Culture, the World, and Fictive Constructions

Earlier this week I posted this quotation from Hilary Mantel as a SundaySentence on Mastodon.

As soon as we die, we enter into fiction. Just ask two different family members to tell you about someone recently gone and you will see what I mean. Once we can no longer speak for ourselves, we are interpreted..

The post prompted a few more responses (both boosts and likes) from other Mastodon users than I see on most of my posts. I’m still seeing some responses; last night someone who doesn’t follow me boosted it and responded with this:

I would expand that to life also. We all live inside of constructed realities, shared by those close to us.

I’m inclined to agree, though I think my take on it is both broader in one respect and perhaps more constrained in another respect. On one hand, the world in which we humans live is to some extent a constructed world. I might say that we all live in both a natural world and a culturally constructed world, but I would add the caveat that since it’s in our nature to be cultural beings, this distinction between cultural and natural is fuzzy. Perhaps a better distinction would be between cultural and physical, though we have to keep in mind that many of our cultural creations (books, for example) are physically manifest. So I would agree that we all live inside of (culturally) constructed realities, but I would say that each of us shares this constructed reality with a far larger group than those who are close to us. Perhaps “overlaps with” is more accurate than “shared” here.

On the other hand, a person’s cultural reality is constructed in the midst of all sorts of constraints, both physical and cultural. I don’t start from scratch in the building of my culture. I’m building on and out of the cultural world into which I was born. Also, this culturally constructed reality is made by all of us in the context of and in response to a material world that pushes back on us, imposing itself on our reality.

Other complexities abound – even my (or our) understanding of the physical world is culturally constructed. I’m not saying it isn’t; what I’m saying is that there is a physical world that I am (with others) attempting to describe, understand, and navigate, using the culturally constructed world of linguistic (and other) symbols. This world pushes back on me (on us), forcing me (us) at times to rethink the constructions so that they align more closely with our experience of the world. And, in particular, another person in my world, at least while living, pushes back on my attempts to understand (to culturally construct) their identity.

I don’t claim to understand Clifford Geertz’s account of this fully, but I should acknowledge that my reading his work and reflecting on it have shaped the position that I’m trying to articulate here.

Having said all that, I still think Mantel is right – there is a difference when one dies. After I die, I’ll no longer be able to push back against those who interpret me in their own fictive accounts of the person that I was. Well, even that’s not totally true – with Mantel’s books, we have some clues to how she might push back. Maybe this blog, confused and incomplete as it is, will live on, at least for a while, exerting some sort of pressure on those who would fictionalize my identity.

I acknowledge that this is both incomplete and less clear than it might be. There are so many things to think about here. I’m going to continue to ponder.