In The Human Condition, Arendt defines the vita activa and who a human is. Who, not what, because for Arendt the uniqueness of the human being has been ignored, replaced by theories of what a person is. The unique, unrepeatable of a human lies in action. Action reveals the answer to the question “who are you?”
It is an answer to a question, because Arendt argues that uniqueness cannot work alone. The succession of actions that can be narrated into a a life-story is what creates the unique self. But for narration to happen, people are needed, observers and narrators. And it is when a person appears and is exposed to others, that the chance for narrative begins.
Or as Cavarero puts it:
In the general exhibitionist spectacle which Arendt gives us, appearing is indeed not the superficial phenomena of a more intimate and true essence. Appearing is the whole of being, understood as a plural finitude of existing. This goes above all for human beings, who have the privilege of appearing to one another, distinguishing themselves in their in-born [in-nata] uniqueness, such that, in this reciprocal exhibition, a who is shown to appear, entirely as it is. As Jean-Luc Nancy also emphasizes, ‘for the one who exists, what matters is existence, not essence’; that is, at stake is a uniqueness of personal identity, which, far from being substance, is of a totally expositive and relational character. From this, everyone, as unique existence, shows who he or she is to others. (20)
Cavarero elaborates on and challenges Arendt’s theory of narrative in her work, Relating Narratives, teasing out the implications of this theory for ontology, ethics, politics, and literary criticism.
Cavarero first relates a story from The Odyssey. Ulysses, travelling incognito, sits as a guest at the court of the Phaecians. At the banquet, a blind rhapsod relates the tale of the Trojan War. One of these tales happens to be the deeds of Ulysses. Hearing his story, Ulysses weeps. Ulysses “meets up with himself through the tale of his story” (18). But this is not peculiar to the hero. The who is always revealed through the narration of others.
Cavarero contrasts Ulysses to Achilles. Heroes perform great deeds, but action disappears as soon as it occurs without a narrator to keep the story alive. Even if heroes perform memorable acts, there is no guarantee that they will be remembered. It is out of their hands. In Achilles’ case, however, he made a pact that he would die early but be remembered for generations after. His one deed, which leads to his death, becomes his own planned memorability. “The daimon of Achilles, frozen in the Homeric tale of the life-story, becomes eudaimonia.” (27)
This is reason behind the old Greek idea that no one is eudaimon (normally [mis]translated as ‘happy’) until after they die. And Cavarero sees in Arendt a tendency towards death. “However valuable the Arendtian idea of narration may be, its heroes, like Achilles, continue to astonish us- if not trouble us- by their love for death.” (29)
However, here is Ulysses, hearing his own tale, and he reacts to it. He has not died and yet the unity and meaning of his deeds are revealed to him. Cavarero wants to reverse the formula, not a story that is unto death but one that is seeking its birth..
Moreover, there is a second part to the story: after Ulysses weeps, the king of the Phaecians asks him the important question “who are you?” To which Ulysses relates his life story. Arendt sees autobiography as meaningless. One cannot be both the protagonist and author of the life-story. But there is an impulse towards both hearing ones story and relating it; biography and autobiography share a common desire.
The impulse towards one’s story Cavarero calls the narratable self. Narratable, not narrated, because the narration is always in potential and always incomplete. This narratable self is an autobiographical impulse. This impulse is towards unity, making a coherent whole of fragmented situations. Not just in active remembering, but the structure of memory itself searches for this unity It is also extended to others: there is a feeling that the people we encounter have a life-story, even without knowing it.
A person with amnesia might forget their life story, but not the sense that they have one. “She is a wretch precisely because she is a narratable self who, by losing her story, has lost her identity. No one can therefore return it to her by retelling to her the text through which identity is reified. The text is in fact inessential only for those who continue to listen to the tale of memory.” (37)
On the other hand, the desire for unity is frustrated in autobiography by the fact that memory can only go so far. For unity there needs to be a beginning. Oedipus only learns who he was when he heard the story of his birth. Although his fate is dramatic, this aspect of Oedipus’ story is not unique: no one can tell the story of their own birth. “Autobiographical memory always recounts a story that is incomplete from the beginning. It is necessary to go back to the narration told by others, in order for the story to begin from where it really began; and it is this first chapter of the story that the narratable self stubbornly seeks with all that desire.” (39)
How does the relation between autobiography and biography work?
Milan, the 1970s. Two old friends, Amilia and Emilia, attend a 150-hour adult class. The group exercises consisted in both writing and sharing their stories. Emilia dies at the age of 53, and Amilia recounts an episode of their life together.
Emilia was never a great storyteller. She would tell the same anecdotes and was a bore. Amilia was a much better storyteller. One day they exchanged their writing exercises and Emilia was struck by this expressive power of her friend. Amilia decided to do her friend a favor: she wrote Emilia’s life story (she had told the same stories so many times Amilia had memorized it).
Aside from the fact of Amilia’s writing skills, that she was able to narrate Emilia’s story better than Emilia could tell her own should come as no surprise. The aim of the 150-hour class is to find that the I exists, which Emilia does not doubt. What she needs is for her life to be narrated in order to go beyond empirical reality. “She thus passes, from the failed autobiographical attempts, to the biography that her friend gives her as a gift. This biography is highly tangible, all the more so in so far as it is written. By always carrying it around in her purse and rereading it continuously, Emilia can touch with her hand and devour with her eyes her personal identity in a tangible form. She can, like Ulysses, be moved by it.” (57)
Emilia has a Ulyssean reaction to the narration. However, there are two differences. The first is a feminist reading: as a Greek hero and a male, Ulysses had his sphere of action. Troy was the model for politics, a public sphere where people could prove themselves. Women were of course denied this sphere: Emilia’s life-story doesn’t happen in the public space of politics, but in the domestic sphere. Actually, Cavarero and Arendt argue, this isn’t an issue for women only. “Western history is a history of depoliticization. Replaced by the rule of the few over the many; or rather replaced by the various models of domination, throughout this two-thousand year history- the political as shared space of action disappears, or rather reappears only intermittently in revolutionary experiences.” (57) Nevertheless, men and women experience this lack-of-politics differently. A man presents himself as abstract universal Man, which women were denied. One advantage is that women didn’t have to exchange their uniqueness for the abstract. Emilia testifies to this in her desire for narrative, which is still in the private sphere but is the characteristic of female friendships. “For female friends, the questions ‘who are you?’ and ‘who am I?’ in the absence of a plural scene of interaction where the who can exhibit itself in broad daylight, immediately find their answer in the classic rule of storytelling.” (58)
The consciousness raising groups that were popular with feminists in the 70s is an attempt to bring this narration back into the public scene. But Cavarero warns that there is a danger of too much empathy, that is to say an attempt to identify with the other’s story, as women, at the expense of uniqueness. The danger to this would be that a woman will become Woman, just like man exchanged his uniqueness for Man. The consciousness raising group and Arendt’s theories together show the importance of the intersection of narrative and politics. There is a reciprocity in narrating story to others, in hopes that the story is narrated back.
Which leads to the other major difference: Emilia’s narrator is a friend; Ulysses’ a stranger. Homer or the rhapsod are strangers, ‘blind’ to actor and staying true to the story. For Cavarero, there is an intimacy between narrator and actor, found in friendship and love.
What is then the relationship of the narrator and protagonist?
In Paris, an odd book called The Autobiography of Alice b. Tolkas is published. Odd, because this autobiography was written by someone other than Alice: the famous writer, and Alice’s lover, Gertrude Stein. Even odder, because Alice was copying down the words which Stein dictated. The book, moreover, is about the Stein’s encounters in Paris through the eyes of Alice.
With the previous ideas that narration of self happens through others, this experiment in autobiography does not seem so bizarre. But the question is raised: isn’t using another person to write about yourself, using them as a reflection of a lake for you to look into, the ultimate act of narcissism?
In fact, can the people we have encountered, with their desire for their story to be told, all be charged with narcissism?
The Arendtian hero, who has accompanied us from the start, has in effect often been accused of exhitionist narcissism; indeed, the Arendtian sense of politics has been judged to be constitutively narcissistic. Reserving some doubt with regard to Gertrude Stein, we realize, nonetheless, right away, how difficult it is to make the same judgement regarding Emilia. Not only because narcissism is a question between self and self, where the other (if there is one) functions only as a spectator to be dazzled- but also since the uniqueness that exposes itself, in Arendt’s sense, brings to the scene a fragile and unmasterable self. Both the exhibitionist self of action and the narratable self are completely given over to others. In this total giving-over there is therefore no identity that reserves for itself protected spaces or private rooms of impenetrable refuge for self-contemplation. (84)
One cannot control their story, and the narratable self always requires another. “Fragile and exposed, the existent belongs to a whole-scene where interaction with other existents is unforseeable and potentially infinite. As in The Arabian Nights, the stories intersect with each other. Never isolated in the chimerical, total completetion of its scene, one cannot be there without the other.” (87) It is an ethics which sees the uniqueness of the relational self. “The ontological status of the who– as exposed, relational, altruistic- is totally external […] Appearing to each other [Comparendo], they reciprocally appear as an other.”
The uniqueness of the relational self is something that modern ethics and politics cannot account for. Universal ethics is based on what man is, and individualist ethics consider the individual as a unit that is repeatable and equivalent, certainly not unique. An individualist ethics only focuses on the I, multiple I’s whose only relationship to one another is negotiation and compromise. Other ethics either focus on an impersonal ‘you’ to which duty is required, or a collectivist They to subordinate under. But the unique existent is “the you [tu] that comes before the we [noi], before the plural you [voi] and before the they [loro].” (90)
So is the desire to exhibit oneself an act of narcissism? On the contrary, Cavarero says, it is an act of altruism. Not in the sense of sacrifice or dedication, but in recognizing the necessity of the other. “What we have called an altruistic ethics of relation does not support empathy, identification, or confusions. Rather this ethics desires a you that is truly an other, in her uniqueness and distinction. No matter how much you are similar and constant, says this ethic, your story is never my story. No matter how much the larger traits of our life-stories are similar, I still do not recognize myself in you and even less, in the collective we. […] This recognition, therefore, has no form that could be defined dialectically; that is, it does not overcome or save finitiude through the circular movement of a higher synthesis. […] Put simply, the necessary other corresponds first of all with the you whose language is spoken by the shared narrative scene.” (92)
“Within the horizon of the narratable self, the pronoun of biography is in fact not he [egli] but you [tu].” (92)
What about the narrator who tells the tales of others?
Scheherazade has taken upon herself a dangerous task. The Sultan, angered by his wife’s betrayal, has decided to take revenge on all women. Every night, he marries a new woman and, after spending the night together, kills them in the morning. Scheherazade agrees to become his wife; she has a plan. On the first night, her sister comes in and asks for a story. The doomed queen tells a story and then suspends it- incomplete, the Sultan wants to know more. And the stories multiply until the Sultan’s desire for revenge is quelled.
Scheherazade, as an oral storyteller rather than an author, knows the art of suspension, of not finishing the narrative in order to continue it later. Another way this is achieved is that her characters also tell stories, and there are numerous characters and stories, the labyrinth of text.
By Arendt’s definition, Scheherazade’s stories are realistic despite their fantastic nature. The history of humanity is an interweaving of different life-stories that appear and leave the world. “And because he [Homer] puts into words the plot of the stories from which history results, Hannah Arendt assures us that the Homeric epic is more ‘realistic’ than the modern historiography” (124) Another point of similarity between Homer and Scheherazade are their use of mimesis and diegesis, direct and indirect narrative, which Cavarero sees as an imitation of the originary force of the tale.
“Having come from Arendtian realism, intrigued by Scheherazade and invited by Homer, we are thus led to an even more material kind of realism; or better still, to the everydayness of certain experiences where the habit of narrating stories, one’s own as well as others’, is a fact. In order not to lose the thread of the argument, we will limit ourselves to drawing some conclusions, formulating a story of literary. This theory begins by claiming that narrative imitation by pot [a intreccio] responds directly to the practical context that engendered it.” (126) Instead of looking for the death, the end, of the author, Cavarero points to Scheherazade and Homer as the beginning of a succession of tales.
Adding to the list of storytellers is the modern Scheherazade, Karen Blixen. Blixen considers herself a storyteller rather than a novelist. Whereas the modern novel “constructs characters and is ready to sacrifice the tale to their psychological substance” and “loves explanations, and loves to look inside, to excavate appearances in order to discover the interiority of the subject” (140), the storyteller lets the tale reveal the character, “the story makes the hero shine” (140) and “by telling of a uniqueness in which a destiny that outlines unforseeable events comes to the fore, Blixen pursues that “desire for meaning,” for imagination, for re-enchantment, which persists, like an unconfessable secret, in the stubborn desire for the contemporary reader.” (142)
Simply put, for Cavarero, it is the uniqueness of the narratable self that is the power of the story, whether the character is real or fictitious. And subordinating that action to psychological explanation runs the risk of creating sociological types, Man and Woman.
The world is indeed ‘full of stories, circumstances and curious situations which are just waiting to be told.’ More precisely, suggests Arendt from her unique perspective, the world is full of stories because it is full of lives. To be faithful to the story ‘means being faithful to the life.’ […] For the stubborn realism of Arendt, therefore, Blixen’s art does not consist in invention, in fiction, or in the fantastic vein that creates stories. It consists rather in the ability to look at the world as a stage on which many lives intersect, leaving behind their story.
The uniqueness of the existent has no need of a form that plans or contains it. Rooted in the unmasterable flux of a constitutive exposition, she is saved from the bad habit of prefiguring herself, and from the vice of prefiguring the lives of others. The figure, the unity of the design, the profile of the stork -if it comes- only comes afterwards: as in the dream of a fable, or, perhaps, as a desire that is not exchanged for its dream. (145)