Shakespeare’s debt

We shall never know just how much Shakespeare owed to an older England, already passing away in his time, of storytelling and ballad singing. It is possible that some of his plots that we trace to books, and that he perhaps verified in books, first came to him from fireside storytellers.

Frank Walsh Brownlow, Two Shakespearean Sequences: Henry VI to Richard II and Pericles to Timon of Athens, London: The Macmillan Press, 1977 p. 122.

Illustration inspired by initial letters in medieval manuscripts

Biologically, speaking what is subjectively believed to be the truth differs deeply from lying

The development of human language plays a complex role within this process of adaptation. It seems to have developed from signalling among social animals; but I propose the thesis that what is most characteristic of the human language is the possibility of storytelling.

It may be that this ability too has some predecessor in the animal world. But I suggest that the moment when language became human was very closely related to the moment when a man invented a story, a myth in order to excuse a mistake he had made – perhaps in giving a danger signal when there was no occasion for it; and I suggest that the evolution of specifically human language, with its characteristic means of expressing negation – of saying that something signalled is not true – stems very largely from the discovery of systematic means to negate a false report, for example a false alarm, and from the closely related discovery of false stories – lies – used either as excuses or playfully.

If we look from this point of view at the relation of language to subjective experience, we can hardly deny that every genuine report contains an element of decision, at least of the decision to speak the truth. Experiences with lie detectors give a strong indication that, biologically, speaking what is subjectively believed to be the truth differs deeply from lying. I take this as an indication that lying is a comparatively late and fairly specifically human invention; indeed that it has made the human language what it is: an instrument which can be used for misreporting almost as well as for reporting.

From Karl Popper, “Karl Popper, Replies to my Critics” in The Philosophy of Karl Popper, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp, La Salle, Illinois, 1974, pp. 1112-1113, cited by George Steiner, A Reader, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. p. 404.
Illustration inspired by a colonial painting from Bokkeveld, Western Cape, South Africa

The primary teaching of a story

costa de marfil_luna

By listening one could always learn something new, and something which would last a lifetime. Duncan says, “Traveller storytellers knew they were telling something that would be remembered years after they were gone,” and “this is the way with all Travellers;”“they gave you the tale which would never be forgotten so they will never be forgotten.” The primary teaching of a story thus is the respect of memory for the teller when he is gone.

Linda Williamson, about her husband, the storyteller Duncan Williamson, who was one of the Travelling People of Scotland, in Linda Williamson, “What Storytelling Means to a Traveller: An Interview with Duncan Williamson, one of Scotland’s Travelling People”, Arv: ScandinavianYearbook of Folklore, vol. 37, 1981, p. 75
Illustration inspired by a traditional drawing from Ivory Coast

 

And as she tells she spins

AMARU_HN

At last one sister cries, who nimbly knew

To draw nice threads and wind the finest clue,

“While others idly rove, and gods revere,

Their fancied gods! they know not who or where;

Let us, whom Pallas taught her better arts,

Still working, cheer with mirthful chat our hearts;

And, to deceive the time, let me prevail

With each by turns to tell some antique tale.”

She said; her sisters like’d the humour well,

And, smiling, bade her the first story tell;

But she awhile profoundly seem’d to muse,

Perplex’d amid variety to choose;

And knew not whether she should first relate

The poor Dircetis and her wondrous fate.

The Palestines believe it to a man,

and show the lake in which her scales began;

Or if she rather should the daughter sing,

Who in the horary verge of life took wing;

Who soar’d from earth, and dwelt in towers high,

And now a dove she flits along the sky;

Or how lewd Naïs, when her lust was cloy’d,

To fishes turn’d the youths she had enjoy’d,

By powerful verse and herbs; effect most strange!

And last the changer shar’d herself the change.

Or how the tree which once white berries bore,

Still crimson bears, since stain’d with crimson gore.

The tree was new; she likes it, and begins

to tell the tale, and as she tells, she spins.

“In Babylon, where first her queen for state

Rais’d walls of brick magnificently great,

Liv’d Pyramus and Thisbe, lovely pair!

Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated from the Latin by Dr. Garth and others, Vol. I, London: Stanhope Press, 1812, pp. 141-142. This translation by Eusden, corresponding Book IV, 35-55
Illustration inspired by a drawing from the Quechua Andean tradition

To throw shadows to the fire

peces

To tell a story is to throw shadows to the fire. In that very instant, everything that the word reveals is consumed by silence. Only those who pray given their entire soul know the meaning of that burning, that fall of the word into the abyss.

Mia Couto, La confesión de la leona, from the Spanish translation by Rosa Martínez-Alfaro, Madrid: Alfaguara, 2016, pág. 79
Illustration based on a Buddhist image.

Storytelling will always be able to take care of itself

RHINO HOM. NARRR

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

Truth, lies and dreams

inuit

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

Making up

dragónserpiente

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