What’s the Story?

There is a terrible, wonderful power to narrative. We live and die by it. It shapes our thoughts, our perceptions, our very reality in ways that we cannot even — or at least don’t often — imagine.

The Magic of the Tale

Our pagan forebears knew this far better than we. It is well remembered by those who take the time to remember such things that in Ireland a bard could make a king break out into boils through the agency of poetry, but it goes further than that. The practice of formally describing a person in praise-poetry was called duine dìoghluim — you can find out about this in part II of Rudolf Thurneysen‘s Mittelirische Verslehren (specifically on p. 29), but you’d need to know Old Irish and also some German— and would often seem a bit over-the-top to us. Descriptions like “her mouth looked like a shower of pearls had fallen into it” come up a lot, and academics often interpreted this as simply the re-used tropes of the professional poet’s trade. If poetry has the power to change reality, though, then such tropes become spells, making the object of the poem even more beautiful. Even in English, the word ‘spell’ can mean either a magical utterance or listing out the letters of a word. At its root there is no difference.

If we take this idea further and consider narrative and poetry both to be aesthetic utterance, which is to say sound and meaning structured in time in accord with certain principles, then there is really no difference between a spoken spell and a ritual. The boundaries we as moderns have set up in our mind between a wicked witch chanting over a cauldron to sink ships, an Irish poet raising boils on a king through poetry and an African curse causing someone to waste away and die simply cannot hold up. The practice of magic is merely the extremely potent use of aesthetic narrative.

Even Dungeons and Dragons thinks of poetry and music in the terms of power and adventure!

Nowadays moderns chuckle and sneer at such silly, medieval beliefs, but is it so hard to believe that aesthetic utterance can change the world? Try telling someone how honest, how nice or how important they are to you. Will they not alter their behaviour to match? Try the opposite: run someone down and tell them how stupid they are. Will they not become confused or even angry enough that they no longer think as clearly as they did? Words have power, and when we link those words into patterns their power multiplies.

It is also no mistake that we talk of weaving tales, spinning yarns and so on. The very word ‘text’ in the sense of words-on-a-page is the same word that gives us textile. Stories are made of interwoven words, and since words change the world, truly well-told stories are unimaginably powerful. In the Norse saga Brennu Njals Saga, a poor traveler comes across a little house in Scotland where three battle furies are weaving the tidings of the Battle of Clontarf (placing this episode in 1014 AD if you were wondering). They are weaving a tapestry of war made from the butchered bits of soldiers, their guts, ligaments and so on, and chanting the Darraðarljoð — literally the Dart-Poem —one stanza of which runs …

So cheerily chant we
Charms for the young king,
Come maidens lift loudly
His warwinning lay;
Let him who now listens
Learn well with his ears,
And gladden brave swordsmen
With bursts of war’s song.

So stories hold power. So what?

So we are all of us in grave danger.

See, these days people will say things like “it’s just a story” or “it was just a bit of talk.” Gone are the old admirations and respect for tale and talk as we drown under the weight of our text. Facebook and Twitter spit language at us in thoughtless bursts of intellectual bile. Television and cinemas pour over us barely reimagined iterations of the same stories. The more we devalue language and narrative the more we thirst for it, longing for the old tales that had weight and moment, desperately yearning for the revelations that our ancestors knew so well and finding only the disappointment of sarcasms so poorly made that they become barely intelligible. Eloquence is replaced with repetitive invocations of bodily functions and barely remembered religious curses, and we wonder why the world seems to be going crazy. Worse yet, the power of narrative is never diminished, so the less command we have of it, the more influence it has over us. We are no longer the storytellers. The story is telling us.

There are ramifications of this that extend throughout every facet of our lives. In my own life I see it most notably in the issues of wealth, power, and race that have gripped the United States.

When I was young, the narrative that we were given in school was that the United States was undertaking a great political experiment that was best expressed as government by the people, for the people. No one knew if it would work in the long term, but it was still working because we believed it was working. The reason for this great experiment was that the founding fathers wanted to break from the tyrannies of the past with a vision for a better way of life.

The Old American Narrative

The latter half of the nineteenth century saw unprecedented revolutions in economy, agriculture and industry (in that order: the economic revolution occurred in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the agricultural revolution in the seventeenth and eighteenth, and the industrial was still under way at the time of the American War of Independence. By the way, if you wonder why I list the British Agricultural revolution as a larger Agricultural revolution, it’s because the British revolution onfluenced agriculture across the globe. if you disagree, then put it in the comments and we can discuss it). As a result, the populations of cities exploded as people moved from the country to the cities. London, Paris, Vienna, Rome, nearly every city across Europe transformed from something that would look like a small village to us now to something that is recognizably modern. Social changes were slow to accomodate, so the old, land-based narratives that informed society no longer held. The rhythms of the seasons and lifetimes connected to the land — the life-spans of trees and livestock — did not matter in the pulsing throng of the new cities which eradicated the strong identities of family and village. What did your name really matter when every face that stared at you through the smog would come and go and never be seen again?

We struggle with anonymity and a feeling of disconnection, but that social reality only developed in the West about four hundred years ago. I should also point out that it is not necessarily a bad thing. Some people prefer to be anonymous and welcome the privilege of inconsequence, the feeling that you don’t matter, but it is a real thing and not simply a fact of reality as old as existence.

New social narratives developed to try and accomodate these changing realities. After all, they were the primary hallmarks of progress, but social ills like higher crime rates, mass disease, and dehumanization sparked a need to rebalance. Society tried to revitalize the old narratives which had worked during the Middle Ages.  The charisma of knights and barons as heroes inspired by divine rectitude transformed into the idea of the Divine Right of Kings. (No, the Divine Right of Kings was not properly a medieval idea.) The old pub-gatherings in which the common folk would take care of legal matters on their own land became government by representation, and parliaments centered in the cities began challenging the executive authority of kings. Finally, the narrative of families, tribes, villages and regions flowed into a new identity: that of the nation state.

In the midst of all this, there was also a social reality that offered an escape: colonialism.

It must seem strange to people from other countries to hear U.S. citizens talk about “rugged individualism” or “life on the frontier” in nostalgic tones. Many think of the period 1600–1860 as a brutal age of hubristic imperialism fueled by racism and Eurocentrism, but that is only one story — one narrative. For many at that time, the frontiers represented an escape from the horrors society held in the turmoil of social and technological change. (Remember that we’re talking about the time before the American and French Revolutions.) Like the Get-Back-to-the-Landers of the 1970s, if Europeans could manage the resources to make the trip, they could rebuild their lives without the violence and strangeness that was Europe during that time, and you can still find echoes of this idea in the 1950’s as when Disney released Davy Crockett. (Don’t be put off by “Indian Fighter.” Disney positions Crockett as an everyman who champions fairness to both natives and whites.)

The narrative, the ritual, the magic that Americans were trying to invoke was this escape from the “Nightmare of History.” It is a horrible irony that so many fom Scotland and Ireland became in the “New World” the instruments of that same oppression which they were trying to escape in the “Old World.” We so often become the thing we are trying to fight. The idea of government by the people, for the people, extended from this desire to escape the evils of the past and invoked a new narrative, a new story in which life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (altered from life, liberty and property for rhetorical reasons) were the central motivations outside concerns of class, identity and religion. In forging that escape, however, the government of the United States began a struggle with narrative that extends very much down to today.

Where Does That Leave Us?

In the end, the “Nightmare of History” is not so easily outrun because we live and die by narrative. You can add a new narrative, but that does not eradicate the old. In fact, narrative cannot die. It lives with us, in us, through us, and as we live those narratives are strengthened and increased. You cannot fight narrative. That only makes it stronger, but you can be aware of narrative and choose which ones inform your life. This takes an enormous amount of discipline, for as I observed in my last post truth has a kind of gravity to it. Narrative is truth, and if you look over the events of your life with clarity you will be able to see the narratives that have informed it. You will be able to feel the pull of narrative in conversations as responses suggest themselves to you, in urges to suddenly act in ways that you would never have imagined yourself capable of, in the draw of the mob, or in responses that are too easy. Certitude is often the hallmark of living strongly in one particular narrative just as confusion is often the turbulence we feel when we are adrift between conflicting narratives.

This misunderstanding that evil narratives should be fought is why we are in such danger. See, when your basic narrative is that of oppression, as it is with Marxist thought, then you bind yourself to the narrative of oppression. If you attempt to fight your percieved oppressors then you become yourself an oppressor. This is what George Orwell’s Animal Farm was all about. If you bind yourself to a narrative of guilt and conversion, which is the primary narrative of Christianity — the narrative of forgiveness presumes guilt after all — then you yourself become guilty and in need of conversion. Even the very notion of an “evil” narrative presumes a certain narrative, viz. there are stories that lead to death and destruction. No narrative is evil, and no narrative is good.

At present, the narrative of modern, Liberal North America is being strongly and aggressively invoked, so much so that crowds have taken to the streets and real violence is beginning to seem possible. This is not new. The Black Lives Matter and Occupy movements both extend from the Liberal North American narrative. It is a simple reality that those who take violent action presume their violence justified. Justification itself is an   extension of narrative; so long as the act fits the narrative it is justified. What most people mean when they ask for justification is to make an act fit into their narrative. If it does not fit, then it is not justified. To the extreme racist, racial cleansing is justified. To the extreme liberal, mob violence is justified in the face of oppression. Narrative is at the heart of both acts of violence.

Now the real danger here is not to our lives (though those are at stake) neither to the species (though that could fall into question) nor to the world (though it is impacted greatly). What is at stake is something far more fragile, ephemeral and necessary: our happiness.

There are many narratives in the world, and every so often a new one emerges. Like people, narratives can meet, join, complement or fight one another, but they cannot do it without human agency. Many people can make no distinction between their narratives and themselves. After all we even say “I am a pagan” and not “I live by pagan narratives” or “I am a liberal” instead of “the liberal narrative makes the most sense to me.” It is true that in some ways our individual narrative is who we really are, but we are not those narratives with which we ally ourselves, liberal, conservative, racist or religious. At least we don’t have to be.

We are all in the present meeting one another, and to allow our narratives to govern us so fully that we forget to make these individual, momentary meetings as happy and free as they can be is to court a life of misery and useless conflict. There will be conflict, but let us make that conflict serve us and those around us rather than serve an abstract narrative that has no agency beyond ourselves.

Narrative IS, and we can either choose the ones by which we live or be lived by our narratives. Choose carefully.






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