Storytelling

10/06/2020

Narrations of Necessity

In The Outsider, Albert Camus’ central character Meursault finds a story from the residue of a newspaper underneath his straw mattress. There he reads about a man from Czechoslovakia who leaves home and returns many years later wealthy and with a wife and child. He goes back to his home village but wants to surprise his mother and his sister, so books his wife and child into a hotel and goes to stay at the family’s inn. His mother and sister fail to recognise him and that evening he shows them large amounts of money. That night they murder him as he sleeps, and throw the body into the river. The next morning the wife comes to the inn and without thinking reveals her husband’s identity. The mother hangs herself and the daughter throws herself down the well. 

What interests us about this tale has nothing to do with Camus’ novel, but more with some comments Walter Benjamin makes in his essay ‘The Storyteller’. Benjamin sees that storytelling has been relegated by information, by the news story and within this need for news at least two things become pertinent. One is the need for plausibility. “The prime requirement [of the news story] is that it appears ‘understandable to itself’. Often it is no more exact than the intelligence of earlier centuries was. But while the latter was inclined to borrow from the miraculous, it is indispensable for information to sound plausible.” Another is that the news story be pertinent to its given audience geographically. “Villemessant, the founder of Le Figaro, characterised the nature of information in a famous formulation. ‘To my readers, he used to say, ‘an attic fire in the Latin Quarter is more important than a revolution in Madrid.” We all know formulations like this: a headline noting that an English man is injured in a plane crash that also happened to kill two hundred non-Englishmen. On the plausibility issue, Meursault notes that he ‘must have read that story thousands of times. In one way it sounded most unlikely; in another it was plausible enough.’ We needn’t agree entirely that storytelling needs to borrow from the miraculous, or merely the implausible, but we might note that a great deal of modern fiction that would also include the 19th, draws as much from information as it does from storytelling — as if the telling is made plausible not by the story, by the storytelling, but by the ‘info-filling.’ Balzac and Dickens tell us a great deal about contemporary Paris and London, as though their storytelling skills are no more important than their capacity to detail their milieu and did so centrally to develop their characters. It is partly what dismays Milan Kundera as he feels the novel became obsessed with scenes and situations and lost out on its myriad possibilities. Admiring Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Kundera says it was “as if the novel were moving back centuries, toward a narrator who describes nothing, not only recounts but recounts with a freedom of fantasy never seen before.’ (The Curtain) E. M. Cioran sees in the type of novel Kundera criticises a sort of metaphysical impoverishment central to the form. Reckoning the novel could never have gained favour in a period of metaphysical prosperity, Cioran believes, ‘we can hardly imagine it flourishing in the Middle Ages or in classical Greece, India or China. For the metaphysical experience, abandoning the chronology and modalities of our being live in the intimacy of the absolute…” (The Temptation to Exist

We might wonder whether the novel offers metaphysical impoverishment or an existential gain. There is no longer a belief greater than ourselves, but this can be viewed positively rather than negatively, as long as we have within the frame of our possibilities the realisation of death. Such an approach can bring together Kundera, Benjamin and also Martin Heidegger as we wish to indicate the importance of the novel within storytelling which acknowledges more than the story but of course doesn’t get lost in journalistic fact: in what Benjamin sees as information. In The Art of the Novel, Kundera says “all the great existential themes Heidegger analyses in Being and Time — considering them to have been neglected by all earlier European philosophy — have been unveiled, displayed, illuminated by four centuries of the novel…in its own way, through its own logic, the novel discovered the various dimensions of existence one by one…” Kundera later adds, elsewhere in the book, Heidegger characterises existence by an extremely well-known formula: “in der Welt-sein, being in the world. Man does not relate to the world as subject to object, as eye to painting; not even as actor to stage set, Man and the world are bound together like the snail in its shell: the world is part of man, it is his dimension, and as the world changes, existence (in-der-Welt-sein) changes as well.” This containment is man’s life onto death, and this is where we can see Benjamin, Kundera and Heidegger coinciding and also appearing at odds with Cioran, even if we should note that Heidegger emphasised poetry over fiction in the context of man’s being in the world. But for our purposes we are interested in storytelling, and Kundera’s comments help us to understand Benjamin’s thoughts as well. “To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life. In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living.” (‘The Storyteller’) For Benjamin, the novel isn’t an instructive form, as fables and parables so clearly happen to be, but a means by which to integrate “the social purpose with the development of the person” — most obviously in the Bildungsroman, the novel of burgeoning maturity and self-recognition. 

However, if the novel has no lesson to teach us, if its purpose isn’t chiefly to tell stories, but also happens to be far away from the journalistic which so rarely tells stories too, then what is the purpose of the novel? This is a big question that would struggle to incorporate a Jane Austen work (where instruction is implicit), a Camus novel (where instruction is resisted) and an Alain Robbe-Grillet book (where instruction is rejected). But taking into account Camus’s story within The Outsider, we know that while the tale goes far beyond the usual information we find in a newspaper, it is also too fabular to pass for a novel. If the novel, like storytelling more generally, nevertheless concerns itself with death, if narrative must have death to give meaning and context to the work, then death is a much slower process in the novel than in the tale. It would seem to demand context within the text. A book like Broken April by Kadare ostensibly shares similarities with the tale Camus tells. It has a sense of the primitive but also emphasises contextual, ethical and emotional  questions to put alongside and open up issues of honour and dignity.  In Kadare’s novel, a young man must avenge a killing and will in turn be killed in a revenge pattern that goes back generations. Broken April explains in detail the nature of kanun  — a tradition that has four tenets that demand immense subtlety within its ostensible barbarity: Honour, Hospitality, Right Conduct and Kin Loyalty. But what interests us here is that Kadare’s novel doesn’t just focus only on Gjorg, the figure who must seek revenge, but also on a man and his new wife who venture into the region as the husband researches such traditional Albanian behaviour. The husband is no longer part of Honour culture but instead the generally more modern dignity culture, where disputes would be resolved legally rather than violently, and the novel explores these differences alongside the wife’s yearning to comprehend an aspect of this life through her glimpses of Gjorg. 

The text could have been brief but the context Kadare offers is vast. Like many a modern novel, it cannot be about instruction but instead about illumination. It needs to illuminate the problem rather than resolve it, and in Broken April we have a temporal clash between Gjorg who wanders through the Albanian landscape both a man who must kill and a man who must die, and the husband who understands these traditions but is not a part of them. Then we have the wife who doesn’t even understand them, but comprehends an aspect of Gjorg that might be much more immediate than her husband’s. As the husband says, thinking of his wife’s feelings for this other man, if those feelings towards him had changed, “it had nothing to do with any third person, but that something grand and terrible had intervened. Something dark,  having to do with the ordeal of millions of souls during long centuries, and for that very reason seemingly irreparable.” Thus a tale of honour also investigates a tale of subtler dignity — what might the wife’s feelings be for this man whose fate is foretold? It might even be the husband who contributes to the attraction as he explains precisely what fate awaits the young man. How should the husband react to the wife’s apparent interest? We could say it is an example of slowness within quickness, taking into account an essay from Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino’s wise book on fiction. “The very first characteristic of a folktale is economy of expression,” he says writing on ‘Quickness’, “The most outlandish adventures are recounted with an eye fixed on bare essentials.” But he also sees the importance of slowness. “I said at the beginning that each value or virtue I chose as the subject for my lectures does not exclude its opposite. Implicit in my tribute to lightness was my respect for weight.” Kadare insists on putting slowness into pace, the story of revenge that could have been told quickly becomes a story told very slowly indeed as the novelist fills out the details of the cultural traditions that are specifically Albanian, and then contextualises them again with the incoming couple.  

Perhaps we now generally expect brevity from information, not narrative — that we go to the newspaper article when we want to hear about something in a hurry. Yet there is a big difference between the story told and the information offered, with one the tale divulged in the hush of evening; the other the news conveyed in the morning light. However fast the tale might be, it generates reflection rather than reflexiveness. While the story usually suggests a moment of pondering, the newspaper article frequently demands a few seconds of outrage. We don’t expect to throw the book across the room because of Cinderella’s behaviour, but a politician’s claims might lead us to scrunch up the newspaper in frustration. If the newspaper hurries us along socially, the tale can slow us down for all its intrinsic pace. This slowness within brevity, this dawdle within hurry, needn’t be any more than the point of the story. We know that Cinderella is decent and caring; her sisters cruel and vain. We might today have problem with the emphasis on the beauty of one and the ugliness of the others, as though there is some moral worth in comeliness, but then there are numerous tales,  by Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, that suggest ugliness has its place accompanied by virtue (‘Beauty and the Beast’), just as beauty has little place if accompanied by moral fallibility (the stepmother in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’). The tale’s purpose is to contain morality within a form; newspapers are moralistic quite often because they cannot. We can imagine a newspaper article that tells us that a horrible mother treats her stepdaughter appallingly and we cannot expect a happy ending at the bottom of the column. We might have nearby another article telling us how awful it is that the mother treats her stepdaughter this way, and a third suggesting that stepmothers cannot easily have the same relationship with stepdaughters as with their biological daughters, but this is still no excuse for such behaviour. 

The newspaper will provide us with cathartic outrage but struggle to provide moral catharsis. This is why someone might scrunch up the newspaper. Their outrage has found an outlet but nothing more. They will be unlikely to leave the cafe happy but contaminated still further by the world’s injustice. In contrast, the tale will be a self-contained moral system, not an open-ended one. It is partly why child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim famously turned to fairy tales in his book The Uses of Enchantment. In the introduction, Bettelheim says, “as an educator and therapist of severely disturbed children, my main task was to restore meaning to their lives. This work made it obvious to me that if children were reared so that life was meaningful to them, they would not need special help.” By this reckoning is our ever-greater obsession with information, with news even if no longer newspapers in the internet age, a determined need to generate trauma? There are many articles and learned essays on what the internet happens to be doing to our minds, but if Bettelheim sees the importance of meaning, and sees this importance through a certain approach to narration that fairy tales exemplify, then one can see that the absence of that meaning can be troublesome.

We are more interested, however, in what a type of information system is doing to our minds — not quite the same thing. When at the end of an article that generally defends the internet, ‘Is the Internet Killing Our Brains?’, Dean Burnett reckons “as with most things, the actual problem comes down to other people, not the net.” (Guardian) Lev Manovich notes, “the computer age introduces its correlate – database. Many new media objects do not tell stories; they don’t have beginning or end; in fact, they don’t have any development, thematically, formally or otherwise which would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other.” (‘Database as a Symbolic Form’) Manovich suggests, and not necessarily pejoratively, that new media is affecting how we perceive information. If storytelling is a syntagmatic form; new media are inclined towards the paradigmatic. In other words, in semiotic theory we have the syntagmatic (what follows what) and the paradigmatic axis (what goes with what). This is why Manovich says that the syntagmatic line is visible; the paradigm is invisible. In storytelling, we notice that of all the choices available one has been chosen; in interactive media this is no longer true and thus the syntagmatic becomes less pronounced than the paradigmatic, Benjamin’s fret over information becomes ever more realised; Bettelheim’s fairy tale as succinctly told narrative with a moral contained becomes obliterated when the paradigmatic is king. 

Yet though the internet might be the means by which to attack most consistently the syntagmatic line, important writers have been doing likewise for many years, whether it be Julio Cortazar, B.S. Johnson or, less radically, Ali Smith. Cortazar’s Hopscotch can be read straight through or can be read according to a different chapter order. B.S. Johnson offered a book, The unfortunates, in a box rather than bound, offering the reader the freedom to read it in any order they liked. Smith’s How to Both could be read one way or another based on the copy you purchased. You could find yourself starting with a medieval story and then in the second half find yourself in the contemporary period, or vice versa. There has long been a tradition of playing with the syntagmatic line and offering a degree of choice that the internet has simply, or complexly, exacerbated. This suggests that Burnett has a point, but equally while Cortazar and Johnson were pointing up syntagmatic oppression, does the internet generate a paradigmatic vertigo,  a cascade of windows offering innumerable choices that our brain can never quite close down?

There are now internet restriction apps that limit or stop us from this paradigmatic chaos. Whether it is Freedom, “a software programme which takes users completely offline for up to eight hours”, Sarah Murray notes in the Guardian, or StayFocused, there are plenty apps now available. Even more stringently anti-paradigmatic is the typewriter, which is making a comeback. Zach Schönfeld reckons in Vice that, “it’s completely different from a laptop…you have to think before every word, because you can’t backspace.” Jack Shuman in the same article says “I tend to think about what I want to write BEFORE I use a typewriter. In an email I just type as I go and whatever mundane crap about my day comes out.” (‘Why Are People Still Using Typewriters in 2015’) It’s as if the freedom to choose means that there is little choice, finally, being made. There is the suggestion that the typewriter forces upon the user the weight of choice, an existential burden missing from processing words on a computer. 

We might believe that it isn’t always a question of paradigms versus syntagms, but also how much intent is put into the choices we make. If we find ourselves perusing online an article in a popular newspaper about someone’s breast job, six-pack, cellulite or tan-line, would we have walked along to the newsagent and purchased a copy for that end? If the answer is no then there is a good chance that the technology is allowing us to act in a manner that we wouldn’t usually do if we had to put in even the slightest effort to purchase and pursue this information. Benjamin perhaps noticed this aspect in the newspaper even if people a hundred years ago would have been going out to buy the thing. If people fret today about the difficulty of storytelling in the face of new media, for Benjamin the newspaper itself was a form of this new media. “If the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has had a decisive share in this state of affairs. “ ('The Storyteller') Once you’ve bought the newspaper you might find yourself reading anything from current affairs to sport, a political commentary to a film review, a smorgasbord of opinion and information which ends just as it might get interesting. Yet we can note that a number of newspapers have taken advantage of the freedom apparent when you don’t have to worry about printing costs and have introduced the idea of Long Reads. Obviously, newspapers have always had articles of varying length but the long read can almost feel like a genre unto itself, so whether it is the Guardian long reads which are usually around five thousand words long, or those to be found online at the New Yorker website or the London Review of Books, magazines that have always had the budgets to offer writers the chance to stretch their legs with a leisurely literary stroll have allowed the walk to get longer. Often these pieces aren’t theoretical or philosophical (though sometimes they are as the LRB has frequently published work by Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Zizek and Raymond Williams), but usually the long read is also a slow read: the journalistic given time and space to explore a topic without one feeling the piece being harassed by other demanding short articles nearby. The articles usually concentrate the mind without feeling the need strenuously to expand it. The journalist’s legs are being stretched, certainly, but our minds remain focused but not really taxed.

We needn’t regard this as a criticism, more a description. In a series of short, incisive essays that Gilbert Adair wrote for The Sunday Times, published together in Surfing the Zeitgeist, Adair quotes in his piece ‘On Journalism’ a few words by Michel Foucault: “It [pleasure as distinct from desire] is an event ‘outside the subject’ or on the edge of the subject, within something that is neither body nor soul, which is neither inside nor outside, in short, a notion which is neither ascribed or ascribable.” Adair sees that the passage despite its lack of jargon, despite its absence of polysyllabic words, is likely to create problems for the ordinary reader. However “if one submits to a little study and reflexion (and especially, of course, if one reads in context), it is perfectly comprehensible. What it is not, and this is where the problem lies, is journalistic.” The long reads usually are, but while they indicate a respect for the syntagmatic over the paradigmatic they are usually still, in the Benjamin, sense, offering information. The theoretical, the philosophical and the narrational all seem to occupy a different, more permanent place in our minds, as if one were aware that while information isn’t irrelevant, it isn’t paramount. When the Guardian founder insists that ‘Opinion is Free and Facts are Sacred’, he is making clear where the priorities lie, but facts are not at all sacred in thought and narration. In the former instance because the thought usually only contains enough facts for the purposes of furthering its argument, its conceptual apparatus, its meditative throughline. In fiction, facts can hinder the imagination, as indicated by Benjamin and finds concurrence in writers as different as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Ian McEwan. Robbe-Grillet talks of taking off to Brittany determined to describe as accurately as he could the gulls he wanted in his novel. Yet finally, “the only gulls that mattered to me at that moment were those which were inside my head. Probably they came there, one way or another, from the external world, and perhaps from Brittany; but they had been transformed becoming more real because they were now imaginary.” (Paris Review) In another interview with the Paris Review, Ian McEwan discusses the need to describe precisely a surgical operation and was in contact with a friend of his who invited him along. McEwan backed out at the last minute feeling that what he needed to do was describe it his way, remaining true to a fictional fidelity rather than a factual one. These are variations of Benjamin’s claim that if in journalism everything must sound plausible, “this proves incompatible with the spirit of storytelling.” (Illuminations) The journalistic, taking into account Adair’s observations, must also be readily comprehensible. Indeed, part of Adair’s purpose was to be able to think in a tight corner clearly: to write short pieces in The Sunday Times that would be indebted to Foucault’s friend and fellow thinker Roland Barthes and especially his short essays published together after journalistic exposure (in L'Express) as Mythologies: “a book which, after forty years, “ according to Adair, “remains the prototype of all enduring analyses of popular culture…” Adair hoped to write what turned out to be eighty essays without doing so in “the idiom of the tribe” — as Mallarme would say. 

Adair’s is an excellent book that doesn’t throw us out of the journalistic even if it may call the journalistic often into question. Yet unlike the passage from Foucault or the story Camus tells in The Outsider, it doesn’t transcend what we might call the journalistic frontier, the border of sense that makes ideas that fold onto themselves, stories that go beyond themselves, difficult to absorb. When Adair quotes Foucault he is aware that his own prose doesn’t have the same freedom but perhaps it lacks the freedom also that Barthes seized upon when writing for L’Express. While Barthes thinks, Adair explains. Adair eases the reader into his prose; Barthes throws the reader into it. Here is Barthes: “I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.” Here is Adair: “whatever happened to silence? Ours is, in every respect, a hyper-garrulous society, but I am thinking of silence as a specifically cultural factor, as an aesthetic parameter, as the predominant  characteristic of late high modernism — silence, paradoxically as a buzzword.” Barthes will end his article saying: “the object here is totally prostituted, appropriated: originating from the heaven of Metropolis, the Goddess is in a quarter of an hour mediated, actualising through this exorcism the very essence of petit-bourgeois advancement.” Adair concludes his, saying: “At present, the individual can only retort in his own modest, private fashion. I personally recommend earplugs, boules Quies, not just for sleeping with but for getting oneself through the day — earplugs as a tranquillising little Walkman of silence.” Barthes has interiorised a thought to the point that we might find ourselves a little lost by the end of the article — the object he is talking about is a car — while with Adair’s an opinion has been explained. It remains much closer to the journalistic than Barthes's. Barthes uses the format and produces thought; Adair uses the same format and arrives at a more evolved opinion than we usually expect from a newspaper article but still arrives at the journalistic nevertheless. 

Our main focus here is what escapes information and the habit of the tribe. How does one produce thought or create narration? What makes the story Camus tell stands out from most newspaper reports; what makes Foucault and even Barthes’ comments appear more than ‘mere’ journalism? Recently there was a newspaper story about someone who in court admitted that he had sold drugs to the young man who had raped and murdered his six-year-old daughter. The murder happened on the small island of Bute, a  place one can easily cycle around in a few hours. It would not be difficult for everyone to more or less know everybody, and while this is no doubt one of the pleasures of a small island community, in certain circumstances (and the murder was that instance) this leads to a horrific inversion of community. Reading about it one seemed to be in the realm of what we can call deep narration, as we happen to be when we read the story in Camus’s novel. To come across such a story years later stuck to the bottom of a mattress would demand the same pause for thought that Mearsault gives to the story he finds in The Outsider.

While most newspaper stories don’t even have light narration, seem lacking in a strong enough relation between cause and consequence to pass for a story at all, very occasionally a report appears that brings to mind the sort of pertinence that Benjamin would seem to seek in narration, and the Bute story is such an instance. However, if we take a typical day’s headlines we have the shadow chancellor saying that Labour MPs will be expected to vote for a second referendum on leaving Europe; another on why the People’s Assembly might be the best way to go about it. Another tells us of a severe weather warning and a fourth about Donald Trump promoting his own Scottish golf course as the best in the world while he mixes presidential matters with personal business interests. These are at best reports rather than stories. A report is an event without much sense of temporality. When Trump gives a speech boasting of his great golf courses, what would make it a story, if not quite with a plot, is seeing that Trump has consistently over the last few months taken every opportunity to promote his golf courses while talking about political matters. We see a pattern and follow its burgeoning narrative shape. But to be a proper story it would need a plot, if we take into account what E. M. Forster says in Aspects of the Novel. Here he notes that  “we have defined as a narrative events arranged in their time sequence.” “A plot”, though, “is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.” As Forster says, the queen dying and then the king dying is a story, but the king dying and then the queen dying of grief is a plot. One may say that the king dying is a report, the king dying and then the queen dying is a story — it is more than an event as it conjoins two pieces of information. But in the king dying and the queen dying of grief we have a plot because of the causality of events rather than just the continuity of them. If we heard that Trump was promoting his golf course in Scotland and somebody discovered that the reason he wished to become president was to promote his failing business interests that he knew would be given a huge boost by his presidency, then we have a plot. By becoming president to promote his business interests we have cause and consequence. But we still don’t have much of a plot without that very clear deliberate need to save his failing businesses, just as we don’t have much of a plot in the Forster example of the king dying and the queen dying of grief. The great tragedies do not have such mundane cause and consequence, and nor do most good stories. In Oedipus Rex the king dies and the queen takes a lover. But what makes it a great plot is that the king is killed by the son he doesn't recognise, and vice versa,, and the mother marries the same man not knowing it his her son. In Hamlet, the king dies and the queen takes up with his brother, only for Hamlet to find out that the brother killed the king. These are strong plots. We would need similar machinations in Trump’s presidency to make it a plot. 

But are Oedipus Rex and Hamlet plausible, taking into account Benjamin’s belief that the problem with the news story is that they have to be and that great stories don’t? Perhaps not, but they are thematically very rich; partly why Freud could do so much with them as he tapped into the incest taboo. When Mearsault acknowledges the potential implausibility of the newspaper story he perhaps does so aware that great stories are rarely just things that have happened; they are things that manage to reflect a much bigger question. We seem so capable of extracting a moral from the newspaper story in The Outsider that we might wonder if it was made up to reflect a value rather than to report a piece of news. There the son is coming home as a rich man hoping to impress his mother and sister, and there they are so impressed by the wealth and not at all interested in the person and promptly slaughters him for his money. It is a great tale of pride and greed: the man determined to impress; the mother and sister determined to kill a stranger for his cash — except to find out that the man isn’t a stranger but their own kith and kin, and the money would have belonged to them anyway.

Obviously, newspapers have such stories — we’ve already given one example in the recent Bute murder. Another would be the famous case in France where a middle-aged man had spent many years pretending that he was a qualified doctor even though he never passed his exams, nor ever practised medicine. He would sit in his car and read in motorway cafes for years, with none of his friends or his family figuring it out. Eventually, he couldn’t borrow any more money from anyone, people were finally beginning to get suspicious, and he killed his family and tried to kill himself — but survived. It became the subject of a couple of films and a great book by Emmanuel Carrere called The Adversary. There is the story of Lord Lucan, a spendthrift aristocrat who one day killed his wife and disappeared never to be heard from again. Muriel Spark wrote a fictional book about it called Aiding and Abetting. There was Gary Gilmour, someone who killed a handful of people and once incarcerated insisted on receiving the death penalty. Norman Mailer wrote The Executioner’s Song directly based on Gilmour’s life. Ditto, Truman Capote about two killers in the American Mid-West who slaughtered a family at their farm: In Cold Blood. If writers can find, in newspapers, subjects for their novels, then we must acknowledge that newspapers are not incapable of generating stories: that would be like saying life has no stories and only fiction does. Of course, somebody might reply that life has no shape, no narrator to control events as a story happens to, and perhaps one reason Mearsault thinks the story appears a little unbelievable, why Benjamin feels newspapers lack the fantastic possibilities in tales and fables, is that they cannot claim for themselves a narrator. They have instead reporters  — journalists who report the news but who are not expected to shape it. Yet we have seen that there are stories to be found in newspapers occasionally that draw the attention of very fine writers. Undeniably somebody else could take the same source material and produce a very mediocre book, but there appears to be a basis for a book there that we cannot find so readily in a very high percentage of news stories that should really only be called reports.

This might explain the futility many feel having read a newspaper: that it has given us numerous reports yet supplied us with hardly any stories, any sense of meaning, only instead numerous bits of information. When people use the fashionable phrase information overload, we might also talk of narrative underlay — too often we are unable to find meaning in our lives not necessarily because we lack a meta-narrative to believe in, whether this happens to be God, Communism or bourgeois values, but that we find the world too paradigmatically profuse. In this sense, the rise of capitalism can be seen as the profusion of paradigms. Capitalism doesn’t offer meaning; it offers choice. It replaces an albeit narrow syntagmatic line where the options were limited but the meaning sure — as John Berger so wonderfully explores in his book on peasant living Pig Earth. Berger says in his Afterward, “peasant life did not stay exactly the same throughout the centuries, but the priorities and values of peasants (their strategy for survival) were embedded in a tradition which outlasted any tradition in the rest of society.” Berger could see the immediacy of the peasant’s life when saying “no class has been or is more economically conscious than the peasantry. Economics consciously determines or influences every ordinary decision which a peasant takes. But his economics are not those of the merchant, nor those of bourgeois or Marxist political economy.” We needn’t romanticise this earlier form of living: Berger makes clear that in many instances the peasant worked for the master before he would work for himself — the master’s share was the priority. However, what was clear was how inevitable it might seem and how monumental would be the struggle to change it. A shift in the paradigm meant a move towards a new meaning, but it was clearly a meaning nevertheless and in this sense might better be referred to as a new syntagm — a new story of political self-determination. 

Can we see the death of storytelling consistent with the rise of advanced capitalism? From a certain point of view we might, if we think again of Camus’s story within The Outsider. It has the force of tragedy partly because it acknowledges the unusualness of the situation. Not many people would have gone abroad to seek their fortune, and this is presumably why the son comes back and refuses to reveal his identity. He wants to provide the maximum amount of wonderful surprise and instead instigates the maximum amount of misery. Such a story couldn’t easily be written today for various reasons: so many people leave home to work abroad, there is now easy communications between family members and they might all know everything about others through social media. These would all be incorporated into Benjaminian information and thus lead to the enervation of storytelling. Yet while we wouldn’t disagree with Benjamin’s overall claim, we might want to temper it, and temper it not by defending like Benjamin the sort of works that created a complicated relationship with narration, as we find in very different ways in Benjamin’s essays on Proust, but that might be relevant to comments he makes about Kafka and Hamsun in his essay on the Czech writer. While in the Proust essay he notes that “the laws of remembrance were operative even within the confines of the work. For an experienced event is finite — at any rate confined to one sphere of experience; a remembered event is infinite, because it is only a key to everything that happened before it and after it” ‘The Image of Proust'), in other very modern writers likes Hamsun and Kafka we can still see the tension not of time but of history — the primitive and modern working in conjunction. Benjamin compares a Kafka story to a Chinese manual, and a Hamsun anecdote with a detail from one of his novels to bring out the interesting perspectives that are not simply modern. Benjamin draws similarities between Kafka’s ‘The Great Wall of China’ and a book by Lev Metchnikoff called ‘Civilisation and the Great Historical Rivers’. Here is Metchnikoff: “The canals of the Yangtze and the dams of the Yellow River are in all likelihood the result of the skilfully organised joint labour of…generations. The slightest carelessness in the digging of a ditch or a buttressing of a dam, the least bit of negligence or selfish behaviour on the part of an individual or a group of men in the maintenance of the common hydraulic wealth becomes, under such unusual circumstances, the source of social evils and far-reaching calamity.” Here is Kafka: “The wall was to be a protection for centuries; accordingly, the most scrupulous care in the construction, the application of the architectural wisdom of all known ages and peoples, a constant sense of personal responsibility on the part of the builders were indispensable prerequisites for the work.” (Franz Kafka) For Benjamin “Kafka wished to be numbered amongst ordinary men” and we can see that this relationship with the ordinary is part of the depersonalisation we often find in Kafka’s work, and why Kafka describing the predicament in ‘The Great Wall of China’, or Metchnikoff describing historical progress in his book, can read similarly. The self is still, from a certain point of view, often oddly collective in Kafka, decidedly singular in Proust. Kafka was a writer still interested in fable, parable and tale, however complicated he made that relationship. 

Benjamin also talks about Hamsun; that he would sometimes write letters to the newspaper, in one instance saying he intended to leave town if the supreme punishment wasn’t administered to a mother who had killed her newborn child — Hamsun expected the gallows or certainly a life sentence of hard labour. She received no more than a prison term. Yet Benjamin notes that a few years went by and the novel “Growth of Soil appeared, and in it contained the story of a maid who committed the same crime, suffered the same punishment and, as is made clear to the reader, surely deserved no more severe one.” Both writers draw upon the factual, more or less the journalistic. Our point isn’t just that Hamsun modified his position in the work of art that he couldn’t modify in his personal life but also that he draws on a story worthy of fiction and not just the journalistic. Whether it is the sense of a collective self, moving forward or the primitive instinct that addresses the question of punishment, we read in Kafka and Hamsun a world that captures the past in the present which remains fruitful for storytelling: that a historical fact which happens to be monumental (the great wall; the yellow river canal project) or journalistic (a woman who kills her newborn child) can be absorbed easily into their work. 

Proust in this sense is no longer a storyteller but someone who has opened up time in a manner that destroys the syntagmatic force at its base and creates a properly new literature, no matter if in other ways Kafka can be perceived as newer still, and Proust did incorporate into his work the historical and journalistic moment, evident in addressing the Dreyfus affair. The lines between storytelling and the essay, philosophy and personal memoir, disintegrate in the face of a new relationship to literature. Proust replaces history, which gives the impression of blocs of time moving forward collectively, with a biographical phenomenology that makes time pass through the subject diffusely. There is of course history in Proust’s book, just as there is biography, but no writer before Proust so completely suggested turning one’s own life into a work of art. Kafka, by contrast, constantly indicates the difficulty of biography, as if the self is hollowed out by circumstances beyond his control. Hence why Benjamin can see such similarities between a manual that focuses on both the necessity and anonymity of the worker and a Kafka story. 

What we can find in Kafka and Hamsun is a retrogressive modernism as opposed to Proust’s progressive modernism, with the former pair still interested in an aspect of the tale, that can find in the primitive, the source for continued storytelling. We can find it in numerous writers whose relationship with modern society collides with a social milieu that can seem ostensibly backward, and thus the idea of the importance of storytelling isn’t only relevant to Kadare but also to J. M. Coetzee, Elena Ferrante, Cormac McCarthy as well as writers before them, like Juan Rulfo and Flannery O’Connor. This isn’t the place to go into analysing why we think this but we will offer a couple of examples that might hint at the continuance of storytelling as primitive instinct, and instinct as primitive storytelling. In Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, the central character is a woman whose husband has left and she sees him on the street with another, much younger woman. She flies at him, shouting swearing, fighting as she thinks, about his “ugly skull stained with living blood, a skeleton that had just been skinned. Because what is the face, what, finally, is the skin over the flesh, a cover, a disguise, rouge for the insupportable horror of our living nature.” In Disgrace, central character David Lurie thinks about his daughter’s rape by three blacks and reckons, “it was history speaking through them. A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t. It came down from the ancestors.” Ferrante and Coetzee aren’t interested in the cultural signs but the cultural roots. Jealousy and rape aren’t shown to be examples of ‘superficial’ power, but of embedded instincts. Coetzee indicates that the men raping his daughter didn’t seek simply sex and power for themselves but as if to avenge a very deep and long term crime committed elsewhere. Lurie cannot rely on contemporaneous anger on its own; he is forced into questioning the cruelty of the white man’s burden. Ferrante suggests her character hasn’t just suffered a dent to her ego but must fight for the family — that this young woman is a threat to the order of things. She wished to “deny her the role of heir of my husband’s forebears. What did she have to do with it, the dirty whore, what did she have to do with that line of descent?” Central to the anger isn’t only seeing her estranged husband with this young woman, a girl they had known as an adolescent years earlier, but that she is wearing her grandmother’s earrings. Such a situation the first-person narrator cannot countenance and thus the fight ensues. In a cooler tale, the earrings would serve their proper metonymic function, the sort of purpose we might call Proustian as they becoming part of a complex mental relation leading to various thoughts and indirect affects. It is this Proust Gilles Deleuze pinpoints when saying that for Proust “a mediocre love is worth more than a great friendship: because love is rich in signs and is fed by silent interpretation” (Proust and Signs) Proust ‘lacks’ a primitive instinct and instead possesses an astonishingly nuanced affective intuition, one that can find feelings and thoughts out of events that others would not even notice. There are so many examples but this one isn’t untypical. Differentiating between the rich and the well-dressed man of finance, Proust says, “where one of the latter would have thought he was giving proof of his exclusiveness by adopting a sharp and haughty tone in speaking to an inferior, the nobleman, affable and mild, gave the impression of considering, of practising an affectation of humility and patience, a pretence of being just an ordinary member of the audience, as a prerogative of his good-breeding.” (Guermantes Way) One may see in such a remark Proust’s snobbery but we also cannot deny that he was consistently looking just under the surface of so many people’s behaviour. Kafka obviously has something of this intuition too, but still aligns it with the force of a history, a power far beyond one’s own. If for Proust the important figure was the mother who could help him unravel the soft contours of an inner life, for Kafka it was his father, who seemed always to leave him out in the cold.   

Speaking of Proust, Julia Kristeva, both a theorist and psychoanalyst, says, “I have patients who have been complaining for several years that they are unable to read” and sees that “we are witnessing a destruction of the psychic space that defines our civilisation and that registers like darkroom impressions taken in from printed paper and connected with memories and sensations to create meanings.” One might say this is quite a different problem than the one Benjamin addresses: that for Benjamin storytelling dies; for Kristeva reading passes away. But perhaps these are two sides of the same ontological coin; that the primitive aspect insists on storytelling and the cultivated self demands reading. Storytelling is much deeper a need than reading and nobody could hope to convey conversationally The Outsider as a novel, but could very easily relate the story about the son returning that is contained within it. We read The Outsider and we tell the story of the son returning home. But we have noted that storytelling remains strong in numerous modern writers, that the instinct to convey the historical in the story is part of the 20th century and needn’t be seen as contrary to ‘reading’ as Kristeva couches it. But equally, we can keep in mind the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic: that we might choose to think of the two terms in the context of reading novels and telling stories. The story told has very few paradigmatic features; the novel is full of them. If the tale, fable or parable will tell us that a  beautiful young woman has a couple of ugly stepsisters, or that a man called Job succumbs to a series of misfortunes including a horrible outbreak of boils, we are not likely to know too much about the specifics of the ugliness, nor the medical nature of the condition. These are paradigmatic additions to a syntagmatically strong throughline. The minimum amount of information is required for the telling of the story. But the novel, or even the modern short story, will usually require a much more elaborate paradigmatic line either internally or externally — either in description or in motivation. We might have plenty detail on the specifics of those ugly sisters, the dullness of the hair, the split ends, the watery eyes, the nose slanted to one side. Or we might find out why they treat the sister as they do — that they have been traumatised since they were small; that they witnessed a terrible incident that leaves them to see the world with jaundiced eyes. Clearly, more elaborate fictions of description and motivation often find complex ways in which to combine them, giving us a novel like Remembrance of Things Past, which ostensibly obliterates the syntagmatic line into ever more paradigmatic elements. And yet Swann’s love for Odette in Swann's Way remains one of the greatest and even most suspenseful of love stories as the narrator relates how completely Swann was besotted by this woman from a lower social class who he claims isn’t even his type. 

We cannot tell the story of Swann and Odette; we read it. Yet finally we read Kadare, Coetzee and other writers drawn to an aspect of the primitive too — they are writers before they are storytellers, but that aspect of storytelling, of the primitive, that we still find in their work, is the affiliation they have with cultures beyond our own, or more appropriately embedded within our own. But whether it is Proust, Fitzgerald or Henry James, or Coetzee, Kafka or Kadare, these are all writers first and, at best, storytellers second. But while they are interested in expanding paradigmatic possibilities this doesn’t dilute meaning but augments the telling, finding always just enough of a syntagmatic line to generate purpose. Manovich might see that new media as a paradigmatic force rather than a syntagmatic one, but there still seems to be the need to create meaning as well as choice. There is no reason why new media cannot generate this just as we accept that there is now ‘old media’ like newspapers that have usually been involved in the dilution process; just as there has been fiction very far away from the storytelling focus of fairy tales that have expanded it.

 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Storytelling

Narrations of Necessity

In The Outsider, Albert Camus' central character Meursault finds a story from the residue of a newspaper underneath his straw mattress. There he reads about a man from Czechoslovakia who leaves home and returns many years later wealthy and with a wife and child. He goes back to his home village but wants to surprise his mother and his sister, so books his wife and child into a hotel and goes to stay at the family's inn. His mother and sister fail to recognise him and that evening he shows them large amounts of money. That night they murder him as he sleeps, and throw the body into the river. The next morning the wife comes to the inn and without thinking reveals her husband's identity. The mother hangs herself and the daughter throws herself down the well.

What interests us about this tale has nothing to do with Camus' novel, but more with some comments Walter Benjamin makes in his essay 'The Storyteller'. Benjamin sees that storytelling has been relegated by information, by the news story and within this need for news at least two things become pertinent. One is the need for plausibility. "The prime requirement [of the news story] is that it appears 'understandable to itself'. Often it is no more exact than the intelligence of earlier centuries was. But while the latter was inclined to borrow from the miraculous, it is indispensable for information to sound plausible." Another is that the news story be pertinent to its given audience geographically. "Villemessant, the founder of Le Figaro, characterised the nature of information in a famous formulation. 'To my readers, he used to say, 'an attic fire in the Latin Quarter is more important than a revolution in Madrid." We all know formulations like this: a headline noting that an English man is injured in a plane crash that also happened to kill two hundred non-Englishmen. On the plausibility issue, Meursault notes that he 'must have read that story thousands of times. In one way it sounded most unlikely; in another it was plausible enough.' We needn't agree entirely that storytelling needs to borrow from the miraculous, or merely the implausible, but we might note that a great deal of modern fiction that would also include the 19th, draws as much from information as it does from storytelling as if the telling is made plausible not by the story, by the storytelling, but by the 'info-filling.' Balzac and Dickens tell us a great deal about contemporary Paris and London, as though their storytelling skills are no more important than their capacity to detail their milieu and did so centrally to develop their characters. It is partly what dismays Milan Kundera as he feels the novel became obsessed with scenes and situations and lost out on its myriad possibilities. Admiring Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Kundera says it was "as if the novel were moving back centuries, toward a narrator who describes nothing, not only recounts but recounts with a freedom of fantasy never seen before.' (The Curtain) E. M. Cioran sees in the type of novel Kundera criticises a sort of metaphysical impoverishment central to the form. Reckoning the novel could never have gained favour in a period of metaphysical prosperity, Cioran believes, 'we can hardly imagine it flourishing in the Middle Ages or in classical Greece, India or China. For the metaphysical experience, abandoning the chronology and modalities of our being live in the intimacy of the absolute..." (The Temptation to Exist)

We might wonder whether the novel offers metaphysical impoverishment or an existential gain. There is no longer a belief greater than ourselves, but this can be viewed positively rather than negatively, as long as we have within the frame of our possibilities the realisation of death. Such an approach can bring together Kundera, Benjamin and also Martin Heidegger as we wish to indicate the importance of the novel within storytelling which acknowledges more than the story but of course doesn't get lost in journalistic fact: in what Benjamin sees as information. In The Art of the Novel, Kundera says "all the great existential themes Heidegger analyses in Being and Time considering them to have been neglected by all earlier European philosophy have been unveiled, displayed, illuminated by four centuries of the novel...in its own way, through its own logic, the novel discovered the various dimensions of existence one by one..." Kundera later adds, elsewhere in the book, Heidegger characterises existence by an extremely well-known formula: "in der Welt-sein, being in the world. Man does not relate to the world as subject to object, as eye to painting; not even as actor to stage set, Man and the world are bound together like the snail in its shell: the world is part of man, it is his dimension, and as the world changes, existence (in-der-Welt-sein) changes as well." This containment is man's life onto death, and this is where we can see Benjamin, Kundera and Heidegger coinciding and also appearing at odds with Cioran, even if we should note that Heidegger emphasised poetry over fiction in the context of man's being in the world. But for our purposes we are interested in storytelling, and Kundera's comments help us to understand Benjamin's thoughts as well. "To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life. In the midst of life's fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living." ('The Storyteller') For Benjamin, the novel isn't an instructive form, as fables and parables so clearly happen to be, but a means by which to integrate "the social purpose with the development of the person" most obviously in the Bildungsroman, the novel of burgeoning maturity and self-recognition.

However, if the novel has no lesson to teach us, if its purpose isn't chiefly to tell stories, but also happens to be far away from the journalistic which so rarely tells stories too, then what is the purpose of the novel? This is a big question that would struggle to incorporate a Jane Austen work (where instruction is implicit), a Camus novel (where instruction is resisted) and an Alain Robbe-Grillet book (where instruction is rejected). But taking into account Camus's story within The Outsider, we know that while the tale goes far beyond the usual information we find in a newspaper, it is also too fabular to pass for a novel. If the novel, like storytelling more generally, nevertheless concerns itself with death, if narrative must have death to give meaning and context to the work, then death is a much slower process in the novel than in the tale. It would seem to demand context within the text. A book like Broken April by Kadare ostensibly shares similarities with the tale Camus tells. It has a sense of the primitive but also emphasises contextual, ethical and emotional questions to put alongside and open up issues of honour and dignity. In Kadare's novel, a young man must avenge a killing and will in turn be killed in a revenge pattern that goes back generations. Broken April explains in detail the nature of kanun a tradition that has four tenets that demand immense subtlety within its ostensible barbarity: Honour, Hospitality, Right Conduct and Kin Loyalty. But what interests us here is that Kadare's novel doesn't just focus only on Gjorg, the figure who must seek revenge, but also on a man and his new wife who venture into the region as the husband researches such traditional Albanian behaviour. The husband is no longer part of Honour culture but instead the generally more modern dignity culture, where disputes would be resolved legally rather than violently, and the novel explores these differences alongside the wife's yearning to comprehend an aspect of this life through her glimpses of Gjorg.

The text could have been brief but the context Kadare offers is vast. Like many a modern novel, it cannot be about instruction but instead about illumination. It needs to illuminate the problem rather than resolve it, and in Broken April we have a temporal clash between Gjorg who wanders through the Albanian landscape both a man who must kill and a man who must die, and the husband who understands these traditions but is not a part of them. Then we have the wife who doesn't even understand them, but comprehends an aspect of Gjorg that might be much more immediate than her husband's. As the husband says, thinking of his wife's feelings for this other man, if those feelings towards him had changed, "it had nothing to do with any third person, but that something grand and terrible had intervened. Something dark, having to do with the ordeal of millions of souls during long centuries, and for that very reason seemingly irreparable." Thus a tale of honour also investigates a tale of subtler dignity what might the wife's feelings be for this man whose fate is foretold? It might even be the husband who contributes to the attraction as he explains precisely what fate awaits the young man. How should the husband react to the wife's apparent interest? We could say it is an example of slowness within quickness, taking into account an essay from Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino's wise book on fiction. "The very first characteristic of a folktale is economy of expression," he says writing on 'Quickness', "The most outlandish adventures are recounted with an eye fixed on bare essentials." But he also sees the importance of slowness. "I said at the beginning that each value or virtue I chose as the subject for my lectures does not exclude its opposite. Implicit in my tribute to lightness was my respect for weight." Kadare insists on putting slowness into pace, the story of revenge that could have been told quickly becomes a story told very slowly indeed as the novelist fills out the details of the cultural traditions that are specifically Albanian, and then contextualises them again with the incoming couple.

Perhaps we now generally expect brevity from information, not narrative that we go to the newspaper article when we want to hear about something in a hurry. Yet there is a big difference between the story told and the information offered, with one the tale divulged in the hush of evening; the other the news conveyed in the morning light. However fast the tale might be, it generates reflection rather than reflexiveness. While the story usually suggests a moment of pondering, the newspaper article frequently demands a few seconds of outrage. We don't expect to throw the book across the room because of Cinderella's behaviour, but a politician's claims might lead us to scrunch up the newspaper in frustration. If the newspaper hurries us along socially, the tale can slow us down for all its intrinsic pace. This slowness within brevity, this dawdle within hurry, needn't be any more than the point of the story. We know that Cinderella is decent and caring; her sisters cruel and vain. We might today have problem with the emphasis on the beauty of one and the ugliness of the others, as though there is some moral worth in comeliness, but then there are numerous tales, by Perrault and the Grimm Brothers, that suggest ugliness has its place accompanied by virtue ('Beauty and the Beast'), just as beauty has little place if accompanied by moral fallibility (the stepmother in 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves'). The tale's purpose is to contain morality within a form; newspapers are moralistic quite often because they cannot. We can imagine a newspaper article that tells us that a horrible mother treats her stepdaughter appallingly and we cannot expect a happy ending at the bottom of the column. We might have nearby another article telling us how awful it is that the mother treats her stepdaughter this way, and a third suggesting that stepmothers cannot easily have the same relationship with stepdaughters as with their biological daughters, but this is still no excuse for such behaviour.

The newspaper will provide us with cathartic outrage but struggle to provide moral catharsis. This is why someone might scrunch up the newspaper. Their outrage has found an outlet but nothing more. They will be unlikely to leave the cafe happy but contaminated still further by the world's injustice. In contrast, the tale will be a self-contained moral system, not an open-ended one. It is partly why child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim famously turned to fairy tales in his book The Uses of Enchantment. In the introduction, Bettelheim says, "as an educator and therapist of severely disturbed children, my main task was to restore meaning to their lives. This work made it obvious to me that if children were reared so that life was meaningful to them, they would not need special help." By this reckoning is our ever-greater obsession with information, with news even if no longer newspapers in the internet age, a determined need to generate trauma? There are many articles and learned essays on what the internet happens to be doing to our minds, but if Bettelheim sees the importance of meaning, and sees this importance through a certain approach to narration that fairy tales exemplify, then one can see that the absence of that meaning can be troublesome.

We are more interested, however, in what a type of information system is doing to our minds not quite the same thing. When at the end of an article that generally defends the internet, 'Is the Internet Killing Our Brains?', Dean Burnett reckons "as with most things, the actual problem comes down to other people, not the net." (Guardian) Lev Manovich notes, "the computer age introduces its correlate - database. Many new media objects do not tell stories; they don't have beginning or end; in fact, they don't have any development, thematically, formally or otherwise which would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other." ('Database as a Symbolic Form') Manovich suggests, and not necessarily pejoratively, that new media is affecting how we perceive information. If storytelling is a syntagmatic form; new media are inclined towards the paradigmatic. In other words, in semiotic theory we have the syntagmatic (what follows what) and the paradigmatic axis (what goes with what). This is why Manovich says that the syntagmatic line is visible; the paradigm is invisible. In storytelling, we notice that of all the choices available one has been chosen; in interactive media this is no longer true and thus the syntagmatic becomes less pronounced than the paradigmatic, Benjamin's fret over information becomes ever more realised; Bettelheim's fairy tale as succinctly told narrative with a moral contained becomes obliterated when the paradigmatic is king.

Yet though the internet might be the means by which to attack most consistently the syntagmatic line, important writers have been doing likewise for many years, whether it be Julio Cortazar, B.S. Johnson or, less radically, Ali Smith. Cortazar's Hopscotch can be read straight through or can be read according to a different chapter order. B.S. Johnson offered a book, The unfortunates, in a box rather than bound, offering the reader the freedom to read it in any order they liked. Smith's How to Both could be read one way or another based on the copy you purchased. You could find yourself starting with a medieval story and then in the second half find yourself in the contemporary period, or vice versa. There has long been a tradition of playing with the syntagmatic line and offering a degree of choice that the internet has simply, or complexly, exacerbated. This suggests that Burnett has a point, but equally while Cortazar and Johnson were pointing up syntagmatic oppression, does the internet generate a paradigmatic vertigo, a cascade of windows offering innumerable choices that our brain can never quite close down?

There are now internet restriction apps that limit or stop us from this paradigmatic chaos. Whether it is Freedom, "a software programme which takes users completely offline for up to eight hours", Sarah Murray notes in the Guardian, or StayFocused, there are plenty apps now available. Even more stringently anti-paradigmatic is the typewriter, which is making a comeback. Zach Schnfeld reckons in Vice that, "it's completely different from a laptop...you have to think before every word, because you can't backspace." Jack Shuman in the same article says "I tend to think about what I want to write BEFORE I use a typewriter. In an email I just type as I go and whatever mundane crap about my day comes out." ('Why Are People Still Using Typewriters in 2015') It's as if the freedom to choose means that there is little choice, finally, being made. There is the suggestion that the typewriter forces upon the user the weight of choice, an existential burden missing from processing words on a computer.

We might believe that it isn't always a question of paradigms versus syntagms, but also how much intent is put into the choices we make. If we find ourselves perusing online an article in a popular newspaper about someone's breast job, six-pack, cellulite or tan-line, would we have walked along to the newsagent and purchased a copy for that end? If the answer is no then there is a good chance that the technology is allowing us to act in a manner that we wouldn't usually do if we had to put in even the slightest effort to purchase and pursue this information. Benjamin perhaps noticed this aspect in the newspaper even if people a hundred years ago would have been going out to buy the thing. If people fret today about the difficulty of storytelling in the face of new media, for Benjamin the newspaper itself was a form of this new media. "If the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has had a decisive share in this state of affairs. " ('The Storyteller') Once you've bought the newspaper you might find yourself reading anything from current affairs to sport, a political commentary to a film review, a smorgasbord of opinion and information which ends just as it might get interesting. Yet we can note that a number of newspapers have taken advantage of the freedom apparent when you don't have to worry about printing costs and have introduced the idea of Long Reads. Obviously, newspapers have always had articles of varying length but the long read can almost feel like a genre unto itself, so whether it is the Guardian long reads which are usually around five thousand words long, or those to be found online at the New Yorker website or the London Review of Books, magazines that have always had the budgets to offer writers the chance to stretch their legs with a leisurely literary stroll have allowed the walk to get longer. Often these pieces aren't theoretical or philosophical (though sometimes they are as the LRB has frequently published work by Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Zizek and Raymond Williams), but usually the long read is also a slow read: the journalistic given time and space to explore a topic without one feeling the piece being harassed by other demanding short articles nearby. The articles usually concentrate the mind without feeling the need strenuously to expand it. The journalist's legs are being stretched, certainly, but our minds remain focused but not really taxed.

We needn't regard this as a criticism, more a description. In a series of short, incisive essays that Gilbert Adair wrote for The Sunday Times, published together in Surfing the Zeitgeist, Adair quotes in his piece 'On Journalism' a few words by Michel Foucault: "It [pleasure as distinct from desire] is an event 'outside the subject' or on the edge of the subject, within something that is neither body nor soul, which is neither inside nor outside, in short, a notion which is neither ascribed or ascribable." Adair sees that the passage despite its lack of jargon, despite its absence of polysyllabic words, is likely to create problems for the ordinary reader. However "if one submits to a little study and reflexion (and especially, of course, if one reads in context), it is perfectly comprehensible. What it is not, and this is where the problem lies, is journalistic." The long reads usually are, but while they indicate a respect for the syntagmatic over the paradigmatic they are usually still, in the Benjamin, sense, offering information. The theoretical, the philosophical and the narrational all seem to occupy a different, more permanent place in our minds, as if one were aware that while information isn't irrelevant, it isn't paramount. When the Guardian founder insists that 'Opinion is Free and Facts are Sacred', he is making clear where the priorities lie, but facts are not at all sacred in thought and narration. In the former instance because the thought usually only contains enough facts for the purposes of furthering its argument, its conceptual apparatus, its meditative throughline. In fiction, facts can hinder the imagination, as indicated by Benjamin and finds concurrence in writers as different as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Ian McEwan. Robbe-Grillet talks of taking off to Brittany determined to describe as accurately as he could the gulls he wanted in his novel. Yet finally, "the only gulls that mattered to me at that moment were those which were inside my head. Probably they came there, one way or another, from the external world, and perhaps from Brittany; but they had been transformed becoming more real because they were now imaginary." (Paris Review) In another interview with the Paris Review, Ian McEwan discusses the need to describe precisely a surgical operation and was in contact with a friend of his who invited him along. McEwan backed out at the last minute feeling that what he needed to do was describe it his way, remaining true to a fictional fidelity rather than a factual one. These are variations of Benjamin's claim that if in journalism everything must sound plausible, "this proves incompatible with the spirit of storytelling." (Illuminations) The journalistic, taking into account Adair's observations, must also be readily comprehensible. Indeed, part of Adair's purpose was to be able to think in a tight corner clearly: to write short pieces in The Sunday Times that would be indebted to Foucault's friend and fellow thinker Roland Barthes and especially his short essays published together after journalistic exposure (in L'Express) as Mythologies: "a book which, after forty years, " according to Adair, "remains the prototype of all enduring analyses of popular culture..." Adair hoped to write what turned out to be eighty essays without doing so in "the idiom of the tribe" as Mallarme would say.

Adair's is an excellent book that doesn't throw us out of the journalistic even if it may call the journalistic often into question. Yet unlike the passage from Foucault or the story Camus tells in The Outsider, it doesn't transcend what we might call the journalistic frontier, the border of sense that makes ideas that fold onto themselves, stories that go beyond themselves, difficult to absorb. When Adair quotes Foucault he is aware that his own prose doesn't have the same freedom but perhaps it lacks the freedom also that Barthes seized upon when writing for L'Express. While Barthes thinks, Adair explains. Adair eases the reader into his prose; Barthes throws the reader into it. Here is Barthes: "I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object." Here is Adair: "whatever happened to silence? Ours is, in every respect, a hyper-garrulous society, but I am thinking of silence as a specifically cultural factor, as an aesthetic parameter, as the predominant characteristic of late high modernism silence, paradoxically as a buzzword." Barthes will end his article saying: "the object here is totally prostituted, appropriated: originating from the heaven of Metropolis, the Goddess is in a quarter of an hour mediated, actualising through this exorcism the very essence of petit-bourgeois advancement." Adair concludes his, saying: "At present, the individual can only retort in his own modest, private fashion. I personally recommend earplugs, boules Quies, not just for sleeping with but for getting oneself through the day earplugs as a tranquillising little Walkman of silence." Barthes has interiorised a thought to the point that we might find ourselves a little lost by the end of the article the object he is talking about is a car while with Adair's an opinion has been explained. It remains much closer to the journalistic than Barthes's. Barthes uses the format and produces thought; Adair uses the same format and arrives at a more evolved opinion than we usually expect from a newspaper article but still arrives at the journalistic nevertheless.

Our main focus here is what escapes information and the habit of the tribe. How does one produce thought or create narration? What makes the story Camus tell stands out from most newspaper reports; what makes Foucault and even Barthes' comments appear more than 'mere' journalism? Recently there was a newspaper story about someone who in court admitted that he had sold drugs to the young man who had raped and murdered his six-year-old daughter. The murder happened on the small island of Bute, a place one can easily cycle around in a few hours. It would not be difficult for everyone to more or less know everybody, and while this is no doubt one of the pleasures of a small island community, in certain circumstances (and the murder was that instance) this leads to a horrific inversion of community. Reading about it one seemed to be in the realm of what we can call deep narration, as we happen to be when we read the story in Camus's novel. To come across such a story years later stuck to the bottom of a mattress would demand the same pause for thought that Mearsault gives to the story he finds in The Outsider.

While most newspaper stories don't even have light narration, seem lacking in a strong enough relation between cause and consequence to pass for a story at all, very occasionally a report appears that brings to mind the sort of pertinence that Benjamin would seem to seek in narration, and the Bute story is such an instance. However, if we take a typical day's headlines we have the shadow chancellor saying that Labour MPs will be expected to vote for a second referendum on leaving Europe; another on why the People's Assembly might be the best way to go about it. Another tells us of a severe weather warning and a fourth about Donald Trump promoting his own Scottish golf course as the best in the world while he mixes presidential matters with personal business interests. These are at best reports rather than stories. A report is an event without much sense of temporality. When Trump gives a speech boasting of his great golf courses, what would make it a story, if not quite with a plot, is seeing that Trump has consistently over the last few months taken every opportunity to promote his golf courses while talking about political matters. We see a pattern and follow its burgeoning narrative shape. But to be a proper story it would need a plot, if we take into account what E. M. Forster says in Aspects of the Novel. Here he notes that "we have defined as a narrative events arranged in their time sequence." "A plot", though, "is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality." As Forster says, the queen dying and then the king dying is a story, but the king dying and then the queen dying of grief is a plot. One may say that the king dying is a report, the king dying and then the queen dying is a story it is more than an event as it conjoins two pieces of information. But in the king dying and the queen dying of grief we have a plot because of the causality of events rather than just the continuity of them. If we heard that Trump was promoting his golf course in Scotland and somebody discovered that the reason he wished to become president was to promote his failing business interests that he knew would be given a huge boost by his presidency, then we have a plot. By becoming president to promote his business interests we have cause and consequence. But we still don't have much of a plot without that very clear deliberate need to save his failing businesses, just as we don't have much of a plot in the Forster example of the king dying and the queen dying of grief. The great tragedies do not have such mundane cause and consequence, and nor do most good stories. In Oedipus Rex the king dies and the queen takes a lover. But what makes it a great plot is that the king is killed by the son he doesn't recognise, and vice versa,, and the mother marries the same man not knowing it his her son. In Hamlet, the king dies and the queen takes up with his brother, only for Hamlet to find out that the brother killed the king. These are strong plots. We would need similar machinations in Trump's presidency to make it a plot.

But are Oedipus Rex and Hamlet plausible, taking into account Benjamin's belief that the problem with the news story is that they have to be and that great stories don't? Perhaps not, but they are thematically very rich; partly why Freud could do so much with them as he tapped into the incest taboo. When Mearsault acknowledges the potential implausibility of the newspaper story he perhaps does so aware that great stories are rarely just things that have happened; they are things that manage to reflect a much bigger question. We seem so capable of extracting a moral from the newspaper story in The Outsider that we might wonder if it was made up to reflect a value rather than to report a piece of news. There the son is coming home as a rich man hoping to impress his mother and sister, and there they are so impressed by the wealth and not at all interested in the person and promptly slaughters him for his money. It is a great tale of pride and greed: the man determined to impress; the mother and sister determined to kill a stranger for his cash except to find out that the man isn't a stranger but their own kith and kin, and the money would have belonged to them anyway.

Obviously, newspapers have such stories we've already given one example in the recent Bute murder. Another would be the famous case in France where a middle-aged man had spent many years pretending that he was a qualified doctor even though he never passed his exams, nor ever practised medicine. He would sit in his car and read in motorway cafes for years, with none of his friends or his family figuring it out. Eventually, he couldn't borrow any more money from anyone, people were finally beginning to get suspicious, and he killed his family and tried to kill himself but survived. It became the subject of a couple of films and a great book by Emmanuel Carrere called The Adversary. There is the story of Lord Lucan, a spendthrift aristocrat who one day killed his wife and disappeared never to be heard from again. Muriel Spark wrote a fictional book about it called Aiding and Abetting. There was Gary Gilmour, someone who killed a handful of people and once incarcerated insisted on receiving the death penalty. Norman Mailer wrote The Executioner's Song directly based on Gilmour's life. Ditto, Truman Capote about two killers in the American Mid-West who slaughtered a family at their farm: In Cold Blood. If writers can find, in newspapers, subjects for their novels, then we must acknowledge that newspapers are not incapable of generating stories: that would be like saying life has no stories and only fiction does. Of course, somebody might reply that life has no shape, no narrator to control events as a story happens to, and perhaps one reason Mearsault thinks the story appears a little unbelievable, why Benjamin feels newspapers lack the fantastic possibilities in tales and fables, is that they cannot claim for themselves a narrator. They have instead reporters journalists who report the news but who are not expected to shape it. Yet we have seen that there are stories to be found in newspapers occasionally that draw the attention of very fine writers. Undeniably somebody else could take the same source material and produce a very mediocre book, but there appears to be a basis for a book there that we cannot find so readily in a very high percentage of news stories that should really only be called reports.

This might explain the futility many feel having read a newspaper: that it has given us numerous reports yet supplied us with hardly any stories, any sense of meaning, only instead numerous bits of information. When people use the fashionable phrase information overload, we might also talk of narrative underlay too often we are unable to find meaning in our lives not necessarily because we lack a meta-narrative to believe in, whether this happens to be God, Communism or bourgeois values, but that we find the world too paradigmatically profuse. In this sense, the rise of capitalism can be seen as the profusion of paradigms. Capitalism doesn't offer meaning; it offers choice. It replaces an albeit narrow syntagmatic line where the options were limited but the meaning sure as John Berger so wonderfully explores in his book on peasant living Pig Earth. Berger says in his Afterward, "peasant life did not stay exactly the same throughout the centuries, but the priorities and values of peasants (their strategy for survival) were embedded in a tradition which outlasted any tradition in the rest of society." Berger could see the immediacy of the peasant's life when saying "no class has been or is more economically conscious than the peasantry. Economics consciously determines or influences every ordinary decision which a peasant takes. But his economics are not those of the merchant, nor those of bourgeois or Marxist political economy." We needn't romanticise this earlier form of living: Berger makes clear that in many instances the peasant worked for the master before he would work for himself the master's share was the priority. However, what was clear was how inevitable it might seem and how monumental would be the struggle to change it. A shift in the paradigm meant a move towards a new meaning, but it was clearly a meaning nevertheless and in this sense might better be referred to as a new syntagm a new story of political self-determination.

Can we see the death of storytelling consistent with the rise of advanced capitalism? From a certain point of view we might, if we think again of Camus's story within The Outsider. It has the force of tragedy partly because it acknowledges the unusualness of the situation. Not many people would have gone abroad to seek their fortune, and this is presumably why the son comes back and refuses to reveal his identity. He wants to provide the maximum amount of wonderful surprise and instead instigates the maximum amount of misery. Such a story couldn't easily be written today for various reasons: so many people leave home to work abroad, there is now easy communications between family members and they might all know everything about others through social media. These would all be incorporated into Benjaminian information and thus lead to the enervation of storytelling. Yet while we wouldn't disagree with Benjamin's overall claim, we might want to temper it, and temper it not by defending like Benjamin the sort of works that created a complicated relationship with narration, as we find in very different ways in Benjamin's essays on Proust, but that might be relevant to comments he makes about Kafka and Hamsun in his essay on the Czech writer. While in the Proust essay he notes that "the laws of remembrance were operative even within the confines of the work. For an experienced event is finite at any rate confined to one sphere of experience; a remembered event is infinite, because it is only a key to everything that happened before it and after it" 'The Image of Proust'), in other very modern writers likes Hamsun and Kafka we can still see the tension not of time but of history the primitive and modern working in conjunction. Benjamin compares a Kafka story to a Chinese manual, and a Hamsun anecdote with a detail from one of his novels to bring out the interesting perspectives that are not simply modern. Benjamin draws similarities between Kafka's 'The Great Wall of China' and a book by Lev Metchnikoff called 'Civilisation and the Great Historical Rivers'. Here is Metchnikoff: "The canals of the Yangtze and the dams of the Yellow River are in all likelihood the result of the skilfully organised joint labour of...generations. The slightest carelessness in the digging of a ditch or a buttressing of a dam, the least bit of negligence or selfish behaviour on the part of an individual or a group of men in the maintenance of the common hydraulic wealth becomes, under such unusual circumstances, the source of social evils and far-reaching calamity." Here is Kafka: "The wall was to be a protection for centuries; accordingly, the most scrupulous care in the construction, the application of the architectural wisdom of all known ages and peoples, a constant sense of personal responsibility on the part of the builders were indispensable prerequisites for the work." (Franz Kafka) For Benjamin "Kafka wished to be numbered amongst ordinary men" and we can see that this relationship with the ordinary is part of the depersonalisation we often find in Kafka's work, and why Kafka describing the predicament in 'The Great Wall of China', or Metchnikoff describing historical progress in his book, can read similarly. The self is still, from a certain point of view, often oddly collective in Kafka, decidedly singular in Proust. Kafka was a writer still interested in fable, parable and tale, however complicated he made that relationship.

Benjamin also talks about Hamsun; that he would sometimes write letters to the newspaper, in one instance saying he intended to leave town if the supreme punishment wasn't administered to a mother who had killed her newborn child Hamsun expected the gallows or certainly a life sentence of hard labour. She received no more than a prison term. Yet Benjamin notes that a few years went by and the novel "Growth of Soil appeared, and in it contained the story of a maid who committed the same crime, suffered the same punishment and, as is made clear to the reader, surely deserved no more severe one." Both writers draw upon the factual, more or less the journalistic. Our point isn't just that Hamsun modified his position in the work of art that he couldn't modify in his personal life but also that he draws on a story worthy of fiction and not just the journalistic. Whether it is the sense of a collective self, moving forward or the primitive instinct that addresses the question of punishment, we read in Kafka and Hamsun a world that captures the past in the present which remains fruitful for storytelling: that a historical fact which happens to be monumental (the great wall; the yellow river canal project) or journalistic (a woman who kills her newborn child) can be absorbed easily into their work.

Proust in this sense is no longer a storyteller but someone who has opened up time in a manner that destroys the syntagmatic force at its base and creates a properly new literature, no matter if in other ways Kafka can be perceived as newer still, and Proust did incorporate into his work the historical and journalistic moment, evident in addressing the Dreyfus affair. The lines between storytelling and the essay, philosophy and personal memoir, disintegrate in the face of a new relationship to literature. Proust replaces history, which gives the impression of blocs of time moving forward collectively, with a biographical phenomenology that makes time pass through the subject diffusely. There is of course history in Proust's book, just as there is biography, but no writer before Proust so completely suggested turning one's own life into a work of art. Kafka, by contrast, constantly indicates the difficulty of biography, as if the self is hollowed out by circumstances beyond his control. Hence why Benjamin can see such similarities between a manual that focuses on both the necessity and anonymity of the worker and a Kafka story.

What we can find in Kafka and Hamsun is a retrogressive modernism as opposed to Proust's progressive modernism, with the former pair still interested in an aspect of the tale, that can find in the primitive, the source for continued storytelling. We can find it in numerous writers whose relationship with modern society collides with a social milieu that can seem ostensibly backward, and thus the idea of the importance of storytelling isn't only relevant to Kadare but also to J. M. Coetzee, Elena Ferrante, Cormac McCarthy as well as writers before them, like Juan Rulfo and Flannery O'Connor. This isn't the place to go into analysing why we think this but we will offer a couple of examples that might hint at the continuance of storytelling as primitive instinct, and instinct as primitive storytelling. In Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment, the central character is a woman whose husband has left and she sees him on the street with another, much younger woman. She flies at him, shouting swearing, fighting as she thinks, about his "ugly skull stained with living blood, a skeleton that had just been skinned. Because what is the face, what, finally, is the skin over the flesh, a cover, a disguise, rouge for the insupportable horror of our living nature." In Disgrace, central character David Lurie thinks about his daughter's rape by three blacks and reckons, "it was history speaking through them. A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may have seemed personal, but it wasn't. It came down from the ancestors." Ferrante and Coetzee aren't interested in the cultural signs but the cultural roots. Jealousy and rape aren't shown to be examples of 'superficial' power, but of embedded instincts. Coetzee indicates that the men raping his daughter didn't seek simply sex and power for themselves but as if to avenge a very deep and long term crime committed elsewhere. Lurie cannot rely on contemporaneous anger on its own; he is forced into questioning the cruelty of the white man's burden. Ferrante suggests her character hasn't just suffered a dent to her ego but must fight for the family that this young woman is a threat to the order of things. She wished to "deny her the role of heir of my husband's forebears. What did she have to do with it, the dirty whore, what did she have to do with that line of descent?" Central to the anger isn't only seeing her estranged husband with this young woman, a girl they had known as an adolescent years earlier, but that she is wearing her grandmother's earrings. Such a situation the first-person narrator cannot countenance and thus the fight ensues. In a cooler tale, the earrings would serve their proper metonymic function, the sort of purpose we might call Proustian as they becoming part of a complex mental relation leading to various thoughts and indirect affects. It is this Proust Gilles Deleuze pinpoints when saying that for Proust "a mediocre love is worth more than a great friendship: because love is rich in signs and is fed by silent interpretation" (Proust and Signs) Proust 'lacks' a primitive instinct and instead possesses an astonishingly nuanced affective intuition, one that can find feelings and thoughts out of events that others would not even notice. There are so many examples but this one isn't untypical. Differentiating between the rich and the well-dressed man of finance, Proust says, "where one of the latter would have thought he was giving proof of his exclusiveness by adopting a sharp and haughty tone in speaking to an inferior, the nobleman, affable and mild, gave the impression of considering, of practising an affectation of humility and patience, a pretence of being just an ordinary member of the audience, as a prerogative of his good-breeding." (Guermantes Way) One may see in such a remark Proust's snobbery but we also cannot deny that he was consistently looking just under the surface of so many people's behaviour. Kafka obviously has something of this intuition too, but still aligns it with the force of a history, a power far beyond one's own. If for Proust the important figure was the mother who could help him unravel the soft contours of an inner life, for Kafka it was his father, who seemed always to leave him out in the cold.

Speaking of Proust, Julia Kristeva, both a theorist and psychoanalyst, says, "I have patients who have been complaining for several years that they are unable to read" and sees that "we are witnessing a destruction of the psychic space that defines our civilisation and that registers like darkroom impressions taken in from printed paper and connected with memories and sensations to create meanings." One might say this is quite a different problem than the one Benjamin addresses: that for Benjamin storytelling dies; for Kristeva reading passes away. But perhaps these are two sides of the same ontological coin; that the primitive aspect insists on storytelling and the cultivated self demands reading. Storytelling is much deeper a need than reading and nobody could hope to convey conversationally The Outsider as a novel, but could very easily relate the story about the son returning that is contained within it. We read The Outsider and we tell the story of the son returning home. But we have noted that storytelling remains strong in numerous modern writers, that the instinct to convey the historical in the story is part of the 20th century and needn't be seen as contrary to 'reading' as Kristeva couches it. But equally, we can keep in mind the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic: that we might choose to think of the two terms in the context of reading novels and telling stories. The story told has very few paradigmatic features; the novel is full of them. If the tale, fable or parable will tell us that a beautiful young woman has a couple of ugly stepsisters, or that a man called Job succumbs to a series of misfortunes including a horrible outbreak of boils, we are not likely to know too much about the specifics of the ugliness, nor the medical nature of the condition. These are paradigmatic additions to a syntagmatically strong throughline. The minimum amount of information is required for the telling of the story. But the novel, or even the modern short story, will usually require a much more elaborate paradigmatic line either internally or externally either in description or in motivation. We might have plenty detail on the specifics of those ugly sisters, the dullness of the hair, the split ends, the watery eyes, the nose slanted to one side. Or we might find out why they treat the sister as they do that they have been traumatised since they were small; that they witnessed a terrible incident that leaves them to see the world with jaundiced eyes. Clearly, more elaborate fictions of description and motivation often find complex ways in which to combine them, giving us a novel like Remembrance of Things Past, which ostensibly obliterates the syntagmatic line into ever more paradigmatic elements. And yet Swann's love for Odette in Swann's Way remains one of the greatest and even most suspenseful of love stories as the narrator relates how completely Swann was besotted by this woman from a lower social class who he claims isn't even his type.

We cannot tell the story of Swann and Odette; we read it. Yet finally we read Kadare, Coetzee and other writers drawn to an aspect of the primitive too they are writers before they are storytellers, but that aspect of storytelling, of the primitive, that we still find in their work, is the affiliation they have with cultures beyond our own, or more appropriately embedded within our own. But whether it is Proust, Fitzgerald or Henry James, or Coetzee, Kafka or Kadare, these are all writers first and, at best, storytellers second. But while they are interested in expanding paradigmatic possibilities this doesn't dilute meaning but augments the telling, finding always just enough of a syntagmatic line to generate purpose. Manovich might see that new media as a paradigmatic force rather than a syntagmatic one, but there still seems to be the need to create meaning as well as choice. There is no reason why new media cannot generate this just as we accept that there is now 'old media' like newspapers that have usually been involved in the dilution process; just as there has been fiction very far away from the storytelling focus of fairy tales that have expanded it.


© Tony McKibbin