Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Short Story

I've been thinking for a long time about stories: about what they are and why they have such power over us.

You know what I mean. We are all constantly telling stories. We are dying to hear stories. The whole point of the telephone and all its descendants is so that we can more quickly and efficiently tell our stories. The newspaper is a daily dose of stories; all of television and cinema are stories. Even documentaries are stories—the good ones at least—and the ones that fail to make a story of their subject are often the ones we have in mind when we yawn at the idea of documentaries. Half of the songs on the radio tell stories ("Here's the thing—we started out friends..."), and for the other half we supply stories ("Every breath you take, every move you make..."), and we feel especially lucky when at a concert we hear the true story behind a song from the lips of its creator ("This next song is one I wrote after my girlfriend left me...").

The vast majority of scripture is story rather than sermon. The lessons and classes from my youth I still remember I remember because they were wrapped in stories; the teachers I remember most vividly were storytellers.

That much is given. What I haven't ever pinned down is why. Why do we love stories so much? Why are they so important and so powerful? What difference does it make whether a story is true or not?

Tonight I was watching a fine film when I realized one part of it. We—should I say I?—I love stories because they tell me who I am. Or rather, or more often, they tell me who I am not, which is just another way of telling me who I am. I am not, say, the Count of Monte Cristo, nor am I Edward Rochester. I am not Robin Hood. When I read them or see them, I can feel stirrings of antipathy or of common feeling. I say in myself, "I have never felt that way," or "I have had that experience," or, "I would not have acted that way." In seeing others—all others in all stories—I come to see myself: my boundaries come into focus. I can say, "I am not you; I am me," with more alacrity. Stories help turn the vast field of emotion and color that is my mind's-eye view of the world into a great big Venn diagram: "Here's where Rochester and I intersect; here's where we do not."

We all do this. How often have you interrupted a friend telling you about some experience at the grocery store to say, "If I had been there, I would've done this"?

Perhaps this idea offers a way to evaluate literature and literary merit. I know I am guilty of indulging in stories merely for the sake of not having to think for awhile. This summer it was five seasons of NCIS. I also often read just to find out what happens: notice the three Star Wars titles that have shown up on my list this summer. They weren't very good or all that exciting, and I certainly didn't feel any deep connection with Luke and the gang. I just wanted to see how things turned out (the Empire never struck back).

Seems to me these are lesser uses of story (not that there's anything wrong with recreation—I'm not so high-brow as that). It certainly feels different to read, say, Jane Eyre than to read Heir to the Empire. Jane tells me things I didn't know about myself. She makes me more of me.1

Not that it need be one or the other. Harry Potter, for one, has done all three for me. Not only have I been able to while away the hours countlessly, I've wondered intensely what would happen next, and I've seen myself in and out of Harry, Snape, and the rest.

So there it is. We love stories.

We love stories because they tell us who we are. They separate us from all other living beings.2

1 "I've always known myself," Jane says in the fine film I watched this evening. "But Mr. Rochester was the first to recognize me."

"Know thyself," goes the Greek proverb.

To be so lucky.

2 They also connect us to all other living beings, but that's another idea for another day. "Come in and know me better, man!"

"And this is life eternal, that they might know thee."


Jennifer said...

I love stories partly b/c that is the only time I will experience certain things in life. Although vicariously, I feel satisfied and am not driven to do those things in my real life. Examples: solve a murder mystery, argue before the supreme court, tell my true love goodbye for good.

Janssen said...

I hope this was the fine Jane Eyre version with Toby Stephens as Mr. Rochester.

Megs said...

Thank you for quoting both Jane Eyre (and I'm sure it was the version that Janssen is referring to, because that's the one that has that line in it) AND Muppet Christmas Carol in the same post.

amy said...

Wow. I suddenly feel i know myself better... I'm also working on 5 seasons of NCIS.

I've often felt, in my life, the need to do everything--not this Utah mormon drive to perfection, but the desire to experience great and exciting things... as defined by me, of course.

I've also found that those great and exciting things can happen in my own backyard and within my own imagination.

Anna B said...

a) that is the best jane eyre film out there, in my opinion.

b) great quote from dickens.