Old Stories Will Never Lose Their Power to Disrupt

We do not have time, these days, for stories. We are obsessed with politics, not the despair, hopes and dreams that may drive people into it.

Our ethics are shaped by stories. Credit: Pixabay

Our ethics are shaped by stories. Credit: Pixabay

As we bid farewell to 2017, The Wire looks back at some of the markers of disruption that affected different spheres, from politics and economics to technology and films.

As the year wound to a close, I picked up Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al Rassan to read again. Kay writes a very interesting brand of fantasy fiction, merging it very closely to history, at times highly stylised, and both Romantic and romantic. In Al Rassan he tells the tale of the Reconquista and the fall of Andalusian Spain, ever so slightly changed. The Muslims, Christians and Jews become slightly other (Asharite, Jaddite and Kindath respectively), although the sleight of hand is meant to be seen through.

The fall of civilisation, its brittleness in the face of anxiety and rising intolerance as ambitious kings manoeuvre for war and their aggrandisement, is beautifully told, not least from the point of view of the Kindath physician. As a woman, and as part of a community that has no home to call its own, she holds centrestage. Written in 1995, the book has unexpected resonances to current day debates, and does an excellent job of not hiding the brutalities, while at the same time showing how secular men and women are trapped into entanglements not entirely of their own making.

We talk much these days of politics, but the question we often forget to ask, or ask badly, is why people are so easily moved by stories to riot, to war, to kill their neighbours? Our focus tends to be only about the politics of it all. As my colleague Vasudevan Mukunth wrote in this post on the importance of reporting on science, politics seems to swamp all reporting, but it is not all that we are.

In a lovely, though weakly-titled, essay written after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Peter Alexander Meyers argued that civility and language, our ability to communicate with each other, are key facets of being human. One of the key dangers of terrorism and part of its response, is to shut this down. “Terrorism takes the words from citizens’ mouths. It reduces us to speechless shock. The bestial act imposes a consensus of brutes in which the animal voice of anguish and the god-like presumptuousness of unchecked power submerge the all too fragile democratic practices of political speech.” In this, Meyers was harking back to the phrase often attributed to Aristotle, that a man alone is either a god or a beast, not truly human, and it is only in civil, political interactions that a person is able to become who they are.

What this leaves out is what we bring into that conversation, that civility, that politics – and what we bring is our stories. We may use politics to interact with, and influence, each other, but the reasons we do so, the whys and wherefores, are deeply entangled in the stories we tell ourselves of what it means to be good, to be just, to be moral. Our ethics are shaped by stories. These may be as various as the parables of the good Samaritan as told by Jesus, of Taoist reflection, of Buddha’s tale of his wounded foot and how even he could not set aside karma, or of Karna laughingly giving away his armour to Indra, king of the gods, who had come to him disguised as a beggar, or of Mohammed rushing home to Khadija after his first revelation and asking her to cover him, and then asking her assurance on whether he was losing his mind.

Nor do these stories have to be religious in nature to move people. The story of Padmavati/Padmini, based on the Sufi text, the Padmavat, written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi centuries after the death of the supposed queen, was the centrepiece of a political crisis we have not yet resolved. It is easy to see the play of politics of religio-nationalism that was used to whip up a frenzy, but we rarely ask the question of why the story evoked such a strong reaction in the first place. Anuja Chauhan wrote a deeply heartfelt piece on the loss of honour, on the loss of a place in the world, that Rajputs were going through, and why the story became a “cause” to be defended.

Our reportage, though, was almost exclusively on the politics of things, of the manipulation of emotions and the state – the police, the politicians and the courts. We remain baffled by the stories, why they should move people and what we can do about it. In Al Rassan Kay introduces two brothers, fundamentalists of a sort, the Asharites who despise the cultivated cities almost as much as they despise the (re)conquering Jaddites. In them one can see, almost, a way that the revulsion that Sayyid Qutb, the great ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood, felt on his trip to the US, where we reacted to the life of the body, of physicality, that he saw as the outcome of “Western, secular” civilisation.

In these reactions, the progress, the beauty and the achievements of “developed” places are not contested. Qutb did not doubt the power or wealth of the US – and it is no surprise that the Muslim Brotherhood draws a large number of recruits from the aspirational middle class. It is not the achievement that is contested, but its purpose, the why of life. This is not a question that can be easily answered, and it may be why Plato, writing in The Republic, advocated that poets be exiled from the perfect state.

Stories disrupt – it is in their very nature – and yet we pay far too little attention to them. They disrupt because, as Plato so presciently put it, poets can cite not just different ideas, but often contradictory ones. This was essentially the core of Plato’s (or Socrates’) dispute with those that praise Homer in The Republic. That conflict, that there is more than one way to a “better” life, remains the core of our political arguments. Just as Plato recommended that poets be exiled, and that one or two “true” myths, not least one that segregated people into three “castes” according to the metal of their nature (gold for the philosopher-kings and aristocracy, silver for the soldiers and bronze or iron for the majority), be the only ones allowed, various states, too, are citing “true myths” such as “the American Dream”, “the Chinese Dream” and the like.

As a writer myself, I may be biased, but I do not think this will work. But we do not have time, these days, for stories. We are obsessed with politics, not the despair, hopes and dreams that may drive people into it.

Featured image credit: Kamil Porembiński/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0