A brief history of the tale that binds us
In the beginning, there was the story. It told of the creation of the land, oceans, animals, and people. It told of gods and the people the gods chose as their representatives on earth. It gave the people morals, rituals, and traditions, binding them together as a tribe with One True Story. And the people listened to the story and passed it on to their children, who passed it on to their children, and it was good.
As a species, humans are endowed with lips, tongue, teeth, and larynx that we employ to make noises in which are invested the grammar and vocabulary of a native language. Everyone, everywhere, uses that language to communicate stories, whether it be origin myths, historical sagas, epic poems, or romance novels.
Most origin myths share a common plot line: the heroic journey of an anointed savior who delivers his people from evil. Think of George Washington, who could not tell a lie, defeated the British on the battlefield, reluctantly took the reins of power to steer a young nation toward righteousness, and gladly gave up his leadership position to retire to a pastoral life of farming.
But what happens when one origin story clashes with a competing one? If, for instance, George Washington owned slaves whose uncompensated labor permitted him the leisure to read books and ponder lofty political philosophies?
As the world population increased over millennia, tribes were forced to compete for resources, for cultural dominance, for control of the narrative. One origin story clashed with another. Stories that once united began to divide. The story that united a people divided people.
Technology advanced, and people became more urbanized, educated, and wealthy, enabling them to create and consume art, such as music, dancing, theater, and literature. Origin myths, folktales, and religious parables no longer sufficed.
A more sophisticated art was needed for a more sophisticated audience. Thus, the novel was born. And once again, the story united people, not just within tribes, but across space and time: A German schoolboy could enjoy The Tale of Genji, an Indian raja could delight in Don Quixote, a Nigerian housewife could swoon over Wuthering Heights.
By shifting from the all-knowing, authoritarian tone and moral certainty of origin tracts to a more nuanced narrative, the novel encouraged readers to become familiar with other societies and to consider other viewpoints. One could experience both the gilded salons of the tsarist Russian aristocracy and the miserable poverty of their serfs; the grinding hardship of a sailor’s life on a whaling boat; the romantic yearnings of a doctor’s wife in provincial France.
The good novelist is an alchemist who turns the dross of a flawed character into the gold of a hero by building a sympathetic relationship between the reader and that main character. Every reader of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is forced into intimacy with sadistic psychopath Lou Ford, the first-person narrator. Even as Ford perpetrates horrific violence, by putting the reader inside Ford’s psyche, the author creates empathy for his profoundly flawed protagonist. If the reader didn’t recognize, at the least, a shared humanity with Ford, she would not continue reading. The book, first published in 1952, is still in print.
Recognizing the power of the novel to promote empathy, a judge recently sentenced five Virginia teens who had defaced an historic black schoolhouse with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti to read 12 books from a list of 35, including African-American and Jewish-American classics such as Native Son and The Chosen. Just imagine if, instead of being given jail time, drug addicts were condemned to read Naked Lunch; pickpockets Oliver Twist; clients of prostitutes Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.
While there has been handwringing in some academic circles over Jane Austen’s reported popularity with neo-Nazis, might not some enterprising activist bring people on both sides of the political divide together for lively discussions on the universal truth of the brilliance of her novels?
Due to an exploding population and increased mobility, cultures are colliding more than ever before. Readers today can access a veritable Tower of Babel of world literature, the best of which contemplates the very same issues origin myths did: What does it mean to be human? Where is my place in the world? What are my moral imperatives?
Some feel threatened by the intermixing of cultures and seek to assert the dominance of their One True Story. But it seems increasingly obvious that, on this evermore crowded and beleaguered planet, we must arrive at a way to peacefully coexist if we want to survive as a species. Instead of narrowing our allegiance to one worldview, our future depends on acknowledging the relevance and wisdom of the stories of others.
Alice Stephens’ column, Alice in Wordland, appears monthly in the Washington Independent Review of Books. She will appear on the "Across the Cultural Divide" panel at this year's Washington Writers Conference on Sat., Apr. 29th, in College Park, MD.