The Virtual Fireside

People often talk of the ‘universality’ of stories, how they transcend time and culture with common themes that entertain, instruct and link societies. Perhaps the love of stories is a defining characteristic of humankind. Ancient traditions of storytelling are physical – by the use of spoken and sung language, as a fireside activity by a single storyteller, or in sophisticated plays with elaborate costumes and props. They are visual, rhythmic and theatrical. They are of the flesh.

Humans have a highly developed capacity to empathise and sympathise with others. Storytelling is a manifestion of this. In addition to merely passing on information such as the best place to find berries or game, we can evoke the ‘objective correlative’ in others via words. This was a term Eloit used to describe a ‘word formula’ for evoking a particular emotion in others. This goes beyond a simple evocation of a particular primal reaction – fear say, by a description of a fear inducing event. Storytelling is much more complex. A good storyteller can set our hair on end by a pause or a lowering of the voice. We fill in the gaps. We have a mutual understanding of the story. It is a powerful means of communication and bonding. Don’t we all enjoy the winter ghost story around the fire? We experience fear and transcend it. Our shared experience binds us. We understand what frightens us and are together in our fear. Perhaps it means we will aid one another in a real situation.

Storytelling has adapted with the development of written language and ‘silent’ reading. Of course, the tradition of the story is still embedded and encoded there in patterns that reflect the essence of our humanity, in  the rhythms of our bodies, our physiological responses and hard-wired instincts.  But in place of the spoken voice, we now have a writerly one, our narratives intrinsic to the text; not only the words, or the ‘meaning’,  but in the subtleties of the writing – things like the style, the tone, the rhythms, the pace the perspectives of the narrative, the imagery, the choice of language. There are many ways to convey a story in writing that echo the way stories are spoken aloud around a fireside.  A book is like a fireside with its own virtual stortyteller. Or – you prefer – a personal theatre.

It is the written language that has allowed us to tell our stories even more widely, transcending culture and context. Fiction writing and poetry has an ability to reach into the human mind and activate the body’s responses, sharing fundamentals of human experience. Writing a story is not like writing instructions for assembling flat pack furniture. It will not resonate with the state of being human – except perhaps our shared experience of frustration or triumph!  Our minds are inseparable from our bodies – they are not complete without them, despite what folk who have opted for posthumous brain freezing may hope. Without your body, your mind would be less than human. Even abstract activites such as mathematical calculations are done in conjunction with the body; the obvious counting on fingers, geometry and number reckoned on our human scale.  But we all know from our own experience that we ‘feel’ and participate in hidden ways when we do all kinds of things – from assembling flat pack furniture to the most abstract thought – it is a participatory process. Our ‘gut feeling’ has shown to have its origins in our nervous system. We are hunters and sense the chase, even in a page of equations.

Ideas we think are new emerge from the same basic human pattern. It is not surprising that we can find something to identify with in ancient writing, or stories from other cultures. Politics and human relationships reflect our most basic instincts. Morality has fundamental elements, and in our cultural context is something we use as a frame to look through, interpreting the moral objectives of a story accordingly.

Stories are powerful. They link us and divide us, they shape the way we feel. They are tyrannical and subversive. They educate us, they entertain us. They make us think. The ability to tell stories is a most potent characteristic of homo sapiens. Without stories what would we have become other than a race of instruction givers? Stories are the manifestation of what it is to be human. They may be manipulated or suppressed by those who seek power, but they will not be eliminated.

We are entering a brave new world where our minds and bodies are increasingly linked to machines in a ‘real time’ experience of working with or within a machine. Within a generation we will surely have near seamless interfaces with an ‘otherness’ that is a machine of some kind. I am thinking beyond the exciting developments in medicine where amputees are learning to control robotic arms with the impulses that once controlled a real limb, for instance. It is not beyond imagination to see how a mind could adapt itself to link with a machine to do calculations, use algorithms impossible for us to process with our human brains, and beyond this to intimate interconnections with many computers that form part of the operating network of our technological world, which of itself may develop motivations and purpose and encompass a scale well beyond human comparisons. What will be our stories then, and who – or what will they be for? How far can the human ‘objective correlative’ be extended?

I am developing – tentatively – ideas for a novel ‘The Inside-Out Machine’ that explores these themes. Some pieces from it are in my post ‘The Taste of Violet’.

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2 thoughts on “The Virtual Fireside

  1. Dear Elizabeth, reading your blog has made me think of a book a short stories by American author Edith Pearlman, called Binocular Vision. Pearlman has only ever written short stories and has only reached deserved fame at age 60, which shows both how difficult it is to be recognised as a short story writer and how enthusiastic readers can be for the genre. All the best for your writing!

    1. Thank you krishnapur – I shall obtain a copy. You are right regarding recognition for writing short stories! I firmly believe that readers are enthusiastic for the form. Thanks for the good wishes.

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