My question, generated by my reading of the sources I have reviewed here:
Why do we tell stories?
And from Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Rushdie, we have:
What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?
Where do stories come from?
From Coles and Booker, the primary sources, the reasons we tell stories are:
“To learn from them…how our human nature works, and why we think and behave in this world as we do.”
My thinking, or thoughts, about stories began with the novel seminar with Jose Barchilon from whom I got two clear messages:
—-There are no new stories, there are only the retelling of old stories with more contemporaneous interpretations or explanations for behavior.
—-Many myths have their origin in actual history.
To elaborate on each of these:
No new stories, the old stories may be in the form of myths or Bible stories and often a careful reading of the first chapter of a novel will reveal the myth, whether classical or Biblical, that is being retold. Good examples of this would be Huckleberry Finn’s fascination with the Biblical story of Moses described in the first chapter of the book. Another good example would be the title of the first chapter, Resurrection, in Tale of Two Cities, which is further reflected in a Biblical quote about Lazarus late in the book
—Christopher Booker’s contribution is that all of these stories and myths, even Bible stories, reduce to one of seven basic plots:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
—-The difference in interpretation or explanation tends to be reflective of the times. Early on things are explained in terms of the gods or of God specifically causing things. Later they may be related to physical disease, and at another time may be given wholly in terms of psychology.
Many myths have their origin in actual history. The example Barchilon gave us was the myth of Oedipus actually being based on the life of Akhnaton, the Egyptian ruler who gave us monotheism—as documented by Velikovsky in his book Oedipus to Akhnaton
—-In Elizabeth Vandiver’s discussion of Minoan culture and the myth of Theseus, she connects the myth with what she calls “historical memory,” suggesting that this myth, and others perhaps as well, have part of their truth in actual happenings in history, the same message Barchilon brought to us with Iknaton and Oedipus.
So how does all of this work? When we carefully examine a myth in its historical context, we discover that in fact there may be actual historical happenings embedded in it—there were indeed bull leaping youths and a labyrinth in Knossos—and these happenings transformed to myths become part of a culture’s collective knowledge. She is clear, however, that she is not jumping from this one example to making it a wholesale conclusion. Rather, she is offering it more as an interesting example.
—-I have also been intrigued to learn how what I thought were original Biblical stories actually have their referents or analogues in earlier stories. My most recent discovery in this vein is Iphigenia at Aulis in which she is sacrificed by her father only to be seen ascending into the heavens, just like Christ later.
Some cautionary thoughts:
While all of the above may begin to sound, at least to me, as if it is making sense, I have also been reminded in my reading about stories:
—-One lingering thought which does give me pause as I contemplate stories— yours, mine, and others—is the caution I picked up a couple of years ago from Pema Chodron:
No such thing as a true story
“By weaving our opinions, prejudices, strategies, and emotions into a solid reality, we try to make a big deal out of ourselves, out of our pain, out of our problems. But things are not as solid, predictable, or seamless as they seem.”
from Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron, Shambala, Boston, 2002
—-And finally, lest I, or you, buy into the importance of stories for our identity, there is the caution offered by Orhan Pamuk:
All of these stories, and in fact everything that has ever been written, are called dreams by the author, “everything that had ever been written, even the greatest and most authoritative texts in the world, were about dreams, not real life, dreams conjured up by words,” and the stories are told by individuals to become themselves.
But the stories do not define the person, rather Pamuk asserts on one of the final pages of the book that:
“Only when a man has run out of things to say, only when he has lost all memory of his past, his books, and memory itself, only when he has plunged into that deep silence will he hear—rising from the depths of his soul, from the infinitely dark labyrinths of his being—the true voice that will allow him to become himself.”
From The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk
References for most of these statements on this page can be found through the links on the Book Reviews page