[I numbered this because I can only assume I’m going to have to come back to this as my brain chews on it over the coming <insert time span here.]
This is going to be tough to articulate and probably even harder to actually read. Can’t be helped, it’s on my mind and I’ve got to work it out SOMEplace, so y’all’re stuck with it. (Never let pass an opportunity to use a double contraction. It drives people fucking bananas and is just too entertaining for its own good. Just you wait ’til I have an excuse to use a triple, ‘enry ‘iggins. Just you wait.)
I’ve been having a protracted conversation with a friend of mine here at Smokey about narrative and expository prose and their ability to communicate meaning. My contention is that narrative is is an exceptional, perhaps literally ideal way to communicate truth. Whereas his contention I think is best summed up in his phrase “my concern is the takeaway.”
Now, in entirely insuffient deference to Frank, he’s a published author and certainly seems to be a first class intellect, whereas I’m little more than a self-obsessed dilettante when it comes to the written word. So I’m not sure what my likely sophmoric cogitations are worth.
The best examples of what I’m talking about are probably parables.
Unfortunately at this stage in the bible study group we’re in Revelation which, if you’re not familiar, is overtly “exciting” but is by my estimation just soul-crushing drek. But back when we were in Matthew there were a tremendous amount of parables, which led, not tangentally, to some very interesting conversation.
From ye olde innertoobz:
“Parable definition is – a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.”
It’s interesting to read the New Testament parables put forth by Jesus. You don’t have to get on board with much to be able to sit and think about any one of them for any reasonable length of time and get to the fact that upon ANY reasonable examination there are several levels of interpretation possible and that there is useful meaning to be gleaned at each level. Not only that but once “you’re done” there’s still a hint of something more to them. Sometimes that comes upon a few more minutes reflection. Sometimes it comes over a reread a few weeks later in a full V8 “why didn’t I SEE that?” moment.
Without dipping my toe into the theology of it all (which in this particular case I’m not terribly interested in) it’s pretty clear that these are deep stories. Hell, they might be the deepest stories. You can unpack them for any amount of time and never be sure you’ve gotten to the actual bottom of them.
We’d read parables from Matthew and just spend any amount of time unpacking them, with half a dozen people offering at least as many perfectly reasonable takes and interpretations. That would lead, in turn, to equally interesting round-table storytelling session where people related events from their own lives that they would map back and forth to said parables. We might as well have been sitting around a fire on a mountain top a thousand years ago having the same conversation.
More broadly, one of the most fascinating (heh) things to me is the depth with which a story can communicate meaning beyond its originally intended depth.
The power of the human mind to rip lessons and meaning out of the telling of events is immeasurable and perhaps literally bottomless. Of course it depends on the story, the mythological underpinnings.
Between contemporary examples like Harry Potter and Pinnochio (to grab two of Peterson’s favorite examples) and the classic fairy tales and fables of…oh pick any origin. Uncle Remus, The Brothers Grimm, anything. The mythic stories of cultures effectively alien to us silly moderners: The Romans, Greeks, Nords, and Celts. You can read them and think about them over and over again and find depth in whichever direction your mind is turned while you look.
These stories are transmitted with exceptional fidelity over time originally through oral tradition and eventually through writing and whatever media are available to us, in whatever cultural template we need to relate to them, yet somehow preserving the archetypes, narratives, and lessons almost untouched at their core.
We carry these stories around with us because they resonate in a way we can’t…quite explain. There’s something Right about them. They’re greater than the sum of their parts. I expect the attempt to really dissect and explain them in a clinical fashion would cause them to disintegrate.
Contrast this with straight up expository writing, like, oh…this. I only mean here what I mean. It’s not reasonable for me to expect anyone to plumb the depths of what I put down in this straightforward idea to word path and get anything more out of it than I mean. Maybe I trip over a word here or there because I’ve got an image in my head of what I’m trying to describe that’ll make you say “ah, yeah I see what he’s getting at here.” And sure, if you’re a more or less regular consumer you’ll be able to point to patterns and see what’s going on, probably ones that I don’t even see, as my friend Ed has done. But…that’s not the same. Those little dips into meaning and understanding aren’t intrinsic to the words spiralling off my fingertips, but are contextual cues pointing in another direction entirely.
As such I have to consider my latest reading of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. Because of what was on my mind I was able to plumb depths that had been functionally inaccessible to me before. It became obvious to me, as I mentioned in some damned post a couple weeks ago, where Gibson’s mind was when writing Mona Lisa Overdrive because I was attuned to those kinds of ideas and ponderings. That allowed me to reflect on my own reflections (which seems to arguably be my favorite activity) in ways I couldn’t really have forseen.
But that’s not really the same thing. Oh sure insofar as there’s “more available than meets the eye” in the most basic sense there’s some overlap. But there’s really not so much more you can plumb from these words without going outside them for more information. Maybe they trigger something in your head that you’d already read, even if it’s just because it’s something I’VE already written.
When push comes to shove, there’s really only so much here.
So I said all that to say this:
It seems to me that narrative is an intrinsically richer medium for conveying meaning. The degree to which you can wrap what you’re saying in a storied structure may very well be the actual way to more effectively get “to the heart of the matter.” Perhaps it is so that in so doing (given a certain effacy and facility with the form) you are able to crack into the geode where your brain is “trying to go” with what you’d otherwise try to lay out plainly.
Said a slightly different way: Perhaps it is thus that the narrative structure presents something akin to a more “natural language of understanding” through which to communicate information, if not truth. The history of man is the history of story. It’s how we relate very nearly everything we know.
For every verbose explanation we give someone we tell a dozen or a hundred stories just in the normal course of the human social experience and rarely give the difference a second thought.
Well… what are the boundaries of storytelling? I don’t think I can communicate the technical details of the application server I’ve been writing by framing it in a narrative structure, for instance. But…even as I type that sentence I can feel my brain raising a finger in its “well….hold up” pose. If I’m trying to describe the inner guts of how something works, or at least the patterns behind it to a layman I can certainly do it, given that I think they have the patience and interest to listen, by wrapping it all up in metaphor and analogy. So yeah, maybe I can’t teach the inner guts of the most technical details to someone who’s just unfamiliar with programming. But I can absolutely give them a reasonable picture of how things work, though I’d have to tailor it to the specific person I’m talking to (that’s almost another matter entirely.)
And I wonder if this isn’t REALLY what is meant by the throw away sentiment that “if you can’t describe it to someone else you really don’t understand it”, a cute guideline and noble ideal but generally a falsehood.
Now the massive caveat is that in order to DO that effectively your prose would have to be really something special in order to avoid just occulting your intended meaning in a bunch of frivolous contextual nonsense. For instance I think Nietzche falls prey to this either directly or through translation with Thus Spake Zarathustra. In his case, as in mine, it would likely be a more effective work if he’d “just shut up and get to the god damned point.” But again, perhaps that’s an artifact of translation and it’s some truly eloquent shit in the original German.
It’s tough to tell. I’m left with this nebulous “I know it when I see it” sense that’s entirely dissatisfying to my tortured attempts to articulate this idea.
But then, maybe that’s exactly my point.
This doesn’t really fit above anyplace (lord knows I’ve tried pasting it) but what place does poetry have in this spectrum, if it is indeed a spectrum? Poetry at its height is beautiful and sublime, closer to music than prose to be sure. Is IT the “Platonic Ideal” of communicating meaning through language? After all it transmits so effectively that attempts to rip it to pieces, in the manner of the High School English teacher, leave us with nothing but tortured remains of language.
Again, no idea.
Something to ponder.