Making sense of things is a process of variously discovering and applying logical coherence, empirical adequacy and – the hard one – narrative intelligibility. Narrative is the subject of this post.
Narrative is a fancy word for “story telling.” And there is quite a story to tell.
Let us go back a bit, and by “a bit,” I mean before human beings even existed. Why would early hominids ever develop language in the first place? Did it somehow facilitate hunting? Well, other pack hunters like lions, dolphins, and troops of chimpanzees do not seem to suffer from its absence. (The latter group will evidently go out on murder raids against their own kind, again without any assistance from language.) Exactly what information could one convey with language, while hunting, that observation, practice and hand signals could not do better? Just imagine one hunter using language to assist in the hunt: “HEY FRED! CIRCLE AROUND TO THE LEFT! THERE’S A HERD OF ANTELOPE RIGHT OVER TH… oh … Never mind.” As anyone who has ever hunted in any capacity – or merely thought about the subject for an instant – will instantly recognize, stealth is of far greater importance than extended communication.
What about other kinds of activities? Can we still get away with the claim that the purpose of language is “to communicate”? Even if we cautiously entertain such a notion, we need to ask, “Alright, but communicate what?” To communicate “facts” might be a traditional answer, demonstrating conclusively that “tradition” is scarcely worth all the letters that go into its spelling. What a pitiful thing is language, if its primary purpose is to communicate facts! And what triply pitiful things are we, inarticulate brutes that we are, that we can scarcely be troubled to attend to – much less alter our beliefs or behaviors – those “facts” that are supposedly the justification for language, and and for which whose communication language is supposedly principally intended!
If you clicked on the link above, you will have been reminded of Robin Williams character’s response in Dead Poets Society to the above question: “No. It is to woo women!” Leaving aside any questions of sexism (particularly given the time frame of the story) there are good reasons to hold that this answer is closer to the truth than the traditional “communicate the facts” foolishness. (Notice that I have explicitly constrained the previous “to communicate” claim, to that of “to communicate the facts.” An argument could be made that this constraint was implicit in the exchange from the film; a fair part of that argument will become explicit in what follows.)
If the purpose of language is to communicate facts, then one ought to ask after the earliest forms of such communications. Do we see in the oral traditions still available to us encyclopedic compilations of observed facts? Or do we rather see extended networks of stories and narratives that bind various cultural groups together into a relational totality? I deliberately pose the questions in this manner so as to highlight the fact that, as posed, they form something of a false dichotomy, a specious “either/or” choice. One can communicate facts with fictional stories, and grand truths can be passed along with the purist of myths.
35 years ago, a professor of mine (when I was an undergraduate at USC, prior to transferring to Occidental College – you’ll understand if I don’t provide a link?) presented the idea that Homer’s Illiad was in many ways a cultural encyclopedia for the civilization of that time. Bear in mind that the civilization in question predated written language by upwards of 500 years, and so the contents of this “encyclopedia” had to be held in memory, and transmitted orally. Great passages of the epic are devoted to describing in meticulous detail such matters as how to properly beach one’s ship, what makes for a “manly man,” how to behave before one’s superiors (and how superior a man one must be to hazard those rules), etc. Similar remarks can be made about comportment, behavior, respects and insults, about other epics in the Western tradition (Beowulf, for example.)
Clearly ideas can be conveyed by stories, and even various sorts of facts. But the key thing to recognize here is that the stories – and, in general, the narrative form – decidedly precede the facts and ideas being conveyed. Stories and story-telling had to already be there before they could be employed in the conveyance of ideas and facts. As anyone who has ever sat around a campfire, rapt in some tale being spun by a good story-teller can attest, the narrative can be devoid of any “higher” values or significances, provide no factual data of any sort, and still create a profoundly deep and personal bonding experience amongst all those listening to the tale.
Indeed, I have a personal experience that is worth mentioning here; it did not occur around a camp-fire, but rather in the apartment of some friends. We’d planned on this gathering for some time, and part of the intended game for all those who attended was some kind of exemplification of art, language, or conversation very much in the form of the classic camp-fire story. I had a good amount of time to think about this challenge, to compose those thoughts, and when the time came around for the party, I “centered” myself in a true Seanachie mode.
The room was already darkened, and the mood was set before my time came around. When it did, I settled back in my chair and began talking about a camping trip I’d gone on as a youth, in the time between before high school ended and I left for the Army. It was an almost inexplicable trip for me to go on, given how shy and isolated I was as a kid, but I guess the others needed one more person to balance out the numbers of boys and girls (and I was neither threat nor competition to anyone.) It was a long journey, in the deep wilderness that you can still find in Northern California. I found myself consumed with existential wonder in a night sky that went on forever; but that was not the significant event. Things happened, near disaster almost overcame us all, and but for an accidental glance over my shoulder in the moonlight, the meaning of that disaster might have been entirely lost. As it was, I shared it with no one. Until now.
When I finished, there was a deep and thoughtful silence in the room. People eventually began to shift and murmur their appreciation for my story. I waited a few moments – perhaps not as long as I might have, my timing with such things is entirely unpracticed – before I dropped the ultimate bomb:
The entire story was a fabrication from beginning to end.
Many people were startled at this, and a couple refused to believe my confession over my story. But the only “true” part about it (beyond the “truth of spirit” which no good story can ever avoid or deny) was the confession of the fabrication.
Permit me, at this point, to draw your attention to all of the foregoing. This entire post has been an example of me telling you a story.
Was it a true story?
Was it a good story?
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once observed that, “In the real world, it is more important for a proposition to be interesting than that it be true. The advantage of truth is, that it adds to interest.” The problem for human beings is that too often the lack of truth does not often enough diminish the interest in the story. Language is a reflection of our minds, and so if language was primarily about communicating facts, then our minds would reflect this in their adaptability TO facts. But as anyone who surveys the current state of politics, with its aggressive and intransigent denial of facts that do not admit of even the abstract possibility of reasoned dispute – facts about the reality of racism in this country, facts about the reality of global warming, facts about the reality of evolution, facts about the reality (and devastating consequences of!) income inequality, facts about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines – then it becomes agonizingly clear that human beings generally suck communicating and understanding facts. Because a “good” story blow all that truth stuff off the table, like a gust of wind scattering old, dried leaves.
Herein endeth this tale.