And thereby hangs a tale
As the narrative is conflated with the story, and the story with all art, is there any space left for the non-event?
One of the most fascinating stories in dangles the promise of a bar joke. The orator Demades, having failed to gain the attention of a noisy and distracted Athenian audience, offers a story, to which the audience is immediately all ears.
“The goddess Demeter, a swallow, and an eel,” the story goes, “were walking together down the road. When they reached a river, the swallow flew up in the air and the eel jumped into the water.” And then Demades falls silent. Impatiently, the audience cries, “And what about the goddess?”
Demades’ reply comes like whiplash: “She’s angry at you for preferring Aesop’s fables to politics.”
Are stories more compelling than politics? Contemporary Indians might differ here from the ancient Greeks. Not least because so much politics around us is like spun yarn in shine and jazz.
Aesop’s Fables Poetry in the prosaic
But what exactly is the promise with which the story lures its audience? What is the twist that wrenches suspense from their guts, leaving them hanging breathlessly?
Many writers, I think, remember the childhood recipe of story-making: “Once upon a time, there was a king and a queen. One day the queen died. And then the king died too.” “That is a story,” we were told. But how about this? “Once upon a time, there was a king and a queen. One day the queen died. And then the king died of grief.”
“Now that,” our teachers exclaimed excitedly, “is a story.” Howsoever tiny. Events make up a story only when they are part of a causal link, leading up, ideally, to a moment that stages a climax and a closure.
This is the obvious question that looks into our face from the old art-life debate: Is narrative impossible without an event? That is, can we narrate only when something has And what, indeed, is an event? Is an event a necessary departure from everyday life — indeed, is it the very opposite of the ordinary everyday? Is it only a deviation from the repetitive temporality of the everyday that becomes marked as an event? Is narration possible when nothing out-of-the-ordinary has happened? Is the lack of this happening narratable, or does it defy the very fundamental condition of narrative?
The arrival of literary modernity with the Enlightenment in 18th century Europe gave birth to the English novel. One of the unique gifts of the novel was that it showed the ordinary everyday as worth narrating, just the way ordinary people were now to be celebrated as protagonists in literature, unlike the royal and the highborn in ancient Greek or Shakespearean tragedy.
Suddenly the dailiness of daily life became the stuff of narration. A new word became crucial to fiction: “verisimilitude” — life-likeness. While previous narratives were valued for their departure from the ordinary everyday into the realm of the fantastic, the modern novel began to be valued inasmuch as it showed itself as rooted in the very conditions of everyday life.
The fantastic and the extraordinary did not vanish but moved into the realm of the popular, while the conscious artistic imagination became committed to the demotic and the quotidian. In the early 19th century, Walter Scott’s novels about war and romantic adventures were runaway bestsellers.
But it is his contemporary, Jane Austen, with her gossipy stories about ladies’ drawing rooms and tea parties, who is considered a classic today and the then-bestselling Scott has been consigned to a distant second alley of the literary canon.
Italian critic Franco Moretti reads Austen’s as containing only three turning points. Elizabeth and Darcy meet in Chapter 3; she is disgusted by him. The action is set by this. 31 chapters later, Darcy proposes to Elizabeth. 27 chapters later, Elizabeth accepts him. These three “events” shape the trajectory of the plot.
In between, they meet, talk, have tea, go for walks, the sort of thing that adds texture and density to the novel, but does not affect the story. Moretti calls them “fillers.” Next to three turning points, he counts 110 fillers in the novel. The modern genre of the novel, it appears, draws more of its substance from
Pride and Prejudice
fillers than from turning points.
And then Moretti notices something curious. As the 19th century moves on, fillers are on the rise. The background, he says, slowly starts to become the foreground. From simply giving shape and texture to novels, drinking tea and doing laundry became the very of the story, thereby violating the assumption that the narratable event is necessarily a departure from the routinised everyday.
The triumph of the non-event, one might say, climaxes with modernism, the period when a whole story comes to be made up of staring at a mark on the wall and a door-stopper of a novel outlines a single day where two men wander around the streets of Dublin.
If the poetic is understood to be an immersion in the experience of a moment and the narrative is imagined as a temporally activated account of causally linked events, modern literature comes to demolish the binary opposition between the two.
New orientalism subject
But this is the story of the West, right? The common claim about India is that it is, and remains forever, a storytelling culture. It is the land of epics, orality, folklore, myths embedded in communal memory — from the ancient sages to the prolix Indian politician in the modern parliaments and election campaigns. The Indian Demades, according to this imagination, would plunge into a story right away, not bother with abstract theories of the state. No conflict between the statesman and the storyteller in India, none at all!
Sure, stories have always played a key role in the Indian imagination — if the latter can be imagined with any kind of unity. But to construct the playful, prolix, fantastic storytelling culture of India as an alternative to modern Western rationality and its literary values — now, that too, is a new kind of orientalism, isn’t it? What else but a new version of the taxonomy that classifies the West as rational and scientific and the non-West as irrational and colourful?
As with the Scott example above, storytelling has always thrived in the popular imagination. Now, as the academy starts to reel under the suspicion of the modernity project, the critique of modernist literary culture comes full circle, joining the university and the marketplace together.
Amit Chaudhuri’s Literary Activism series declares itself as an attempt to reclaim the value of the literary in a postglobalisation age, which, Chaudhuri says, has been abandoned by both the market and the academy for peculiar reasons of their own.
The market, led by red-carpet events such as the Booker Prize, has entered into an unabashed celebration of, well, the market logic in literature — essentially the novel as the only globally marketable literary commodity. But this celebration has taken the trouble to disguise itself in the celebratory language of literary value, drawing in tropes of the genius, the masterpiece, the classic, the whole nine yards.
The academy, on the other hand, has abandoned the vocabulary of literary value altogether and has donned the mantle of the sociological, cataloguing and assessing books based on topical issues they probe, and entirely replacing aesthetic value with political valence.
‘Against Storytelling,’ the subject of the fourth annual symposium held recently at Delhi’s India International Centre, is a polemical return to the value of the literary for two interconnected, if counter-intuitive, reasons. The first is the fact that we now live in a moment that fetishises the event, not only in the news media but also as the very condition of literary narratability.
The poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra declared at the symposium that he didn’t see the point in reading recycled news headlines in the forms of novels when there are so many more fascinating problems such as why one’s key doesn’t fit in the lock of one’s door at the end of a long day.
But is that a voice of dissent heard often today? Doesn’t the consciousness of the age identify the event — usually the spectacular and disruptive one — as the very condition of a narrative? And isn’t the narrative conflated with the story, and the story with all art? Is the sensory, densely atmospheric non-event at all the subject of aesthetic engagement today, as it was with the literary modernists, as with the epiphanic moments in Satyajit Ray’s films or even the fiction of Chaudhuri himself ?
The second polemical stake for Chaudhuri is the predictable conflation of non-Western cultures with storytelling, as already outlined above. “Storytelling,” he writes, “with its kitschy magic and associations of post-colonial empowerment, is seen to emanate from the immemorial funds of orality in the non-Western world.”
The new orientalism masquerades, irony of ironies, as the political conscience of post-colonial studies.
The newsy nature of much literature today, as pointed out by Mehrotra, and of the book industry on the whole, stems from anxieties about “urgency”. Socio-politically urgency not only in terms of newsbytes but also in terms of the political morality that dominates academic departments of literature today has come to fully displace the aesthetic with the sociological.
‘Against Storytelling’ cannot naturally be just a critique. It becomes also a perverse celebration of storytelling, if only of its inescapable centrality. The symposium buzzed with tales of guilt, languor, forgetfulness, and with the beastly, gurgling sound of poetry.
The poet and critic Tiffany Atkinson spoke of the “lyric embarrassment” of not being able to tell a story; not being able to do so in the event-driven way an oral storyteller or even the novelist today is expected to be, is the blushing embarrassment of the lyric poet.
It lies deep inside the core of the larger embarrassment that comes with the “So what do you do for a living” question in the dentist’s office. Embarrassment is different from shame as, unlike the latter, embarrassment belongs to both: the poet for being a poet, and her questioner for not understanding poetry or its significance in the world.
Such embarrassment does not only belong to the lyricist but is lyrical itself. It is the experience of an intense, delightfully toxic emotion that is also a pointed, if perhaps fleeting engagement with life. Such engagements, too, make up the subject of art, even though the present, with its fetish of the story, might have forgotten about their power.
It is, in the end, impossible to dismantle storytelling as a magnetic force that has held our imagination in thrall over centuries. Nor is it desirable that we do so. The important question to ask rather is: are there other elements that claim artistic attention? And have we left them on the wayside in our fateful march of globalisation, which might be one of the most powerful stories that runs our lives today?
Suddenly the dailiness of daily life became the stuff of narration. A new word became crucial to fiction: “verisimilitude” — life-likeness
The common claim about India is that it is, and remains forever, a storytelling culture. No conflict between the statesman and the storyteller in India!
The writer’s most recent novel is The Firebird, which appeared in the U.S. last
Play House. @_saikatmajumdar