Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Primacy of Story

In Chesterton's Introduction to The Everlasting Man he says "Like every book I never wrote, it is by far the best book I have ever written. It is only too probable that I shall never write it, so I will use it symbolically here; for it was a symbol of the same truth." That truth, like the story of the man who left England to discover a new world and got turned around and discovered his home instead, a story that leads off Chesterton's earlier book Orthodoxy, this account draws a similar lesson. I would summarize it as Only by leaving home do you gain a full appreciation of what home is. That sort of conjures for me Dorothy clicking the ruby slippers together. There's no place like home.

I'm reading C. S. Lewis's little essay "On Stories" in the volume of his essays and short science fiction titled Of Other Worlds. The book is a paperback first printing of 1975. You can tell from the price, a mere $2.75 compared to the Lordly prices appearing on paperbacks today. The whole subject of story and its capacity to move the minds of men (yes and women too ... I am always terribly annoyed that the women have read themselves out of the human race giving emasculation a whole new meaning perhaps more aligned with Freud than anything else, but that is all another rant.)
Back to story, it seems to me that story is at the heart of all of us. Each of us has a story, our story, and each of us is part of a larger story. So I am spending a little time searching the Gutenberg Project text of The Everlasting Man for each occurrence of the word story, a worthy endeavor on a Sunday morning, especially the Sunday morning after reading Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. For those who have not, Sunday is the most interesting character and the most mysterious.

Chesterton castigates the moderns for confusing the story about the facts with the story about their theories about the facts. Better to tell the story just as it is found in the evidence in the cave paintings as to spin theoretical tales and lose the substance of the real that was found:

It would be far better to tell the tale of what was really found as simply as the tale of heroes finding the Golden Fleece or the Gardens of the Hesperides, if we could so escape from a fog of controversial theories into the clear colours and clean-cut outlines of such a dawn.
The old epic poets at least knew how to tell a story, possibly a tall story but never a twisted story, never a story tortured out of its own shape to fit theories and philosophies invented centuries afterwards.

The old epic poets at least knew how to tell a story, possibly a tall story but never a twisted story, never a story tortured out of its own shape to fit theories and philosophies invented centuries afterwards.

Chesterton's point is clear enough. When you bring your theories to the story and inject them at the beginning you do justice to neither the story nor the theory. Reminds me of global warming frankly. There the apocalyptic tale gets quite in the way of the non-evidence, but that's another rant too.
Stories are told in various ways. The simplest is to begin at the beginning and go straight through to the end and then stop. More complex is the story that begins in media res, in the middle of the thing. Human history is just that kind of story.

In other words, our most ancient records only reach back to a time when humanity had long been human, and even long been civilised. The most ancient records we have not only mention but take for granted things like kings and priests and princes and assemblies of the people; they describe communities that are roughly recognisable as communities in our own sense. Some of them are despotic; but we cannot tell that they have always been despotic. Some of them may be already decadent and nearly all are mentioned as if they were old.

How many stories are there? When I was about twelve I encountered in the public library a thesis presumably from someone's doctorate, that claimed there were only seven (perhaps it was eleven, but in any case a small number) of plots. Man seems to find certain stories resonate the soul and these become called myth.

I confess I doubt the whole theory of the dissemination of myths or (as it commonly is) of one myth. It is true that something in our nature and conditions makes many stories similar; but each of them may be original. One man does not borrow the story from the other man, though he may tell it from the same motive as the other man. It would be easy to apply the whole argument about legend to literature; and turn it into a vulgar monomania of plagiarism.
Suppose we read 'And in the hour when the king extinguished the candle his ships were wrecked far away on the coast of Hebrides.' We do not know why the imagination has accepted that image before the reason can reject it; or why such correspondences seem really to correspond to something in the soul. Very deep things in our nature, some dim sense of the dependence of great things upon small, some dark suggestion that the things nearest to us stretch far beyond our power, some sacramental feeling of the magic in material substances, and many more emotions past fading out, are in an idea like that of the external soul. The power even in the myths of savages is like the power in the metaphors of poets.

Chesterton has a marvelous way of tying ideas together across long expanses of text that sparkles like fireworks or embers exploding from a seam in the burning logs at a campfire as a master storyteller spins his tales. Here he returns to the point that theories simply distort the data, especially when intermixed in its telling.

I maintain therefore that a man reading the New Testament frankly and freshly would not get the impression of what is now often meant by a human Christ. The merely human Christ is a made-up figure, a piece of artificial selection, like the merely evolutionary man. Moreover there have been too many of these human Christs found in the same story, just as there have been too many keys to mythology found in the same stories. Three or four separate schools of rationalism have worked over the ground and produced three or four equally rational explanations of his life.
From the moment when the star goes up like a birthday rocket to the moment when the sun is extinguished like a funeral torch, the whole story moves on wings with the speed and direction of a drama, ending in an act beyond words.

Therefore the story of Christ is the story of a journey, almost in the manner of a military march; certainly in the manner of the quest of a hero moving to his achievement or his doom.
Every attempt to amplify that story has diminished it. The task has been attempted by many men of real genius and eloquence as well as by only too many vulgar sentimentalists and self-conscious rhetoricians. The tale has been retold with patronising pathos by elegant sceptics and with fluent enthusiasm by boisterous best-sellers. It will not be retold here.

Perhaps the best recasting of the passion part of the story at least was in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

Is there any need to repeat and spin out the story of how the tragedy trailed up the Via Dolorosa and how they threw him in haphazard with two thieves in one of the ordinary batches of execution; and how in all that horror and howling wilderness of desertion one voice spoke in homage, a startling voice from the very last place where it was looked for, the gibbet of the criminal; and he said to that nameless ruffian, 'This night shalt thou be with me in Paradise'? Is there anything to put after that but a full stop?
Nothing short of the extreme and strong and startling doctrine of the divinity of Christ will give that particular effect that can truly stir the popular sense like a trumpet; the idea of the king himself serving in the ranks like a common soldier. By making that figure merely human we make that story much less human. We take away the point of the story which actually pierces humanity; the point of the story which was quite literally the point of a spear.
The life of man is a story;an adventure story; and in our vision the same is true even of the story of God.
There is such a thing as a human story; and there is such a thing as the divine story which is also a human story; but there is no such thing as a Hegelian story or a Monist story or a relativist story or a determinist story; for every story, yes, even a penny dreadful or a cheap novelette, has something in it that belongs to our universe and not theirs. Every short story does truly begin with creation and end
with a last judgement.
The true story of the world must be told by somebody to somebody else. By the very nature of a story it cannot be left to occur to anybody. A story has proportions, variations, surprises, particular dispositions, which cannot be worked out by rule in the abstract, like a sum.
It is one among many stories; only it happens to be a true story. It is one among many philosophies; only it happens to be the truth. We accept it; and the ground is solid under our feet and the road is open before us. It does not imprison us in a dream of destiny or a consciousness of the universal delusion. It opens to us not only incredible heavens but what seems to some an equally incredible earth, and makes it credible. This is the sort of truth that is hard to explain because it is a fact; but it is a fact to which we can call witnesses.

Perhaps I ought to mention that Gilbert Keith Chesterton is one of the clearest minds that ever lived. Everything highlighted in color is a quotation drawn in sequential order from a search through The Everlasting Man on story and presented is the order found.

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