A meditation on our kind as storytellers
Something there is, in us, that seems always to seek narrative. Outside, the children play and as they play they tell stories, adapting those character roles they have observed in their own lives (the mommy, the daddy, the little girl, the baby), as well as those they’ve heard and seen in books and movies, weaving new scripts for their characters, trying on roles and identities, writing their lives. Their play is in this sense not formless: they cast it within the bounds of a narrative, though their narratives tend to be episodic. Children’s play is all about stories. You have only tell them a story to capture and hold their attention — the rest of the world seems to fall away as they listen to or watch the story unfold, even when it is one they have heard many times before. Later in their play, they place themselves as stand-ins for the hero or heroine, assuming the characteristics of those characters. “I’m her. I’m the blond princess on the purple pony,” says my four-year-old niece, pointing to the picture on her lunch tray. She knows the picture tells a story. “I’m Esmeralda,” announces the seven-year-old with assurance. The littlest one is also sometimes Esmeralda, playing with the figurines as she watches the movie. She has rewritten the script, however, telling me that Esmeralda will marry ’Simoto, because she really likes him best. My niece feels bad for the hunchback, doesn’t like the scenes in which he suffers, and has learned from stories that marrying and “living happily after” is the best future that can be granted a storied character. Being the youngest of seven, and looking very different from three of them, she identifies with the hunchback, I think, and wants to rewrite his script, giving him the happiness she thinks his due. When she switches to the dollhouse, casting herself as a character, she speaks this future for herself as well. She likes to play mommies and daddies — she understands that one day she will grow up and act the role that her mother now does — and she plans to marry the boy next door. In fact, they may for all I know already be married. (For, as her sister explained knowingly to me in a whisper, from the advantage of her seven years, “Little kids sometimes do that.”)
It is Christmas time, the season too of the Winter Solstice, that time of year when throughout Europe yule logs were once lit to keep the year alive, holly and ivy decked the walls, and stories of the Green Man were told as the darkness descended on the day and bitter cold gripped the land. Out of the body of the Green Man, so the stories went, grew the forest, and every year he died and was reborn. He is related to the cycle of the seasons, to the death and rebirth of the land, to the pre-Christian harvest festivals and primitive vegetation gods. Like Demeter and Persephone, myths from further south, he explained the world to mankind, in an explanation woven and applied by men.
Or does he? Does the Green Man tell us, in fact, less of pre-Christian earth worship and mysticism and more of Medieval Christianity and our twentieth-century Western selves? Of our own fascination with origins and what was displaced, of our own fascination with what we cannot know? There was a resurgence of interest in the early part of the twentieth century in primitive peoples and in the “Middle Ages” (so named, of course, once they could be said to be in the middle of two other ages). The Golden Bough appeared, in which Frazer, among other things, described various harvest rites and vegetation gods, and From Ritual to Romance soon followed, in which Jesse Weston traced the reemergence of these primitive vegetation cults in the Grail stories of Medieval literature. Today, her theories are considered quaint. Still, it was from her that T.S. Eliot derived the inspiration to write The Wasteland. And perhaps without these two works, these two poetic reimaginings, we’d not have the Wasteland Myth in our archetypal pantheon, and Northrup Frye would have been deprived of a rich and fruitful archetype.
In narrative we seek understanding. We can trace the current thread of interest in the Green Man to 1939, when a Lady Raglan wrote an article on the phenomenon, and anointed him the name. The foliate heads, much in evidence in Romanesque and Gothic churches, adorn nooks and crannies, doorways and columns. Some primitive, some wondrously detailed; some gruesome, many beautiful and benign. We cannot but wonder at their presence and meaning. They seem out of place in a Christian setting — at least in the Christian setting we are familiar with. Scholarly understanding today, however, attributes the figure to Celtic myth and notes that its rise in popularity may be contemporary with, and related to the character of, Medieval Christianity. Meanwhile, in the popular imagination, the Green Man survives as a reemergence of the ancient Corn God, related to the tree spirit and the cults of Tammuz and Adonis. He has become an archetype of our “oneness with the earth,” a oneness shattered by the coming of Christianity and the eventual leaving behind of the harvest. At Christmas tide, under the same impulse that brings us the annual “Renaissance Pleasure Faire,” he reappears, interwoven with other reconstructed early Christmas festivities.
In the fourteenth-century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we may have evidence of a similar intermingling of traditions. The Green Knight — a larger-than-life figure, a green man with a green face and green hair, dressed in green armor, astride a green horse, carrying a sprig of Holly and a green axe — arrives in Arthur’s court and proposes a gruesome game that, in the end, is understood within the context of the poem to be a chivalrous test of courage, honesty, and Christian faith. The beheading match, the temptation motif, the sharing of winnings, all have analogues in Celtic and Old French tales of the time, though nowhere else have they been so tightly and thematically interlaced. But why the Green Knight?
Everything this poet has done is deliberate, artistic, sophisticated. It would seem that the appearance of the green figure, glowing green all over, is just as calculated, that he too is meant to be seen in the context of what else appears in the poem. And his counterbalance is Christ. It is tempting, from our perspective, to read the larger framework of the story in terms of the folkloric death of the old year and the welcoming in of the new acquiescing now to the celebration of the birth of a savior, a savior who promises to release the bonds of mankind to earthly time. It is, after all, the Green Man in service of a Christian lesson for a Christian knight. One can take a further step back and say, of nature religions and the coming of Christianity in general, that celebrations in which men bowed to the power of the earth were gradually replaced by those in which men looked to the heavens. Of This World had become Other Worldly. Cyclic became telic. And the relationship of mankind to the earth and to time was forever rewritten.
What the fourteenth-century poet had in mind on this subject, we can never know. But we can speculate, and we will. We will continue to rewrite the past in terms of our latest understanding, our latest concerns. And we will do it by telling stories, spinning narratives. “A powerful narrative reconstructs common sense to make the contingent seem determined and the artificial seem natural,” says historian William Cronin (1350). And so it does. In the classic narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction, nothing is out of place, everything has a function. We strive for what books on writing call “unity” and “coherence,” which means that we create a little universe of interpretation, complete and orderly, persuasive. We account for every detail and weave it into our interpretation. In this way we deliberate about means and determine what it is we think. This is a rhetorical habit we picked up from Aristotle, but we’ve been engaged now in revisiting the world of the Sophists: anything can be made to seem right, with the proper argument. And, as contemporary philosopher Richard Rorty has noted, that “right argument” is often redescription. To redescribe is to redefine, to recast everything in a new light. To reinvent the argument in new terms. To reinvent, in fact, the argument.
In all that we do, we tell stories. Of our nations, our people, ourselves. But we have never before now been so preternaturally aware of the hand of the craftsman, the teller of the tale, in the realm of what we considered nonfiction. We knew the argument was a construct, but the rhetorical frame of mind we had always peddled as a tool to discovering as best we could the “truth” of the matter. One was sophistical only when one left ethics behind. Now it appears there may be many truths, perhaps as many truths as there are voices. Perhaps this is a lesson we have learned, in part, from two centuries of a form of fiction in which the plurality of voices tends to be showcased: the novel.
The novel tells us stories, many stories, of other people in other times and other places, people both like and very unlike ourselves. Sometimes within the context of one world, one novel, we see the same story from several perspectives. In the novels we most highly admire in our current culture, this multiplicity of voices, of interpretations, of truths, is irreconcilable to one simple lesson, one “moral.” Walter Benjamin saw in the birth of the novel, the death of storytelling, the death of, in his terms, “the epic side of truth.” The novel he felt was born of the “solitary individual,” someone “uncounseled” and unable to counsel others, and thus the novel carried “the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life,” giving “evidence of the profound perplexity of living” (87).
In philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s terms, this is a good thing, for it teaches us to make difficult decisions outside the antiseptic and highly unreal world of generalized principles and simplistic either-or constructions, teaching us to link, she says, “particulars without dispensing with their particularity” (78), “to grasp particulars in all of their richness and concreteness” (77). And by casting this complexity, these incommensurables, in terms of real people, in real crises (for so it seems to us as we read), fiction engages our emotions. The emotions too have a sort of wisdom, Nussbaum says, which ought to be engaged in decision making: they are themselves “modes of vision, or recognition.” We need the emotions to “get it right,” to respond, she says, quoting Aristotle, “at the right times with reference to the right objects, toward the right people, with the right aim, and in the right way.” The emotions are not adornments to cognition, but “are part of what knowing, that is truly recognizing or acknowledging, consists in” (79).
Our emotions engaged through fiction primarily, in Rorty’s terms, by the plight of others in pain and trouble, this “imaginative identification” with others also enables us to enlarge our circle of “we,” to extend to a wider and wider range of people that feeling that they are “one of us,” which also (in my terms) enables us to step outside ourselves, to enlarge who and what we are in our lives through the experience of others.
Ours is not an age of faith. Nor is it perhaps any longer an age of reason. But to read contemporary literary theory is to begin to believe in an age of the narrative, an age of poetry. Awash in “contingency,” threatened now by being loosed from the metaphysical, as we have for the most part been from the theological, in casting about for some lifeline, we have rediscovered the power of narrative — its dangers, its pleasures, its uses. And, for us, its necessity.
For it is through narrative — through constructing sequences rooted in time but which also transcend time — that we comprehend not only other lives, but our own lives. Without narrative, we have only a welter of events, one coming after the other, devoid of causality. Without narrative, our lives are “plot-less”: our own “swift flight through the hall,” like that of Bede’s sparrow, arrives miraculously out of nowhere and dissolves again into nothingness just as mysteriously. Our life projects begin and end, in this sense, without meaning. The beginning for us, unlike in traditional narrative, does not in any necessary or probable way prefigure the end: we simply arrive in through one door and leave through another. Our story does not form one pleasing whole, every detail accounted for, every detail counting for something. But we’d like it to. And that’s how we weave and reweave it, always looking back from our latest perspective — our latest “end point” — to reconfigure past events and recalculate future possibilities, like Penelope, unweaving and reweaving, not to keep the suitors at bay, but to keep the formless, the chaotic, the contingent from our door. And to place ourselves ever in a context. Sorting through the plenitude of multifaceted and unrelated details of everyday living, culling out and weaving together, as any author would from raw facts, events to tell a story. Turning chronicle into history, fabula into sjuïet, story into plot. We must know our story, else how can we know who we are?
And, whether we have caught this habit from fiction or whether fiction has caught it from us, it seems as automatic in us to apply plot as it is to weave stories. “The king died and then the queen died,” says E.M. Forster, is a story, whereas “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot (86). More recently Seymour Chatman has revised this understanding, noting that even where a cause is not specified, we will supply one. The difference inherent in those two statements, he says, is not the distinction between story and plot, but that between implicit and explicit plot. Because our minds seek structure, providing it where it does not already exist, it is difficult he says to achieve “pure chronicle” (45–46). Wrestling with the role of narrative in the telling of history, Cronin comes to much the same conclusion, from the perspective not of the story listener but the storyteller. It is difficult, he says, to provide a mere recitation of events, devoid of causality, devoid of narrative. The very selection of those events will be read by the listener as significant, he notes, and it is impossible not to select from the available information. Not to select would be to include every event that actually happened in the period of time in question, a logistically insurmountable task. Such a hypothetical chronicle — one in which no selection has been made, he continues, would be as difficult to assimilate as to construct. Without a plot, we find it difficult, even impossible, to understand the nature and import of events (1350–1351). From plot comes understanding.
And so it seems we must have narrative. It serves as a tool both for the teller of the tale and the listener. It tells us about ourselves, and it takes us outside ourselves. It helps us to sort out our lives and to make sense of the lives of others. It extends our “circle of we” and it enlarges who we are. We tell ourselves stories; we listen to those of others. When we are really caught up in the power of a story, our relationship to it has often not altered all that drastically from the time when we were children. We may not overtly play out the fantasy of “being” the characters in stories as we did when young, but while immersed in the story, the identification we feel with the plight of a character (if not the character itself) can be very strong. We catch the tone of the story, putting the book down, leaving the theatre, with the feel of the characters and their stories still upon us. It is not uncommon for a really powerful, well-told story — one in which the conflicts arise naturally out of character; in which individual perspectives may be illuminated completely and feelingly; in which (for I must admit to an affinity with the Aristotelian myself) the protagonist is a good, but not too perfect, person, with whom we can empathize and identify, who entraps herself through error in a potentially disastrous situation—to keep its hold over us, even when outwardly we might go about our daily tasks. If we have become emotionally caught up, the characters can assume a life of their own. And we internalize those experiences, those lives, into our own.
Underlying Richard Rorty’s argument for our becoming liberal ironists is the conviction that “all we share with all other humans is the same thing we share with all other animals — the ability to feel pain,” though he admits the existence of a specifically human pain, based on our ability to be socialized, that of humiliation (177). It is this ability to empathize with the pain of others that he wishes us to use—and this ability he argues that we do use — as a tool to expand our sense of “we,” enabling us to usher increasing numbers of specific and particular human beings into that inner circle of those to whom we most closely relate and whom we are most willing, should the need arise, to defend. Human solidarity, he says, in general terms does not have the same motivating force for us as do narrower designations, designations filled with specific, particular, and recognizable traits, such as those based on nationality, religion, or culture (190–192). It is partly for this reason that he wants to disengage the discussion of human solidarity from those general terms, and to reassign it to particularities, reorienting (or redescribing) it from recognition of a core self to the imaginative identification with others different, but only seemingly so, from ourselves. In other words (but this of course is what he does not say), because it is a human tendency not to find great motivation in general terms, he wishes to realign solidarity in particular terms.
His second reason for wishing this realignment has to do with where we are historically. If solidarity is based on the concept of a core self, an essence common to all humanity, he says, then
. . . we leave ourselves open to the pointlessly skeptical question “Is this solidarity real?” We leave ourselves open to Nietzsche’s insinuation that the end of religion and metaphysics should mean the end of our attempts not to be cruel. (196)
Thus to decouple solidarity from essence protects solidarity from falling in the wake of this disintegration of a metaphysics, a disintegration which Rorty applauds for the attendant toppling of the One Right Description or the One True Interpretation, but which he deplores for the dangers it poses in our struggles to be kind to others.
Shrewd arguments both, and both (befitting his orientation as a pragmatic philosopher) very useful. But what of this ability we have to “imaginatively identify” with others? What of this ability to redescribe ourselves and our world? What of, not merely the ability, but this impulse we all harbor, to describe, explain, interpret, narrate? Is this not something inherently human, something in which we differ from the animals? Is it not something which helps us overcome the merely egocentrical and ethnocentrical, the merely animal in us?
We comprehend our world, we enlarge the circle of we, and we rewrite who we are through narration and through imaginative identification with others. Our tendency otherwise — not only our ability, but our tendency — to divide the world into “them” and “us” is something we all share, but it is perhaps not solely human. It has its roots in our animal nature, and is common to all animals who band together to hunt in packs, animals who are also, in some rudimentary sense, social animals. It is primitive, instinctual, animal — this suspicion of the novel, the strange, the unknown, the “other.” But our ability to imaginatively reconstruct our world and its boundaries, and to see beyond the differences of culture — of, as Rorty puts it, “time and chance” — tis very human. And coming to realize, through imaginative identification with others, that the differences that sometimes divide us are merely superficial, to consider, that is, “more and more traditional differences (of tribe, of religion, race, customs, and the like) as unimportant” (192), even if unimportant in the light of something as basic as our responses to pain, begins to sound an awful lot like realizing, albeit through the imagination and not first principles, that every one of us is simply one more of the “one of us human beings” that Rorty says as a concept lacks sufficient force (190). Perhaps it lacks abstract force, but can be arrived at with great effectiveness, human being by human being.
The story we have until recently most often told about ourselves as a species, a unique species, separate from the animal kingdom, involves the use of tools and of course the development of language. But more so than makers of tools, more so than shapers of thought, we are makers of stories. We may never be able to fully transcend time and chance, but our impulse ever is to. And that unites us all.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller” from Illuminations. 1955. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York, Schocken Books, 1968.
Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Cronin, William. “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative.” The Journal of American History 79 (1992): 1347–76.
Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. 1927. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1955.
Nussbaum, Martha. “The Discernment of Perception: An Aristotelian Conception of Private and Public Rationality” from Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.