The "Narrative Fallacy" 2/2

As you've had a chance to react to Taleb's statements "in the raw," I'll now rerun some of them and interleave thoughts of my own.

Taleb: We like stories, we like to summarize, and we like to simplify, i.e., to reduce the dimension of matters.

Comment: Memorable data is portable data; portability and manageability are important to us because of the limitations of and demands on our memory (Taleb shows). In nonfiction there is tremendous concern about overburdening the reader with nonessentials. Meanwhile, in the realm of novels, people will spend immense time in multivolume sets mastering the details of ersatz lives and incidents. Think of the work of Anthony Powell and Lawrence Durrell, not to mention Marcel Proust.

In these very long novels we see the author taking "we like stories" to the outer limits of the reader's interest, a gamble, a display of storytelling virtuousity (and guts) few Civil War historians - overwhelmingly storytellers themselves - have dared imitate. It seems odd that ACW historians also bet heavily that "we like stories" in order to develop works that - when they run long - resemble at most a large single-volume novel. This seems self-limiting. Having thrown historical virtues overboard to hoist the black flag of literary pandering, there really is nothing to stop the Civil War authors from developing an extended, commercially successful multivolume nonfiction work. And I don't mean multi-volume biography here.

Taleb: ... our predilection for compact stories over raw truths. It severely distorts our mental representation of the world...

Comment: It basically essentializes all issues, all context, all interplay; it stereotypes persons, situations, and problems; it abridges timelines, falsifying decision cycles; it substitutes the Sturm und Drang of theatrical convention for chaos, "noise," social texture, personal style, and command reality.

Taleb: Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

Comment: Notice the vital distinction: our "impression of understanding" is not related to any approximation of understanding per se.

Taleb: By finding the pattern, the logic of the series, you no longer need to memorize it all. You just store the pattern.

Comment: This is good for dealing with the fluid gestalt of driving, bad for trying to understand what happened in the past. The bad Civil War writer - and bad abounds in this field - takes the reader's tendency toward inappropriate patterning a step further. He deals out archtypes, rubrics, classic storylines, dramatic exclamations and dialog, and as many inferences as may be needed to bridge gaps in "the logic of the series."

Taleb: The more random information is, the greater the dimensionality, and thus the more difficult to summarize.

Comment: This is a statement that applies to war, front and rear echelons alike. S.L.A. Marshall's microtactical histories, say Pork Chop Hill, attempt to capture the immense "dimensionality" of first-hand experience differing widely from any Civil War work I have seen above regimental history. Whatever your stance on the Marshall controversies, the man leveraged his status as dean of official Army historians to say to the reading public, I refuse to supply you with linearity, omniscience, interpretations, literary conventions, or meaning. He gave us one kind of exit from the reading morass that was to form around the Centennial.

Taleb: ... the same condition that makes us simplify pushes us to think that the world is less random than it is.

Comment: The normal, natural effects of randomness have been universally purged from ACW histories, leaving the reader in a bubble of ignorance. Consider all the orders lost to generals in the five weeks before McClellan discovered Lee's SO near Frederick (there were five such exchanges among Lee and Pope and Longstreet and Jackson). There is the randomness of rumors, false news reports, personal intrigue, political shifts, family developments, social life, raw intelligence reports, and individual spiritual crises. No one has "control" over these - they arise, they influence, they pass. The novelist would work them into storylines; the talespinning historian fears them as a distraction.

Taleb: ... the (stated) purpose of science is to get to the truth, not to give you a feeling of organization or make you feel better.

Comment: The purpose of Civil War history is to make you feel better. It has developed as nonfiction entertainment. It conveys truth in the occasional snappy quote.

Taleb: Our tendency to perceive – to impose – narrativity and causality are symptoms of the same disease – dimension reduction.

Comment: I am struck by the possibility that re-enactment is a revolt against the dimension reduction practiced by Civil War authors. This would explain the common wisdom that re-enactors are not readers. This would put them on an honorable path of historical truth-seeking that represents a social response to the disastrous state of Civil War history since the Centennial.

Taleb: ... we will tend to more easily remember those facts from our past that fit a narrative, while we tend to neglect others that do not appear to play a causal role in that narrative.

Comment: This might be the greatest single injustice (among many) perpetrated by Civil War historians - the eviction of data obstructing the author's march to conclusions foretold by the storyline, the "characters," and the "story arc." The personal vice of selective memory becomes the institutional vice of historian's discretion.