Where does our desire to tell stories come from? What exactly is it that we are trying to articulate and what fuels the conviction that there is an audience for the tales we tell? It’s surely not just a by-product of ego, a desire to impose ourselves on the world, an inner compulsion towards self-assertion. That would make the starting point rather thin and facile. I prefer to think that it goes deeper, recalling our more primitive beginnings.
There was a time when the inner and outer lives of a community were deeply mysterious and magical and the role of interpretation and explanation fell not to chieftains or sovereigns but to a figure that somehow managed to dwell both within and without the tribe. Both ‘of’ and ‘other’. This figure was the storyteller. The poet. The bard. To this person fell the shamanistic duty of making sense of the universe. The interpreter of dreams, the voice of the unknown and the unseen, the painter of the dark, they used their formidable expressive skills to transport those seeking a broader frame of reference in which to place their world. In today’s world of professional theatre this person is known as the ‘triple threat’ – they act, sing and dance! But the artiste of old was no mere star of musical theatre, bedazzling rapt spectators with fancy footwork and trilling vibrato. The original storyteller took on the aura of a seer, bridging the gap between the known and the unknowable. They made sense of the insensible and as such were the embodiment of a greater power than that possessed by the less articulate and the less imaginative. Can a storyteller still be in possession of such power?
In our modern world that is so overwhelmed and saturated with information and opinion and interpretation why do we still feel the need to produce and consume stories? If mice and slugs and elephants had the same faculties available to them that we enjoy would they write and sculpt and sing and paint and produce their own multifaceted oeuvres? I suspect they would but maybe I have watched too many Disney movies in my life and am overly susceptible to the dubious charms of anthropomorphism. For the time being it is humans alone who wield the sword of self-awareness (no guarantor of insight) and it is in each person’s gift to decide how and when to unsheathe what can be both a weapon of rarefied finesse and unequivocal crudeness. Our fascination with every point on the scale resides in the same impulses that lay in the hearts and minds of our cave-dwelling ancestors. It is a quest for understanding and for connection. Simply put – who am I and where do I belong?
The richest stories of old are the myths which survive to this day, still captivating and fascinating listeners, readers and spectators of all ages. Irish, English, Norse, Greek and Roman, Aboriginal, African, Asian,Native and South American – old and ancient cultures that have furnished us with a tremendous wealth of mythology and storytelling. Stories that have laid the foundation for the way we understand ourselves today. We are our own myth-makers. We are the tellers of our own stories and have a knack of placing ourselves at the heart of the drama. Each one of of us is Homer’s Odysseus, journeying, probing, questing but perhaps ultimately compelled to return to Penelope, to that place of safety, familiarity and love. I am not being literal here, I am not saying we are all the male hero archetype who dutifully returns home to the stoic wife after his manly adventures. My suggestion is that on a profound, primal, ancient level, we are all borne on the same unstated dynamic that is best described as the journey and the return.
We set out on our voyages understanding, or maybe just suspecting, that the journey and its concomitant adventures and challenges, will not be indefinite. There will be an end. There will be a settling. And there will be a return. The return becomes whatever the traveler determines to be home. And home is the place of belonging. Home can also be the opposite of that, highlighting the sense of not belonging, the sense of otherness. Home then, embodies a strange paradox in that it can be understood as both happy assimilation into place and tribe as well as being one’s concept of defiance, individuality and difference. From this interpretation we can see how identity is closely connected to home. Are we a product of, or a reaction to where we are from? And what happens if you are dispossessed of a birthright as indelible as belonging? How do you keep your identity if you have no place to which you can return?
Further to that and with due reference to TV’s Sesame Street, I wish to announce that today’s blog is being brought to you by the novel Brooklyn by Colm Toibin and the film Shame by Steve McQueen. Two radically different stories, I found each compelling and provocative. Toibin’s novel is a beautifully written story of Irish emigration in the 1950s that is told in a deceptively unadorned way. It left me open-mouthed in admiration of his delicate touch as a writer somehow presenting prose simultaneously wide open and tight as a drum, its emotional impact quietly devastating. Shame is a completely different beast that depicts in the most unapologetic terms a contemporary New Yorker’s eye-popping struggle to negotiate his insatiable sex addiction, a symptom, it becomes clear, of something murky in his family history that has rendered both he and his sister incapable of sustaining functional adulthood. Home is a place to which they have no desire to return. As portrayed by German-born Irish actor Michael Fassbender, the central character’s conflict is deeply affecting as he seeks connection through joyless physical sublimation only to emerge haunted and self-hating on the other side. Brutal, poignant stuff.
As these two stories stayed with me I found their common thread continued to resonate. Shame‘s Brandon and Brooklyn‘s Eilis are both voyagers on their own odysseys, trying desperately to locate themselves in a place that is both physical and emotional, that is both forged and inherited. In their efforts to identify themselves are they not holding up a mirror to us all and asking if we can answer that question for ourselves?
We continue to tell stories to find ourselves. To not lose ourselves. To bolster our convictions of who we are and to identify which stage of the odyssey we have reached. In our stories we seek connection. In the tales we tell we are offering our contribution to a greater story that encompasses all time, all history, all human experience. By offering to share our story we are tacitly accepting that we do belong and that we are asking the same questions and seeking the same truths as everybody else.
Who are you? Where do you belong?