Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Is That All It's About, Part 2

And when there's no one left to lie to First to face the truth about me and you See it from all sides, all the sides that You have battered and I've burned So baby could you do me a favor Fall off of the earth and I'll see you later Just give me a call and tell me you miss me A call I won't return So now which one is the owner Of the friends we made together And how do we divide a city And the bars where we drank forever So take this for granted You'll leave here empty handed My image of you shattered Winning is all that matters Won't let you gut our happy home --Local H, "The One with 'Kid'" 12 Angry Months is what those who are responsible for naming such things would call a "concept album." It's a collection of songs built around the progression of emotions, events and thoughts following a tough break up. "The One with 'Kid'" is the lead track, for which the quoted text is the intro. It's loud, angry, and pretty much captures the primal anger at someone who once mattered but suddenly isn't supposed to. From there the album moves through successive stages of attempted acceptance, meeting and hating the new boyfriend, bitterness, more anger, a poorly conceived attempt to make up, pleading, and, finally, acceptance and ends with "Hand to Mouth," my intro for the last entry. "Hand to Mouth" takes on a completely different tone than the rest of the album. It's slow and reflective, something that's not overly common in the music of Local H to begin with. The song seems to end the album on a hopeful note, of a lesson learned at rock bottom and hopefully leading to a point of real meaning in life and a chance at real happiness the next time around. Then, at the very end, we get that one moment of discord: the final guitar riff of "Hand to Mouth," and, therefore, 12 Angry Months, is the very first guitar riff we hear in "The One with 'Kid.'" Do we ever actually learn our lesson? This is the question that is at the core of, I believe, the human experience. At the very root of finding that answer is the issue of the story and its meaning. I'm working on becoming a professional storyteller. This is one of those things that's kind of hard to explain to those who haven't experienced it, but it's built on the oldest method of passing down wisdom from generation to generation. It's also a dying art form for many, many reasons. For one thing, we've replaced stories with other forms of entertainment: movies, television, books, etc. These aren't bad things, but they serve to disconnect the storyteller from the hearer. They lack intimacy and are geared primarily toward promoting a homogenized overculture. Storytelling in the traditional sense, ironically enough, once served to promote that homogenized culture as well. Now it serves as a counterpoint, a presentation left up to the teller with the hopes that the hearer will take home something that matters on a personal level. As we've lost the art of storytelling as a personal, intimate event, we've begun to lose sight of the power of the story itself. As we've lost that, we've begun to allow ourselves to be exploited by stories simply because we don't understand them. This, I believe, is a byproduct of the "modern" age, the rise of science and the general misunderstanding of where the limits of scientific explanation lie. For this explanation I need to put on my historian hat. I recently picked up John Darwin's After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405. Darwin's goal in After Tamerlane is something I've only seen in a few other history books: to break down the story we've told ourselves of why something is like it is and try to find the real, historical background for it. It lies somewhere between Robin Lane Fox's Pagans & Christians and Ken Alder's The Measure of All Things. Pagans & Christians took on conventional wisdom about the foundation and ascendancy of the Christian church--convincingly, might I add--in a very dry sort of way that wasn't ever going to compel anyone to say, "I couldn't put it down." The Measure of All Things told a (relatively) small story, but in such a way that in questioning the roots of the metric system it actually reinforced the importance of such a standardized form. After Tamerlane takes on an even bigger mythology than the foundation of the Christian church in Europe: the inevitability of Western global domination. Still, it flows better than Pagans & Christians. I got it at the same time as Christopher Moore's Coyote Blue and have consistently chosen Darwin over Moore when picking up a book, which is about the highest praise I can offer. Anyway, the traditional explanation for the global hegemony enjoyed by the European nations between 1500 and the end of World War II was basically this: Europe was better, stronger, and smarter than everyone else. Europe gets painted as this dynamic, inventive, technologically superior in every way society that fell upon a collection of hapless brown savages or stagnant, corrupt eastern empires. It's a chauvinism perpetuated at the time by the concept of the White Man's Burden that, honestly, we haven't actually managed to get over yet. The root of this historian's conundrum isn't fact. It's the power of story. Just as the rise of the metric system was borne of the story of a seeming aura of inevitability, the story of the rise of the West is told as the inevitable result of the dynamism and progressiveness of western culture. We still tell ourselves those stories. It was that story that took the United States in to Iraq in 2003. Iraq in 2003, of course, is often compared with Vietnam. After Vietnam it seemed like the United States had begun to learn its lesson. We abandoned the policy of containment, opened relations with China, and, generally, began backing off our counterproductive anti-Communist efforts in Central and South America. Then, in the post-9/11 hubbub over the "global war on terror" we heard the first notes of "The One with 'Kid.'" That all-important lesson was so close, yet just outside of our grasp. Now we have to learn it all over again. This is the power of story. The universal story is my story. My story is universal. But can I actually say that I'm being honest when I tell my story? I went to a funeral for someone I'd barely known a week and a half ago. I was there because the deceased mattered to people who matter to me, but I'd personally had little contact with him. As I sat in that funeral and listened to other people talk about him, I realized that the only way I will ever know this person now is through the stories other people tell. Then I realized that the only way I'll ever get to know anyone is through the stories they tell about themselves or the tales of third parties. Ultimately, too, the only way I'll ever get to know myself is through the stories I tell about and to myself, both the stories of who I am and who I want to be. This realization is at the root of my first full storytelling set. I call it "No More Fairy Tales." It's a narrative framework built around three stories and a fourth which will be added in once I figure out what I want the ending to be. The first story is one I came up with last fall while I began working on rearranging the common forms found in fairy tales (which itself is an outgrowth of the Postmodern Parables idea I was toying with on this very blog). The story doesn't really break any new ground. It begins with "Once upon a time" and ends with "They lived happily ever after." The second story is one I came up with that takes many of the fairy tale constructs, puts them in a modern context, then subverts them. This story is followed by what I call an "interlude." It's a story, but one that can't stand on its own and is designed primarily to connect the second with the third. The third story is a personal tale that I came up with as a joke, but couldn't get out of my head once I started it. It's about my own attempt to come to grips with the fact that I want to believe in the "happily ever after," but haven't found it. It's a story about story management, the things I try to tell myself that I am and that I desperately want other people to believe I am. In the end its about the real story bleeding through, no matter how hard I try to disguise it with all my dissembling. After that I really feel like I need something else that's uplifting, but I haven't figured out what yet. Because the funny thing is, even as I deconstruct myth and fairy tale, I love it, too. I've stopped trying to be the knight in shining armor, but I haven't stopped believing that we need them and we need to believe in them. We just need to understand why we have the concept. Meanwhile, there's a reason why the historian and storyteller in me eventually took on The Greatest Story Ever Told and found it wanting. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.


tilts_at_windmills said...

Nothing very profound to say--I just wanted to let you know that I loved this post, and the one on Big Fish.

Will you post the story set when it's done? Or would that defeat the purpose of oral storytelling?

Geds said...

Um, there are two issues at hand in posting the stories.

First, I don't know that it would defeat the purpose of the oral nature of storytelling, but I do know that I write very differently than I tell. (That was actually something that came up at our last guild meeting. One of the other tellers told a story and everyone's reaction was, "You should publish that." It was an excellent story, just in a written and not a spoken medium.)

Second, um, I don't tend to write down the stories I tell. And if I do, it's not on a computer because I simply type way too fast to keep a sense of the rise and fall of the spoken word. I do need to make sure I write them down at some point, so I don't forget them, though.

That said, I have considering posting a few. I just haven't decided yet. But that's about the best answer I can offer.