Do you have to have a story in order to be a person?
I have invented myriad narratives about the lives of the neighbour’s cats. In the process of telling these stories, each cat’s personhood increases, not because the stories are true (in fact, they are obvious fabrications) but because the stories are being told. I do not know the names of these cats; I have not discussed the cats with their owners; I have not built up any reciprocal relationship with these animals. I simply watch them trundle about the neighbouring yard (they are very large cats – trundle is an appropriate description of their movements), which is visible from my window. In the six months since I first saw the cats, my regard for them has grown. Although I know very little about them, aside from a superficial knowledge of their daily routines, I feel great affection for them and would feel immensely distressed to learn that any harm had come to them. This is because, having got to know their imagined doubles in my constructed narratives, I am able to project an internal world onto the animals whose existence I have witnessed – even though the projected internalities really belong to the imaginary cats, and not to their physical inspirations.
Because I have invented these fantasy-cats, I begin to think of the real cats as persons. The stories I invent lead me to imagine that these animals have needs, feelings, desires and fears, and therefore I wish to treat them as though they have needs, feelings, desires and fears. The stories I tell have no bearing on reality, but because I tell them with reference to real cats, the real cats matter – and if I do happen to make the acquaintance of these creatures in the world of tangible interactions, they (and their needs, feelings, etc.) will matter to me considerably more than they would have done had I never constructed such cat-based lies.
If the real cats could understand human speech, and could hear the stories I tell about them, would they be offended at this misrepresentation? Possibly – but I do not tell these stories in order to represent the cats. I tell these stories in order to personify the cats. I tell these stories because when I string the incomprehensible and disconnected elements of my experience into a meaningful chain of relationships, journeys, beginnings, middles and ends, not only do I feel more like a person via the increasing cohesion of these accidents of circumstance – at the same time, everything around me becomes more like a person, and I am compelled to treat everything with the care and respect that I must afford anything that appears to me as relevant, or important, or necessary, or beautiful.
Not all stories need to be told outside of the mind of the teller. This is because, sometimes, it is not the precise content of the stories which is relevant, but rather the process of constructing them. And I think that if the person about whom you are telling the story is genuinely a person in your mind, you’ll be in a good position to determine whether or not the story you have imagined is a story that other people need to hear.
You do not have to have a story in order to be a person – but you must have stories in order for anyone else to be a person.