narrativity

“We note our Sorting Hat results in our Tinder profiles…”

We buy mythology in the dust jackets of sociology textbooks. We place calendars on altars of meaning to suspend our disbelief and imagine that good times or bad times can be contained within orbital patterns. We wake up and check our horoscopes as if they were news, collecting affirmations of what we already knew. We want to know who is a cat person or a morning person or a tea-drinker. We note our Sorting Hat results in our Tinder profiles and on our CVs, trying to anticipate how we might fit in each other’s lives. We sticker our bumpers and pin our totes with tweet-length quips about ourselves. We want to know everything about each other and say everything about ourselves in the four letters prescribed by Myers-Briggs. We’re so alike. We’re so different. We’re incompatible. We’re complementary. We’re on the cusp of something unbelievably true.

But we promise we don’t actually believe in any of that.

*

I’m sitting around a table with a group of under-slept, over-caffeinated, and self-consciously ironic grad students, struggling to read our horoscopes off my phone through tears and suffocating laughter. We discover the tentative titles of our teenage memoirs from the satirical Twitter account @poetastrologers. It’s hilarious just because it’s so far removed from anything we could believe. The timing of our births determines who we are as emojis. Mercury’s Retrograde implores us to order every drink. Astro Poets ensures we remember that our signs guide our sex lives, the breakfasts we post on Instagram, and our fates in the modern era of obsessive nostalgia.

The absurdity is ubiquitous, so there’s no risk of offending anyone’s beliefs. Like a pocket-sized Ouija board in the window of some knick-knack boutique, the tweets proudly declare their departure from mythological origins and, moreover, believability. They’re horoscopes sanitized of their potential to be read meaningfully. In place of the ambiguities that enable illusory self-identification, they offer ironic hyperbole. That’s what makes them so damn entertaining.

… I shamefully confess that I am, in fact, a Slytherin.

None of us at this table really believe in glass ball readings of our identities and mystic forecasts of our futures. We watch TedTalks and How It’s Made videos on the history and production of fortune cookies, lifting the curtain to reveal the industry that mediates our interactions with whatever we could call fate or truth. In our highly self-conscious and ironic engagement with these relics of intangible certainty, we reject the notion that any epithet could say more about us than our Tinder bios. Yet we will find the same ravenous craving for accessible narrativity in the extrapolations invited by our self-identification as dog-lovers or coffee-drinkers.

*

In his iconic book of literary criticism, The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode claims we “make considerable imaginative investments in coherent patterns which, by the provision of an end, make possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and with the middle.” Beyond telling us who we are, narratives tell us how we can fit in the world. But the satisfying narrative illusions offered by astrology or personality-typing, by virtue of being illusions, have a tendency to falter when they collide with a reality that disagrees—so we endorse them tentatively, to varying extents, with some degree of self-conscious irony.

We’re quicker to recognize the reader-respondent comfort that horoscopes offer, as narrative patterns that often clash with a less coherent reality. However, we reject the suggestion that preferring cats over dogs doesn’t define some part of a person’s identity as absolutely preposterous. We’re invested in the sociological legitimacy of cat people. If assessed with even an ounce of the logical reasoning we impose onto horoscopes or fortune cookies, our truths about cat people would quickly crumble under the falsity of their construction.

*

We’re sitting around another table—someone’s coffee table, scattered with bottles—and I shamefully confess that I am, in fact, a Slytherin. I am quickly reassured that I lack the cunning to embody the more negatively-received traits of this identifier, and am likely categorized as such on account of my overwhelming ambition and determination. Of course, I envy the more desirable title of the courageous and chivalrous Gryffindors. Unlike Myers-Briggs, and contrary to the false comforts offered by my friends, the houses designated by the Sorting Hat have more explicitly moralistic connotations, through the mimetic and iconic personalities that embody these defining characteristics.

In our life narratives, we like to think of ourselves as protagonists, not antagonists. I would rather discredit the quiz altogether than accept a critical identification. But then again, maybe that’s part of what defines me.

My friends and I muse about intersections between Sorting Hat and Myers-Briggs results, how the smallest coincidences might reveal some profound truth in what our signs say about us. We play along, telling ourselves we can see a likeness in two portraits by two artists who have never met their shared subject, scavenging for legitimacy in Rorschach-like interpretability. I’ve already decided to write something about personality tests and all that they mean, so when I ask for everyone’s results I can claim it’s strictly for research purposes.

I don’t actually think any of it means anything, of course.

*

Haven’t you ever asked Google who you are? I take a Buzzfeed quiz that determines my personality type based on the plants I select for my hypothetical garden: sunflowers, blueberries, wisteria, rosemary, carrots, lavender, orchids, blooming echinopsis, and a gnome to round everything out. I am not a perennials-only person, and I’m offended by the mere suggestion that I could be so bland as to water the same sprouts every spring.

The Internet is overgrown with click-bait titled quizzes, listicles, and pages upon pages of horoscopes and type-identifiers. We insist upon planting seeds of meaning in the most untenable conditions, ceaselessly trying to cultivate essential truths even when the metaphor just doesn’t hold up.

We play along, telling ourselves we can see a likeness in two portraits by two artists who have never met their shared subject, scavenging for legitimacy in Rorschach-like interpretability.

You can decide what it says about me that the first time I took the Myers-Briggs test I was at a pub—a rarity in my final year of undergrad. Two friends make a passing reference to having discovered that they share the same personality type in this persuasive but ultimately implausible scheme. My inquiries are directed to a website, and for ten minutes or so I withdraw from the conversation, engaged with the self-identification radiating from my glowing phone screen. Out of 16 possibilities, I am The Architect: Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, and Judging. As one of the rarest types, I am able to live by glaring contradictions that nonetheless make perfect sense. I possess an abstract but distinctive potential for nuance in my personality. The simplistic explanations these tests offer have always, in some way, been connected to alcohol’s dulling effect on inhibitions and logical faculties, granting the extroversion one needs to introduce oneself to oneself.

*

If personality quizzes determine anything, they reveal how much we depend on narratives and how much we’re willing to compromise ourselves in hopes of achieving narrativity. They provide basic patterns that we can impose onto our understandings of ourselves, granting us the comforting illusion of coherence. Whether we believe in all our results or merely find one particular test eerily accurate, these narratives allow us to identify with something stable and blissfully ignore the chaotic complexity of everything else, if just for the fleeting moment before logic intrudes.

We don’t believe in it, but we also don’t not believe in it. Whether these tests or horoscopes or mythic identifiers are a vehicle for coming to understand oneself or merely choose-your-own-adventure stories in scientistic packaging, they do provide a way of defining oneself with a take what you will and leave the rest philosophy. They can provide anything from a set of paintbrushes with which to approach the canvas of identity to a paint-by-numbers guide for self-narrativity.

2 Comments

wordweaver1

Buddhism teaches that the “self” as an independent entity is an illusion. We are all and outside that there is no reality. It is the ego that wants to exist, to be separate, special, knowledgeable rather than knowing (a continuous tense with no beginning or end), superior and in control. Nevertheless, we remain fascinated with ourselves and others and typologies and other nomenclatures give us a way to talk to and about one another. The pseudo-scientific explanation for astrology has to do with magnetic fields and how they are affected by planet positions and affect us as soon as we are born and leave our mother’s magnetic field. Magnetic fields change as planets move in relation to the sun and to us and we change as we move in relation to them and each other. At one time, astrology and Jungian typology helped me understand myself vis-a-vis others but they didn’t make me compassionate or compatible. The Myers Briggs people have verified Jung’s typology with functional MRI’s so we know that typology really does affect the brain. But where does that leave us in terms of self-awareness or actualization? I now feel these things may delay self-actualization insofar as they attract our narcissistic impulses and get us focused not only on ourselves but on differences thus shoring up our belief that what we are is “right” for us. So we resist change. It’s fun though to make our way through the forest of of descriptors as long as we don’t mistake the forest for the trees.

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