Crossing the line: stories on mapping the maze

November 5, 2004

Heather Leach argues against narrative flow in the essay that won the Palgrave Macmillan/ Times Higher humanities and social sciences writing prize.

Last year I was 60 - a threshold. I tilt my head and hear a tiny voice calling from deep down inside the cochlea of the ear: my grandmother's voice. She's been dead for more than 40 years, but she comes through to me loud and clear, her words repeating in a relentless, robotic loop like a chronological Voyager switched on as it comes within range of this year's orbit. "It's terrible to be old," she says, over and over. "It's terrible to be old." As she speaks I begin to see her again - the loose skin of her hand; her back, cruelly curved by osteoporosis when she was only in her seventies. This woman, Edith, my grandmother, is a spectre haunting me. All these years I've been busy and she's been out there in space/time travelling just close enough to the speed of light to stay at exactly the same age that she was when she left, whereas I have grown older. As she comes closer, her voice becomes louder, hypnotic, a drumbeat, mnemonic.

It's terrible to be old; it's terrible to be old . I am silenced, entranced.

In his book, Ariadne's Thread , J. Hillis Miller 1 says that he had intended to use the image of the line to develop a comprehensive text - perhaps a series of texts - on narrative theory, yet over many years this project swelled, as he says, to monstrous proportions:

"My... difficulties... arise from irreconcilable contradictions in the original project. One contradiction arises from the collision between the desire, on the one hand, to write an orderly, logical, rational, logocentric book, a book with a beginning, middle and end, and firm underlying logos or ground.

This desire was instilled by all my education and culture. On the other hand, the original insights generating this book were not amenable to such ordering. These insights were alogical, though not exactly irrational."

A great deal of my education and culture demands that I come up with a thesis: one discursive thread that traces truth and meaning from the beginning here... to the end here. Yet as I step over the line into 60, I discover, as so many have before me, that the story of ageing itself is already written, inscribed into culture, implanted like a tiny digital time capsule into my ear. And this story, whether hopeful or fearful, is primarily told using the familiar linear form: "rational, logocentric... with a beginning, middle and end". Throughout most of my adult life this narrative linearity has seemed benign, even at times, given the safe havens of health and relative prosperity, thrilling. Paul Ricoeur 2 says that "narrativity is the mode of discourse which the mode of being we call temporality or temporal being, is brought to language... plot functions as the narrative matrix". Life as a story: the hero's journey; passages onwards and upwards.

This heroic linear trope is becoming ubiquitous in Western culture's new stories of ageing. We are all to look forward to the Third Age, according to Peter Laslett 3 , in which we can at last make up our own plots. We are all to be artists, entrepreneurs, adventurers... the self continuing to thrust forward, active, creative, relentless. Ursula Le Guin 4 writes:

I see her walking
on a path through a pathless forest
or a maze, a labyrinth
As she walks she spins,
and the fine line falls behind her
following her way,
telling where she is going,
where she has gone.
telling the story.
The line, the thread of voice,
the sentences saying the way.

But what is taken for granted here is the solitariness of Le Guin's imagined journey; the labyrinthine world of the forest written into the background; the foregrounding of the autonomous self. The linear story has its delights and its uses. I have often depended on it to make up selves fit for purpose: worker; lover; mother; academic, writer. First there is the beginning, the hopeful setting out, trials along the way, then the successes and failures.

The linear form is organised sequentially - there is only one authorised way to move through the work... it is closed and there is no going back. So long as the aim of the story is towards an imagined reward - even if that reward is not forthcoming, then this sequence, these metaphors of paths and journeys are potentially, if not actually, benign. But once the trope is applied to the whole of life itself; and in particular, to secular life - life with neither heaven nor hell - then linearity becomes a threat, grandmother's curse.

Richard Kearney 5 in On Stories says: "Every human experience is a life in search of a narrative. This is not simply because it strives to discover a pattern to cope with the experience of chaos and confusion. It is also because each human life is always already an implicit story. Our very finitude constitutes us as beings, who, to put it baldly, are born at the beginning and die at the end."

This is so suggestive: Kearney's brilliant book is held within the nets of language, as are all our texts, but see what the language appears to make him say here: that narratives are found rather than written or told; that what he calls experience may be outside narrative, an outside text; also that what surrounds, what threatens the path of the life, is fearful, chaotic, confusing; that we are passive readers; and that the narrative form must be - you already know it - going in only one direction. We have no choice but to begin at the beginning and, as he so rightly but bluntly puts it, to die at the end.

At the beginning of this journey, I spoke of Hillis Miller's story of getting lost in his own project, which loss, he argues, leads to insights that are alogical but not irrational . Perhaps we could characterise this alogical lostness as a place - let's call it a clearing in the forest, previously just a gap between trees, hardly noticed as we strode heroically along. I'd like to stop here for a moment and tell different stories of ageing, stories in which the relentlessness forward linearity is disrupted, diffused.

The sofa will inherit the earth

It seems appropriate, as we are here in the forest telling stories, to remind you of an old story: the one about Goldilocks and the three bears.

It was always the emptiness of the house that thrilled me: she arrives and all is laid out ready - the chairs/plates/porridge - as if it has always been waiting for her, this house, as if Goldilocks is an expected and honoured guest. Ageing is often described as temporal, yet in many ways it seems to behave more like space than time, as territory, place. Like Goldilocks you arrive in the world of the old and here are the clothes, the mannerisms, the attitudes, laid out for you ready and waiting.

I have another version of this story. My next-door neighbour, on his 75th birthday, asked me to come and see his new car. "This'll see me out," he said, stroking its silver roof, gently, tenderly, meaning that he hoped not to have to buy another. I have found myself thinking in this way too about objects, possessions. I'll never buy another sofa, I think. This will do fine, this one will see me out. What a strange use of language this is. Objects becomes hosts, householders, while we are merely guests, visitors. On our way out of life we will be watched by the things that outlast us, while they remain. There's a slight threat in the term, don't you think? The object becomes strong as we weaken; the car and the sofa become bouncers or bears seeing us off the premises. Consumer goods will be our survivors, our inheritors.


The next story is about a friend who is a cyclist. She enters international cycling master's championships. Masters are people over 40. For the purposes of competition, people are organised into decades up to 70 years old, and then after that into half-decades: 70-75; 75-80; and so on. You race against the people in your age range, the assumption being that this age hierarchy is the fairest way. Large numbers of highly competitive women and men from all over the world measure their achievements according to their particular position in the decade. What matters is not their particular age, but their age relative to the others in their group.

Sometimes it is much better to be younger, and sometimes older. For example in the 60-70 age range, if you win a race at 60 or 61 there is some kudos and satisfaction, but it's far better to win at 65. Then there is the inevitable tipping over - it's very hard to win once you're well into the second half of your decade group, and people who are at the end of a decade, as my friend is now - at 49, or 59, or 69 are impatient to cross the line into the next decade. In order to have a chance of being a champion, of winning the gold, you have to begin again as older and therefore younger.


Ricoeur 6 says that, "the story of a life continues to be re-figured by all the truthful or fictive stories a subject tells about himself or herself. This re-figuration makes the life a cloth of stories told."

Three women swim every week in my local pool. I guess their ages to be about 70. They swim in circles, their faces turned inwards towards each other talking and talking. This is the lunchtime swim. People come from offices with only a short time to spare - the workers, me included, swim lengths up and down, fast, purposive linear swimming intended to pump the heart and lower the blood pressure. The circular swimmers go slowly - they spread out from their lane spaces, they take up more room than is considered fair. But this is England - we are all polite; nobody complains at having to swim around them. As they swim they recount tiny narratives, each person taking a cue from the other as they pass words back and forth. They circle each other and I circle them, an outsider, watching, recording, treading water, slowly being pulled into their conversational whirlpool. I catch the odd fragment as I go past: "It was pink, I can't eat that I said..."; "She was such a big baby they had to pull her out with a..." I lose the rhythm of my own swimming, pretend to clean my goggles and paddle along idly trying to get the punchline. I always miss the best parts. Each small denouement authorises a new narrator, the beginning of a new micro story. They witness each other. It is the connection, the shared exchange that activates the story: interactivity that creates meaning that is more than the self.

But not all stories are golden

However, not all stories are golden. There is a temptation to romanticise, to mythologise ageing, to anxiously reify people over a certain age as being the antithesis of terrible, as free, eternal, wise... you know this plot. Ricoeur points out that central to both fiction and history is narrative structure - it is narrative that makes time human. This is so compelling that it is possible to miss the discomforting implications: implications about evidence and verification, about truth.

"...Narrative identity continues to make and unmake itself..." says Ricoeur 7 , "[it is] not a stable or seamless identity... it is always possible to weave different, even opposed plots about our lives".

My next story is about a family member who is older than I am, and who, because of a severe brain condition, lives in a residential home. I often enjoy her company - she is a delight to visit, always contented, humorous, calm. The staff in the home regard her as their most appreciative resident and, as they regularly remind us, her family, she is no trouble at all.

Most times when I visit she reminisces about stories of her life: her lovely daughter with two beautiful and clever grandchildren; how she cared for her child, how her parents cared for her; how fortunate she has been.

None of this is true. In fact she has led a hard and bitter life: exploited in a terrible marriage, turning to prostitution and alcoholism to cope, despaired of by her parents, disowned by her daughter, never seeing her grandchildren. She tells this fairy story, without guile or shame, of somebody else's life, the women she might have been, the woman perhaps she planned to be in her youth. A narrative refigured. My relative suffers from Korsokov's syndrome caused by alcohol - holes in the brain, gaps that she fills, (not lying but confabulating) with golden memories, made real in the telling. Sometimes I simply nod and smile. On other days I remember that she is still a person and that to collude is to deny her personhood and our friendship, (I'm never sure about this), so I joke with her, gently remind her of how it seems to me, my version of her life. She is always astonished, respectful - says she remembers how it really was, then begins making it all up again. What I'd like to ask is whether it matters and who it matters to? Individuals may make up their cloth of gold stories. They figure and refigure them, but there are witnesses, others , with different stories: her daughter and brother who find it hard to forgive the pain of the past. They also have their versions: the story of family or history can never be meaningfully told in one voice alone.

Of course, the body changes. People get wrinkles, they grow fatter and thinner, women stop menstruating, girls begin to menstruate, boys grow beards. Women who have children change almost unbelievably, babies grow into beings many times their size and weight, cells divide, flesh becomes sick, becomes well. People die at all ages: in some countries it is mainly the young who die, in others the old. The body stops - and probably the mind/self along with it. We will all be unfinished, the individual thread of our lives unravelled by death. However, the ubiquitous linear structure of these life stories implies that it is the direction of travel towards a fixed and inevitable end alone that makes meaning and always and only the one who matters. There are many other kinds of story than the linear, solitary and heroic. Perhaps other textual forms: patchworks; hybrids; heterotopias; hypertexts might help us to model more useful stories of ageing and self. Life as an individual and striving journey may be valuable as a trope for social and economic achievement, but not necessarily for meaning, art, relationship and the possibility of joy. Yet even here there is a drive to come to a conclusion. There can be no murder of linearity by interactivity, nor vice versa: both structuring forms are given to us; both are useful and useless as metaphors of experience. The attempt at mastery is always attempted and is always already lost. These are readings, re-makings. At the end of Ariadne's Thread , Hillis Miller 8 says that he has not found a way out of the labyrinth of language: "If I have not escaped from the labyrinth nor found Ariadne's thread at last... I have at least mapped part of the maze."Let me end with another story of masterly mapping: Miroslav Holub's poem 9 about his mother - Mother is Learning Spanish . In this poem, Holub's mother, who began learning Spanish when she was 82, dozes off as she is underlining the verbs. Her pencil strays over the page, "drawing", as the poem says, "hairline contours of death".

Here is an archetypal third-age metaphor of creative action: the woman in her eighties beginning again and again: making herself up through the learning of a new language, a new art, creating contours on the page, her pencil unwittingly tracing the routes of Cortez, the lines of Picasso. But these wandering pencil lines are also contours of death - the bull in the Plaza de Toros is on its knees and there is no need for reply: the unconscious body draws the contours of death on the map of existence whether we will it or not. No story of beginnings again can protect us, can protect me... Yet the last stanza of the poem sets up an astonishing juxtaposition:

She sleeps now
While Gaudi
in her honour
failed to complete the cathedral Sagrada Familia.

One incompletion, apparently greater, honours another. Gaudi's preposterous, incredible cathedral Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is set alongside the woman's wavering pencil lines. On the one hand there is impermanence: the life and work inevitably unfinished, sleep and death putting an end to effort and art. Yet on the other, (the joke of it) the human sacredness of this woman before whose magnificent incompletion even Gaudi must kneel. Stories can go in many directions. They circle and backtrack, they double back on themselves like hypertexts, they wander down side paths, one story is passed on from person to person, stories, as John Berger said, not of the one but of the many. Holub's mother sleeps now in the long sleeplessness of death, but the son, her narrator, takes up the story, carries it on - his own version of the Sagrada Familia. And now that Holub is himself dead - here we are: his readers, narrators, survivors. My grandmother, Edith, was sometimes sad and angry but she spoke in many voices. She was the one who lay beside me in bed, wrapping me joyfully in her arms and telling me stories of Goldilocks, of bears and of forests... so that I could pass them on to the children I know... and to you.

Heather Leach is a senior lecturer in creative writing in the department of contemporary arts at Manchester Metropolitan University, Cheshire Faculty.

1 Hillis Miller J. Ariadne's Thread . Yale University Press; 1992.
2 Ricoeur P. The Human Experience of Time and Narrative. In: A Ricoeur Reader . University of Toronto Press; 1991.
3 Laslett P. A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age .
Weidenfeld and Nicolson; 1989.
4 Le Guin U. The Writer on, and at, Her Work. In: Sternburg J, editor. The Writer on Her Work . Virago; 1992.
5 Kearney R. On Stories . Routledge; 2001.
6 Ricoeur, Time and Narrative: Vol 3 , Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer, translators. University of Chicago Press; 1990.
7 Ricoeur, Time and Narrative: Vol 3 .
8 Hillis Miller, Ariadne's Thread .
9 Holub, M. Mother Is Learning Spanish. In: Osers, E, translator. Supposed to Fly . Bloodaxe Books; 1996.

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