Monday, May 3, 2010

Natural storytelling V - bits left over

I found a bunch of scribbled notes that I had meant to incorporate in my last long post, but they got forgotten, so I thought why not make one more post-let and add them. (This is in reference to the long post that starts here so you may need to read that to make sense of this.)

Two of the notes had to do with the issue of narrative events (storytellings) versus narrated events (what goes on in stories), and how today's movies and television feature narrated events and obscure narrative events.

First, do you remember how Mister Rogers, Captain Kangaroo and Romper Room used to talk to you? (If you are too young to know, check the links to find out what these things are.) I remember feeling as though each of these people was talking to me, personally; but it was always clear that they were real people on a real stage (you could usually see the stage) and that we were participating in an event together, as real people. In contrast, I've been watching some assorted kid's videos with my six-year-old, and I noticed that today, it's not people who address the audience, it's characters. Dora the Explorer talks directly to viewers, as do the kids in PBS' Super Why series. This is a perfect example of how the narrated-event picture has enlarged beyond the narrative-event frame. The storytellers are gone from the picture; all we see is the inside of the story, as though it was the only real thing.

Second, I was thinking about the joke-after-a-joke when you tell about something funny, and people don't get it, and then you say, "You had to be there." I've noticed something lately, which is that people used to say that about things they had actually done, but I keep noticing people saying it about television and movies. I just took a look and verified that it's not just me hearing it in person; it's easy to find people making such references on the web. One person even said "You had to be there" and then, "thanks to YouTube you can." The question is: you had to be where? Because, where were they? Inside the story, I think. I had noted this down as yet more evidence that people are viewing stories not as narrative events but as narrated events.

Finally, the third note I forgot to include was about qualification and illness and stories. I said that Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain became qualified to be a patient, with all its attendant rights and privileges, and then I said that was connected to people saying they were unqualified to tell stories. The obvious question is: if people don't believe they are qualified to tell stories, what do they think they are qualified to do?

My guess is that tellers of Good Stories and members of Good Audiences are exclusive categories. In other words, being qualified to be a member of the Good Audience automatically disqualifies you from being a teller of Good Stories. If you try to be both, you will tip over to one side or the other. This explains the problem I mentioned several posts back, in the one on whether people tell stories, that once people start working with stories professionally they have a harder time telling natural stories, because they slip into thinking of themselves as tellers of Good Stories. And, that people who think they never tell stories are probably very secure in their identity as Good Audiences for Good Stories.

In The Magic Mountain, while Hans Castorp is fully qualified to be a patient, he would never presume to claim that he was qualified to be a doctor. There is even a hint that Director Behrens is breaking the rules by having a touch of tuberculosis himself:
... [C]an someone truly be the intellectual master of a power to which he is himself enslaved? Can he liberate if he himself is not free? To the average person, the idea of a sick physician remains a paradox, a problematical phenomenon. Instead of being intellectually enriched and morally strengthened by his experience, may he not perhaps find that his knowledge of the disease becomes clouded and confused? He no longer stares down the illness with a hostile eye; he is a biased and hardly unequivocal foe. With all due respect, one must ask whether someone who is part of the world of illness can indeed be interested in curing or even nursing others in the same way a healthy person can.
It is not the role of the doctor to know the disease intimately, to be "battered" by it, to be "enslaved" by it, to live with it -- because it causes you to become "clouded and confused" as a good patient (in their obligation of passivity) should. It is the doctor's role to stand outside the illness, to be "free" from it, to stare it down, to defeat it from a distance; and for that doctors must be active as well as knowledgeable.

Again translating the metaphors, the reason people react as if they are unqualified to tell stories is simply because they are qualified to do something else, and they cannot do both, by the rules of the hierarchy. It is not their role to tell; it is their role to listen, and to listen well. Reviving community storytelling would be helped by reducing the exclusivity of the two roles as well as by reducing the draw of both extremes, thereby allowing people to range more broadly in their identifications with respect to storytelling.

So, as I said, just some scribbles I found that I forgot to include.


John Caddell said...

Cynthia, this is an extremely interesting set of posts. The distinction you draw between narrative events and narrated events reminds me of a writing teacher I had years ago.

He specialized in short stories that were incredibly immersive - they featured first-person narrators, but much of the action was in-the-moment. In his best stories, you felt you were there. To him, this was realism and was the highest order of storytelling- where the author disappeared and only the real-time events were left.

He called this "method writing," akin to method acting. There's no distance between the reader and the action, no author mediating the experience.

This is as opposed to earlier novels, such as "Tom Jones" or the Russian novels (or "Magic Mountain"!), where the author is constantly intruding on the action, commenting, pointing things out, like the intentionally artificial sets on a play stage.

I used to think that this "more realistic" type of method storytelling was superior (my teacher is a persuasive guy).

But more recently I've come back to appreciating the older novels, the more "narrative" stories. And your posts have helped explain why I like them.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Hi John, thanks for the comments! Actually I was going to mention that in older novels the author talks directly to the reader quite often and that it makes reading old novels a different experience, which partly explains why I like them better (but I think people may be starting to tire of my love for old novels. ;) In fact, recently I read a review of _The Magic Mountain_ where a reader complained that the author intruded on the story a lot. But in the older novels that is par for the course! I mean, half of _Tom Jones_ is commentary, and those are the funniest bits! That's what makes it worth reading, from my point of view.

I'm having a hard time trying to think of any immersive stories I've enjoyed (do you have a favorite?). For example Kafka is immersive in that I feel drawn into the worlds of his stories, but I am always aware of his voice in the work. One problem is that I tend to read authors, not books: I find out I like an author, then I read everything they ever wrote, including and especially their early disasters and "off" works, and then I cap it off by reading their biography (though at that point I can guess at much of it). In a way I think I must protect myself from becoming very much immersed in the stories themselves, maybe because I love participating in the narrative event so much. I remember when George Eliot died (meaning, when I finished her last novel) -- it was like losing a friend. I guess I'd rather know the author through their work than know the work through its author.

I guess there is a "highest order of storytelling" in each of the form -- you could call them the human-centric form and the story-centric form. In the human-centric form the highest order of storytelling is to enable narrative play and the narrative event in its entirey as a social exchange among people. In the story-centric form the highest order of storytelling is to form the perfect story, which may require sacrificing the narrative event in order to perfect the representation of narrative events. Each form has its merits and arguments, and I don't think either is superior, even though I know what I like best. I don't have the gene for football but I respect people who do.

But even though both styles have their merits and arguments and rights to exist ... it does seem like the story-centric form is more prone to sending the (maybe unintentional) message that Good Audiences don't tell Good Stories. Maybe this because as a Platonic ideal it has less of the mess of human complexity mixed into it. And it also seems like we've gotten out of balance, though as I said there are signs of positive change.