And then what happens?

Book image for article

by Brooks Riley

In the beginning was the story. It was a manuscript deeply embedded in the genes and it was all about survival, when instinct was the sole purveyor of instructions. It may be hard to conceive of a biological primer as an example of narrative, but getting by was, until then, the greatest story ever told, especially for the ones who got by. And if the story itself was somewhat schematic, didactic, too utilitarian, that too was necessary to the plan.

Then along came ‘show and tell’, as cleverer animals and Homo sapiens showed their young how things are done. With digital dexterity came ‘draw and tell’: Cave drawings were the first examples of what we now recognize as narrative—no longer so concerned with ‘how it’s done’, but more with ‘what he did’, what he encountered, what actually happened—history, his story, her story. And finally, when words were uttered, ‘speak and tell’. From then on, the story blossomed, thanks to the most astonishing technology ever achieved by a species: language (which eventually extended storytelling into ‘write and tell’ and last but not least ‘film and tell.’)

We know all this. What we may not know, is whether the need for narrative is still imbedded in our genes. It’s important to our conscious minds as distraction, as entertainment, but is it also a basic need that must be attended to, like eating, sleeping, dreaming?

The first thing a child wants after it learns to speak is to be told a story. If it’s truth or fantasy hardly matters, as long as it is outside the child’s range of experience. If the child is not told a story, it will eventually invent one on its own (a biological necessity?). Fairy tales have certain imbedded markers specifically aimed at children–an underlying morality, or recognizable patterns of living. For a child, fairy tales are the welcome mat to the human race with its complicated procedures and arrangements. But at the same time, fairy tales address the impossible, the improbable, and the ideal. They can reduce time itself to a plaything, a toy to be manipulated at will, whether it is the instantaneous transformation of a frog to a prince, the 100 years of Sleeping Beauty, the 900 years of Methuselah, or the creation of the world in six days.

The biological need for narrative may also be related to the development and management of emotions. A story harvests our emotions, drawing them away from an uncertain reality into a parallel universe, where they can be felt and expressed without consequence. In a child, this could mean finding a way to organize the infantile chaos of his own set of emotions.

As a child learning to play the piano, I was impatient with the score. I couldn’t wait to memorize the piece, so that I could throw the sheet music away. I’ve often wondered why, when my sight-reading capabilities suffered so as a result. Looking back, I think I may know the answer. Every time I played a piece of music by heart, an abstract narrative began running parallel in my brain. Certain musical passages raised conflicts which were followed by resolutions, other passages invoked fears which were then quelled by subsequent passages that provided reconciliation and denouement. At the end of a piece, any piece, I felt that I had been told a story. I didn’t know what the story was about but it felt as though I had been on an intense emotional journey. It felt good. It felt right. I needed that.

It wasn’t just the fact that the musical piece had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Like stories, every piece of composed music has a structure of some kind, many that slouch toward Aristotelian principles of conflict and resolution. Somewhere in our experience of music is a powerful undertow, dragging us down into its non-verbal, emotional storyline.

Everything that is impossible for a child to accomplish, is offset by the magical solutions offered in a story. Cinema, with its intrinsic captivation of our attention, continues this tradition into adulthood and throughout our lives. We want to get lost for a few moments or few hours in another existence, another set of circumstances. All these years later, after childhood, we still want a story. What’s more, we still need a story: Why do we read the news, why do we get RSS feeds, why do we read books, why do we gossip? Stories propel our own imaginations. They are the drivers of human evolution, our way of thinking outside the box and beyond it. They also give us a greater context within which to place our own four-walled lives, illuminating other destinies than our own, for better or worse.

Not all narratives are linear. Some are circular—like nature’s own cyclical saga, or the proverbial serpent biting its own tail. I’m in one right now with an end in sight that resembles the mirage stepping back as you approach it. A never-ending story isn’t necessarily one that continues over the horizon, it can also be one that doubles back on itself, like a treadmill–events going nowhere fast, insinuating progress via perpetual motion. To understand the powerful pull of narrative, pick up Jan Potocki’s, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, that multi-layered box of assorted stories, an intoxicating fix for the narrative junkie.

Narrative extends its tentacles into all areas of life, including science. What is the scientific method if not a story posing conflict and resolution? What is a court case without discord begging for judiciary denouement?

What really separates us from the animals is the story, the ones we live and the ones we event, the ones we hear and the ones that seduce us. Without the story, without our imagination of alternative narratives, possible or impossible, we would not have gotten this far as a species. We would still be food gatherers and hunters, living a few short steps up the evolutionary ladder, trapped at the level of ‘show and tell’. As a species, we may not be very nice any more, (telling stories can also mean lying, which animals do not do), but we progress by hypothesizing what isn’t, but could be.

That’s the story.