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.

Continue reading “The Point of Stories”

The Sting of Science

Some interesting things going on in the world of guilty, not guilty, and innocent, what with its consequences: the accused goes free, or the accused is imprisoned. As far as I understand it, prison, between Johnny Cash concerts, is a rather unpleasant existence, a place which not only punishes evildoers for the purposes of hindering evil being done in the midst of well-doers, but it also dehumanizes.

Convictions based on DNA evidence are being overturned. Another one bites the dust. Throw DNA evidence onto the pile of other courtroom incontrovertibles, along with fingerprints and lie detector tests. Perhaps the ancients were on to something when they said, “Do not establish a charge except by two or three witnesses.” Besides which, all the truly great courtroom dramas are based on the accounts of the witnesses and whose testimony might be trustworthy or how one might piece together the circumstances surrounding the crime: in other words, narrative. These forensic science TV shows, as cool as they might be in their first run, are intolerable in repeats. Columbo endures.

Ah, but science has determined that the science was insecure, susceptible to abuse! We are hereby one step closer to establishing the scientifically failsafe forensic method in criminal justice! A house divided, yada yada yada…

Jurisprudence took a turn, from this layman’s perspective, in those heady days when we were convinced that we could serve justice coldly, removing the fallible human element from murder trials. As public morality splintered (and now that it has disintegrated), triangulating became truly difficult for juries. How can a jury of peers even be established when we are all islands unto ourselves? Thus the task of weighing testimony was sublimated to the task of weighing the evidence.

Evidence is not unimportant, of course, but artifacts have been elevated in the public mind above hot-blooded accounting of hot blood. It’s all so icky, the tears, the blood-curdling descriptions, the hatred, rage, all there on display in a nice, sterile society. For a jury to pass moral judgment in the case of law is asking an awful lot. Juries, then, are witnesses themselves, offering testimony to the jury of editorials and the twitterverse concerning the wherewithal of a society to commit moral judgment. Who is the presiding judge?

More than that, perspective has been polarized, meaning, a witness is either telling the truth or is telling a lie, and only a chasm exists around those two pillars. The TV tells me that good lawyers know how to destroy witness accounts on this basis: if a reliable witness flutters in one detail, then the whole account is invalidated. Alas for measuring and sifting, for dividing and discerning, a lost art in the age of certainty!

Now that science has once again been disbarred from the courtroom, apprehended murderers might get away with murder! Indeed, they probably will for a short time, but we will establish a new evidentiary process to which to sublimate testimony. In the meantime, it will remain true that our prisoners, nearly all of whom are surely guilty, are stacked in cells reaching from beneath the earth up to the sky, and stretching in lines which converge around the compass on every horizon. Look, we say, our prisons are full, and crime is consequently minimized. See how we have hindered evildoing! We are approaching that day when we shall become a completely just society.



The Language of Decadence

Nassim Taleb tweeted yesterday, “It is easy to be stoic, in failure.” Easy? In failure is where the passions flare, where the maxim was born: out of the frying pan into the fire. In the depths of failure is found quite the peak of human existence; to climb to its heights to be stoic is a monumental achievement. “This, too, shall pass.” Easier to do something than said.

Adam Gurri wrote in a post which should have been titled “Luck Be A Sadist Tonight” about the preoccupation of the Greek philosophers with the notion of luck, that disordering force which belongs to nature, within the reach of humans, but not to be grasped. The philosophical traditions of the West have never come to grips, I submit, with the ineluctability of decay. When the Greeks, our librarians and teachers, became preoccupied with luck, they biased us toward the notion of inexorable progress. We do not have a philosophical framework for the importance and necessity of decay. For example, “A seed must fall to the ground and die in order to fulfill its telos, which is to grow into abundance” is an Eastern contribution to the world of thought, and efficacious, but I wouldn’t know to which strain of philosophy a similar thought might belong.

Is this correct: do we not have a philosophical framework which incorporates decadence within a larger thought system?

It is significant, I think, that when we read the Stoics, who were actually grappling with this notion of decay, we feel compelled to sift them for value in our Continental-dominated systems, but, as Samuel Hammond mentioned somewhere (I can’t find the locus), they come as a packaged deal, so we set them aside as artifacts, points on a timeline, a historical footnote in the process of getting us here, not as contributors to our understanding and enjoyment of life.

The practical effects of developing a framework for decadence is the suppression of anxiety, a passion which creates no end of evil, beginning with stupid comments and ending in destroyed lives. For example, an argument was made that the institutions of Continental Europe were essentially in a state of decay, and that Hitler and Stalin would do the job of bringing them to an end. After they did their job, then the Anglosphere could expand into Continental Europe with little to no sacrifice. Because we were in the grips of a framework which knows only progress, North American heroes were nevertheless sent to suffer and die, disrupting the “normal” progress of the North American continent. Moreover, the institutions slated to fall away completely were preserved, in part, and cynicism set in.

From here, an argument could be made that North American institutions, particularly those of the United States, began to participate in all the worst aspects of Continental institutions, and are themselves now in the queue to return to the dust, perhaps even to be toppled by the Flowers of Guatemala. A Stoic, or anyone with a framework for decadence, stands happily by, saying, “This, too, shall pass,” returning to his work with a song in his heart and a spring in his step.

Now, as an addendum, I find it curious that our narrative traditions are dominated by the language of decadence. The simplest plot device, such as “boy loses girl,” assumes decay. Emotionally speaking, the boy must die in order for the man to get the girl, and then the girl must die in order to become a woman who receives her man. Is our philosophical tradition predominantly Western and our narrative tradition predominantly Eastern?

Fun stuff. We are doomed. And then some.