The hunger for narrative
Thursday, December 10, 2015
In his great essay "The Power of Stories," Scott Russell Sanders explores ten primary reasons for telling and hearing stories. The first reason on his list is a simple one: Because they entertain us.
"Why else," he asks, "do we trade them so avidly, in myths and folktales, in poems and songs, movies and plays, novels and yarns, and countless other forms? Children tell stories spontaneously, exuberantly, even before they have enough words to fill out their sentences. Anyone who has made up a story for a child , or read one from a book, only to have the child beg for it again and again, night after night, knows that the need for story goes deep in us. Scheherazade kept a sultan from putting her to death by telling him stories, always breaking off in the middle of a plot at bedtime, leaving him eager for the next installment. You do not have to be a child or a bored sultan to hunger for stories, of course, nor a captive to be saved by them. We all hunger for narrative, from the simplest anecdote or joke to the most convoluted saga, as we hunger for bread or companionship or sunlight; and we all may be fed, and even restored, by a tale that speaks to our condition."
Sanders goes on to note: "In all its guises, from words spoken and written to pictures and musical notes and mathmatical symbols, language is our distinguishing gift, our hallmark as a species. We delight in stories because they are a playground for language, an arena for exercising this extraordinary power. The spells and enchantments that figure in so many tales remind us of the ambiguous potency of words, for creating or destroying, for binding or setting free. Italo Calvino, a wizard of storytelling, described literature as 'a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.' Calvino's remark holds true, I believe, not just for the highfalutin modes we label as literature, but for every effort to make sense of our lives through narrative."
The full essay can be found in Sander's essay collection The Force Spirit, and is highly recommended.
The art today is from a 1911 editon of The Stories of the Arabian Nights, illustrated by Edmund Dulac.
Edmond Dulac was born and raised in Toulouse, France, where he spent two miserable years studying law before embracing art as his true vocation; he then studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse and the Académie Julien in Paris before moving to London in 1904. Obtaining his first illustration commission (for Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre) at the age of 22, Dulac went on to become of one of the greatest book illustrators of his day, while also collaborating on various theatre projects (usually with his friends W. B. Yeats and Thomas Beecham) and becoming an expert in postage stamp design. He spent the rest of his life in England (changing the spelling of his name from Edmond to Edmund), became a British citizen in 1914, and continued to create his exquisite illustrations right up to his death in 1953.
The passage above is from "The Power of Stories" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in his essay collection The Force of Spirit (Beacon Press, 2000); all rights reserved by the author.