Books

Stories of Meaning and the Meaning of Stories

As 2016 draws to an end, we do not truly understand why people believe what it is that they believe, but the stories that they tell themselves give meaning to their lives, and they will not let them go lightly.

Credit: Praveen/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Credit: Praveen/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Over dinner a few days ago, I ended up telling a story about Janaka to a friend. Janaka is generally known as the foster father of Sita (she is born of the earth as a boon to him after prayers) in the Ramayana, but he is also mentioned separately in late Vedic literature as a king of Videha, of great virtue and sagacity. The story that I recalled was of how a young sage came to Janaka’s court and asked him, bluntly, “O king, you are considered a great sage, a brahmjanani, and yet you are a king, surrounded by gold and luxuries. How can you be a sage in the midst of this?”

Janaka heard the young man out in silence, and then said, “I will answer your question, but on one condition. Here is a bowl, full to the brim with oil. If you can circle my palace and bring it back to me without spilling a drop, I will give you the answer.”

The young man was taken aback, but agreed to the challenge and taking the bowl, spent the whole day painstakingly circling the palace until he was once again at Janaka’s presence.

“Here, o King of Videha, is your bowl of oil,” said the young man in triumph, “not a drop has been spilled. I have completed my task, now I ask my answer.”

Janaka nodded at the young man and said, “Just one question, can you describe for me my palace, the beauty of ladies-in-waiting, the glory of the architecture, the richness of the tapestries, the fine work of carving, the smell of incense and the wealth on display?”

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“But how could I do that?” asked the young man. “My whole concentration was fixed on the bowl, even if my attention had wandered for a moment I would have spilled a drop. I noticed nothing of anything save my task. That is what you demanded of me and that I have delivered.”

“Indeed, young sage,” replied Janaka, “and that is also your answer, for I, too, am concentrated wholly on my duty. My concentration moves not a fraction of a moment from my dharma. That is my whole world. And if tomorrow Videha is lost, nothing of mine is lost, for my thought is not occupied by these things.”

Humbled, the young man bowed to Janaka and left, having found his answer.

I like this story for all sorts of reasons, not least because I read it first in an Amar Chitra Katha comic when I was a child. And yet, its “truth” is a complex one, and not something that can be understood by reaching for “facts”. We have some textual ‘proof’ from the late Vedic texts that Videha might have existed and at least one king named Janaka ruled it, beyond that – whether he was a sage, or a good king, or ever had a conversation with a monk who questioned his saintliness is beyond the ability of anybody to verify. As for me, I read it in a comic book.

Does this mean that the story has no quality, and that it should be dispensed with? That is exactly what would be implied by somebody quoting the late Christopher Hitchens, especially on stories from religious texts, when he said in his inimitable style, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

If we are to dismiss every story for which we have no verifiable evidence we would be left with a world without meaning. In his enormously ambitious and hugely successful science fiction novel, Embassytown, China Mieville posits a race that can only speak about facts. If they have to talk about a rock that is broken and joined up again, they have to break a rock and join it up again. They have no access to similes, metaphors, or stories that are not based on verifiable evidence. In their interaction with humanity as non-facts breach their communication (and Mieville has an excellent, sly metaphor of the breakdown of double-checking) their language drives them drunk, insane even, laying waste to their civilisation.

But there is a deeper question of what kind of civilisation would be built purely on “verifiable evidence” in the first place. The great fact of the universe is that humans are entirely inconsequential. Given the scale – in terms both of time and size – the earth is less important to the observed universe as a grain of sand brushing against the side of a whale. As it is, speaking of scale is itself deceptive. What happens at our scale – that of humans on a solid world – is really not where the action is. As the theoretical physicist Brian Greene argues in his, The Fabric of the Cosmos, our senses have led us astray. Because we are the size we are, we perceive a relative stable universe, but this is not the reality at sub-atomic levels, or at the time and scales which planets or other galactic bodies such as stars and comets inhabit. To judge the universe from a human perspective is nonsense.

While many of the scientific discoveries that allow us to understand some of this reality – and our very marginal part in it – have been made in the last couple of centuries, the first hominids that walked the African savannah hunting and gathering in the wake of more powerful and better equipped animals would have understood the feeling of irrelevance very well. The stories that humans use to make sense of the universe are not derived from the facts of the universe, but conversely for what they desire from it: aspects such as compassion, justice and fairness and a special place for humans.

The late Terry Pratchett, who had little use for religion in his own life, populated his famous Discworld novels with religious fables, none more so than Reaper Man and Small Gods, but possibly his most full throated support of the power of belief is found in a conversation between the character of Death (enunciated in capital letters) and Susan in the novel Hogfather.

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.

While Pratchett described the unprovable hypotheses that underpin stories as “lies” – big or small – the late Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionary biologist and palaeontologist, famously referred to the truths of religion and truths of science as two “non-overlapping magisteria”, which were focussed on seeking truths that did not overlap with each other. The current Pope, Francis, a man who has been a scientist in his own life, has spoken in favour of scientific theories such as evolution and that God is not somebody with “a magic wand”. As such, he seems to share Gould’s point of view, but given the Catholic Church’s long struggle to accept such ideas, it seems too easy to say that this was – and will be – always so. While the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has declared that beliefs incompatible with science should be shunned, his own position is based on the belief that he is the 14th in a line of reincarnations – not a belief that can be verified by science.

As 2016 draws to an end, we put behind a year marked by large global populations believing in ideas that are not based on verifiable evidence – whether they be that killing fellow men will guarantee a place for you in God’s grace or that a businessman with a history of bankruptcy and dishonest dealings will make America “great again”. We do not truly understand why people believe what it is that they believe, but the stories that they tell themselves give meaning to their lives, and they will not let them go lightly.

Fact-checking, or expertise in a particular field, may not be enough to confront the force of these ideas. Instead, if we are disheartened by the visions evoked by a host of political actors that seem to have stormed on to the world stage, our challenge will be to create stories of meaning, to define what a “good” life is, why some purposes are more “noble” or of greater “worth” than others. This requires a politics of meaning, not merely a politics of technocratic skill. The open question is does the liberal world order have such stories, and if so, can it tell them in a compelling enough manner to enchant, persuade and motivate people to defend it, and build upon its achievements? This is the contest that now takes centre-stage, and those with the best stories may, quite literally, be the ones who will have the final words. Hopefully they will not be “The End”.