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Stasiland: how some stories are told

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Stasiland: I was given this book as an early Christmas present. Its author, Anna Funder, presents an account of the experiences of people who lived in what was once the German Democratic Republic – i.e. East Germany. Their lives were lived under the oppressive conditions of State Surveillance. Initially in Anna’s book we meet ‘Miriam’ who tells us about her life in East Germany. Miriam tried to escape to West Berlin when she was 16 years old. Her escape attempt was very nearly successful but, following her capture, she was subjected to terrible interrogation and subsequent imprisonment. Her life was then rendered entirely tragic when, some years later, her partner Charlie, who was also seen as a subversive, died in prison. She did not accept the authorities’ account that he had committed suicide.

As we learn more about Miriam, Anna Funder pauses to make an observation about how we tell the story of our life and of  ‘who’ we are. She makes the following observation – after first hearing Miriam’s account – and writes:

Some people are comfortable talking about their lives, as if they can make sense of the random progression of events that made them what they are. This involves a kind of forward-looking faith in life; a conviction that cause and effect are linked, and that they are themselves more than the sum of the past.’

It was this particular short piece of text that led me to put her book down and think about what I had just read. It may be that Anna Funder’s comments are immediately understood by the majority of her readers. However, I know myself – and I know that I can ‘get the wrong end of the stick’ so I need to make sure that I have properly understood what I am reading. Added to this, my initial reaction was that, although I am reasonably comfortable talking about my life, I am now in the first phase of old age and this makes a difference as to how I think about just about everything: in fact, I certainly do not experience a ‘kind of forward-looking faith in life.’ If anything, I realise that I may not live for that much longer and, therefore, it is difficult to have any sense of a ‘forward-looking faith in life.’ My horizons are limited. So, since my first reaction was not entirely to agree with her remark I wanted to try and make sense of her serious observation.

First of all, I think that it is plainly true that ‘some people are comfortable talking about their lives’ whilst others are not. In fact, I do not think that my mother was ever particularly comfortable talking about her life. Why? Well, I think this is because of the devastating traumas that she suffered – first as a refugee and second as a result of her mental illness following the birth of her third child. And my father-in-law had very little to say about his life; he plainly had a dreadfully restricted childhood and was singularly  disinclined to dwell on his early or even later life experiences.

But Anna Funder actually goes on to note that those people who are comfortable talking about their lives seem to be able to ‘make sense of the random progression of events that made them what they are.’ This, I think, is a very interesting statement. But I asked: Is that what those of us who are (or were) comfortable talking about our lives actually do? Long ago, in their investigation of a person’s personality and character, the social psychologists and anthropologists Clyde Kluckholm and Henry Murray had acknowledged the role of chance (of randomly occurring events and happenings) in the formation and unfolding of a person. It certainly seems as if we are all subject to a huge number of random events and some of these can really make an enormous difference to our lives. Yet we probably do find a way, in the stories that we tell, to create a rather non-random account of how we ‘got’ to where we are. I think that this must be because we live according to some sort of hierarchy of plans, projects and values and they serve both to motivate us and to guide us towards some sort of future situation. Is Anna Funder saying this? Is she saying that, despite the truly enormous number of random events that befall us, we are disposed to create accounts that subsume or ignore these events and tell the story of our lives as if it were proceeding according to some plan and intention(s)? I think she is: she is probably saying this because her next sentence declares that this making sense of our lives (which involves a kind of forward-looking faith in life) includes ‘a conviction that cause and effect are linked …’

On reflection, I think that this is true; we probably do, in the main, live through ‘hope’ – which must be a kind of ‘forward-looking faith in life’ – and we do, indeed, live through the belief that ‘cause and effect’ are linked. This is obvious if we imagine a young person taking the kind of steps that they hope will lead to a job or career and their version of the ‘good-life’. (Doing this will lead to that.)  Yes, cause and effect are understood to be linked. However, as I noted above, I am fairly certain that as a person ages – and begins to face the approach of their death – there must be a diminishing of any ‘forward-looking faith’ in life.

In the last part of her observation, Anna Funder writes that whilst people have the conviction that, in their lives, cause and effect are linked, they are not ‘the sum of the past.’ Again, I had to think about this: I suppose that if we were just the sum of the past, then our lives would be denied the possibility of transcending that past. However, I have some difficulties with accepting her assertion because, following Pierre Bourdieu, it does seem as if we are inextricably formed by our past and that just about everything we do reflects our past. So, if we are not the sum of the past, what exactly is Anna Funder talking about? Unfortunately she does not tell us. I think she must be referring to the immaterial aspect of ourselves – that aspect that moves across time, that looks back and which, perhaps more importantly, looks forward (in imagination) to possible states of affairs – to possible conditions and experiences that are always and necessarily more than just the sum of our past. I think she must be identifying the active ‘I’ that is at the very core of our being and which makes and sustains our sense of an integrated self.

Overall, then, Anna seems to be saying three things:

First, those of us who are comfortable talking about our lives do seem to overlay all the myriad happenings that we experience with a coherent story. Perhaps much of the oddness and maybe even some of the significant chance happenings in our lives are not included in our accounts.

Second, most people reveal that they have or had a ‘forward looking faith in life.’ They were or are hopeful – and they organise their life such that events might lead to hoped-for outcomes – that cause would precede effect. They have the idea that their life is ‘going somewhere’. (This, though may change as a person grows older.)

Third, a person is not simply ‘made’ by the past and determined by the past; they do not, in the accounts they give, construe themselves as constituted simply as the sum of their past. They have something immaterial about them that is future-oriented. And this reveals the power of the human imagination. In imagination we create possible futures.

What must have helped Anna to derive her conclusion was not only her theory of personal-story-telling but also the fact that Miriam, after the death of her partner Charlie, had led her life in a kind of ‘non-time.’ Anna writes:

For Miriam, the past stopped when Charlie died. Her memories of picnics, or cooking meals or holidays, her real life, are memories of where ‘she’ is a ‘we’ and those are the things that she and Charlie did together. It is as if the time after his death doesn’t count. It has been a non-time laying down non-history.

I am one of the lucky ones. To date I have not experienced a kind of ‘non-time’ nor a ‘non-history.’

For me, her text certainly has the power to help us consider what is entailed when we ‘tell’ the story of our lives. And more: in the New Year I will visit the Stasi Museum in Berlin and Anna Funder’s nightmarish accounts will certainly haunt me: they will, I know, be my shadowy companions.

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