Storytelling and History

Written in the second or third week of the Fall 2009 fiction seminar taught by Benjamin Taylor in the New School MFA program.

I want to share some thoughts from my prose fiction seminar last week.  These are via our teacher (paraphrased, some phrases quoted) with some extended, rambling reflections following the asterisks below.

Art as a human pursuit is 35,000 years old.  Agriculture is 10,000.  That means that 25,ooo years before we got the idea to put seeds in the ground and grow things, we were making art.  Specifically, cave painting and pottery started 35,000 years ago, but storytelling is much, much older.

Storytelling did not emerge from a need for passtime, but to explain things.  That is, to “perform the most urgent function.”   Stories were told to cope with unanswerable questions “on the frontier between culture and nature.”

“Literature is about trouble.”  There is no end to storytelling because there is no end to trouble.

***

The hypothetical end of literature has made me think this week of the old hoped-for “end of history” that was supposed to occur after the West won the defining ideological battle of the last century.  Or, you know, the workers’ paradise that was to be realized when class struggle ceased and there was nothing else to drive the dialectic.  Instead, of course, new ideological struggles emerged, full-grown, and old ones smolder but aren’t out.  There is no end to history or literature until there is an end to trouble, however you define it.  Very literally, Yogi Berra was right.  It ain’t over till it’s over.

Those of you with eschatological concerns can, of course, consider whether there will be storytelling in the eschaton.  Can you imagine life without it? Where there is no weeping or gnashing of teeth, will all of our stories be boring? Or self-congratulatory?  On some level, storytelling seems essential to any sustained worthwhile activity I can imagine.  Christian theology says, after all, that God is Logos, and I understand Logos as dialectic and story.  I hope for the eschaton (not the bloody, violent scary one; the just one where everything that’s been lost is restored) but I don’t always believe in it.   What are we to do without our troubles?  Our ambitions? Our insecurities or petty prides?

I’m in Kempton, PA today with the Kittatinny Ridge blue in front of me and the Hawk Mountain Preserve and between us alfalfa, I think, and maybe switchgrass.  It is sunny but cool enough for sweaters and jeans, not cold.  I am with people who are interested in sustainability and justice and environmental responsibility and I think that if the eschaton could be like a just day in Berks County in September then perhaps I would still have good stories and worthwhile ambitions even without trouble.

I’m tempted to say that we mark time by trouble, and that where there is no trouble, there is no time and so it makes sense that we speak of eternity as timeless.  But we also mark time by good things.  First dates, first kisses.  Births of children.  I can’t really believe in a detached timelessness where nothing new happens as something worth looking to.   A just day in the fields, in the mountains, is nice, but so is the evening, the moon, the few degrees cooler and the idea that we do it again. I like being human. I don’t know that I’d want to be more than that, but being that forever might be okay.

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