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David Novitz ART, NARRATIVE, AND HUMAN NATURE Whenever we speak about ourselves, of the sort of people that we and others are, we lapse almost inadvertently into the idiom of both the visual and the literary arts. It is notjust that we have "images," "pictures," and "views" of ourselves which are more or less "balanced," "colorful," or "unified," but that we also have "stories" and "narratives" to tell about our lives which both shape and convey our sense of self. There is something curious about the fact that the language of art finds such a ready niche in discussions about ourselves. After all, it is not as if we are works of art; and yet it seems that there is no other nonartistic phenomenon which provides such a comfortable haven for the idiom of the literary and the visual arts. It is here, too, that the language ofart most obviously enters the arena ofpolitical skulduggery. We nod conspiratorially when we learn that there is another and very different "story" to be told about an acquaintance; and we spend much time trying to displace the "images" and "pictures" that some people project of themselves. This invites a range ofquestions, for it suggests that the arts are more intimately connected with one's sense of self, one's individual identity, than we might have supposed.1 It suggests, too, that the arts play a political, perhaps even a subversive, role in our lives. My aim in this article is to explore these claims, and in so doing to defend the view notjust that the literary and visual arts sometimes influence our sense of self, and with it our idea of human nature, but also—and more significantly—that our individual identities and ideals of personhood are constructs produced in much the way thatworks ofart are produced. Furthermore, I shall argue that, likeworks ofartin general, the identities 57 58Philosophy and Literature that we assume are politically significant and fall prey to all manner of political intrigue. The interest that you and others have in the sort of person I am is, for the most part, a moral interest. You want, among other things, to know how I have behaved in the past and how I am likely to behave in the future. If, in your opinion, I am not the sort of person I ought to be, and if, stUl worse, I do not appear to see myself for what I am, you may attempt to modify my sense of self. This is what my mother does, when in the Platonic and Judeo/Christian tradition, she exhorts me to "take a good look at yourself." But such an exhortation is problematic , for it is not at all clear what I could hope to learn about the sort of person that I am just by looking at myself. What, then, would I see were I to foUow my mother's advice? This, of course, is not a question which demands recourse to mirrors. Nor is it a question about the size of my neck or my ample girth. It is, as I have said, a question about the sort of person I am, about my nature as a human being. It does not explicidy invite a general account of human nature, although in discussing the sort of answer that such a question deserves, we wiU, I believe, learn a good deal about the concept of human nature. A first and obvious point to make in answering the question is that when I take a good look at myself, I do not see very much at all. Nor do I really look at myself. The reason is obvious. There is more to my person than the body I stand up in. I am not talking of souls, but I am talking, among other things, of my past actions, aspirations, jealousies, fears, beliefs, expectations, values, knowledge, neuroses, and obsessions. These, we are inclined to say, are just the sorts of considerations that we take into account when we want to know, say, what sort of person First Secretary Gorbachev is. Presumably, then, they are the sorts of considerations which wiU have to be taken into account...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 57-74
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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