We keep bumping into the need for stories. We sense something true in this need and we are also in a fog about what it might actually mean. A few threads are coming together that make me want to tackle this conjunction of need and, resistance? One of the first things that rung true for me about the Dark Mountain Manifesto – inflected by an American’s frisson at the matter-of-fact usage of a term like “manifesto!” – was their insistence that we are in a crisis of story underneath all of the symptomatic “problems” we find hedging us in. The latest stitches along this thread come from two links sent to me by Dwight Tower: this talk by Dave Snowdon, along with this one on the limits of analysis by Chris Corrigan.
I’ve often felt I’m taken as being capricious and willfully obscure when I resist not only codifying an insight into bullet points, but even repeating them in the same words. These two posts might help show why I do this. There is also something in Snowdon’s description of the use of stories that brings it all back to the original questions, Why stories? How stories? Which stories?
I grew up with old Portuguese folk stories, legends, and fables; not as found in a book, but at the tail end of thousands of years of an aural tradition. My mother had been raised with them in a tiny mountain village and had brought them to the scrap of windblown sand where I grew up. I find myself coming back to a short list, an impoverished remnant, of all the stories she still can recite “by heart.”
There’s a small town, scarcely more than a village itself, called Açores in the mountains of central Portugal. Whenever John Phillip Sousa’s name might come up the strands would unravel and end with the telling of this town’s naming. It would start with the claim that Sousa was a mid-distance cousin – in Portugal these relationships are followed much farther than we do here. From there would come the refutation of “accepted fact,” that he was from the Azores Islands. This would lead to the town of Açores – the Portuguese spelling of Azores – where he was really from and then on to how the town got its name. There was an inexorable continuity and a powerful inertia that would never allow the chain to be broken. The first incident would have to lead to the final conclusion no matter how many times the story had been told, no matter how its hearers might be able to mouth the words in frustration at hearing it yet again, it had to come out and come to its conclusion.
This demand that an inciting incident follows through to an inexorable conclusion that is beyond the vagaries of personal will was just the first lesson inspired by this unflinching dynamic. In this I have personal experience of the power of stories not only to teach but to propagate and continue themselves across vast stretches of time. You might impatiently be muttering something like, “Yeah, the whole ‘meme’ thing, I get it!” But if that’s what you take away, then you don’t get it at all. It’s precisely the opposite of this kind of knocking away of the particular for some sign of purportedly “meaningful” “universal” value that is missing from our modern habits of mind.
This reminds me of an echo I hear behind almost every post or conversation or discussion on breaking out of the reductivist world-view. In almost every case. Damn it! In every case. There is at some point, after some insight has been coaxed out of hiding, a rush to pin it down and mount it as a trophy to be used as a standard on the great march of progress. I hear Bedemir’s words of praise off in the distance, “Who are you who are so wise in the ways of science?” It’s easy to laugh at the convolutions of a discredited world-view, unless we are trapped in it.
There is a world of difference between a map and a story. The power of the reductivist world-view resides in the ruthless insistence that everything can be boiled down and that signs are equivalent to reality. Whatever doesn’t fit is thrown away as an externality or dismissed in disgust as chaotic. The rush to efficiency is not to be slowed because of any “messy” “complications.”
This should be rather straightforward. It should be relatively easy to gather what needs to be done once these initial insights are reached, but we hang-fire. We then want to simply plug them in at the edge of our particular limits of imagination and end up swallowed whole again by the habits of mind we began by attempting to leave behind.
I see this everywhere. It’s not fair to point out individual cases. It also leads to “bad blood,” to being seen as a curmudgeon, someone “not with the program…,” but this is precisely what needs to happen. We need to break with the program.
It’s relatively easy to understand that if our maps are too compelling we will find it hard not to give them more credence than the messy and confusing realities we confront. This does little to stop us from not only continuing to rely on maps, but to strive to “improve” them. This is my critique of “Systems Thinking.” It takes a clever view of some of the insights that lead us beyond reductivism and then wastes the resulting opportunity to break free by selling their results to failed elites who can be wowed into seeing these “tools” as tricks to maintain their positions of power. “Come join us in Camelot!” are the words they most want to hear.
If the root of the trouble with reductivism is the corrosive speed of its short-circuits and the way its models are so compelling as to demand more attention than the reality they purport to help us navigate. Then why should it be so difficult to abandon its siren call?
We don’t push against the limits of our imaginations. We leave the whispers of that call unmolested as they steer our subconscious back into the familiar patterns.
A story doesn’t let that happen. Not just any story, and it matters not only how it is told but how it is received.
Açores are Ospreys. They fish in the local river, the Mondego. The Mondego has a naming story too. A princess named Estrela was in love with a noble Diego. He went off to fight the Spaniards – it’s what was done in those days. He never returned. The young princess wandered off up into the high mountains to mourn her lost love. Her tears gathered and raced down her now stony flanks and formed a growing stream. She cried out forlornly, “Oh Mon Diego! Mon Diego!” The people came to name the mountain Estrela, Serra da Estrela, and the river Mondego.
The Spanish had invested this small town. Their siege had lasted months and months. The town’s supplies had dwindled until all that remained was a cup of olive oil and a handful of rye flour. The town’s elders gathered to decide what to do. As they met in the square below the high walls that still held the Spanish at bay an Açore flew overhead with a fish fresh caught from the river held in its talons. As they watched the fish broke loose and fell at their feet. They were excited by this, but soon their spirits began to droop again. What could they do with a single fish?
One of the elders had an idea. “We should take that last pan-full of oil and fry up that fish! We should bake that dusting of flour into a fresh loaf of bread!”
Another said, “What good will that do us? We can’t divide such a measly ‘last meal’ even among the few of us, let alone feed the whole town?”
The other came back, “No, we won’t eat it! We’ll toss it out at the Spanish!”
They were astounded at this. They had a good laugh, and then…
They did as he’d suggested. They took this gorgeous hot meal, this mouth-wateringly fresh and appetizing morsel and shot it over the walls at their enemies.
A scout brought the remains to the Spanish commander. He gathered his lieutenants to “analyze” this latest “intelligence”
The commander rose from his counsel in disgust. He ordered the siege be broken and they made plans to return home across the border. His last words as he lost sight of the town were, “We’ve held them invested by the tightest siege anyone could muster. After all this time they have enough fresh food to taunt us this way? They’re eating better than we are!”
With that he’d despaired and looked to go home, in the hopes of fairing as well as these enemies he’d given all that time and effort to subdue, but who somehow were ale to mock him this way.
How do we hold complexity in our minds in a way that doesn’t reduce it while giving us a handle on turning past experience to shed light on how to proceed?
The practice of an art gives us a discipline in dealing with complexity and the way its value is crushed and distorted if we attempt to hold its rewards too tightly. You cannot create with a road map. No recipe will bring a painting or a story to life. On the other side, hearing a story, or looking at a painting, a play, reciting a poem; can hold us within its creative vortex and give us a “holographic” taste of life’s complexity in all its glory and by so doing act as a talisman, a focusing agent, that we can use to leaven our way forward. This is probably, I now begin to see, what David Bohm meant when he said creativity was a holographic experience that we can share. This helps me to see the distinction between such a hologram – not as a short-cut to understanding but as itself a holographic image held in my sight by an effort of extension and as a result of a physical embodiment growing out of an empathetic response to its particulars – and the maps we are so addicted to making.
As an act of thanksgiving the town took the name Açores for itself and its crest sports the walls that guarded it and the birds that brought them such a gift of bounty in the face of extreme adversity and want. They hold this in their hearts, by heart, along with a story that shows them how any moment, no matter how dire, can be a chance to break out of seemingly insurmountable constraints, IF we are willing and able to meet emergent reality with an open heart….
Let’s leave it at that.