ART & ORGANISM
THE STORY-TELLING ANIMAL
By Kathryn Morton[i]
Excerpted and glossed from The New York Times Dec. 23, 1984[ii]
HUMAN supremacy may be the product of technology, but technology is, in turn, the product of man’s fancy, for the story of mankind is the story of Story itself. It was not the thumb, erect posture or the ability to make tools that gave man his start. Apes make tools, as Jane Goodall discovered. I once had a capuchin monkey who had four thumbs as well as a prehensile tail, and could walk as straight as she pleased. She invented the lever and the net, modifying a stick for one and my sweater for the other. A lower primate, she was happy eating flies and had a brain the size of a radish. What got people out of the trees was something besides thumbs and gadgets. What did it, I am convinced, was a warp in the simian brain that made us insatiable for patterns – patterns of sequence, of behavior, of feeling – connections, reasons, causes: stories.
We did not arise from the ape with a sharp rock, or even from the one who learned how to sharpen a dull rock, but from the one who saw the connection between sharpness of rock and soon-ness of supper. He pictured himself settling down to eat and made the connection that now would be a good time to go gather some rocks from the stream down below, so they’d be ready when meat waddled by. The Leakey expeditions have found piles of ready rocks at sites where the only other evidence of humanoid life is a few million-year-old bones.
From the moment of that first muttered monologue, outlining the story of a better life through rock-gathering, to the moment of the moon landing was just a matter of steps. And each step was a story – sometimes one the earth itself told over and over till man got it – morning and evening, springtime and floods. Sometimes it was a story of what man had done before and found useful – planting seeds, offering sacrifice, driving off strangers. Sometimes it was a story just worked out in the head: if apples fell in an arc no matter how hard you throw them, what if an apple were thrown so hard the arc of its falling circled the earth like the moon? Then the at traction of objects for each other might be tested out by a formula: F-Gm 1 m 2/d2.
”The theory determines what we can observe,” noted Einstein, and he began picturing a story that would overturn Newton’s applecart, a story about forces of energy that take time to exert their influence. Even Einstein could have started no place but with a story for, however brilliant, his brain was human.
Consider the mechanism of the human eye as a parallel. Our eyes are not essentially more refined than those of other animals. Insects are out of our league. Cats see far better at night. We make our fine and, to us, useful visual discriminations because our brains are ready and expecting certain patterns – curved and straight margins, shadings, color. With these expectations, our unspecialized eyes catch the hints and our minds ”see” what’s up. The mouse might be painted 10 feet tall and blue or the elephant be a two-inch black-and-white line drawing. A cat would see only paper, and in a sense not ”see” at all. Pull the paper jerkily along the floor, though, and the mind of the cat will make him all eyes.
Is the order we find all of our own invention or something donated by the cosmos for us to discover? One might as well ask if air is appropriate for human inhalation when the oxygen we need makes up just 21 percent. We extract enough to live on; the rest is all blue sky.
FROM the stone-age Tasaday people of the Philippine rain forest to the suburbanites in Scarsdale, narrative is the only art that exists in all human cultures. It is by narrative that we experience our lives. I would propose that so far from being nonutilitarian, as is often charged, imaginative narrative, which in its refined and printed form we call fiction, was decisive in the creation of our species, and is still essential in the development of each human individual and necessary to the maintenance of his health and pursuit of his purposes.
The first sign that a baby is going to be a human being and not a noisy pet comes when he begins naming the world and demanding the stories that connect its parts. Once he knows the first of these he will instruct his teddy bear, enforce his world view on victims in the sandlot, tell himself stories of what he is doing as he plays and forecast stories of what he will do when he grows up. He will keep track of the actions of others and relate deviations to the person in charge. He will want a story at bedtime.
Nothing passes but the mind grabs it and looks for a way to fit it into a story, or into a variety of possible scripts: He’s late – maybe he was in an accident. Maybe he ran off to Tahiti with a blonde. Maybe he stopped on the way here to buy flowers. She will keep writing these ”novels” until he shows up or till she finds one story in which all elements, emotional and circumstantial, blend. Then, whatever he says later, she will know what she ”knows.”
A person who never develops or who loses his ability to link events and emotions into a conventionally acceptable story is called insane. The inadequate stories he tells are taken as evidence of his insanity. When and if he becomes able to create a normal narrative, he will be judged improving.
Even after mumbling to itself all day, at night, untended, the human mind spins dreams. In utero, infants show evidence of dreaming. We are the apes who dreamed and woke still dreaming. When we share the text of our best-ordered dreams, the result is what we call culture. When we refine our dreams by daylight, tightening the connections and testing conclusions, that is called Science. Religion exists to give a story to frame the order of all creation. To teach its precepts try parable. To teach arithmetic to a child, say, ”If you have two apples and Bobbie comes along . . .” To talk a panicked high steel worker down from the 15th-story I-beam, say, ”You are going to make it. You are going to look only at your hands; I am with you, listen.” It is a story. Talk him down.
Feverish for order, our minds seek not only a unified field theory, a pencil by the telephone and a punch line to the joke. We want to make sense out of the greatest mystery all of us must face – ourselves. As W. H. Auden said, ”What we have not named or beheld as symbol escapes our notice.” Fiction gives us the names and symbols in a grammar of experience, synchronizing feeling with event into understandable order. The truth about people can best be known as people know it. It is a package deal, and the package best adapted to convey a sense of the human condition is the novel. Graham Greene’s novel ”The Quiet American,” published in 1955, remains the most comprehensible and predictive account of the origins of the Vietnam War. No analysis that separates human emotions from event can tell as full a truth as one that joins them. Flaubert said of Madame Bovary, ”C’est moi!” She is us too, and we are more ourselves as well for having read her story, or Tom Jones’s, or Mrs. Dalloway’s.
MORE than just show us order in hypothetical existences, novelists give us demonstration classes in what is the ultimate work of us all, for by days and years we must create the narrative of our own lives. A pawky, artless mess we easily make of it. We prewrite Great Drama, and then, pressed for time, dash off any old thing for the published version. We labor over and constantly revise the past and the present, Monday morning quarterbacking our way through the week to find unifying principles and meaning. We hope for some pleasant repeating themes, and pray that, when finished, the whole may have something of beauty in it. It is lonely work; we are all amateurs. To glance up and see a great novelist offering a story of rare, sweet wit and grace is to feel that our heart has found its home.
So you say that reading a novel is a way to kill time when the real world needs tending to. I tell you that the only world I know is the world as
I know it, and I am still learning how to comprehend that. These books are showing me ways of being I could never have managed alone. I am not killing time, I’m trying to make a life. B
NOW READ OLIVER SACKS – on-narrative-and-personhood/
[i] Kathryn Morton , a freelance writer and critic, was formerly book columnist for The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, Va.
[ii] Dec. 23, 1984 See the article in its original context from December 23, 1984, Section 7, Page 1 https://www.nytimes.com/1984/12/23/books/the-storytelling-animal.html#after-story-ad-1
The text is from a digitized version of an article from The Times’s print archive, before the start of online publication in 1996. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them. Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems; we are continuing to work to improve these archived versions.