Found Scholarship: Louis O. Mink’s “Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument”

Upgrading my office iMac’s Ubuntu boot to 10.4 took so long I had to get up and walk through the library. I grabbed at books under the LOC subject headings “Prose – Technique” and “Nonfiction – Technique”. Mink’s essay comes at the tail end of an anthology on the writing of history called, creatively, The Writing of History. He begins by setting narrative on a kind of continuum.

Even though narrative form may be, for most people, associated with fairy tales, myths, and the entertainments of the novel, it remains true that narrative is a primary cognitive instrument—an instrument rivaled, in fact, only by theory and by metaphor as irreducible ways of making the flux of experience comprehensible.

Narrative, to Mink (pictured above?), is the iconic union between theory and experience, much as comics, to McCloud, are the iconic union between language-signs and the things they signify.

My favorite part is when he shows that the past is not an untold story, not a narrative waiting around for the historian to retell it. The past is an inscrutable set of innumerable events, and like good luck defining with any certainty what constitutes an event’s temporal boundaries.

When writing about the past, people look at it wrong. “’Events’ (or more precisely, descriptions of events) are not the raw materials out of which narratives are constructed; rather an event is an abstraction from a narrative.” And so:

But if we accept that the description of events is a function of particular narrative structures, we cannot at the same time suppose that the actuality of the past is an untold story. There can in fact be no untold stories at all, just as there can be no unknown knowledge. There can be only past facts not yet described in a context of narrative form.

Mink’s whole point to everything is that history (by which I just kept reading as “nonfiction”) has far more in common with fiction than our common sense prevents us from realizing.

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