Friday 25 September 2015

Epic distance and the rupture in experience: Bakhtin, Benjamin and me!

For over a year I have been setting up internal ‘discussions’ between two of my main influences: Walter Benjamin (particularly his essay ‘The Storyteller’) and Mikhail Bakhtin (particularly his thoughts on ‘epic’ versus ‘novel’).  This morning I feel I can intervene in their dialogue and help sort out their differences.  WARNING: this is a long and detailed post, I am deep in my theoretical woods here, so if you're feeling like a short walk by the river, check out some of my other posts instead...

If, as Bakhtin rejoices, the novel is about polyphony – multiple social languages in wondrous, open-ended, unresolved dialogue  (‘life’s fullness’, as Benjamin grants) – the flipside of this, mourned by Benjamin, is that it is about the irredeemably perplexing and ultimately lonely nature of life.  The novel is about the individual’s search for the meaning of life, ultimately a hopeless search in which no-one can guide him to the answer.  He is lacking ‘counsel’ (Benjamin) – why? Because of the ruptures brought about by rapid social change, the information age, the isolation of each individual’s experience.  Think of the working class father whose experience as a builder seems to have no bearing on his son’s endless string of casual call centre jobs, silencing his reminiscences.  Or think of the online ‘fangirl’ community where young women create disturbing and sexually explicit fantasy stories in an environment untrodden by any guiding adult, with its own social norms utterly different from those of the mainstream.  So the novel celebrates the individual’s endurance of perplexity in polyphonic chaos – their strivings to make it up as they go along, and call this meaning.

If on the other hand, the story is about continuity and communicability of experience (Benjamin), the common underlying structures of life (Milan Kundera called this the sense of ‘es muss sein’, ‘it has to be’), it travels along archetypal paths which bind the teller and the listeners.  The flipside of this is Bakhtin's view that the story’s epic nature denies either any agency: the epic story is finished and unchallengeable. (I realise I am conflating his views on epic with his contrasting views on folktale, but I think I wouldn't mind me doing so for the purposes of dialogue.) He forgets perhaps that the storyteller has already travelled these paths in her own particular way, as will the listeners in their own.

Then my burning desire to tell stories is an urge to declare underlying commonality of experience – to sew up tears in the rupture.  I feel this is the case: I want to show my counsel to be relevant, ‘useful’ as Benjamin says. 
Yet both I and my listeners were brought up primarily on the novel, not the story.  So it could not be otherwise than that I would ‘novelise’ (Bakhtin) the stories I tell, giving them psychological interiority and inconclusiveness.  As Benjamin decrees and I like most storytellers feel to be right, I will do this very little in my first telling – I will leave in that ‘chaste compactness’ that allows the listeners to bind the story into their own experience – but this is very much what I and the young people will be about in subsequent workshop activities.  We could hardly do otherwise.  Thus Bakhtin describes the way the novel pulls all other forms to itself. 

But things have moved on.  Bakhtin might have envisaged the novel endlessly tearing up ‘epic distance’, knocking down gods, parodying archetypes.  He might not have foreseen how, once all the gods had been destroyed, humanity would feel the need to rediscover the paths of counsel – that in storytelling workshops, a group of young people might sometimes take refuge in the ‘es muss sein’ of epic distance, telling them how they might live their lives and define themselves.  At other times, of course, they would restore the multiplicity and perplexity that they know must on some level exist within the most perfectly formed story.  They would play with these opposing pulls like a tug of war.
So when Tom Maguire talks about the ‘return of the storytellers’ to the stage, or when youth theatre practitioners tell me that stories are right back at the heart of practice with young people, they are evidencing what Kearney, Ricoeur and countless others call the ‘narrative turn’.  It’s a swing of the pendulum back towards counsel and archetype, but because of where it started we have assimilated many skills of navigating perplexity and writing our own identities.  This time, we listen to the stories and consciously choose to use their archetypal paths to guide us and dignify our experience.  This is the dialogic mode of storytelling.  It is a mode which restores the necessary role of the storyteller, but foregrounds the listeners' active re-making of the story as never before.

However, it gives the storyteller new responsibilities and insecurities.  No longer can she work in the innocent community Benjamin yearned back towards, assuming her listeners' life experience will turn out to be similar to her own, and thus relying on the self-evident usefulness of her counsel.  Her ‘usefulness’ (in fact her right to tell at all) must now be earned, by making it evident that she is ready to put her counsel at the listeners’ free disposal, as well as receive counsel from their knowledge, gained in their different world.  (I wonder: was Benjamin aware of this different, more knowing spirit of storylistening?  Did he foresee the narrative turn even as he was mourning the passing of story?  Is this why he emphasises the ‘chaste compactness’ and the vital role of the gaps in the story?  Because this is indeed where these dialogic processes occur.)  This is the 'moment' of the storytelling revival; this is why storytelling is in some ways a different artform than the archaic forms it claims descendance from, and I am experiencing this in my encounters with adolescents.  I need to justify my choice of story, contract delicately with them as to the right opportunity for telling it.  We take delicate steps together unto long-untrodden ground.
Then in what way is the counsel contained in this epic material ‘at their disposal’? What do they use it for?  Well, novelisation - understood as bringing the epic onto a level with interiority and everyday experience - can go two ways.  The adolescent young people I work with very rarely 'knock it down' to meet earthy everyday life in the way Bakhtin described.  Their engagement with it is playful but not always subversive. It frequently seems to be more about raising their personal experience up to meet the epic on its own archetypal plane.  Or something in between.  A young woman with whom I collaborated on a retelling of an Italian folktale drew on her own poetry written in moments of great emotion or insight.  She described this process of conscious novelisation afterwards: 'I was looking to myself and what I would do or feel.'

In fact, strikingly often, young people use epic to dignify their own experience – experience that sometimes seems uncelebrated, isolating and uncommunicable.  ‘Dignifying’ – what do I mean? Simply transcribing this experience onto the archetypal paths of counsel, simultaneously allowing it to reshape these.  In this way the rupture is healed and experience becomes communicable again.  At a sufficient epic distance, universality is re-established: say, between the teenage self-harmer and the young hero on an impossible quest up the glass mountain.  You see the same in novels and theatre: think of Jeanette Winterson’s parallels (in 'Sexing the Cherry') between her lesbian or transgender characters and the mermaids and dancing princesses of legend.  The apparently untraversable gap, between the young people's experience, mine and that of all the storytellers and storylisteners that went before, shrinks for a while.  There is no need to be contrived about this – it happens by itself.  I often don't see it til long after a workshop and I assume they do not either.  Story is a mutually comprehensible language which can re-frame adolescent experience, and be re-shaped in turn by it.  Thus lines of communication can be opened and I, at least, feel the better for it.  

         Bakhtin, Mikhail (1981) 'Epic and Novel' in The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas.
         Benjamin, Walter (1973(1955)) ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ in Hannah Arendt (ed). Illuminations. London: Fontana.
         Kearney, Richard (2002) On Stories: thinking in action. London: Routledge.

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