JOAN DIDION WROTE ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’, and so often has the idea that humanity runs on stories been asserted of late that it has come to resemble a self-evident truth until, in next to no time it seems, we have started talking in excited voices about humans being hardwired for stories: except if we keep reading Didion, she goes on to note ‘we look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five’. And then ‘we interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices.’ Which is to say, the telling of stories is a human compulsion that can make our view of the world less despairing and defensive, can make life itself more bearable. No mean feat – a feat fit to save our sanities – yet still storytelling, the kind of storytelling Didion writes about, does not in itself or by itself take us closer to the truths of our lives with anything like the inevitability that gets ascribed to it these days. Saying we need to tell stories because we are human, is not quite the same as saying we are human because we need to tell stories.
Okay, so the hyperbole, so the ten kinds of hoo-hah… Big deal. I am not sure if it is a big deal or if it is not. And of course philosopher Alasdaire MacIntyre called us storytelling animals already in 1981, and before MacIntyre there was Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By and before them Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and before him (and after him) came the folklorists, the formalists, the anthropologists and philosophers, some famous, others forgotten, peeling back for us exactly how and how much stories, myths, fables, fairytales make the world go round. Didion’s ‘we tell ourselves stories’ was written in 1979. And we can backtrack further, forever, indefinitely – to, say, ‘we spend our years as a tale that is told’ (Psalm 90:9) or to oral storytelling traditions, many of them enduring to this day, and the congress-sized libraries and public squares they carry within them.
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