Touch the world, describe the world, and always include a third item on your list
“In my old age, I know it’s crazy. But every once in a while, with my white hair and quivering hands, I’ll thumb through an old novel, and I swear to you, I’ll see a firefly flitter across the pages.”
—from “Fireflies” by Scott Heaton
I’ve had a thought occupy my mind much of late. The same thought, for long periods of time, which has felt like a betraying thought. Betraying because it oversimplifies things I’ve long struggled to cope with, and contradicts things I’ve struggled to understand, and it doesn’t help with things that I’ve tried to believe. Yet I’ve thought about it. I’ve thought about it for hours, like some antagonistic mantra, because it smacks of the kind of truth that, once said, feels like it never needed to be spoken out loud.
Out with it, then, my belaboring, distractable mind. What’s the thought?
It’s like this…
There is only one story.
This isn’t any kind of lesson I’ve learned. It might not even be true, in the academic sense of the word, where truth is determined by vetting and by argument and by expert input.
When I say it, I mean it as a proposition. It’s a place I’m proposing to begin an idea. It’s an exercise you can do with things sometimes. You ask the thing, “What are you?” And when it answers, you ask again, “What is that?” And you keep asking until the answer becomes recursive—till the answer and the question are the same, and there’s no other way to explain it—then you’ve gotten close to the most fundamental nature of the thing.
If you examine stories, and you keep asking what they are at the most fundamental level, eventually you get to a place where all stories are just one story.
And that just doesn’t work for me. If there’s only one story, then why am I doing all this? Why am I fighting with my unwilling fingers and my foam-filled brain to goad shapely sentences into the mockery of evocation that’s the nearest I can manage to prose? Why do I rattle and wail against the unmeaning sounds that shapelessly laugh at my plea for meaning?
There is only one story. If there is, it wrecks all effort by all minds that have sought to speak and to make pictures from the whims and memories of those around them.
Doesn’t it? Doesn’t it nullify the aggregate measure of human creative endeavor?
This thin-souled writer has no answer.
Well, except that there’s a second half of my mantra.
It’s not an answer, though. Just a source of more questions.
There is only one story: the story of someone struggling.
Which explains everything and nothing, like all the best mystical mummery that’s ever been and that ever will speak more directly to the soul than we’re contented to accept.
In my view, that’s what it comes down to. Forgive me for a moment while I wend a few slight spiritual curves around this idea, because I don’t think that the part of art which can’t be either perceived or explained can be considered without talking about some version of spirituality. I mean the “beauty,” whatever that means, and the “moving” nature of art, however that’s expressed.
There’s something intangible and barely describable in all art, some component of it that somehow exists apart from easy cognition. Whatever that thing is, in spite of “cheeking” cognition, never fails to spark recognition in us. We know it’s there, even if we can’t touch it or see it or smell or hear it, even if we can’t say what it is because we can’t think it as a thought that we know how to express, we still get it.
It’s convenient to call that a spiritual component. I know that some people find the idea of spirituality uncomfortable, and so I won’t belabor that point very much. I don’t think that anyone needs to compromise their beliefs to get this. As Terry Pratchett—an under-estimated modern philosopher and poet if ever there was one—once wrote, “Take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy.” And that’s just a “just is” thing. There are intangible unknowables in all our dailies—things that we explain with the undeniable rhetoric of the “just ’cause, okay? No more questions” strategy. I only know of one person who tried to deny the reason in admitting to the existence of this “spiritual,” for lack of a better term, element of life, and things ended badly for him. I think that most of us will admit that we believe there is such a thing as love, although we couldn’t really explain it or quite put our finger on it.
Among its many purposes, a fundamental point of art is a conversation with those otherwise imperceptible and inexplicable things. Pick one. Anything. Struggle. Since it’s impossible to either depict or describe exactly what struggle is, an artist will strive to express pieces of it. We will see the pain of someone being powerless to help a friend; we will tell ourselves how it relates to our lives, how we understand the facts and the psychology involved. But the real fatigue, the real weariness, the real ache is something we just know. The artist can only evoke it. The receiver of the art can only recognize its reality, and only experience that recognition inside their own personal little sphere. We are all alone in our own infinite universes, and all connected by the shared experience of trying to figure out what that means.
So there is only one story. It’s the story of someone struggling.
It’s horribly reductionist to try and ascribe all of storytelling art to this one principle. And I would argue that means all art, because even art with no narrative in itself assumes a narrative when it’s interacted with by somebody.
I don’t know. That doesn’t bother me too much, now that I have thought it through. I like reductionist philosophies. They might be a little unfair, and they might demand more questions than they answer, but that’s okay with me. I can start from the fundamental, possibly erroneous—but I don’t know yet—statement of an idea, and then write a vast narrative to explain what I think that statement means.
It’s okay with me to think there might be only one story, I guess, because that one story is as infinite as the stars.
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