Is the Story Really Dead?

Is there really a viable alternative to stories? Perhaps it's really true that humans are innately primed to be persuaded, consoled, and inspired by a beginning, middle, and end.

Parul Sehgal’s recent New Yorker essay “Tell No Tales” has gotten under my skin. In it, she claims that “A fixation on narrative…has crowded out other forms of knowing, and caring,” and by this she seems to mean story is dead. Okay, okay, she’s not that melodramatic— the essay is actually artful and beautiful and more than pointing out that story is dead, perhaps she is pointing out that story is everywhere.

As she writes:

“Storytelling is what will save the kingdom… Among the other entities storytelling has recently been touted to save: wildlife, water, conservatism, your business, our streets, newspapers, San Francisco, and meaning itself. Story is our mother tongue, the argument runs.”

And with that list, I did find myself all of a sudden exhausted, played, manipulated by the many ways that story has been invoked to make me do or feel this-or-that. It did, all of a sudden, seem that story was tired, if not completely dead. Cramming life into arcs of narrative did perhaps seem, all of a sudden, a little bit limiting, too much everywhere. But in her fastidiously laid out complaint, there does emerge another little problem:

“I am worried about you,” a biographer friend of mine tells me. “This piece of yours— what is the alternative to story?”

And that’s the question that I’ve been really trying to come up with an answer to, because while Sehgal’s answer is suggestive, it remained a little bit abstract. She gestured at some human emotions and moments that don’t really wrap themselves nicely into narrative arcs, but the suggestion that story has crowded those moments out is a stretch. As she herself notes, those non-narrative “moments” might be particularly hard to render. But anyone who does it well is more than welcome at the literary party, as she surely must know from the abundance of moments she picked out.

So is there really a viable alternative to stories? Maybe it’s really true that humans are innately primed to be persuaded, consoled, and inspired by a beginning, middle, and end?

One alternative occurs to me— one that seems just as soothing, intriguing, and captivating to the human mind. See what you think of positing this alternative to story: the before-and-after photo. This is (primarily) a visual medium that completely elides the story. In fact, it makes the story almost irrelevant— we are interested in the sharpness of the contrast and assume that the painstaking labor in between the photos is of only modest interest. This is true with weight-loss, body-building, and home-renovation photos. It perhaps even applies to those puzzles of “spot the difference” that are assumed to be for children, but I think perhaps are actually aiming for their parents and grandparents.

Relatedly: there are time-lapse photos. I remember seeing this famous series of photos by photographer Nicholas Nixon of four sisters taken every year, and it is the reticence of the photography in telling any story at all that is so captivating. I myself have stared and stared at those photos, searching for some story, looking to trace the deepening wrinkle lines, wanting some explanation, but knowing that my own search for it is vastly more satisfying than any captions would be. Would knowing what happened in any year improve upon my feeling of mystery, satisfaction, and intrigue? No, I don’t believe so.

Ditto for time lapse photos of children growing up, aging, or even time lapse photos of flowers blooming. That is not a story. It is also stunning. (Goodness, if you haven’t ever seen this TED talk with Louie Schwartzberg, do yourself a favor and stop reading right now and go watch it).

And then there’s one other example that sings to me: that of gratitude, and in particular, of religious gratitude. Last spring, in Sources Journal, Joshua Cahan wrote this essay about the essence of the “story” of Passover. His point, at least in part, is that although when we (modern Jews) think of telling the “story” of Passover, we think of a narrative arc that starts in slavery, includes many different plot points, and ends with our freedom. By contrast, the “story” told in our Passover Seder is really quite different in its focus. As Cahan puts it:

It does not tell a tale that progresses from disgrace to praise, but one that includes only these two elements: we were in a place of disgrace and God redeemed us. And the point of this explanation is not the story itself but the lesson it teaches: God came for us in our time of need and did wondrous, astonishing, supernatural things on our behalf to bring us to freedom and make a place for us in the world. What we must do in the present is be thankful for those acts, acknowledging that they were done not just for our ancestors, but for us. Our devotion to God, which we show by performing the Passover ritual, celebrating the festival, and observing all of God’s laws, flows directly from that awareness. 

Or, to put it more simply, the “story” we tell is really not a story, but a contrast: bad to good, slavery to freedom, oppression to opportunity. It is not so much a story, but a purposeful reversal. We celebrate not an historical arc, but a moment: the moment of wondrousness, a turning over from misery to joy. The fact that we mention the slavery at all is only really a set-up, a chance to foreground the gratitude that we feel that it is no longer the case:

This framing opens up a whole new way to read the deeply evocative but enigmatic statement that concludes the storytelling portion of the Passover Seder: “In every generation we must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt.” Many explanations of this line take it to mean as if we had personally been enslaved, and this can be a springboard for cultivating empathy for all who are oppressed. But the Haggadah’s focus is not on slavery; it is on coming out of Egypt. Here too, slavery recedes to the background and the exodus is what matters. It is the exodus, the exhilaration of being carried to safety in God’s hands, that always needs to feel like it just happened to us. 

But more than that, perhaps the Haggadah is gesturing not to a story after all, but to a before-and-after, to a kind of human evocation that is not a narrative. Perhaps it only distracts to tell the blow-by-blow, the details of slavery and plagues and Pharaohs. Perhaps those details are in fact a tired kind of tedium that doesn’t belong in side-by-side weight loss photos. What matters is where we were, and where we have come to now. The rest is commentary.

Sehgal’s essay focuses on Scheherazade, which is actually a story I didn’t know, or had forgotten about. True to her focus, Sehgal doesn’t tell the story, but in case you didn’t know it either, it is the framing narrative of 1,001 nights. According to the story, the king vows to marry a virgin every night, and behead her each morning before she can dishonor him. But when he marries Scheherezade, she spins a tale every night and the king can’t bear to execute her before he finds out what happens. She manages to keep this up for 1,001 nights, drawing out the action and keeping the king on the edge of his seat. Sehgal’s point is that we too seem to act as though storytelling is the locus of our very survival. 

And whether it is or isn’t, I think Sehgal would be the first to say: story isn’t going anywhere. But maybe, at the same time, it needn’t be everywhere.

In other words: the story is dead, long live the story.

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