The Point of Stories

Featured image is A Neapolitan Story Teller, by Pierre Bonirote.

Francis: What do you think the point of a story is?

Paco: The point?

Francis: You know, their function. Their purpose. Why do we tell them?

Paco: There are many reasons, I imagine.

Francis: I think the most important one is illustrated by “The Zebra Storyteller“. We tell stories to supplement for experience, so that we can be prepared for things that haven’t happened to us personally but can be imagined to happen.

Paco: One wonders why we bother with things like style, cliffhangers, or irony, if that is the only goal that counts.

Francis: Well, it’s a tool for teaching. All the stylistic elements serve merely to make the lesson more palatable to the ones hearing the story for the first time.

Paco: So the billions of dollars spent each year on movies, shows, novels, and the many other forms stories come in, are purely so they can learn? The reason we trade stories in a family gathering, or in a meeting of friends, is to teach one another?

Francis: Well, it does get a bit more complicated when we’re talking about adults rather than students who have assignments.

Paco: Is that your representative case? Students assigned to read stories by teachers?

Francis: I think it reveals the point of stories most clearly, yes.

Paco: Well, so long as we don’t have to worry about the fact that stories are as ancient as language, and schooling has only been around for a blink of an eye where history is concerned.

Francis: All right, all right, you’ve made your point. But it’s in schooling that this function clearly reveals itself, is all I mean. We clearly developed stories to be enjoyable in themselves so that we wouldn’t notice that we were learning in the meantime.

Paco: So stories make us wise in spite of ourselves.

Francis: I think so!

Paco: There’s something to this. But I don’t think “The Zebra Storyteller” gives us a very good idea of how it works.

Francis: What do you mean? How else could it work?

Paco: Do you think that that The Great Gatsby is a handbook for how to deal with people like Gatsby who entangle themselves with people like the Buchanans? Or that The Count of Monte Cristo is a manual on how to achieve revenge appropriately when you are falsely accused of treason but also stumble upon a large fortune? Or that The Illiad is a guide on how to return home from war when you’re being harassed by angry gods?

Francis: Those are big, sprawling narratives! Be fair; “The Zebra Storyteller” clearly refers to small stories. The books you mention have tons of lessons within them.

Paco: Such as how to survive an encounter with a cyclops?

Francis: Such as how quick wit can overcome obstacles that seem insurmountable. How even a liar can truly love, and even the shrewdest and wisest can be done in by their own folly. How an act of mercy can outshine a thousand acts of hollow revenge. How we are called to do the right thing even when it is dangerous or against our interests. How carefully laid plans never last for long.

Paco: All right, I can’t argue with that. But it certainly doesn’t sound like the lesson of “The Zebra Storyteller.”

Francis: Have a little charity! The point of the silly example is to get us thinking about what it stands for.

Paco: Nevertheless it still seems as though I’m supposed to anticipate things in my life by calling to mind specific scenarios from stories. When I see my boss talking with someone who reports to me, I’m supposed to think “why this could be just like Danglars and Montego scheming against Dantès,” and take action to forestall this accordingly.

Francis: That strikes me as quite an extreme story to apply in that scenario.

Paco: Well that’s the question—I don’t quite see how we’re supposed to know when to apply these lessons, or how the applying itself is done.

Francis: It isn’t like we have a rolodex of stories, from which we—

Paco: I’m sorry, did you just say a “rolodex”?

Francis: Uh…

Paco: Just how old are you?

Francis: It’s not like we have an…Evernote account…

Paco: He leaps into the present!

Francis: …in which we can pull up those specific notes with stories that are applicable on the spot.

Paco: But the metaphor stumbles, nevertheless.

Francis: It’s more of a simile.

Paco: I’m sorry, I’ll stop interrupting. What are you trying to say?

Francis: Each story is like a conversation, where we’re talking about what it means to be human. What challenges people face, how they meet them. Why we bother. The nature of our relationships to one another, how they go awry or thrive. How we answer these kinds of questions is very important for how we go about our lives!

Paco: So when my boss is overbearing, I shouldn’t get him drunk and pluck out his eyes?

Francis: No, you would probably not call to mind the specific story of Odysseus and the cylops. And anyway you’d already be behind the ball because he knows your name!

Paco: I knew I should have actually read the story rather than relying on the cliff notes.

Francis: One of the big lessons of The Illiad is that cleverness is often capable of mastering even the most impossible of situations. What obstacle could be more insurmountable than the direct opposition of the gods? Odysseus helps us see that we ought not to give up, that we can create hope even when dealt a hopeless hand. The story makes a claim, and as readers we listen. It speaks to us and often we speak back. We carry something away from this, just as you and I have carried away so much from our conversations with one another.

Paco: I can’t deny that I come away from our conversations with, at minimum, questions I would not have thought to ask.

Francis: Asking is half the battle, isn’t it? I can’t tell you how many times something has been right in front of my face, but I missed it, because I didn’t think to ask the right question.

Paco: So our sense of things in our lives is influenced by these stories, you might say. Then, when situations arise, we apply that sense of things, which has been formed in part by the stories we read.

Francis: We have mental models of how things work; it’s how we make sense of our situation. Stories influence those models. Reading a lot of stories starts to get you to see general tropes and things like that—so that your mental models can project out ways your situation could unfold using those tropes. It’s not like weather modeling where you’ve got hard probabilities and math, or something. It’s not calculation. But you get a certain degree of anticipation of the possibilities, and can prepare yourself on that basis. Nothing’s a substitute for real experience, mind you, but there’s only so much experience you can have. You can’t experience the alternate ways a situation could have unfolded, once it unfolds.

Paco: OK, maybe you’re on to something here. Maybe there’s more to “The Zebra Storyteller” than I gave it credit for. Anyway there’s more to what you took away from it than I would have guessed.

Francis: Maybe part of why you don’t read very much is that you have trouble giving things a chance. You can’t just dismiss things out of hand before you’ve really attended to them.

Paco: There’s something to that, but let’s table it for now. Right now I’m struggling with this notion of “mental models.”

Francis: What about it?

Paco: Well it seems to me too abstract, too much like we are reaching for an equation. I know you said it isn’t calculation, but this idea of a model seems to me to be too much at a distance from ourselves. That’s the only reason I mention equations.

Francis: Well, what’s the alternative? How do you think we make sense of our situation?

Paco: I’m not sure that we have to make sense of it, most of the time. It simply appears sensible to us. We stare down at the Grand Canyon and appreciate its vastness, and how easy it would be for us to plunge into it. We don’t play out a mental model of how gravity works, or the nature of the sublime. There’s an immediacy to our understanding that I think is papered over if we speak in terms of models. That said, I agree with you that stories and conversations are part of how we learn, how this understanding changes or grows.

Francis: Hmm, I’m not really sure what to make of that. It seems to me that there are always models involved, either explicit or implicit.

Paco: What is an implicit model? Does it even make sense to talk about something like that?

Francis: I think so. When we talk to each other, and try to understand something, often we have to suss out what our implicit models are. “Well, why do you think you would fall into the canyon? What other sorts of situations would you expect to fall in?” and so forth. Once we tease these out, we can bring explicit models in to refine them. In this case, we might refer to the theory of gravity from physics. In other cases, we might refer to an economic model, or a psychological one. Or we may trade stories, anecdotal or fictional, that suggest ways to refine our understanding.

Paco: That makes a lot of sense, but I’m stuck on the immediacy of most understanding. It seems very different from the distance achieved when we make something explicit, or the way we understand physics, economics, and psychology. Aren’t models and even stories more like conversations partners than understanding itself, which is part of who we are?

Francis: It seems to me that one who has mastered a model has made that mastery part of who they are, just as a craftsman’s tools become part of who he is, in an important sense. I can’t see the distinction you’re trying to make, except that maybe some models become so much part of who we are that we cease to even see them as models.

Paco: Having something that is part of your standpoint seems different from a conversation partner who helps you see what is hidden from you because of that standpoint.

Francis: But isn’t an important part of a craftsman’s standpoint as he approaches his work that he can bring his tools to bear? Isn’t an important part of an economist’s standpoint the economic models that make sense to her and help her to make sense of history and current events?

Paco: Let me try it this way: It’s one thing to think of a story that seems applicable to your situation, and another to read your situation as if it were itself an intelligible story that is unfolding. Stories you read in the past may shape your expectations of how the situation might unfold, but those expectations are different from the explicit recalling of specific stories in order to correct or change the expectations you had in the immediacy of the moment.

Francis: OK, that sounds plausible. But I’m having trouble coming to grips with it, honestly. I’ll have to think it over more.

Paco: Still, it seems to me that I’ve been forced to concede that stories play this important part, one way or another.

Francis: Hah, it feels to me as if we’ve drifted far afield from the simple idea I had. I’ve got a much better sense of what stories do now, though I’m left with questions.

Paco: I feel the same way. One question I have is how poetry fits into all of this.

Francis: Um…

Paco: A question for another time, then.

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