Thursday, July 26, 2007

What's in A Story?

Needing Stories

What child does not like a good bedtime story? Who among us does not like a book with a captivating story to bring on holidays? That’s why there are bookshops in the airports after all – to sell books to those poor travellers who have forgotten to bring them. What cinema-goer does not like to sit on the edge of his/her seat for the next twist in the storyline?

I remember as a child always been delighted when our Uncle Tom would visit. He was a great man to read or to tell a story. We thrive on stories because they can bring us to the lands of our imagination. Last Friday night I was in town to meet some friends for a drink. It was a wild and wet night – a great night for the thousands of followers in Dublin of that great weaver of tales – J.K. Rowling. Her throng of devotees were out in their hundreds, and many of them were dressed up like characters from her fantasy series. Amazon has said that 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' was the company's largest new product release ever. It said its global pre-order sales total was 2.2 million - a 47% increase on its previous record which was for 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'. What is it about this series of books that has caught the attention of the world? What is it saying about modern society? We need to ask these questions – we may get some insights into who we are and what we really want in life.

Let me attempt to suggest a few ideas. One of the main reasons for stories is that of sheer escapism. Mentioning this word alone conjures up immediately in our minds a very specific genre of stories called Escape Stories. There have been thousands of these written over the years. The great autobiographical novel Papillon by Enri Charrière is one famous book about escaping that comes vividly to mind. Charrière insists on the book’s literal truth. Whatever about that, it is a brilliant story well told. Then all those famous film directors are constantly seeking good stories. The world needs stories just as much as it needs food and water, it would appear. In many ways, humanity cannot “live on bread alone” as Jesus said. Humanity needs the enriching of the imagination, and one way that is done is by stories. We need our stories and we need our myths.

There are many great genres or types of stories. I have mentioned Escape Stories. There are also Stories of Origin – all races and all nationalities have their own traditional stories of the foundations of their people. Then there are Love Stories, which make their readers weep with the depths of emotion. Then there are Victory Stories and Success Stories and Horror Stories and even Stories of Defeat, though this last is merely the flip side of success and is normally recounted by the victor or by the successful narrator. Then, of course, there are Detective Stories and Mystery Stories and last but not least Science Fiction Stories.

One marvellous book I read on holidays recently was On Stories by Richard Kearney (Routledge, 2002) who is Professor of Philosophy at Boston College and U.C.D. Take a look at Kearney’s webpage at Boston College and you’ll be impressed by the sheer academic, and indeed creative, output of this genius. He shares one thing in common with that other genius about whom I have already written in these pages, Richard P. Feynman, Nobel Prize winner for Physics, and that is his singular ability to communicate with a non-scientific and a non-scholarly audience. This is a rare gift indeed, to be able to be at the one and the same time an academic genius in one’s own field and also a populariser of one’s subject.

This book is doubly brilliant - it is written with a lightness that shows an exquisite acquaintance with language while it carries a depth of insight into humanity and into philosophy, to both of which we are introduced with such enthusiasm that we are immediately captivated by the author. One might say that what a Professor of Philosophy might have to say on stories would be heavy and confounding. How wrong we would be. What we find, rather, is “serious stuff dealt with a light hand” in the words of Roy Foster. I loved this little book profoundly. I’ll read it again and again. Why? It is at once light and profound; enthusiastic and life-enriching; encouraging and at times disturbing.

Ah, to tell a story, to listen to a story, to share a story is such a profoundly human thing. To listen to the real life story of another human being is a privilege. To tell your story to another human being is to reach out to the other, to say this is me, this is what I am about, this is where I came from, these are the ways I got here and there is where I am going. As Kearney puts it, when you tell your story: “you interpret where you are now in terms of where you have come from and where you are going to. And so doing you give a sense of yourself as a narrative identity that perdures and coheres over a lifetime. That is what the German philosopher Dilthey called the coming-together-of-life …meaning the act of coordinating an existence which would otherwise be scattered over time. In this way storytelling may be said to humanise time by transforming it from an impersonal passing of fragmented moments into a pattern, a plot, a mythos.” (p. 4)

If modern life is anything today it is confoundingly plural. We are in an age of sheer information overload. We are constantly being bombarded by a multiplicity of choices. There is always some new device better than the previous one. To cope with this infinity of choices one might almost need not alone a secretary but a few of them to point out all the available options. Modern life then, as I say, is plural, overloaded with information (much of it irrelevant to our real needs), lacking direction and indeed fragmented. When a patient or client comes to a counsellor or psychotherapist they are, in a word, fragmented, and no wonder, because they live in an equally broken world. The task of psychotherapy is, if you like, to try and allow the client or patient put some shape or pattern or form or unity or integrity on this feeling of disintegration. In the words of Anthony Storr, about whom I have written much in these pages, the task of psychotherapy is indeed the integrity of the personality. For integrity let’s substitute the words “unity” or “wholeness”.

To cope with the hopelessly fragmented and confoundingly plural world a good dose of traditional storytelling is needed. I’m thinking right now of pupils I’ve taught over the years and indeed some adults with whom I have worked as a teacher who found it so hard to tell their stories, indeed found it so frightening to trust any other human being with even a small piece of their personal narrative. We need to tell our story, because in so doing we are giving pattern, shape, form and meaning to our lives. We are giving it a personal shape and a narrative structure which comes alive and sings the song of our very own souls.

I’ll finish with another short quotation from Kearney: “From the word go stories were invented to fill the gaping hole within us, to assuage our fear and dread, to try and give answers to the great unanswerable questions of existence…” (pp. 6-7)

Above are pictured two good friends of mine in the Donegal Gaeltacht - Colin and Seán, both primary school teachers. Friends like telling stories do they not?

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