readings & thoughts on storytelling

A Journey beyond Storytelling

Storytelling as a phenomenological process.

The storyteller inserts himself into a canvas through a process which could be diegetic or mimetic and is  responsible about the authenticity of the narrative and the experience – a responsibility for creating authentic articulations towards a certain ethical truth.

The subjectivity of the storyteller, his protagonist and the subjectivity of the listener in amalgam create the experience of the session of an invigorating and rewarding storytelling. It is not to say that storytelling is not entertainment, but that it seeks not to entertain but becomes entertainment if all the elements fall into place.

¨ Storytelling effectively integrates both truth and fiction in order to arouse the imagination in the subject which has a need for fantasy. The meaning of storytelling lays in its establishment of the right to intensity, thus transports man from the aesthetic domain into that of ethics. Storytelling’s form of rhetoric, that can adequately propel such movement, departs from the rhetorical work of Aristotle. This hypotheses-based form of rhetoric presents potential truths or things that exist in ambiguousness. Though somewhat illogical, it nonetheless identifies a rational core (the concept of proof) in its structure, with its main purpose to be a (special kind of) persuasion. The kind of potential truth that persists (even with its precarious status of truth-fiction) is aesthetic truth. Aesthetic truth (and therefore knowledge and understanding within art) presents a unique fiction-based process of truth-telling that is a guiding force which transports man towards an imaginary-ethical experience. Thus, within the aesthetic experience, a different kind of knowledge and understanding emerge that include error, precariousness and speculation. This type of knowledge is vital to man’s involvement in realm of ethics”- Ido Govrin

According to the German philosopher and psychologist – Karl Jaspers,”the freedom of consciousness to overcome its limits and antinomies can only be elaborated through speech: that is, as a process in which consciousness is elevated beyond its limits through intensely engaged communication with other persons, and in which committed communication helps to suspend the prejudices and fixed attitudes of consciousness”

Thus the telling of a story which examines an event, phenomena, thought etc, through collaboration with a live audience helps to evolve consciousness , both bringing it closer to reality as well as transcending it. Although transcendence to some universal plane is not the objective of such an act. It is to allow the audience to draw their own inferences by engaging  in reflection and dialectical thinking.

However, storytelling traditionally and even today has been used to enforce stereotypes and the socially accepted templates of morality and to direct consciousness towards a desired goal or outcome.

Storytellers are ¨ inventor(s), in control of the material, out of which the ‘people come. – Sontag

Storytelling is a preliterate form. What has perhaps been christened as Storytelling , was essentially the only form of communication possible before writing was discovered.

Storytelling ¨has a certain archaic or folkloric or outlandish or magical quality, reminiscent of a German grandmother propped in a rocking-chair telling old wives’ tales, with a bunch of children and the Brothers Grimm gathered round, or of an old blind man or sharp-eyed gypsy woman sitting in the bazaar or the village square, and saying, as Robertson Davies was fond of saying, “Give me a copper coin and I will tell you a golden tale.”

Storytelling,  lies somewhere between fact & fiction. It implies some falsification, modification, manipulation of facts, heightening some forms of emotional registers beyond rationality towards a transcendental being or an universal truth, which in some cases have proven cataclysmic leading to wars, genocides and massive damage to the environment, obesity, etc . There is no doubt stories have also resulted in manifold progress of the human mind, spirit & conditions. They have been bulwarks and sites of resistance to marauding forces of barbarism and destruction.

However, the need to make a certain dubious narrative palatable ( the audience mindless) and attractive (promising utopia) for a wider mass of people & in turn starting to alter and in fact change the faciticity of an event or in cases orchestrating events to support oneś narrative. This has been greatly effective in pushing people towards consumption beyond sustainable means or resources has been perpetuated by ´excellent’ storytelling , so has been the rise of fascism in various forms.

Hence at the end the fabricated fact assumes the shape of reality in human consciousness. Most of what we celebrate and believe in beyond the realm of scientific proof, and there is a very large number of people who actually believe n stories, irrespective of their rationality, scientific, historical  or even ethical authenticity.

Taken to a certain extreme, we can consider this observation of Thomas Mann about Hilter , which could be true about many political and business apparatus..

¨he develops the one thing needful to establish a connection between him and the people: a gift of oratory. It is oratory unspeakably inferior in kind, but magnetic in its effect on the masses: a weapon of definitely histrionic, even hysterical power, which he thrusts into the nation’s wound and turns round.

He rouses the populace with images of his own insulted grandeur, deafens it with promises, makes out of the people’s sufferings a vehicle for his own greatness, his ascent to fantastic heights, to unlimited power, to incredible compensations and overcompensations ¨

Of course , it is yet debatable as to why  a  (majority) of the audience is receptive to and moved by images and speeches which support their normative thinking  and are  averse to contrarian viewpoints which might provoke a deeper understanding of a crisis and to find a less violent solution problems. The fact that any narrative which arouses mass hysteria on the lines of religion, nationality and other universal rights and ethical truths , perhaps drowns in their cacophony-  the nuances & complexity of our existence in this world,  which is turn is ever evolving.

Thus the pursuit of de- constructing   stories,  and  building a fresh narrative, is an exercise in examining the authenticity of our position within the framework of the contexts and allowing several possible futures to emerge . This perhaps is one of the ethical responsibility of the storyteller as an artist.

However mass media always seems to determine ¨ the shape of politics and culture ¨. For example

¨ The Bush era is inextricable from the failures of the cable news; the executive overreaches of of the Obama years were obscured by the internet´s magnification of personality and performance; Trumpś rise to power is inseparable from the existence of social networks that must continually aggravate their users in order to continue making money.¨ – Jia Tolentino , Trick Mirror.

That. an idealistic notion one proposes is that the value and function of a work of art, including storytelling, if one is to consider it as an art form , and in deciding what stories stay untold , is that the stories which need to be told maybe are  beyond the realms of market exchange.

¨the part of any poem or novel that makes it a work of art doesn’t derive its value from the realm of market exchange. It comes from the realm of gift, which has altogether different modes of operating. A gift is not weighed and measured, nor can it be bought. It can’t be expected or demanded; rather it is granted, or else not. In theological terms it’s a grace, proceeding from the fullness of being.¨ – Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead

This viewpoint is of course is a far cry from the dominant perspective of policy makers and institutional patrons of art, more so when, the effectiveness of storytelling as art is evaluated against the economic and social impact of mass media culture, which finds that

“Broader social and economic arguments for the arts are essential in todayś political, business and economic environment. Both public and private funders are increasingly likely to demand practical outcomes and robust evaluation ” . The responsibility of aesthetic excellence is simply not enough. Artists and cultural organizations are under greater pressure to prove that they can transform society   – Munira Mizra

Back to storytelling where there seems to be a vast difference between the written form , oral tradition and the visual form of storytelling .

In the oral storytelling tradition, it is the performance of the of the story which is the single most important differentiator in the way the narrative will be received by the audience. Hence the storyteller has to be an actor of stories.

¨Writing had a hardness, a permanence,( less permanent on internet than print) that speech did not…a writer is not the same thing as a tale-teller. First of all, he or she is alone while compos­ing, and the traditional tale-teller is not. The tale-teller, like the actor, must respond to an immediate audience.

Her art is a performance: the instrument is the spoken voice, backed up by facial expression and gesture. This immediacy means that the tale-teller must keep within certain boundaries. Insult the audience – too much blas­phemy, or more of it than the audience wants, or too much obscenity, or too many disparaging comments about the audience’s native town or popular leaders or ethnic group, and so forth – and a barrage of rotten fruit or the disar­ticulation of your skeletal frame is likely to follow.

In this way the writer of books, like the graffiti artist, is freer than the tale-teller: he doesn’t stick around for feedback.

The tale-teller in the midst of his tale can improvise, within limits – he can embroider or digress, he can add details – but he cannot revise the beginning, except be­tween performances. Like a film seen in a theatre, his story runs one way only: you can’t turn back the page and make the whole thing different. The writer, on the other hand, can scratch his way through draft after draft, laboring, like Flaubert, over the shapes of sentences, striving for exactly the right word, and throwing characters’ names out the window – indeed, throwing whole characters out the window.

Verbal texture and inner cohesiveness are thus arguably more important for the novelist than for the tale­ teller. The best tale-tellers could improvise with language,but they often relied on standard phrases or tropes, pulled out of their word-hoard and stuck in as needed. Repeti­tion – of words, of phrases – didn’t worry them a whole lot; it’s the writer, not the bard, who combs through the proofs looking for unintentional vocabulary duplications.

It’s not that the writer is more studied and deliberate than the tale-teller; but she is studied and deliberate in different ways.

Then there’s the nature of audience. For the tale-teller, the audience is right there in front of him, but the writer’s audience consists of individuals whom he may never see or know. Writer and audience are invisible to each other; the only visible thing is the book, and a reader may get hold of a book long after the writer is dead.

An orally transmitted tale does not die with the teller: many such stories have been alive for thousands of years, traveling from place to place and from century to century. But the particular incarnation of the tale – that one person’s way of telling it – does die. The tale thus changes from teller to teller. It is passed, not from hand to hand, but from mouth to ear to mouth. In this way it keeps moving.

A book may outlive its author, and it moves too, and it too can be said to change – but not in the manner of the telling. It changes in the manner of the reading. As many commentators have remarked, works of literature are recreated by each generation of readers, who make them new by finding fresh meanings in them. The printed text of a book is thus like a musical score, which is not itself music, but becomes music when played by musicians, or “interpreted” by them, as we say. The act of reading a text is like playing music and listening to it at the same time, and the reader becomes his own interpreter.

Nevertheless, the actual, physical book gives the illusion of permanence. (I say the illusion, because books can be burned and texts lost for ever, and many have been.) A book also gives the impression of static form, of immut­ability – this and no other is the order of the words. In ages in which few could read and texts had an aura of magic, this counted for something. The accuracy of a given text to some assumed and unique original becomes a matter of considerable importance.¨

As we have moved on from the romantic – modern to the post – modern age, the nature of art and position of artists have changed. The overwhelming amount of information which the audience of today has to process , the magnificent technological tools which renders a narrative into magic & the diverse ideologies prevalent, makes it imperative for a storyteller to dig deeper and come up with story – telling experiences which would be ethical, meaningful and emotionally engaging for the audience to participate in.

The storyteller-as-artist is to be, according to Joyce, a “priest of the imagination.”

Sudipta Dawn


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