MYTHS AND THE TIMELESS
As Joseph Campbell has demonstrated, myths—and thus stories—are integral to all human cultures. We are storytelling creatures. We tell stories to help us make sense of our lives, to understand the human condition, our fallibility, our mortality, the motives and desires of our existence. When one analyzes these myths, as Campbell did in his The Hero of a Thousand Faces, one finds certain universal structural similarities, certain basic principles. These structures and principles have been used by human beings over and over throughout history. They’ve served our ancestors, and they will serve us, if we let them, if we have the patience and fortitude to learn our craft.
In his beautiful book-length essay And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, John Berger pictures the storyteller as residing in a timeless realm and viewing the actions of her characters, who live the story in the realm of the temporal. Characters in stories cannot see their futures, cannot know their fate. They can only act and through those actions determine their fate:
What separates us from the characters about whom we write is not knowledge, either objective or subjective, but their experience of time in the story we are telling. This separation allows us, the storytellers, the power of knowing the whole. Yet, equally, this separation renders us powerless: we cannot control our characters, after the narration has begun. We are obliged to follow them, and this following is through and across the time, which they are living and which we oversee.
The time, and therefore the story, belongs to them. Yet the meaning of the story, what makes it worthy of being told, is what we can see and what inspires us because we are beyond its time.
The storyteller knows what has occurred and what the outcome of the story will be. That is why the storyteller can see what has happened as a narrative with a narrative structure: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The storyteller apprehends or discovers this structure and understands it in a way the characters in the story cannot. According to Berger, the storyteller views the characters’ temporal lives through the lens of the timeless, and in the grinding of that lens, we function as Death’s secretary. In that office, we investigate mortality from the realm of the immortal.
This is true even when the story is autobiographical: In that case, the author is looking at herself as a character in the past and is regarding that character from the future, as one who knows what has happened and the fate of the character (at least within the time frame of an earlier period of the author’s life). We human beings live as fallible mortals who lack omniscience, who do not know what will happen next or where our actions are leading us. But once we know where a series of actions have led, we can assess which of those actions were crucial, which involved a telling decision, which revealed something about our personal character and helped determine our fate. (As I often tell my students, I can tell the tale of any failed relationship using a three-act structure that resembles Campbell’s mythic structures.)
Thus story is not simply a recording of events. If a camera followed us each moment of our lives, the results would not be a film with a story. A documentary filmmaker creates a story through cuts, through focusing on certain moments or events. Only through the filmmaker’s deciding what to leave in and what to leave out can a story emerge, can a structure be constructed or revealed.
In his book on narrative nonfiction, Writing for Story, Jon Franklin observes that when most news reporters come upon a triumph or tragedy, they think that is the story—a team wins a championship, a candidate wins an election, someone shoots and kills someone. But that is not the story, Franklin argues. That is only the end of the story. The rest of the story must be discovered through further investigation; the writer must discover the events—or more precisely, the actions—that led the character or protagonist to his particular ending. In other words, the writer must discover or uncover the story’s beginning, middle, and end.
Long ago, at the end of their day, our ancestors sat around a fire and told stories. Sometimes those stories were of events they or others in their tribe had experienced. Sometimes those stories were of gods and mythical creatures. Sometimes they were about their ancestors. The stories entertained those who sat around the fire, but they did more than that. They helped the members of the tribe make sense of their world, with its terrors and enemies, with its death and destruction, with the mysteries of time and their mortal lives. The best of these stories possessed a beginning, a middle, and an end, and these were the stories that have been handed down to us. They employ the structures through which the myths of the world achieved their immortality.
To picture ourselves as part of this line of storytellers is both comforting and humbling. We are taking up an ancient craft. In doing so, it is best we learn what the ancients have to teach us.