The Most Human Art

Ten reasons why we’ll always need a good story


| September-October 1997



most-human-art

Image by Flickr user: shutterhacks / Creative Commons

We have been telling stories to one another for a long time, perhaps for as long as we have been using language, and we have been using language, I suspect, for as long as we have been human. In all its guises, from words spoken and written to pictures and musical notes and mathematical symbols, language is our distinguishing gift, our hallmark as a species.

We delight in stories, first of all, because they are a playground for language, an arena for exercising this extraordinary power. The spells and enchantments that figure in so many tales remind us of the ambiguous potency in words, for creating or destroying, for binding or setting free. Italo Calvino, a wizard of storytelling, described literature as “a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.” Calvino’s remark holds true, I believe, not just for the highfalutin’ modes we label as literature, but for every effort to make sense of our lives through narrative.

Second, stories create community. They link teller to listeners, and listeners to one another. This is obviously so when speaker and audience share the same space, as humans have done for all but the last few centuries of our million-year history; but it is equally if less obviously so in our literate age, when we encounter more of our stories in solitude, on page or screen. When two people discover they have both read Don Quixote, they immediately share a piece of history and become thereby less strange to one another.

The strongest bonds are formed by sacred stories, which unite entire peoples. Thus Jews rehearse the events of Passover; Christians tell of a miraculous birth and death and resurrection; Buddhists tell of Gautama meditating beneath a tree. As we know only too well, sacred stories may also divide the world between those who are inside the circle and those who are outside, a division that has inspired pogroms and inquisitions and wars. There is danger in story, as in any great force. If the tales that captivate us are silly or deceitful, like most of those offered by television and advertising, they waste our time and warp our desires. If they are cruel, they make us callous. If they are false and bullying, instead of drawing us into a thoughtful community they may lure us into an unthinking herd or, worst of all, into a crowd screaming for blood—in which case we need other, truer stories to renew our vision. So The Diary of Anne Frank is an antidote to Mein Kampf. So Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is an antidote to the paranoid yarns of the Ku Klux Klan. Just as stories may rescue us from loneliness, so, by speaking to us in private, they may rescue us from mobs.

This brings me to the third item on my list: Stories help us to see through the eyes of other people. Here my list overlaps with one compiled by Carol Bly, who argues in “Six Uses of Story” that the foremost gift from stories is “experience of other.” For the duration of a story, children may sense how it is to be old, and the elderly may recall how it is to be young; men may try on the experiences of women, and women those of men. Through stories, we reach across the rifts not only of gender and age, but also of race and creed, geography and class, even the rifts between species or between enemies.

Folk tales and fables and myths often show humans talking and working with other animals, with trees, with rivers and stones, as if recalling or envisioning a time of easy commerce among all beings. Helpful ducks and cats and frogs, wise dragons, stolid oaks, all have lessons for us in these old tales. Of course no storyteller can literally become hawk or pine, any more than a man can become a woman; we cross those boundaries only imperfectly, through leaps of imagination. “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” Thoreau asks. We come nearer to achieving that miracle in stories than anywhere else.

sevoiland
11/13/2017 8:04:41 AM

Excellent article/observations. So much to think about, I will have to segment and study these ten separately to fully appreciate. So, off to the printer the article goes for my second reading. Thank you again for a powerful read.


filomena newton_1
8/11/2010 5:43:03 PM

I read this and feel it says things like it should. It expains many ways of looking at what the written word is saying to us. I think we all precieve thing differantly,making us individuals.I am a 70 year old woman and I have been hearing stories all my life.Many of them left an inpression on me and some did not. I did learn from all of them and the word of mouth too. Filomena Newton