The heritage of storytelling
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Author and columnist Robert Fulford explains how the tradition of storytelling connects us to our past and to our descendants in the next millennium
Peter: “You see, I don’t know any stories. None of the lost hoys know any stories.” Wendy: “How perfectly awful.”
—Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie
We should be ashamed of ourselves: that’s the unanimous judgment handed down from on high by moralists commenting on the Lewinsky case. For most of 1998, the world has talked incessantly about the American president and his bizarre little “affair” with a young intern. Pious commentators insist that we should not be as interested in this event as we clearly are. In conversation, people carefully discuss the most minute details and then announce they are sick of it, they want to hear no more. After that, they turn on the TV set and watch three journalists and a guy from the White House argue the meaning of the latest revelations. Scandal makes hypocrites of us all.
Why? Why do we stick with it, why do Washington journalists follow the President and his pursuers down every obscure pathway of speculation, and why do we follow the Washington journalists? Probably not out of hatred for Bill Clinton, and certainly not for sexual excitement (anyone who calls the Starr report pornographic has never read pornography). The reason should be clear: we can’t ignore it because it is such a . . . story. It contains the elements that have excited the imagination since long before the Arabian Nights began circulating in Arabic manuscript, more than five centuries ago.
What’s this story about? Nothing significant—just power, fame, shame, weakness, ambition and lust. At its core stands a man of incomparable worldly au-
thority, brought low by his other self—the careless and irresponsible lout who lives inside him, jeering at the high-minded Yale lawyer occupying the Oval Office. Only the truly ignorant, surveying this shattered moral landscape, would dare to judge it meaningless. Only those who are imaginatively comatose would dream of calling it trivial.
We humans are all storytellers, or story-listeners, or both. That’s a crucial element of our humanity. Passing down the generations, constantly changing under the pressure of altering circumstances, stories link humanity together in chains of narrative. Odysseus sets out on the wine-dark sea, fights ferocious monsters, endures endless hardships, and eventually finds his way home; and so does Paul Dempster, aka Magnus Eisengrim, in the Deptford Trilogy of Robertson Davies; and so do many thousands of other heroes conceived in the 2,900 or so years between Odysseus and Eisengrim.
Persistent patterns of storytelling connect our feelings and thoughts to those of people who lived in the distant past. Barring a fundamental change in human nature, they will connect our descendants in the next millennium to us.
Ours has been, pre-eminently, the storytelling century: never before have so many of us had the chance to absorb so many stories. Earlier centuries heard stories face-to-face, figured them out from pictures on the walls of caves or cathedrals, read them in manuscripts, and finally (from the 15th century onward) read them in printed books. The 19th century industrialized storytelling through popular novels and magazines. The 20th century made stories pervasive. Now, they are installed as constant elements in our lives, delivered through movies, radio, television and the Internet, all of them machines of narrative. The 21st century will find new ways of telling the old stories and developing new ones. So far, no one claims excellence for literary experiments on the Internet—but then, the novel at its birth was thought to be frivolous and the movies, when new, were no more than a toy.
We might have expected that humanity would at some point have resisted this swelling ocean of stories, would have been repelled by so much narration, so many ingenious plots, so many satisfying resolutions. But no: it appears we can never get enough. We thirst after stories of all kinds—epics, tragedies, comedies, anecdotes, parables. We are insatiable. Many of us are so enchanted we go back to the same story again and again, searching for fresh meaning. Some people (like Robert Stanfield, the former federal leader of the Tories) read Jane Austen over and over. Others watch Casablanca every chance they get. I used to read Huckleberry Finn every year. There
are those who believe Christmas incomplete without A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
Given a chance, we convert real tragedy into stories and then makes stories into parables, or life-lessons, which we use as the beginnings of wisdom. The Titanic, greatest of ships, sinks into the Atlantic on April 15, 1912, with 1,522 lives lost. Then, it becomes a metaphor and sinks again, this time deep into the human consciousness. It becomes a profound symbol of greed, pride and the danger accompanying technology, a threat that the world didn’t (till that moment) understand. It remains with us through the century. Finally, in 1997, it moves again to the front of our minds, the subject of a parable-laden movie that fills theatres everywhere.
There are those (I’m among them) who consider James Cameron’s Titanic an expensive piece of manipulative trash. But who can fail to respect the impulse behind those who watch it in tears, re-living in a new generation one of the mythic events of modern history? Important stories aren’t necessarily exalted or clever. Some are thunderingly obvious, pounding their lessons home like railway workers driving spikes into the ground. But even at their most ordinary they deliver something powerful to us. Perhaps some stories are unjustly forgotten, but no stories (as W. H. Auden said) are unjustly remembered: if we remember them, we have our reasons.
And stories shape us. Mark Turner of the University of Maryland, in his brilliant book, The Literary Mind, tells us bluntly: “Narrative
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imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it.” He believes that storytelling is our chief means of explaining the world to one another and ourselves, and the principal way we form intelligence. It is essential to human cognition. Stories teach the brain how to work.
Turner grounds his theory in the neuroscience of Gerald Edelman, who argues that the mind uses overlapping systems (he calls them “maps”) of neurons to pull together scattered bits of sensation and thought. Stories are the forces that set these neurons firing and connecting, and the connections that result become the architecture of human intelligence. Those who spend long hours reading stories to their children are clearly on the right track— and so is the child who demands the same story over and over again. A neural path is being carved through the mind; perhaps the child gets it right by instinct.
In the sciences of the mind there is something even more compelling to be said about narrative: Sigmund Freud became the most influential thinker of the century because he told effective stories, and retold the stories of others in ways that elaborated on his own patterns of thought. In one sense, Freud ends the 20th century as a failure: armies of analysts and polemicists can now demonstrate that he often exaggerated his results, that he failed to understand what some of his patients were telling him (about sexual abuse, for instance), that his rate of helping patients get better was not high, and that there is no way (nor will there ever be a way) to prove his theories by anything remotely like a scientific method. As a result, a generation of psychiatrists has scorned or ignored him.
Even so, he has conquered. Go the movies, pick up a novel, switch on a TV talk show, and there is no doubt who is in charge, whose concepts provide the underpinning of everyday discourse. Freud remains the most quoted author of the century by far—and often he is even more present when his name isn’t mentioned.
All this results partly from his ability as a teller of tales. His case histories stand as some of the great stories of the century, arranged for maximum emotional impact, complete with foreshadowing, delayed revelation and suspense. Early in his career, Freud perceived the drama inherent in the work he was learning to do. After a lecture by his teacher, Jean Charcot, in 1885, he wrote to his fiancée: “My brain is sated as after an evening in the theatre.” When Freud turns to Sophocles (in The Interpretation of Dreams), he argues that the story of Oedipus the King is the story of all men: “His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours—because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father.... King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and married his mother, Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfilment of our own childhood wishes.”
Our dreams, Freud says, demonstrate that this is so—and he tells this tale with such consummate authority that those of us who have never dreamt of incest or patricide may well imagine that this demonstrates an imaginative failure on our part. Freud makes even his own career into a saga, featuring early rejection by the medical establishment, betrayal by disciples, and finally international triumph as a seer. When he decides to conduct a self-analysis, he turns this process into a heavily dramatic event, an epic of private heroism. Freud’s accomplishments parallel in modern times those of Joseph
Freud: the most influential thinker of the century, his case histories were great stories because they retold the experiences of others in ways that elaborated on his own patterns of thought.
in Genesis, who interpreted dreams and transformed them into prophecies. Freud, ideally, redeems the lives of his patients through imaginative understanding, as Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams saved him from unjust imprisonment in the jail of the Egyptian pharaoh and ultimately led to freedom from slavery for the Israelites.
Robertson Davies, a Jungian rather than a Freudian, loved stories for their joy and their terror: he exulted in ghost stories, which he used to tell annually to graduate students at Massey College in Toronto, where he was founding master. He had no time for those who had no time for stories. He liked to quote Sir Nathaniel, the curate in Love’s Labour’s Lost, who says of the stupid oaf Costard: “He hath never fed of the dainties that are bred in a book ... his intellect is not replenished; he is only an animal, only sensible in the duller parts.”
Stories are the launching pads for the great characters who populate our collective imagination and our language: Scrooge, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein’s monster, Sherlock Holmes, Big Brother, Romeo. The great stories seem never to die but instead refresh themselves with each generation. The memoirs of Giacomo Casanova, the 18th-century adventurer, seem to me as pointed as the latest issue of The New Yorker. The Book of Job, read in 1998, has irony, emotional power, and infinite mystery. Twelfth Night, the loveliest of Shakespeare’s comic stories, contains twists of plot and language that catch me unawares even though I’ve known them for 40 years.
Sometimes, a brief story brings a whole era in history to life. Eugene D. Genovese, the % American historian, tells such a story of the Great Terror under Stalin. No matter how terrible Stalin’s crimes became, communists (even in Russia) continued to insist he was leading the Soviet people towards the promised land. Long ago, Russians liked to believe the czar was a good and holy man whose essential kindness was undermined and reversed by cruel and corrupt officials. In the same way, they blamed Stalin’s atrocities on the secret police. One day, the great poet Boris Pasternak met Ilya Ehrenburg, the journalist, on the street. Pasternak expressed horror at the arrest of innocent people, and finally delivered the classic line: “Ilya, someone must tell Stalin!” Story-deprivation is a major theme in Peter Pan, that children’s classic. This particular form of emotional and intellectual poverty (not otherwise cited in literature, so far as I know) afflicts all the lost boys, including Peter himself. They don’t know any stories, which cripples them. Because they can’t understand stories, they can’t grow up and inhabit stories of their own, as adults do.
Peter tells Wendy why he has been coming to the nursery window of the Darling family: he wants to hear Mrs. Darling tell stories to the children. He says he recently heard her telling a lovely story, something about a prince who couldn’t find a lady who wore a glass slipper. “Peter,” says Wendy, “that was Cinderella, and he found her, and they lived happy ever after.” Peter immediately gets up and goes to the window, and Wendy asks where he’s going. ‘To tell the other boys,” Peter explains. And Peter Pan, the story, is launched.
The word “story” has often carried negative meanings. In the 17th century it implied scandal: “He has made a story with a new mistress.” In Dickens, “story” could be a synonym for “falsehood,” as when he wrote about an untruthful child who received “sundry thumps on the head from both his parents, for having the wickedness to tell a story.” But that fits, too, because most of our important
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stories are partly or entirely invented. In recent decades—and this also is true to ancient meaning—“story” often means structure or sequence, as in the storyboard drawn in an ad agency for a TV commercial, or the story editor who fits together the plots of programs. When the movies deal with historic events, the first stage involves building a narrative that will make dramatic sense, a story line. In Budd Schulberg’s 1941 best-seller, What Makes Sammy Run?, a character says: “I’ve been after them to make a Jefferson picture, if I can only hammer out the goddam story line.”
We remain enchanted by the image of the ancient story-teller, sitting beside an open fire and speaking magic words to anyone within earshot. That character comes vividly to life as a woman in Anthony Minghella’s 1996 film, The English Patient, based on the Michael Ondaatje novel. Visiting a team of explorers in the desert with her husband, Katharine Clifton (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) recites poetry as she sits “in the halo of the camp’s twig fire” (Ondaatje’s words). The Hungarian count played by Ralph Fiennes feels the power of her voice as the audience feels the majesty of her eyes. The count is enraptured.
She’s a 1990s version of Scheherazade, the storyteller-heroine of the Arabian Nights, the woman who expresses her power through skill as a narrator. The essence of storytelling can be found in that magnificent collection, which developed within Arab culture over hundreds of years and has now lasted for several centuries more around the world. All its tales—Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor, and many others—are told within a single framing story, about Scheherazade. She is to be killed after her first night of love with her husband the sultan—his normal practice, a response to his first wife’s betrayal. Scheherazade delays her death by telling him irresistibly interesting stories, a whole literature of fables that she delivers to him over 1,001 nights. In the end, she not only saves herself from execution but cures the wife-killing sultan’s nasty case of misogyny—and, as he says, liberates women. After which (this storyof-stories concludes) “Joy spread through the palace of the King.”
In Canada, our modern Scheherazade is surely Alice Munro, whose solemnly beautiful stories have been milestones on the road of Canadian literature since the 1950s. In Munro, the narrator has always been the mind through which the world can be seen, but as the decades pass her narrators grow more complex, less easily understood—and not always to be trusted. Munro keeps moving deeper into her characters, pushing towards areas of darkness most of us never knew existed, layering her stories with complications. She has become a unique story in herself, an always talented woman who at age 67 keeps making breathtaking new strides toward greatness, possibly surprising even herself. Like all good storytellers she’s shrewd and guarded; she doles out her insights carefully, the owner of a first-rate mind that reveals itself obliquely, in carefully chosen fragments.
Those who enjoy stories cherish even minor anecdotes that are charged with meaning. John Ruskin, the great art critic, went so far as to apply this criterion to buildings, which he admired for their ability to speak to him of their past—“Better the rudest work that tells a story or records a fact, than the richest without meaning,” he wrote. I cherish some stories for their quirkiness, like one I encountered in Millennium, an 830-page account of the past 1,000 years by Felipe FernándezArmesto, an Oxford history professor. He tells us that in 1924, at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, in a suburb of London, King George Y, standing in the Palace of Engineering beside a life-size statue in Canadian butter of his son, the future Edward VIII, illustrated the size of his Empire with a weirdly economical little demonstration. He sent a cabled message to himself, right around the world, and as it circled the globe it went by British wires over (except for the oceans) exclusively British territory. It arrived back at its starting point 28 seconds after he dispatched it.
Why did he do it? Because it wasn’t enough just to be there, and it wasn’t enough just to be king. He wanted also to make a story for posterity—a story to think about, perhaps, in the next millennium. □