From the place between stories, it’s worth reaching over to the far side of stories. Especially if your take on the place between is as a temporary aberration, before the normal service of being in full possession of a story is resumed.
Stories, yes, are the enchanted threads of human consciousness, weaving meaning, possibility, senses of purpose and belonging with extraordinary tenacity across cultures, over land and water, and through time. As pop psychological parlance has it, human beings are believed to be ‘hard-wired for narrative’ – as far as I know the only species though to be so configured. The right to tell one’s story – and to have that story heard and respected – isn’t among the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet a compelling case could be made that it ought to be. Telling stories has a special power over silencing (whether by overlooking or brute force), and in gaining traction over the sudden traumas of life and death. When my father died several years ago, I called a close friend who lost his mother very young, and remember his encouragement to me to narrate what had happened because – and I believe he was right about this – “it’s important to tell the story.”
The dilemma around stories in this civilization is their repeated attenuation into a cookie-cutter form which appears to guarantee certainty and control. One arc, three acts, and the comfort of closure. The further humans exert their dominion, the more the carrying capacity of stories gets overextended, from being a particular way that human beings have of making sense of their world, into the way that the whole of creation makes sense of itself: a conceit epitomised in the poet Muriel Rukeyser’s quotation-friendly line “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms”. This catch-all invocation of stories – and inflated expectations of what stories do – becomes another glib meme issued on autopilot, in the rush to reach a solution, second guess what’s going to happen, or simply remain in the loop du jour; a point that Tony Dias also catches cleanly from another angle in a recent post titled ‘Stories’; which in serendipity crossed the path of the writing of this one.
Further cause for concern turned up when I was Googling for reassurance on human-hardwiring-for-narrative, and found the majority of top citations came in the blunt context of marketing pitches about using the power of stories to get consumers to buy more stuff.
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In the presence of stories, listen (or read) for the ones that are told by clambering, one hand before the other, one foot then another, along the edge where stories meet their far side. All that which is beyond story, other than story; even while becoming the subject of a story.
Standing on my human edge, a forest to me is a mystery before it’s any kind of story, and – although I dearly love stories involving forests – I don’t look for the forest to be swallowed up in stories that might make me believe I understand the first thing about it.
A forest, an oak tree at the edge of the forest, a hawk perched in the oak tree, a mouse nesting in the oak tree that the hawk will prey upon, an oxygen molecule that circulates in transformation through all of them. Do they experience their own existences as stories? The ready answer is no, insofar as we assume that other animals have instinctual memories but no conscious, continuous sense of self; and we are incredulous at the idea of a tree or a chemical element being sentient. Even if we don’t make these easy assumptions, is there certainty that living awareness within the beyond-human world takes, for itself, the form of stories?
No objection, no barrier here to humans inventing and appreciating wonderful stories of the relations between all these beings. Or to pondering whether the interface between the human and the beyond-human adopts the lingua franca of storytelling. But there will be stories that respect the edge, and stories that ignore or erase it.
Same among the artefacts of human creation, in the encounter with those that plainly don’t take story form, that present resistance to being explained entirely by stories. Take the dense, figure-and groundless, ‘all-over’ drip-painted surface of Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist – one of the landmark paintings of mid-20th century American Abstract Expressionism. I’d defy Scheherazade to tell it as a story – so much so that I was struck as a student of this style of painting by how compulsive was the critical and cultural insistence that there must be a story – in this example furnished by the biography and public persona of Pollock himself – to block that disquieting gap in meaning and certainty which the radical appearance of the painting opened onto.
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The edge entails the possibility of slipping, not knowing, losing control. Fumbling, building negative capability, redirecting to poetry. The art of taking long diversions in order to arrive, humbly, back at a story; knowing how to juggle forces between here and there. Traditional folk tale openings are adept at this: ‘once upon a time last week’. Sifting patiently through the stock of stories to find one that fits the occasion, turning an almost-but-not-quite story over and over to rejig it. All preferred to the blithe streamlining of persons and events to fit an existing narrative.
For where stories are dying, they live in sight of their far side.