Tales Worth Telling

Searching for stories that challenge our poisonous myths

| September-October 1997

  • storyteller

    Image by Flickr user: DennisVandal / Creative Commons

  • storyteller

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.

9/17/2009 6:40:25 AM


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