P.O.V. No.18 - Storytelling

The Invention of Meaning

Keith Raskin

For the same reason we cannot live in each other's dreams, nor even in our own while conscious, no deeply meaningful story can be told precisely. Yet we try, creator and chronicler alike, to be precise, perhaps more than anything else, when we tell a story. And, as we approach the highest peaks, enter the thinnest air, and climb toward the vanishing point of precision, art and form, style and content merge. As we become increasingly precise, choices and opportunities become more and more limited, and as they disappear methods are not only forced upon us but often forged out of necessity; and finally the face of meaning emerges, reified as it were, in tone, mood, resonance and impression. The meaning of a story, and thus also its essence, is, associated with and thought of as defining the very character of story. It is not necessarily in the arc or progression, characterological transformation or metaphysical journey, portrayal of a state of mind or statement of a worldly condition, conflict or dialectic, underlying question or cumulative resonance of textures, layers, or juxtapositions. In fact, a story need not contain any of the above, and if it were told precisely its meaning would be in how it turns on or passes over each detail, in the grain of the work, in how it focuses and communicates at every moment, in its every gesture and choice, giving away all of its voice, its attitude, its process, its way of thinking and its particular brew of reason. However, sadly, as I have said and as I will explain, we cannot attain true precision when it comes to story, though we can be careful and conscientious, and we can follow and tug at delicate threads and intuit forthcoming ripples of play and tension. With integrity we may approach precision, but so much works against us, from without as well as from within.

Probably most profoundly what thwarts us is our education, our baggage of extended knowledge in subjects unnatural to us, our learned practices of analysis that often cause us to suspect, ignore or deny our intuition and expect the counterintuitive. Our education includes also our absorption of critics' and commentators' opinions rising from their own overly developed and obsessively honed educations. Now, rather than retreat from such an encroachment, we emulate it; we exemplify our educators and become what we absorb and see communicated. It appears to us as civilized, polite, conventional, erudite expression. But we must remember that it is not the aim of critics or commentators to discover meaning and announce it but to emphasize conscious, memorable, and identifiable resonances, flaws, mismatches, missed opportunities, limitations, comparisons, occasionally masterstrokes and, more frequently, remarkable, definitive competence and aspects in line with current thought and trends. Their job descriptions do not include revealing subtle, abstruse meaning that is virtually ineffable, not even approachable by either word or parable. And why should they be expected to create a story and forge a way of thinking just to explain a momentary reversal or meaningful detail? Why should we, especially when we cannot be sure that that reversal or detail belies the meaning of the entirety, for how humanly precise could the author have been; especially when we do not trust our instincts, must discount our excess baggage and idiosyncrasies and have learned to await proper confirmation of our inferences from repetitions and restatements and re-establishments of fact, theme and style? This amounts to a rigorous and insidious training in how not to probe too deeply, how to accept certain givens and how not to worry much about any of it.

Now, in our inmost heart of hearts we are both thwarted from and impelled toward the discovery of the true meaning of a story. This is because our lives - daily, entire and collective - are composed of stories and metaphors. In everyday life we live through a haze of very realistic, sometimes vividly cartoonish or overly melodramatic, daily metaphors that calm and orient us, or just churn up our emotions. Brief stories begin and end and mimic the larger stories of our lives in ways that resonate poignantly and call back memories. Our days abound in first things and last things, chance meetings, that first cup of coffee, settling in, getting to work as if at some universal generic toil, people rushing, people taking their time, people in all sorts of roles and pedestrian costumes behaving much like various anthropomorphized animals and mythologized characters, coming to intersections, crossroads, stormy weather, ominous clouds, bent street signs, roman numerals etched into a dilapidated public library facade, and finally our own sense of who and what we are. At every moment we are immersed in movie posters and ads, building signs, and headlines all providing overwhelming subtexts for ludicrously encompassing metaphors. We live within the story of our day, of our current and past times - our collections of superimposed fairy tales, dreams, and bits of relevant and irrelevant memories of film and novel narratives - and of all life on Earth, our condition of existence in a universe with an unknown and most likely unfathomable beginning and end. Thus, literally buried, enclosed like a great onion heart, in juxtaposed realities and fictions, titles and mottos, poses and frames, and literal eternities, how can we assess stories? We experience them through layers of stories much closer to ourselves, that begin and end in ourselves. By the same token, how can we resist immersing ourselves in a new story, if only to gain distance from ourselves for perspective and comparison and relief? And of course we are adept at getting to the core of it; it is as natural as seeking the source of our own motivations, our character, our center.

The formation of story exposes another rung of removal that exists between ourselves and story: our consciousness. Whether a story emerges and evolves from a complex sort of crystallization of accumulating ideas, patterns in an intricate and gradually spun web, or carefully followed threads that run along loose subconscious seams, a strict procedure must be followed, a very conscious procedure that must not agitate the crystallizing tincture, snap the webbing, or tug the thread from its seam. The introduction of unyielding and constrictive and conclusive logic is most dangerous yet necessary in the early stages of development. It is necessary in the formation of certain bridges; making connections to related threads, webs or tinctures; in the fleshing out or reification of spare outlines of notions, ambiguous abstractions, and lifeless, inert symmetries that lack emotional heart or human facets; and for purification, elaboration, proper presentation, and the reduction of vagueness or distraction. But the rhythms and ripples of resonance must not be interrupted too soon, for the puzzle pieces and open structures must yet remain soft, open and submerged in the liquidities of creation, imagination and intuition; rigidity and precision do not enter consciously until the meaning is known or formed. Perhaps the greatest danger, though, is the temptation to manipulate, to create emotional reactions that depart from the original meaning, or simply to follow overly logical patterns, or to anticipate and judge prematurely - to do anything but follow the original threads that were found and pursued unconsciously and semi-consciously.

Many formations, beyond this initial developmental phase, may still collapse or dissolve in the unfiltered light of conscious day, for too much that was as yet meant to remain unconscious and maintain a subconscious resonance may be exposed too soon. Once exposed, it is too late; it has now transformed, and has now crossed over to consciousness and will be held to different rules, demands and interpretations in the creator's mind.

The entirely conscious creation of story for commercial purposes, say, or for some personal agenda, is not true story formation but manipulation, formulations of well-known elements that provoke reactions and obvious, predictable conclusions or inferences. There may at times even be subconscious echoes that, accidentally, match the intentions of such creations. This formulation of course serves its purpose but has no deeper meaning than a predicted, expected and intended message, more of a hidden instruction or directive than a meaning or essence, and certainly not revealing of a way of thinking or a way to express experience, far from anything like Ibsen's metaphysical logic and hypersymbolism or Dostoyevsky's oceanic torrents of faith and faithlessness and ideological oneness. More like a message of luck or prosperity found inside a fortune cookie.

As a grand metaphor, story is our life. Consciousness is what we do every day, our jobs, our errands, purchases, filling out forms, etc. Precision is maintaining integrity and meaning in our lives, through focus, self-examination and pangs of conscience. Manipulation is the unethical wielding of power, people taking advantage of each other, ugly personal or professional politics, opportunism, and the rationalizations we use that lead us to poor decisions or support our mistakes. Story formation is the collection of painfully informed decisions that have gotten us where we are and allow us to do what we do, our invention of ourselves and of meaning in our lives; the most important, least spoken of, most investigated, least understood, most avoided, most obsessed over, most subjective and most universal aspect of our lives! And finally, alas, meaning is meaning, how it is found or invented is the key. If it cannot be found cosmologically, spiritually or philosophically, then invention becomes a necessity and at the same time a discovery of our interpretation of ourselves and our condition.

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