Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/28/2009

Metanarrative; métarécit: big fish stories

Sicilian Mariners

Twentieth-century philosophers (especially those who think about thinking and writing) have written incessantly about “metanarrative.” The first time I heard the word in a graduate seminar, I boggled my mind asking, “Why can’t they just say ‘the big story,’ or, as Most Normal Americans would say, ‘the big picture’?”

The word “metanarrative” is a big word academics made up to sound smart. It’s like “homosexual,” a ridiculous pastiche of parts from two languages slopping around in languages resembling neither of the originals. Trying to sort out meaning is as fruitful as trying to figure out which of my cats knocked the philodendron off my kitchen counter while I was out.

(Today my “thesis” is more obscure than usual. My personal narrative begins and ends in confusion. Read on.)

I entertain myself finding word origins. This is not for “academic” purposes. I like to try to figure out what people are saying in reality—especially if they don’t mean what they say.

Meta-: prefix meaning 1. “after, behind,” 2. “changed, altered,” 3. “higher, beyond,” from Gk. meta (prep.) “in the midst of, among, with, after.” Definition of the third meaning, “higher, beyond,” is “due to misinterpretation of metaphysics as ‘transcending physical science.’”

Philosopher/academics add meta- to:  narrative, 1432, from L. narrationem from narrare “to tell, relate, recount, explain,” literally “to make acquainted with.”

“Metanarrative” means a (story, telling, recounting) that’s “higher” or “beyond” some other story.

“Metanarrative” is the Greek “big” coupled with the Latin “to tell.” I (who live in total untidiness) think it’s an untidy way to invent a word.

(I’m getting to my thesis, but I’m like Johann Gottfried Herder; see below.)

The French aren’t much tidier. They use métarécit.

They’ve used the Greek meta-, and added to it the Latin recitare “read aloud, repeat from memory,” from L. re- “back, again” + citare “to summon.” We can take our pick, “the narration (of a BIG story)” or “the recitation (of a BIG story).”

Shall we look for “the BIG one that got away?”

The BIG one got away

One day the semester of that graduate seminar, I was walking across campus. It must have been close to Christmas time (or not). I was humming an old German (not Greek, Latin, French, or English) Christmas carol sung to an Italian tune (see what musicologists know?). I learned this carol in high school German class in about 1962. It came to me that I could change the words, and

      O du fröhliche, o du selige,
      Gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit!

became forever etched in my mind as: 

     Metanarrative, metanarrative,
     Gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit!

From a carol in praise of “joyful, holy, Grace-giving Christmastime” to a hymn in praise of the “Grace-giving metanarrative.”  (O du fröhliche has five syllables with the first syllable accented as does “metanarrative,” so the words can be interchangeably set to the tune). Most Lutherans in this country, since a hymn about Italian fishermen strays too far from the metanarrative of Lutheran piety, know the tune with the words “Lord, Dismiss Us with Thy Blessing.” Obviously Italian Catholic Christmas words would not do for Lutherans, but the bouncy (folk) tune from Sicily (named “Sicilian Mariners”) is too much fun to jettison. 

Greek, Latin, and Italian to German, English, and the universal language of the academy, to say nothing of Christian Protestant versus Catholic theology. Now there’s a METANARRATIVE! 

We each have a story we tell ourselves about where we came from—because we remember it, or others have told us, or we’ve dreamed it (or perhaps consciously made it up), or it’s what really happened. Yesterday I found myself in the middle of a group of people almost none of whom I knew. Most of them were related in some way—brothers, sisters, cousins of brothers-in-law, mothers-in-law of brothers. It was Thanksgiving dinner. The host had also invited a few of his friends. I was there because he is a kind and gracious and generous man (my narrative about him, whether or not he knows it, is part of his story). 

I was chatting with someone who was not a member of the extended family, but was obviously close to our host. I asked if she “had known him forever.” She said they were in college together. I don’t know how long ago that was, but more recent than my college days. “I guess that qualifies as ‘forever,’” she added. In the narrative of her life and the host’s life, it is forever. 

I, on the other hand, have known him for only about six months. Is that “forever” in his narrative? One might not think so, except he and I have similar stories, and we have experienced similar shame and misery so deep and change and recovery so dramatic, that, based on our differing but congruent experience of grief and joy, we have become part of each other’s narratives in way that even his oldest and dearest friends cannot be for him—or most of mine for me. 

One of the few (always and continually) joyful aspects of the story I know, invent, tell myself about my life (oh—go ahead and say it, my “metanarrative”) is the layers of meaning I discover, mostly through other people. 

A tune arises from anonymous Sicilian fishermen. Johann Gottfried von Herder, a German philosopher (he studied with Kant and taught Goethe) tears himself away from the frigid north of Europe and travels to Italy. When he returns to the Land of Luther, he remembers the Sicilian Mariners’ tune (1788). (He was my kind of thinker. He wrote to his wife, “I have too little reason and too much idiosyncrasy.” He helped sow the seeds of Sturm und Drang in Germany, the romantic wildness that probably describes my thinking.) Another German Lutheran writes words that fit the unusual meter of the tune. The song becomes a favorite German Christmas Carol. Lutherans in 19th-century America learn it, and it becomes one of their favorites. In 1962 Gretchen Schutte, teaching high school German in Omaha, Nebraska, teaches the carol (she is German Catholic, not Lutheran) to her (mainly Baptist and Jewish) classes. I discover the tune in many places, including set to non-Christmas words in Lutheran hymnals. One day I think of it when I am pondering metanarratives.

A metanarrative is born. Oh, I know, I know. That’s much too trivial to be a metanarrative in the Jacques Derrida or Victor Vitanza sense.

This is an extension of my recent mediation on the problem of God. The problem, as I see it, is mixing all of this purely human stuff up into some kind of “forever-ness.” God did not introduce the Sicilian fisherfolk to the German theologian. God didn’t inspire the 20th-century philosophers to add “big” to “story” or “narrative.” God didn’t bring my Thanksgiving dinner friends and me together. We have to believe those things, those “big stories,” in order to believe we’re alive and well and living on Earth. Derrida and his ilk might agree with me about that.

But then they go right on making up their own “metanarrative” about how the “metanarrative” is not real, and they get trapped into their own avoidance. The only true philosophers or social critics or academics are people we’ve never heard of because they are living on mountainsides contemplating the universe, not metanarratives. Or, perhaps, they’re carrying on Jane Goodall’s work unraveling the only metanarrative that matters.

The only metanarrative that counts


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