Telling Tales Out of School
The case against stories, some witnesses for the defense, and some children's rhymes
In loving him, I saw a cigarette between the fingers of a hand, smoke blowing backwards into the room, and sputtering planes diving low through the clouds. In loving him, I saw men encouraging each other to lay down their arms. In loving him, I saw small-town laborers creating excavations that other men spend their lives trying to fill. In loving him, I saw moving films of stone buildings; I saw a hand in prison dragging snow in from the sill. In loving him, I saw great houses being erected that would soon slide into the waiting and stirring seas. I saw him freeing me from the silences of the interior life.
—David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives
Welcome, creatures! No book review this time.
She Never Went to College, She Never Went to School/But I Found Out She Was a Educated Fool
Like Serg, I recently watched Night of the Kings, an Ivory Coast mythic drama about an isolated prison where a new inmate must spin out a story until sunrise or he’ll die. My short review is here, but like Serg, when the movie was over I found myself thinking about storytelling—and especially about the role of tradition and community in storytelling, since the unexpected and even unwanted inbreaking of the prison community is one of the most striking aspects of Kings.
I often posture about my skepticism toward storytelling. We hear so much nowadays about how life is story, God is story, tell your story, and I just think about Genesis 8:21: “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” This post, name-checking Pat Barker’s use of that quote, is probably my clearest attempt to lay out this position. Stories are how we separate ourselves from others, exalting ourselves and degrading them. Stories are the veil we create to protect our base desires from the imago Dei in others. Storytelling is my words across the face of the world forever.
Of course, this is a pose and not an ethic since I do in fact write books. I even make stuff up! HEART EMOJI Pasolini CENSORED EMOJI made Salò (a story against stories); in the same period of his life he also made The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, both stories about stories, and earlier he made The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, an even clearer example of the story about storytelling.
And when I was first trying to understand what it might mean to be Catholic, I read a book called Christianity in Jewish Terms, which dedicated each chapter to Jewish understandings of seemingly exclusively-Christian concepts. The chapter on “incarnation” had an idea which I have apparently distorted or compressed in memory, but which I remember as, “Objects in the world are words spoken by God.” This is the best expression I know of why the beauty of the physical world points beyond itself—why it provokes not only pleasure but wonder.
What about stories you and I might tell? Can there be any defense? One thing I took away from Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Action is that oppressed communities learn how to act boldly and humbly through storytelling. To narrate yourself within a group is to take on certain responsibilities toward that group. I’m currently re-reading Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (I’ll probably re-watch it also since a huge part of her work is in the performance), and the introduction makes it clear that she believes receiving one another’s stories can bind us to one another, even when the stories themselves are self-justifying or sheltered or disjointed. Imho one of the huge positive effects of Revoice is right there in the name: it guides gay Christians in narrating and receiving more-honest stories, more-liberatory and more-healing—although there are ways to make Revoice even more participatory and liberatory, which lol I’ve already suggested and will surely suggest again.
So, okay, but nonetheless ordinarily I am drawn to stories about the dangers of stories: weaponized stories, deadly books. There’s a fanfiction story set in the world of Infinite Jest and it is about how Hal Incandenza rescues himself through the power of storytelling and it’s so sweet and wholesome and skilled and it is so, so, so drastically contrary to the spirit of that novel.
And then you show me a communal story tradition and my whole attitude sharply and without much reason reverses. You show me a community handing down its stories, dancing them, singing them, valuing everything about stories except their expressions of individuality… and now I’m happy, now I’m back in childhood. Because this is the playground, of course. This is double dutch and hand-clap rhymes.
I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with children’s rhymes (they’re in both Punishment and the novel I’m editing now), but it dates back to my own actual childhood. I, a real child, would sit there reading books about the rhymes and lore and games of British schoolchildren, and it was like being a child at double strength. Like I could be a child and observe childhood at once. I love Iona and Peter Opie’s classic The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, of course, but would also recommend Onwuchekwa Jemie’s Yo’ Mama!: New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes & Children’s Rhymes from Urban Black America.
Children’s rhymes are cavalier, kind of gory, often damaged (some racism, some blaming the poor for their poverty), but also surreal, anti-authoritarian, even foolhardy. Whistling past the graveyard.
In the tar of children’s rhymes are preserved lost technologies: Hello operator, please give me number nine! And some lost politics lie there as well: The rhyme I learned on a D.C. playground in the ’80s, Shame, shame, shame! I don’t wanna go to Mexico no more-more-more, seems to have originated in an 1870 (!) incident at the Sixth Avenue Macy’s in New York—with “Macy’s” becoming “Mexico” (or “college,” “Hollywood” etc, in other versions) over time.
Children’s rhymes are a carnival, of course, not an ethos. But they do suggest certain stances and reflect the concerns of the adult world—this one is British and I think from the early postwar years:
Down in the jungle,
Living in a tent.
Better than a pre-fab—
To drag this back to my original topic (this is all going in the newsletter because it’s so incoherent), I’m always pleased to read about communal storytelling in which the beauty and the danger of traditions are both acknowledged. Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath (my review) has a lot of great stuff about this in the context of the storytelling people learn in Alcoholics Anonymous. AA both helps people voice their own experience, narrating themselves often for the first time (or, for the first time honestly), and also fiercely, sometimes wrongly denigrates individuality or “terminal uniqueness.” Kings has this interplay too: The outbursts of dance and song are ways of accepting the storyteller’s tale, getting on his side in the deadly contest, but they also unsettle him. They take the story out of his hands. They remind him of his powerlessness and the power of the crowd.
It’s no coincidence that the final shot of the movie is of an individual alone—breathing, speechless, in the uncertain future the story created.
I reviewed “Minari,” a movie so American, it might as well play “The Old Rugged Cross” over the closing credits.
The Smiths, “Still Ill”
Charles liked poetry because the lines were so short. You could think your own thoughts in the spaces around the print.
—Diana Wynne Jones, Witch Week