeur, On Paul Ricoeur: Narrative and Interpretation, ed. by D. Wood (New York: Routledge, 1991), 31.

Featured Image: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Christ and His Mother Reading the Scriptures, 1909; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Daniel McClain

Daniel McClain is an Episcopalian priest in Dayton, Ohio, and Affiliate Professor of Theology at the General Theological Seminary (NYC). He is the Chair of the Society of Scholar Priests, an Episcopal organization committed to fostering theological education in parishes.

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