Stories are our way of making sense of a senseless world. As such, they are a great strength, making thought and action meaningful. But they are also our greatest weakness, because we blindly believe them to be true.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
No escape from storytelling
The late filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira once told me a tale of a murderer who whispered the secret of his crimes to the bullrushes where it took on a life of its own and betrayed him. His tale about the perfidy of secrets seems to suggest that stories can exist independently of their teller. Indeed, we are so familiar with stories and their telling, we could be forgiven for thinking a story can exist in its own right. But that is not the case. Stories only exist because we invent them. There can be no story without someone to tell it, or write it, or at least think it. In fact, for us humans there’s no escaping our role as inventors of stories. We are wired to connect the dots. It’s our means of making sense of the world, even if the fragments we spin for ourselves, those that people our everyday life, don’t always make sense. Without stories to string them together, life is just a jumble of juxtaposed events, taking on significance only as part of a story.
A plethora of possibilities
Not part of just one story. Many. Imagine a male hand lightly grasping a girl’s knee. It was the subject of a film by Eric Rohmer. But that moment could fit so many stories. A doctor’s examination. A coach training his gymnast. A dancing couple in a complex ballet. A tailor measuring a young client for a new dress. A dubious character out to lay waste to an unguarded flower. A young man clumsily scattering confetti over a friend’s leg. An old man stumbling on a bus, embarrassed to find himself grasping the first thing that came to hand to avoid a potentially fatal fall. And so on.
The ever-present individual story
Stories are necessarily individual. Even those that are shared with a great many others in an illusion of togetherness remain individual creations, each with its little quirks and colours, if not its baroque flights of fantasy. We misguidedly believe we share an identical story, when, truth be told, our tales diverge, separating us, cutting us adrift. In reality, the widening gap between two tellings of a number of events can be a source of tension and suffering if not outright conflict and ultimately destruction.
Both a strength and a weakness
Stories, that’s to say, the linking together of events or observations into a sequence that seeks to give meaning to the relationships between them and how they evolve, are central to what it means to be a thinking human being. They are both our strength and our greatest weakness. They enable us to make sense of an otherwise senseless world, but, at the same time, they continually lead us astray, deluded as we are by our conviction that the stories we tell ourselves are really how things are.
A natural attractiveness
Many stories are laced with a natural attractiveness that lures us in and holds sway over us, if only through their power to explain things in a way we are eager to believe. Such is their seduction, we can end up imprisoned, especially as we depend on those stories to decide what we are going to do. They dictate limits that risk constraining us to be a lesser person than we could be. No wonder there’s a proliferation of coaches, therapists and other helping hands to loosen the grip of stories on people that have been unwittingly trapped by them. But who will free us from the helpers’ stories? In the unholy complexity of overlapping, interwoven, often contradictory stories, it’s a wonder we find our way without too many catastrophes.
Stories have always been a preoccupation of mine, particularly so as I write The Boy in the Book which is all about the power of stories. See also the earlier Stories to Make Sense of the World talking about my novel Stories People Tell. However Sally Rooney, in her recent T.S. Eliot lecture about Joyce’s Ulysses, opened a new vista for me when she spoke of Joyce’s ‘unprecedented fidelity to the shapelessness of lived reality’. It was this ‘shapelessness’ of reality that had me wondering what a world without stories would be like. As an author of novels concerned with structuring stories, the prospect of a world devoid of stories was both fascinating and daunting.
I am aware that the subject of stories is vast – stretching far beyond this brief foray – and many aspects clamour to be explored including the heavy-handed use of stories in propaganda, advertising and politics. Or the way some stories err so far from reality that no amount of contortion can twist them into a credible form and madness looms on the horizon. Or the way the discourse of science, commercial interests and political expediency come together to weave a unique narrative that everyone must accept on pain of exclusion. My sole aim in this short essay was to underline the key role of stories in the way we think and act.