All rivers are stories – connecting places, carrying history…
In every story there is a silence, some sight concealed, some word unspoken. I believe. Till we have spoken the unspoken we have not come to the heart of the story.
J. M. Coetzee, Foe , London: Penguin Books, 1987, p. 141
Illustration based on a mix animal from the imaginary of the ancient world
I am not making a plea for the art I practice. The novel, storytelling in general, will always be able to take care of itself. […]
Storytelling can take care of itself. Is it true? Have censors been so ineffectual, century after century? Yes, they have. They are ineffectual because, in laying down the rules that stories may not transgress, and enforcing these rules, they fail to recognize that the offensiveness of stories lies not in their transgressing particular rules but in their faculty of making and changing their own rules. […] Because (I parody the position somewhat) a story is not a message with a covering, a rhetorical or aesthetic covering. It is not a message plus a residue, the residue, the art with which the message is coated with the residue, forming the subject matter of rhetoric or aesthetics or literary appreciation. There is no addition in stories. They are not made up of one thing plus another thing, message plus vehicle, substructure plus superstructure. On the keyboard on which they are written, the plus key does not work. There is always a difference; and the difference is not a part, the part left behind after the subtraction. The minus key does not work either: the difference is everything.
Storytelling (let me repeat myself at the risk of boring you) is not a way of making messages more –as they say– ‘effective’. Storytelling is another, an other mode of thinking. It is more venerable than history, as ancient as the cockroach. Nor is this primitiveness the only way in which stories resemble cockroaches. Like cockroaches, stories can be consumed. All you need to do is tear off the wings and sprinkle a little salt on them. They are nourishing, to a degree, though if you are truly looking for nourishment you would probably look elsewhere. Cockroaches can also be colonized. You can capture them in a cockroach trap, breed them (quite easily), herd them together in cockroach farms. You can put pints through them and mount them in cases, with labels. You can use their wings to cover lampshades with. You can do minute dissections of their respiratory systems, and stain them, and photograph them, and frame them, and hang them on the wall. You can, if you wish, dry them and powder them and mix them with high explosives and make bombs of them. You can even make up stories about them, as Kafka did, although this is quite hard. One of the things you cannot –apparently– do is eradicate them. They breed, as the figure has it, like flies, and under the harshest circumstances. It is not known for what reason they are on the earth, which would probably be a nicer place –certainly an easier place to understand– without them. It is said that they will still be around when we and all our artefacts have disappeared.
This is called a parable, a mode favoured by marginal groups – groups that don’t have a place in the mainstream, in the main plot of history – because it is hard to pin down unequivocally what the point is.
In the end there is still the difference between a cockroach and a story, and the difference remains everything.
J. M. Coetzee, “The Novel Today”, Upstream , vol. 6, 1988, pp. 3-4
Illustration inspired by a drawing of a rhinoceros from the Chauvet Cave, France
To be a self, one must also be nothing. To know oneself, one must be able to know nothing. The asomnics know the world continuously and immediately, with no empty time, no room for selfhood. Having no dreams, they tell no stories and so have no use for language. Without language, they have no lies. Thus they have no future. They live here, now, perfectly in touch. They live in pure fact. But they can’t live in truth, because the way to truth, says the philosophers, is through lies and dreams.
Ursula K. LeGuin, “Wake Island”, Changing Planes, New York: Harcourt, 2003, pp. 164-165
Illustration inspired by an Inuit drawing
As a small child [Edith Wharton] had a curious practice of what she called ‘making up.’ Before she could read she would sit for hours with a book in her lap and pretend she was reading a story from it. The blacker and denser the print the better. She would walk up and down rapidly and enter into a sort of ecstasy of spoken composition; once her mother tried to take down what she was saying but couldn’t keep up. When a child came to pay a call, she asked her mother to ‘entertain that little girl for me. I’ve got to make up.’ Later, when she learned to read, her delving into real texts continued to parallel these obsessive inventions.
Edmund White, “The House of Edith”, New York Review of Books, 26 April, 2007, p. 39
Illustration inspired by the credits of the TV series Game of Thrones
Stories are the houses we live in. They are the food we set on the table, consume, and absorb into the blood. Stories do not exist fully, however, except in the physical presence of those who tell them. Later, mysteriously, they maintain this physicality when they well up to our inner eyes and resound in our inner ears in the process we call memory. Storytellers are thus the architects and masons of our universe. They build arcs of invisible stone that span huge banquet rooms. They also build the commonplace rooms that shelter us routinely. Whether in grand or humble style, storytellers serve us the spiritual food we live by, both the plain truths and the more delicious lies.
Who are the storytellers, then? … [In fact,] we are all both storytellers and story hearers. We must be both these things if we are to navigate the world in which we live, each part of which … is partly our own making. Barring some terrible trauma, these twin faculties of storytelling and story hearing are inalienably ours from a very early age. Throughout life these faculties remain at the core of our intelligent being, shaping our thoughts, calling us back from error, and guiding us incrementally toward whatever our future may hold.
John Niles, Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999: 64-65
Illustration inspired by the logo of the Kalevala Society
It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication the last word which we expect from the ‘day of judgement’.