We humans are all storytellers, or story-listeners, or both. That’s a crucial element of our humanity. Passing down the generations, constantly changing under the pressure of altering circumstances, stories link humanity together in chains of narrative. Odysseus sets out on the wine-dark sea, fights ferocious monsters, endures endless hardships, and eventually finds his way home; and so does Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried; and so do many thousands of other heroes conceived in the 2,900 years between Odysseus and O’Brien.
Storytelling has been, since the earliest times, the way people have ordered their reality. It is the fundamental use of language, that which creates and defines reality. As James Baldwin said in his essay, If Black Language Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me What Is?, “People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate. . .What joins all languages, and all men [sic], is the necessity to confront life, in order, not inconceivably, to outwit death” (37). Baldwin’s understanding of the use of language can be extended to the purpose of storytelling. By telling a story, not only do we create reality, we defeat death.
This concept of stories as constructing reality is not unique to Baldwin. In Narrative Means To Therapeutic Ends, by Michael White and David Epston, the same ideas of storytelling are enumerated, “In striving to make sense of life, persons face the task of arranging their experiences of events in sequences across time in such a way as to arrive at a coherent account of themselves and the world around them. . .This account can be referred to as a story…” (47)
Ours has been the storytelling century: never before have so many of us had the chance to absorb so many stories. Earlier centuries heard stories face-to-face, figured them out from pictures on the walls of caves or cathedrals, read them in manuscripts, and finally (from the 15th century onward) read them in printed books. The 19th century industrialized storytelling through popular novels and magazines. The 20th century made stories pervasive. Now, they are installed as constant elements in our lives, delivered through movies, radio, television and the Internet, all of them machines of narrative. The 21st century will find new ways of telling the old stories and developing new ones. So far, no one claims excellence for literary experiments on the Internet-but then, the novel at its birth was thought to be frivolous and the movies, when new, were no more than a toy.
But there is a danger in this swell of story-telling. There was a time when the story-teller was revered. Story-tellers were considered to be prophets, shamans, visionaries. Today, there are two kinds of storytellers, the money makers, and the outcasts. The outcasts, like Thomas Builds-the-Fire in Sherman Alexie’s novel, The Lone Ranger and Tonto fistfight in heaven, are telling the stories of the dispossessed. The stories which do not get told in Hollywood, at least, they rarely get told.
We might have expected that humanity would at some point have resisted this swelling ocean of stories, would have been repelled by so much narration, so many ingenious plots, so many satisfying resolutions. But no: it appears we can never get enough. We thirst after stories of all kinds-epics, tragedies, comedies, anecdotes, parables. We are insatiable. Many of us are so enchanted we go back to the same story again and again, searching for fresh meaning. Some people watch Casablanca every chance they get. I used to read The Chronicles of Narnia until I wore the pages out, and I’ve already burned through four copies of Shogun. There are those who believe Christmas incomplete without A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
Given a chance, we convert real tragedy into stories and then makes stories into parables, or life-lessons, which we use as the beginnings of wisdom. The Vietnam War was a tragic time in American history. Boys lost their innocence, lost their lives, and the country was split down the middle because of it. Then, in our stories, it became a metaphor for all wars, for all loss and schisms. It became a profound symbol of greed, violence and the danger accompanying technology. It tells the tale of love, of fear and of isolation. It’s not the war that did this, though. It was the memory, the souls of those who fought the war.
Mark Turner of the University of Maryland, in his book, The Literary Mind, tells us bluntly: “Narrative imagining-story-is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it” (37). He believes that storytelling is our chief means of explaining the world to one another and ourselves, and the principal way we form intelligence. It is essential to human cognition. Stories teach the brain how to work.
Turner grounds his theory in the neuroscience of Gerald Edelman, who argues that the mind uses overlapping systems (he calls them “maps”) of neurons to pull together scattered bits of sensation and thought. Stories are the forces that set these neurons firing and connecting, and the connections that result become the architecture of human intelligence. Those who spend long hours reading stories to their children are clearly on the right track-and so is the child who demands the same story over and over again. A neural path is being carved through the mind; perhaps the child gets it right by instinct.
In the sciences of the mind there is something even more compelling to be said about narrative: Sigmund Freud became the most influential thinker of the century because he told effective stories, and retold the stories of others in ways that elaborated on his own patterns of thought. In one sense, Freud ended the 20th century as a failure: armies of analysts and theorists can now demonstrate that he often exaggerated his results, that he failed to understand what some of his patients were telling him (about sexual abuse, for instance), that his rate of helping patients get better was not high, and that there is no way (nor will there ever be a way) to prove his theories by anything remotely like a scientific method. As a result, a generation of psychiatrists has scorned or ignored him. Even so, he has conquered. Go the movies, pick up a novel, switch on a TV talk show, and there is no doubt who is in charge, whose concepts provide the underpinning of everyday discourse. Freud remains the most qu