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The Stories We Tell

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on March 5, 2022 12:31

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According to the Dalai Lama “[t]he planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.” Whether fables, alternative truths, love stories or Science Fiction, stories matter. They form us and they form events.

A monkey ancestor started it. Falling from a branch, dodging a saber-tooth tiger, scrambling to safety, the gibbering creature had to recount the adventure to parents, admirers, followers. The poor monkey who did not make it to safety did not get to tell its reality or figure in the genealogical tree. So storytelling, perhaps religion, was born, to teach, to make sense of a harsh and unyielding world, perhaps in an attempt to twist reality to serve us.
 
Writers and scientists disagree on how many basic plots there are. The earliest recorded stories are tales of becoming, of relationships, and perhaps of resisting bullies. Greek tragedies combine display of dance, music and spectacle on the one hand, and the tragedy of a flawed character and its descent into catastrophe on the other. It may be noted that a dismal tragedy was often followed by a satyrical performance to lift spirits.
 
Kurt Vonnegut summarized plots into a few types. There is the love story: Cinderella starts at the bottom, meets a fairy godmother, rises to the pinnacle by dancing with the Prince, but has to obey the law: at midnight she has to leave. Of course, the Prince finds her, again obeying the law of the story, and they live happily ever after.

Then, Vonnegut postulates, there is the ‘man in a hole’ theme, where the protagonist, riding high, comes to a fall, finds a way out of misery by luck, divine intervention, obedience to the law and hard work, and … lives happily ever after.

All too often a fairy godmother, a magic bean, a goose that lays golden eggs miraculously appear. The lost heir to the throne is mysteriously revealed and goes on to rule fairly. The divinely appointed rises to power. Yet the Greeks told of high kings laid low by an excess of pride, of self-love, of tyranny - hubris.
 
The story of David and Goliath is a parable of good political behavior: the mighty giant is brought down by a humble shepherd with a sling. And later King David misuses his power to murder an innocent man after seeing his wife, the lovely Bathsheba bathing. Confronted by his crime, King David humbles himself before God and his people by groveling in the ashes. Compare this to the story of Cain, who denied he killed his brother, Abel, when accused by an angel.

Another much-loved theme is that of a prophesy being fulfilled, the fairy godmother’s wish coming true, the historic reality being imposed, but often with a surprising twist. Which brings us to the stories around the present war. Historic aspirations to recreate past glories, real or imagined, are invoked in the face of modern realities.

The Apartheid desire to find a separate political reality, Kaiser Wilhelm’s search for a ‘place in the sun’ and the recreation of the glory of Russia suffer from the same Greek flaw. Hubris, pride, arrogance is inevitably followed by nemesis.

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on March 5, 2022 12:31

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Source: The Guardian

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