Tales Worth Telling

Searching for stories that challenge our poisonous myths

storyteller

Image by Flickr user: DennisVandal / Creative Commons

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In his novel, The Storyteller, Mario Vargas Llosa explores one of the vexing contradictions of contemporary life. On a trip to Florence, the narrator visits a gallery that is exhibiting a collection of photographs of the Machiguenga Indians. As he gazes at a photo of an hablador, or spiritual teacher, telling a story to a circle of Indians, he realizes that the man looks a lot like Saul Zuratas, a friend from college who had disappeared from his life some 20 years earlier. Saul had become intimate with the Machiguengas doing anthropological work in the Amazon, and impressed by their spiritual dignity, decided to live with them and help them resist colonization.

What the narrator finds baffling is how someone raised in contemporary Western culture could become an hablador, which would involve, among other things, mastering the Machiguengas’ demanding art of storytelling. “Talking the way a storyteller talks,” the narrator says, “means being able to feel and live in the very heart of that culture, means having penetrated its essence, reached the marrow of its history and mythology, given body to its taboos, images, ancestral desires, and terrors. It means being, in the most profound way possible, a rooted Machiguenga, one of that ancient lineage who . . . roamed the forests of my country, bringing and bearing away those tales, lies, fictions, gossip, and jokes that make a community of that people of scattered beings, keeping alive among them the feeling of oneness, of constituting something fraternal and solid.”

In contemporary society, we are not exactly suffering from a shortage of stories. Every day we are inundated by one tale after another on TV and radio, in newspapers and magazines, over the World Wide Web. But despite this deluge of narrative, something important is missing. As Vargas Llosa reveals, we have lost the gift of genuine storytelling, which every Machuenga understands implicitly and which was an integral part of Western culture until quite recently. It’s the gift of using the power of story to share wisdom and build a meaningful sense of community.

For us, stories are marketable commodities. Ad agencies use cleverly written stories to “move product.” Newspapers and magazines print sensational stories to titillate their readers. TV talk show hosts coax people into divulging their most intimate stories on the air, all to score big ratings. People who commit atrocious crimes sell their stories to book publishers for unspeakable amounts of money. Politicians are trained to tell stories to entertain audiences in the fashion of comedians. Comedians imitate politicians trying to act like comedians. Even the new breed of professional storytellers are caught up in the game. They charge high fees for their services and perform in a highly stylized manner that has more in common with Hollywood than the talking circles of the Amazon rainforest. Though many of them are gifted, their primary mission is not to share wisdom but to amuse, distract, entertain.

The work and customs of small tribes, towns, and communities shaped the stories up through the beginning of the 19th century, but today it’s market forces that determine how stories will be spread. There are strict limits to how far and how deep storytellers can go. In his famous 1936 essay “The Storyteller,” written when fascism was enveloping Europe, the late German literary critic Walter Benjamin outlines how the capitalist market system creates enormous barriers to the free exchange of experience. One of the key roles of storytellers, according to Benjamin, is to be subversive, to pierce through the myths of the ruling elite in order to free people to recognize who they really are. At other times in history, the myths that needed to be challenged were those of Greco-Roman religion, feudalism, Christianity, and Communism. But now a new—and, some would argue, more insidious—myth looms: what Benjamin calls the myth of freedom.

We think we speak freely in free societies. We think there’s a free exchange of ideas. Yet our ideas are often prescripted and our words are often petrified before we speak them. Linguistic standards, word choices, expressions, and gestures are molded into a semiotic system manipulated by politicians, religious leaders, and corporate heads to create myths that serve to consolidate the power structure of the status quo. Depending on the shifts of control between government, religious groups, or corporations, this system fosters the thoughtless consumption of products, faiths, and laws that inhibit the free expression of ideas. But, as Benjamin points out, the web of dictation is not seamless. Only by challenging and exploding the putative truths of the myth of freedom can we make room for truthful and imaginative expression. Here is where genuine storytelling comes in.

Benjamin maintains that the ability to exchange experiences is at the heart of genuine storytelling—and that ability, which at one time seemed inalienable, has all but disappeared because shared experiences are not the basis of story anymore. As Benjamin explains, the rise of the novel and, more recently, the growing dominance of the mass media have eclipsed more traditional forms of storytelling. Now it is the individual private experience that counts.

But that’s not the kind of experience Benjamin is talking about. The German word he uses for experience is Erfahrung, which denotes the experiential moment in which one learns something about oneself and the world. In his view, experience is a learning process through which one gains wisdom, and without the passing on of wisdom there can be no genuine community or sharing. The exchange of experience must be a dialogue, a give and take. True storytellers are not solo acts; their listeners are also storytellers, receivers and givers of wisdom. True storytellers don’t tell stories simply to show off their own art; they are transformers, enlighteners, and liberators. They take their own experience and the experience of others and reflect upon it, revealing how it relates to the conditions of work and play in society. That’s why Benjamin praises the folktale as the highest form of narrative. “Wherever good counsel was at a premium,” he writes, “the folktale had it, and where the need was the greatest, its aid was nearest. This need was the need created by the myth. The folktale tells us of the earliest arrangements that humankind made to shake off the nightmare which the myth had placed upon its chest. . . . The wisest thing—so the folktale taught humankind in older times, and teaches children to this day—is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and high spirits.”

There is more to genuine storytelling, however, than simply following the form. A few months ago, while visiting Germany, I saw a disturbing TV documentary on storytelling and sects. Part of the show focused on a group in Hamburg that gathers regularly to tell stories about their experiences watching and listening to fairies. Another segment featured a group of men who congregate regularly in a forest to run about naked, commune with nature, and tell stories to strengthen their bonds of brotherhood. In the final segment, male and female witches gathered in the woods somewhere in Germany to celebrate medieval rituals that endow them with spiritual powers as storytellers.

In all the interviews with the storytellers and their followers, the people appeared to be sincere. They believed devoutly in the stories they concocted. What seemed strange and bizarre to me was familiar and meaningful to them. Their folly in my eyes was wisdom in theirs. And the truth of the matter is, both their folly and wisdom stem from the same widespread malaise.

The fundamental experience of most Westerners is alienation. A good part of the time, we feel isolated and cut from our feelings, like automatons on a conveyor belt. We listen to stories on radio or TV, and we think we recognize ourselves. We think we belong to a gigantic family—admittedly, a dysfunctional one—whose story unrolls before our eyes. And if we don’t belong, we desperately want to. But each time we come close to recognizing who we really are and what we can do with our talents, we run into a wall. We collide headlong into the market forces that make commodities out of our lives, the market forces that create the myth that conceals our alienation from us.

When people form secret societies, they are striving to fill the gaps in their lives left by a technological society that discounts human feelings. In this sense, all these seemingly weird groups, whether radical or reactionary, are rebelling against the present-day market system. The problem is that they’re often unaware of the extent to which their behavior conforms to market expectations and unknowingly helps sustain the myth of freedom because, on the surface, they appear to be acting freely. However, in my opinion, most of these groups’ rituals are little more than conditioned responses to intolerable circumstances—responses that are tolerated by society because they don’t endanger the status quo. On the contrary, they reinforce it by serving as so many zany sideshows for the rest of us—just another form of entertainment.

So how can we recreate the role of the storyteller in an alienated world? Unlike the tribal and communal storytelling of the past, which could affirm common values, storytelling today must be skeptical and subversive, continually questioning the master story of freedom that underlies all narratives tainted by commodification. Today’s storytellers must realize that we are not free to tell stories in the way our predecessors were. But we do have the power to liberate ourselves and others through a genuine exchange of experience. The role of the storyteller is to awaken the storyteller in others and provoke them into action, to listen to the people and create the new stories that will subvert the myth of freedom.

Obviously, we can’t turn back the clock and return to the kind of storytelling portrayed by Vargas Llosa in The Storyteller. Anyway, the point of his novel is paradoxical: By writing powerfully about the loss of the genuine storyteller, Vargas Llosa also reveals how genuine his own art of storytelling is, and, in the process, gives us a concrete example of genuine storytelling in our technological age.

If Benjamin were alive today, I believe that he would look for traces of hope in our culture, and, indeed, there are some. One example is the late Jim Henson’s provocative TV program, The Storyteller, a unique series of eight folktales that not only suggests a questioning attitude toward storytelling but also promotes the idea of sharing wisdom with the audience. Another example is the film The Secret of Roan Inish, a model of how ancient legends can empower children to realize their dreams and overcome social adversity.

Even more fascinating is the way in which millions of people are using the Internet to share experience. They are creating a new kind of public space, which even though it is now being threatened by government and corporate control, allows people to debate, tell stories, and communicate news freely with each other. This exchange is not unlike what community-based storytellers do, but on the Internet the community is always being created and recreated, and, as a result, demands that we shift and open ourselves up to new ways of thinking.

All over Europe there are promising signs of change. In Ireland I’ve been to open storytelling festivals in which young and old, amateurs and professionals, shared stories filled with “unofficial” wisdom-irreverent, iconoclastic, and definitely not ready for prime time. In England and Wales I’ve visited schools in which storytellers inspired the children to become their own storytellers and helped them form storytelling clubs, just as storytellers in San Francisco, New York, Austin, Texas, and Minneapolis are trying to do. In France, there are numerous storytellers who use story to get juvenile delinquents to articulate their problems and take charge of their lives. In Germany, many Jungian therapists have developed storytelling techniques to work with their analysis, and though I am skeptical of the Jungian use of fairy tales, these techniques appear to be effective in helping children and adults cope with psychological disturbances.

These are just a few illustrations of how storytellers enter the culture industry to subvert it, or at the very least, to question and challenge its machinations. Clearly, the tradition of the storyteller as wise provocateur is not dead. As storytellers try to redefine their craft in light of massive social and technological changes, I think that it’s crucial to keep Benjamin’s ideal genuine storyteller in mind. Perhaps, given the turbulent state of the world these days, that ideal can’t be realized right now. But there certainly is something indelible about it, something utopian that is worth pursuing, as we move forward to tell our next story.