TELL ME A STORY

Adam Kleinman

Arts of the Working Class
Issue 23, Fall 2022

The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote that, “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Personally, I am more of a plumber that a poet, and in my crude understanding of things, I have always interpreted this to mean that narrative is the primary tool we use to make sense of the world. The thing is, stroytelling is never neutral; for one, we speak in borrowed languages and forms, which are, of course, already embedded in larger systems. And while educators might use narrative to teach meaning, governments, the media, religions, and other power structures equally rely on storytelling to manipulate our very behaviours.

It could be said that climate change is the big story today, however, I often wonder if the whole idea of writing for posterity is rendered pointless by it. No need to limit this to one existential threat alone; with the rise of AI, pandemics, a shaky global order predicated on inequity, and the ever-looming threat of nuclear war; another end of the world is possible. Everywhere you look, from reactionary politics pegged to nostalgia, to countless time travel memes that only plumb history on-line, it would appear that any future horizan is very far from our imaginary.

This brief jot is a short response to Hasan Özgür Top’s film, The Fall of a Hero (2020), a mock interrogation video in which an interview describes how zealots lure followers through a recycled ancient crusader myth: that the problems of the world are the result of society falling astray from an imagined golden age, and a return to grace is only possible if a righteous vanguard overthrows the forces that corrupt them. Top’s narrator is probably an unreliable one, but this is beside the point; I read him as simply a vector to deconstruct the uses and abuses of the hero narrative itself.

As a thought experiment, let’s turn this particular tale on its head by looking not at the past, but toward the very messy and clouded present we are in for vehicles instead? It could go something like this: society and technology are grappling with unprecedented realities, and as such, you are living in the most influential time in all history. Altough I havee shifted the vantage here, a peculiar vestige of that old script remains, namely an appeal to a narcissist, which centers the fate of the world on just one individual. We can do better.

If stories filter the world, it would be logical to think that a change in narrative can likewise shift the world with it. I may have gotten this backwards though. While we might be sitting at a unique hinge of history today, attention, so they say, has been shattered by the many digital devices, which push and pull each and all of us every and nowhere at the same time. Regardless of the message, tireless media spectacle drowns the present by fracturing any sense of continuity; could this be where the future was actually lost? Who really knows, but, for some reason, I, too, am pinning for the past.

The hero’s journey, for what it’s worth, has been with the West for at least 4000 years. These tales have survived translations, and cultures, and have morphed to serve both friend and foe with equeal measure. They are widely attractive because they reflect our own time-based existence, however, the reproduction of narrative structure might have conditioned us to think that way. Tie this all to Aristotle if you like, who gave us the formula that stories, particularly those of political leaders, should follow a narrative arc thtough which some concluding statement about the point of it all is made so that its lesson can be learned. So, why are you here, and what is this whole note for?

Perspective, perhaps? Looking forward, or backward, or at the “now”, is small potatoes; time, after all, has always been non-linear. The question to ask while hearing a story is: does it impose value onto the world, or does it dip into the caves of our shared memory to echo meaning from within?