I’m here today to congratulate the members of Sigma Tau Delta, the English Honors Society. You have chosen wisely. Among all the benefits that English affords college students, there is one that especially distinguishes you: your growing capacity to navigate stories for meaning.
So, congratulations for dedicating your time and energy to story. Yes, English gives you access to more than narrative. There is poetry of course. Argumentation. Rhetoric. Figures of speech. Tropes. Metaphors. Similes. Synecdoches. Metonymy. Meter and rhyme. Imagery. Voice. Clarity.
But I’d argue that no matter the types of literature, or various literary devices, or the purpose of the text in front of you, at the core of what you read is a story, a narrative. Behind the image of poet William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens, is a narrative. The use of iambic pentameter in a sonnet adds rhythm and structure… to a story. Tropes like metaphors and similes reshape or reveal a new way of viewing a story. Or they discover a new story entirely.
In other words, I’d argue that in each English class taken and to be taken, and with each literary genre encountered, you are honing your intellectual and emotional abilities to understand story. To choose story and storytelling as subjects of inquiry is to engage in the most human of occupations.
Well, that’s a lot to disagree with. First, really, story is what you signed up for? And Moretti has the audacity to think he knows what it means to be human? For the sake of time, I’m going to commit one cardinal sin for any arguer: I will not consider counterarguments. A cop-out, I know. I will supply evidence, though. I’m sure I’m going to ramble, too.
Let me start with all the ways that literature itself tends to cherish the human capacity for story. Beowulf tells stories, sometimes in contrast to the stories that the Beowulf poet tells, to hyperbolize his heroism. The pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales traffic in stories, as if storytelling is the true way to go on a pilgrimage, to prepare for religious reckoning, even fulfillment. The stories that are most memorable from The Odyssey are those that Odysseus tells his hosts in Phaeacia—to validate himself among his Poseidon-worshipping hosts no less than to give meaning to human suffering—grief and guilt over the death of a friend or mother, fear over one’s own death, woe due to desire unfulfilled, or due to mutually exclusive desires and duties, impulses and designs.
Examples of literature cherishing story abound. Literature can also question the limits of story to know the truth.
Hamlet’s dying wish is to have his friend Horatio tell his story: “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, / Absent thee from felicity awhile, / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, / To tell my story” (5.2.329-332). The story that Horatio aims to tell, “Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, / Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, / Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, / And, in this upshot, purposes mistook / Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads,” sounds too boilerplate to do justice to the story that Shakespeare’s play has just given us, of a prince, maddened with grief, who is torn over the kind of story he finds himself in—a revenge tragedy. We just had a wonderfully unique revenge tragedy, and we’d hate to see that story get redacted, revised, and rebooted with Horatio as the storyteller. We’ve seen so much more than he has of Hamlet’s story.
So we rely on stories for memory, for preparing ourselves for the suffering to come, for coping with our current suffering, even though stories are intrinsically limited.
Our reliance on stories can also be quite troubling.
I’m sure Dr. Carlson could tell us what story means to Chaucer’s Miller or Reeve: a chance to jest, mock, insult, defame, punish the other. Or Chaucer’s Clerk, who suggests that the best woman is the servile woman. Also, we ought not forget all the ways that humans use story to caricature others. Odysseus turns the Cyclops into a monster with his story; Shakespeare’s Prospero turns Caliban into a monster in The Tempest; there’s the Beowulf poet’s version of Grendel, too. We have seen radically new perspectives on these stories—The Tempest, The Odyssey, Beowulf from the “monster’s” point of view. It’s something to celebrate, this retelling of old tales to recoup what is lost whenever story is used to subjugate, oppress, stereotype, malign, demonize, or dismiss.
So, we rely on stories to remember ourselves and one another, to handle suffering, and we use our knowledge of stories to remind ourselves how easy it is to misrepresent others.
We also rely on stories as a form of distraction. Here’s Lear who’d rather dream with his good daughter than face his cruel daughters:
“Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds I’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon” (5.3.8-19).
In other words, let’s make a story together, one of forgiveness and reconciliation, and then let’s tell tales of old and tales of others to lead us to the mystery of things, the mystery of creation, of the universe, of consciousness. In other words, Netflix and chill. Into the mystic.
Unfortunately, Lear and Cordelia don’t have a chance to fulfill Lear’s wish. They both die, and we’re left with their stories, like their lives, cut short. There’s nothing at play’s end that can distract us from the tragedy. Kent, Lear’s servant, tries to redirect our attention to his own story of dedication and service, but it fails.
Sometimes we rely on stories as a distraction; sometimes we rely on stories to dwell upon harsh truths.
So, you all are not only to be commended for choosing a major that has you focus on the most human of actions—storytelling—but for choosing a major that can suddenly plunge you into some harsh, frightening truths that might trap you in something like despondency.
Sometimes it’s stories that we try to distract ourselves from, because those stories settle upon harsh truths we’d rather not dwell upon. Marlow suggests as much in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a tough turn of the 20th century novella about colonizing the Congo that confronts readers with racism and its logical premises and conclusions—delusions of grandeur, self-aggrandizement, greed, and genocide. As Marlow witnesses these crimes against humanity first hand—and even gives voice to the very racism that he tries to debunk—he turns to work to distract himself. “Rivets! Rivets I wanted,” he cries, because he wants to get on with the work of patching his boat and stopping the leak. He works to avoid remaining idle, which all at once detaches him from his own reality and has him dwell upon the reality of the situation around him—slaves in chains, Congoan men dying of starvation under a tree, villages pillaged, and bodies of villagers vanished, erased, without a story to show or tell. No memory, no remembrance. Marlow thinks that work can help him construct his own reality, can help him hold onto the “redeeming facts of life,” the facts that redeem life. Work, manual labor in his case, can make life meaningful whenever experiences and stories outside of work confuse, torment, and horrify. He begins to learn about the value of work from an accountant, by the way, someone who works so hard at crunching numbers for the trade company that he fails to see the horrors of the ivory trade.
A red wheelbarrow, anyone? So much depends upon it. You know, it’s used for work. For redeeming life. Or in order to ignore a hard truth that Marlow only has us glimpse when he reflects on the last words of the fascinating, repulsive Mr. Kurtz: “The horror. The horror.” Marlow thinks these dying words suggest that at the heart of humanity is “a strange commingling of desire and hate”—a dark reality about the nature and function of humanity that no one should ever have to face. Marlow thinks he has learned from his story that we humans have evolved to put our reason and heart into the service of our instincts, that Mr. Kurtz, with all his murderous greed, is the truly free human, and that to think otherwise is to lie to ourselves, to suggest that if fully unrestrained from the laws and codes of society, we would act differently and not want everything for ourselves.
Marlow’s story, and his interpretation of his story, casts a bleak shade on humanity. It doesn’t agree with my earlier claim, that story, not selfish desire, is at the heart of what it means to be human. And it doesn’t speak to your own encounters with other humans either, which, I would argue, rely heavily on story, too.
I’m always horrified by Marlow’s story and his interpretation. But rather than rest with it, I look for other stories to counter it.
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Mr. Fortune’s Maggot.
This 1920s novel focuses on Timothy Fortune, who decides to become a missionary after a lucrative career as a banker. His “maggot,” that is his strange, perverse fantasy, is to convert the natives on a Polynesian island named Fanua. His only convert, Lueli, proves to be no convert at all. This development shakes Mr. Fortune to the core and sets him into a desirous, hateful rage that brings Lueli to the brink of despair. What changes Mr. Fortune’s fortunes, so to speak, is his realization that what Lueli needs is a Fanuan story that suits him, not a Judeo-Christian story that Mr. Fortune forces upon him. Mr. Fortune discovers that “everywhere mankind is subject to the same anxious burden of love and loneliness, and must in self-defence enchant their cares into a story and a dream.” So, at the heart of humanity is not desire, but love, not hate, but loneliness. And to cope with our burden of love and loneliness, we place ourselves and those around us in a story, or we dream ourselves into a story. We use story to let us handle the truths about ourselves.
You, Sigma Tau Delta members, are those who work to pay attention to that human endeavor, those hearty attempts to use story to make sense of our love and loneliness, always underneath what we remember, what we worry we will forget, always the reasons that we strive for the goals we set.
There are so many stories to read, to reference, to reflect upon, so rather than continue to list so many others, and discover other ways to unpack our humanity through story, I’d ask you all to consider what stories you know. From literature, yes, from experience too, your experience and others. Make connections among those stories, even if, analytically speaking, they are far removed. Then, look for stories you don’t know, from places you don’t know, cultures you aren’t familiar with. Read freely, but make your reading list all-encompassing. Don’t just copy one of the stories that lie underneath my speech here. You know, the story of a not so funny white guy who tries to honor Sigma Tau Delta members by emphasizing the importance of stories, who then points to a bunch of stories by a bunch of white guys and ends up finding hope in the lesson that a white male character learns in a novel by an English woman. Continue to enlarge your minds and hearts through stories, everywhere. And continue to critique the stories you read to discover what they mean, individually, and together, about you, about us, about our worlds. Balance work and story. Read Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! before you move that wheelbarrow. Or get in the wheelbarrow and read. Work on story.