To really appreciate a bottle of wine one must give it time to breathe. By allowing wine to mix and mingle with air, the wine will typically warm up and the wine’s aromas will open up. The flavor profile will soften and mellow out a bit and the overall flavor characteristics should improve.
Now, stories may not actually breathe, but they can animate. Stories animate human life; that is their work. Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided. What is it about stories—what are their particularities—that enables them to work as they do? More than mere curiosity is at stake in this question, because human life depends on the stories we tell. The sense of self that those stories impart, the relationships constructed around shared stories, and the sense of purpose that stories both propose and foreclose. Stories breathe life not only into individuals, but also into groups that assemble around telling and believing certain stories. After stories animate, they instigate. In the outer circle of Dante’s Inferno, the lovers Paolo and Francesca claim that their shared reading of a story of courtly love instigated their illicit affair. Contemporary sociologists argue that stories mobilize social movements, and stories send nations off to war. In Dante’s account as well as that of sociology, a good life requires living well with stories. When life goes badly, a story is often behind that too.
The Family Ethnicity:
Once upon a time in a land full of immigrants and high divorce rates, Lillian grew up never meeting her father. Growing up Lillian’s mother Anne, told her what little information she did know about her father. Anne would tell Lillian that her Grandpa on her dad’s side was from Germany and “joined America before the first World War”, to help defeat Germany. Lillian’s Grandpa Roltz joined the American Army and became a citizen. After WW1 Lillian’s Grandpa met a woman in France and married her bringing her back to the US where Lillian’s Dad Carlton was born. After hearing the story, Lillian had no reason to doubt and began to take interest in German and French literature.
Eventually Lillian grew up and met a man named Francis. Francis had grown up overseas with his father who was stationed near France, in the United States Marine Corps, and always wanted to marry a French woman. When Francis found out Lillian was French he was very drawn to her, eventually he fell in love with Lillian and they got married.
Lillian ended up meeting her father later on in life and found out that in fact she was not French she was Irish.
In this story, at first the family ethnicity story sounds good: childhood memories that are part of a trajectory leading to her identity. By the last sentence, stories have become suspect, potentially dangerous; they participate in what emerges as a pattern of deceit.
Obviously in this example Lillian and Francis stayed married and it was a non-issue for the relationship. Francis got over his obsession for French women and was humbled by the experience. Lillian, however was struck with the fact that she believed a story and formed her identity in light of it, just to find out it was not true.
There is nothing wrong with believing stories but we should always doubt the certainty that stories present.
It’s a catch 22. On the one hand, we have no other option than to let stories affect us and move us, but what happens when you find out some things you thought were true, no longer are?
Maybe there is a solution…maybe a way to interpret the story…some tools to help get the job done?
” Not least among human freedoms is the ability to tell the story differently and to begin to live according to that different story.” Frank, Arthur W
People grow up being cast into stories, as actors are cast into their parts in a play—but that is too deterministic a metaphor. People are like actors cast into multiple scripts that are all unfinished. From all the stories that people hear while they are growing up, they remain caught up in some, forget many others, and adapt a few to fit adult perceptions and aspirations. Truth be told, we get to choose for ourselves how we want to interpret a story, and our choice will dramatically affect us and those around us. In the story, Lillian and Francis both engage in an adaptation of stories they each grew up on, telling a story about the telling of that story and thereby changing how they remain caught up in the story.
Stories are crucial actors not only in the making of narrative selves—selves that, as Booth says, live more or less in stories—but also in making the community. Stories connect people into collectivities, and they coordinate actions among people who share the expectation that life will unfold according to certain plots. The selves and collectivities animated by stories then animate further stories: revising old stories and creating new ones—though whether any story is ever truly new is always contestable. Stories and humans work together, in symbiotic dependency, creating the social that comprises all human relationships, collectivities, mutual dependencies, and exclusions. That symbiotic work of stories and humans creating the social is the scope of socio-narratology.
In anthropology, Renato Rosaldo observes this process in his ethnographic work among the Ilongots: “Huntsmen in fact seek out experiences that can be told as stories. In other words, stories often shape, rather than simply reflect, human conduct.”
Rosaldo and Arthur have much to teach on how important it is to allow stories to take a grip on us and mold us, but also to doubt the certainty of the story and remain able to see a story critically –while, still remaining open to be swept away by a metaphor.
Arthur tells us: “Stories act in human consciousness, with individuals sometimes being aware of what story is acting and sometimes not. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, one of the great scholars of myth, wrote that “myths get thought in man unbeknownst to him.” People have often forgotten the stories that think in them; they overestimate the personal originality of what Douglass, quoted above, calls “the word to be spoken by me.” Two axioms of socio-narratology are that no one ever thinks a story that is wholly original to that person, and no one ever thinks a story alone.” He continues; “As actors, stories and narratives are resources for people, and they conduct people, as a conductor conducts an orchestra; they set a tempo, indicate emphases, and instigate performance options. The orchestra conductor’s silence would not be understood as the absence of his or her effect on the music. Booth goes further, writing: “We all live our lives in a surrender to stories about our lives, and about other possible lives; we live more or less in stories, depending on how strongly we resist surrendering to what is ‘only’ imagined.”
Live in the paradox. See critically and see allegorically.
Don’t be afraid to doubt certainty.
inspired by a teacher of mine AW Arthur