Thursday, April 29, 2010

Natural storytelling III - The authorities of story

This is part three of a four part post on natural and purposeful storytelling. To read the four parts in order, see:
  1. The sweetness of disgrace
  2. Hierarchy and meshwork
  3. The authorities of story (this post)
  4. Solutions

The authorities in the story world, the keepers of the hierarchy, have always managed the official stories and decided what was a story and what was not. Several hundred years ago these were the church, the state, and those people dedicated to traditional storytelling roles -- traveling bards, novelists, playwrights. Story authorities then made the same claims as they do today: that their stories were qualified to be official stories, and others were not. That much has not changed. The very act of writing down texts like the Illiad was a crystallization of oral traditions, whose effect (even if not the sole intention) was to legitimize some stories and deligitimize others.

Who are the story authorities today? All of the above still exist and maintain some influence, but they have been largely crowded out by the commercial world of television and movies.

In The Magic Mountain, one of the most effective contrasts is that between the previously mentioned humanist Settembrini and Naptha, a would-be Jesuit (who was forced to leave the order due to his medical condition). Naptha represents the authority of the church and counters Settembrini's humanist arguments, sometimes in a dazzling bewilderment of contradiction and self-contradiction (which I still can't completely understand). During a conversation Mann calls "the great colloquy on health and sickness" Settembrini and Naptha trade views on what it means to be ill. If we translate these as views on what it means to consume packaged stories, we can discover some illuminating insights.

The conversation begins when casual talk turns to a young woman who has recently died of tuberculosis. She was involved in one of Hans Castorp's schemes for proving his place in the hierarchy of illness: he had begun methodically paying respectful visits to and bestowing gifts on all the most aristocratic (dying) patients. Settembrini makes "sarcastic remarks" about this campaign and its element of put-on reverence. In response, Naphta recounts how Christian saints were known for their "fanatacism and ecstasy in the care of the sick -- the daughters of kings had kissed the stinking wounds of lepers, with the express purpose of becoming infected." Settembrini bridles at this and speaks of "modern, progressive forms of humanitarian nursing, the slow, steady victory over epidemic disease."

Naptha's response is worth typing in full:
During the centuries he was talking about, Naptha responded, such decent bourgeois measures would have served neither side -- would have been of no more use to the ill and suffering than to the healthy and happy, who had wanted to demonstrate their charity not so much out of compassion as out of the desire to save their own souls. Efficaceous social reforms would have deprived the latter of the most important means of justification, and the former of their sanctified state. And so it had been in the interest of both parties to perpetuate poverty and illness, and that attitude had held as long as it had been possible to maintain a purely religious view of things.
I love Settembrini's reply to this.
A squalid view of things, Settembrini asserted, and he felt himself almost above combating such an attitude. For the notion of a "sanctified state" ... was a fraud based on deception, on misplaced feelings, on a psychological blunder. The sympathy that the healthy person felt for someone who was ill, which could intensify to the point of awe, since he was unable to imagine how he could ever bear such suffering himself -- such sympathy was utterly exaggerated. The sick person had no right to it. It was based on a misperception, a failure of imagination, because the healthy person was attributing his own mode of experience to the sick person, making of him, so to speak, a  healthy person who had to bear the torments of sickness -- a totally erroneous idea. The sick person was just that, sick, both by nature and in his mode of experience. Illness battered its victim until they got along with one another: the senses were diminished, there were lapses in consciousness, a merciful self-narcosis set in -- all means by which nature allowed the organism to find relief, to adapt mentally and morally to its condition, and which the healthy person naively forgot to take into account. A perfect example was this tubercular pack up here, with their frivolity, stupidity, depravity, their aversion to becoming healthy again. In short, if the sympathetic or awestruck healthy person were to become sick  himself, to lose his health, he would soon see that illness is a state in and of itself, though certainly not an honorable one, and that he had been taking it all too seriously.
Hans Castorp vacillates between these views. He is attracted by the "nobility, aristocracy" of Naptha's view:
Hans Castorp ... admitted haltingly that he had always imagined death wearing a starched Spanish ruff, or at least in some sort of semi-uniform with a high stiff collar, whereas life always wore a little, normal, modern collar.... [W]as it not true that there were people, certain individuals, whom one found it impossible to picture dead, precisely because they were so vulgar? That was to say: they seemed so fit for life, so good at it, that they would never die, as if they were unworthy of the consecration of death.
At this Settembrini again seizes the opportunity to warn Hans Castorp against the hierarchy of illness:
Herr Settembrini hoped he was not wrong in assuming that Hans Castorp had made such a remark merely so that it could be contradicted. The young man would always find him ready to assist intellectually in warding off such assaults. "Fit for life," had he said? And had used the term in a pejorative sense? "Worthy of life" -- that was the term he should have used instead. And then his thoughts would order themselves in a true and beautiful manner.
Naptha fires back with:
Illness was supremely human.... Indeed, man was ill by nature, his illness was what made him human, and whoever sought to make him healthy and attempted to get him to make peace with nature, to "return to nature" (whereas he had never been natural)... wanted nothing more than to dehumanize man and turn him into an animal. Humanity? Nobility? The Spirit was what distinguished man -- a creature set very much apart from nature, with feelings very much contrary to nature -- from the rest of organic life. Therefore, the dignity and nobility of man was based in the Spirit, in illness. In a word, the more ill a man was the more highly human he was, and the genius of illness was more human than that of health.
It is easy to step from these two views on illness to two similar views on storytelling. First, in Settembrini's meshwork-dominated view, story is a complex human endeavor that goes on among members of communities and families. It is rooted in the concrete and personal, the ever-forming and never-complete, the work of life itself. As such it responds to "efficaceous social reforms" that strengthen community storytelling. From Settembrini's position, packaged stories draw people in and "batter them" until they get used to them.

This reminds me of the audio series "Word of Mouth" on "Who is Telling Stories Today?" -- especially these parts:
"I think as TV gives us images to be consumed, we are not nourished. TV gives us throw-away images. We can't remember from hour to hour what we saw. It has a numbing effect. Now, I watch a lot of TV, and I've analyzed my own interest in it. Why do I watch so much TV? But I know that when a TV program is served up to me, I'm supposed to consume it and excrete it so that I can take in another program. So the images don't linger."
And from a different speaker:
"You can turn on a television and watch Three's a Crowd, and it doesn't make any difference how stupid it is, you'll get some laughs out of it. It's quick and it's easy, and you don't have to put up with Grandma Simpkins, who's a wonderful storyteller but sometimes it takes her a half a pint of whiskey and two or three hours to get going, and she drools. But for me, I'd spend the time around Grandma Simpkins, but...."
Notice the references to hierarchy and meshwork here. In the first quote, the viewer is "supposed to consume it and excrete it" -- supposed to -- expected to fulfill a role in a hierarchy. Conversely, notice the work implied in natural storytelling -- watching television is quick and easy, while experiencing Grandma Simpkins' authentic storytelling requires effort and patience.

Also compare Settembrini's statement about how illness batters its victims to what these people have said about the packaged stories in television. "The senses were diminished" becomes "throw-away images" by which "we are not nourished." "There were lapses in consciousness" becomes "We can't remember from hour to hour what we saw." "A merciful self-narcosis set in" becomes "TV has a numbing effect." Settembrini's scenario of a healthy person viewing a sick person conjures up in my mind the view of a time traveler from hundreds of centuries ago visiting our modern world. While they would certainly marvel at our medical advances, they might be aghast at our willingness to submit meekly to the "numbing effect" and "self-narcosis" of packaged stories, as well as at our belief that we are not qualified to tell "real" stories. Such a traveler might be dismayed at our "frivolity, stupidity, depravity" and "aversion to becoming healthy again" -- healthy storytellers, that is. Any sympathy they might have for us, for our thoughtless turning away from face-to-face conversation to side-by-side consumption, would be a misperception to which we had no right. We have adapted, mentally and morally, to our condition, and are as complicit in it as the illness itself.

Against this view Naptha provides one dominated by the authority and ease of hierarchy. In Naptha's view, the important thing is to advance the pure ideal, that which cannot be sullied by human complexity and messiness. At one point in the "great colloquy on health and sickness" the talk turns to the issue of guilt. Settembrini believes that individual guilt cannot exist, since criminal behavior can be explained by errors of the state, especially in allowing poverty to crush human potential. Naptha responds that guilt is the state of man from which he can only rise with the help of something above himself:
...[T]he moment a single idea, something that transcended mere "security," was at work, something suprapersonal, something greater than the individual -- and since that alone was a state worthy of mankind, it was, on a higher plane, the normal state of affairs -- at that moment, then, individual life would always be sacrificed without further ado to that higher idea, and not only that, but individuals would also unhesitatingly and gladly risk their own lives for it.
Settembrini asks if criminals, then, should take all of the guilt of their actions upon themselves and leave none for the state. The response is:
Exactly. The criminal was as imbued with ugilt as he was with self. For he was what he was, and was neither able nor willing to be anything else -- and that was his guilt. Herr Naptha removed guilt and merit from the empirical world to the metaphysical.
That sentence about removing guilt and merit to the metaphysical ranks up there with the sentence on the "dissolute sweetness of disgrace" as penetrating to the heart of the issue. It is now easy to transfer these ideas to storytelling: simply place Naptha's Spirit with the Platonic ideal of Good Stories. The pursuit of Good Stories -- proper, well-formed, well-told, captivating, enlightening, persuasive, memorable, powerful, compelling, timeless stories -- is a single idea. It is something that transcends mere anecdote, something suprapersonal, something greater than paltry community gossip. It is on a higher plane. Individual storytelling should always be sacrificed without further ado to this higher idea, and not only that, but individuals should also unhesitatingly and gladly risk their own ability to tell stories for it. The story authorities remove guilt and merit from the narrative world to the narratological.

In this view, helping people revive community storytelling would serve neither side -- would be of no more use to the people who consume Good Stories than to the people who painstakingly learn the craft and produce them. Those who produce Good Stories -- perhaps they have been trained by such masters as Robert McKee, with his absolute hierarchical statements about what makes a good story, or perhaps they have studied the great literary theorists and academic narratologists, or perhaps they turn to the great authors of Good Stories in the past -- do their work not so much out of a desire to entertain and enlighten their audiences as out of the desire to achieve their own mastery of Good Stories. Efficaceous social reforms would deprive the latter of the most important means of justification, and the former of their sanctified state, as Good Audiences who receive Good Stories. And so it is in the interest of both parties to perpetuate the production and consumption of Good Stories, and that attitude will hold as long as it is possible to maintain a purely hierarchical view of narrative.

Indeed (so Naptha might continue), consuming Good Stories is supremely human. People crave Good Stories by nature. The consumption of Good Stories is what makes us human, and whoever seeks to make us healthy and attempts to get us to return to the natural state of casual story exchange (whereas we had never been natural, had always craved Good Stories)... wants nothing more than to dehumanize us and turn us into clumsy, stupid anecdote-spewing peasants. Humanity? Nobility? Good Stories are what distinguish us -- creatures set very much apart from nature, with feelings very much contrary to nature -- from the rest of organic life. Therefore, the dignity and nobility of people is based in Good Stories, in being a Good Audience for Good Stories. In a word, the more Good Stories a person consumes the more highly human he or she is, and the genius of being a Good Audience is more human than that of storytelling.

It may seem as if I am ridiculing this perspective by making such an absurd parody of these translations to another context. But I am not, and actually I find myself agreeing with narrative-Naptha to some extent. There is such a thing as a good story (and there is definitely such a thing as a bad story), and it is nice to watch a movie made by an expert storyteller. The problem, as always, is in the balance. When people are afraid to speak because their role as a Good Audience for Good Stories is too tightly wrapped around their lives, things are not right.

There have always been people around willing to say they know the way to Good Stories. Aristotle's Poetics begins with these words:
I propose to treat of Poetry [drama] in itself and of its various kinds, noting the essential quality of each, to inquire into the structure of the plot as requisite to a good poem; into the number and nature of the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly into whatever else falls within the same inquiry. Following, then, the order of nature, let us begin with the principles which come first.
Three words are important here: "essential", "good", and "order." These are statements of authority: I know what is essential, thus real; I know what a good poem is and isn't; and I know what is orderly and what isn't.

Listen to this blurb for McKee's Story Seminar:
Over four intense days, McKee's Story Seminar effectively demonstrates the relationship between story design and character. Quality story structure demands creativity; it cannot be reduced to simple formulas that impose a rigid number of mandatory story elements.

Robert McKee's course teaches you the principles involved in the art and craft of screenwriting and story design, and proves the essence of good story is unchanging and universal. Whether on the big screen, on television, in novels, on stage and in ALL creative work, everything works in the shadow of classic story design.
Demonstrates, demands, cannot, principles, proves, essence, unchanging, universal . These are all hierarchy words, structure words. If in some alternate reality the idea of Good Stories had never evolved and storytelling was still heavily meshwork-flavored, people might still give seminars about stories, but the seminars would be more about observing how people tell each other stories, learning from your own experiences, finding your voice, learning how to listen, and becoming familiar with the ebb and flow of stories through human life. Such a seminar could never take away the work aspect of meshwork, because each person's path would be unique. There would be no short-cuts to find, no secrets to reveal, no gurus, no how-tos, and no teaching at all, really. Perhaps that would be a more healthy version of human storytelling? From Settembrini's view, certainly, but not from Naptha's view, because the stories people told would not be Good Stories. Not only that, but there would be no Good Audiences. It would be a disaster.

In this great article in The Atlantic, Richard Bausch laments hearing from writers who have read dozens of books on how to write good stories, but few great stories.
Recently, at a college where I was lecturing, a student told me, with great pride, that he had "over a hundred books" in his library—I could see that I was meant to be impressed by the number, and that he considered himself a vastly well-read type of guy. He went on to say that many in his collection are how-to books. This person wants to be a writer, but he doesn’t want to do the work. Being a writer is a stance he wants to take. He did not come to writing from reading books, good or bad. He came to it from deciding it might be cool to walk around in that role. I meet this kind of "writer" far too often now in my travels around the country—even, occasionally, in the writing programs.
Again, notice the implications of hierarchy over meshwork in this quote. The student Bausch met wants to take on a stance -- a place in a hierarchy -- but does not want to do the work of reading enough actual writing to learn how to write. He wants to live in Naptha's world, not Settembrini's. He wants what Hans Castorp wanted. He wants what I wanted. He wants a place in the order of things. He wants a path, not a machete.

Next: Solutions ...

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