Thursday, August 11, 2011

Does Literature Exist? Part 3

If we look at our own motivations for story-telling...

We all tell stories, in the sense of narrating events which have only taken place in our imagination. We do so for all the reasons that our Pleistocene ancestors told stories, and we have added some categories, or sub-categories, of our own.

We tell lies, creating a narrative of events that have not occurred to deceive others, to protect ourselves or to harm them or whatever (I hardly need to provide a typology of motives for lying, although there are people who make a good living by stating the obvious). Lies usually have an immediate practical purpose but they take advantage of the same capacity for narrative and imagination that all stories use.

We entertain our children with stories, send them to sleep, terrorize them into being good, inform them about the family they belong to. We tell each other jokes, gossip, local and global news as we have heard it, we dramatize the winning goal of our football team and the moment when our friend’s braces snapped just as he bent down to tie his laces as the nuns’ charabanc went past. We all tell stories of this sort, of the primeval kind, we might say, just as we did 10 or 20,000 years ago, and possibly much more.

But there are newer manifestations, newer reasons for telling stories. Whereas once story-tellers could gain power and authority, leading at times to increased wealth, in more developed, sophisticated and self-conscious societies they may also gain wealth directly from the telling, whether or not there is a social role. There are massive, global industries- publishing, the media, television and film- dedicated to making money from the telling of stories with no real social purpose. The process of creating truth is also different in such societies. It has become a complex process, constantly re-apportioned, questioned, re-invented, carried out competitively by governments, churches and those industries just mentioned. There is little continuity, much less stability, and in the details at least, no agreement at all between the elements of the society about what the truth that supposedly holds it together really is.

Primitive societies may not know how much their identity depends on arbitrary stories invented by their grandfathers, but they do know what those stories are. We are much more used to analysing and questioning such tales, but we rarely ask the right questions, and we have much less of a sense of who we are than the primitive, because though we question openly the mish-mash of rapidly shifting legend that seeks to define us, we don’t, individually, personally, create anything to put in their place. We accept that that kind of story is only told by the permitted story-teller. We all tell almost every other kind of story, but few people dare to believe that they can tell the founding legends. It’s a kind of story most of us do not tell.

From the perspective of the story-teller, literature is something that has no reason to exist. It is an unnecessary concept.


Vincent said...

I'm not quite sure what you are getting at here, especially in your last paragraph.

Are you reasserting literature as an oral tradition, whilst belittling the importance, in the society that you and I live in, of good writing?

CIngram said...

Story-telling, like most human activities, can be consciously treated as a business. I don't object to that, but it's important to recognise when it is happening.

I enjoy good writing very much, I even try to do it myself, but I think its social importance can be overestimated. The contribution of deliberately crafted works of verbal art to the enjoyment of life is important, but in a sense it doesn’t matter in the way that social relations and social identity do. These things come from the sort of story-telling we all do, not from a specialised kind of art called literature.