A Storyteller’s Experienced Meaning

Storytelling is a way to embody and express meaning. But there is also no better way to hide and obscure meaning than behind a story.

The most powerful stories are those so compelling or so enforced that they take on the aura of reality, even if only for a moment of imagination. When someone doesn’t tell you the meaning of a story, it might be because they can’t but then again it might be because they won’t. The greatest storytellers don’t want you to consciously know what they are telling you for any meaning seen out in the open loses its power to control our minds, direct our perception, and shape our identity.

That is the entire history of religion and rhetoric, politics and propaganda, media and advertising. One way or another, a story is always being told. And with a dominant narrative, the audience is held in thrall. This is why stories can be as inescapable as they are dangerous. Also, this is why no one ever likes to have the meaning of their own story brought out into the harsh light. We grow attached to our stories, as individuals and societies. We couldn’t function without them, our strength as it is our Achilles’ heel.

So when a story threatens or terrorizes, imprisons or hobbles, the only way to fight it is by making its message explicit, to defuse the bomb. And that can only be done by telling an even better story, more powerful and compelling, at least in that moment of narrative crisis. But in the process of replacing one story with another, we once again get lost in meanings we can’t discern with consequences we can’t foresee.

All of that is beyond the task of the successful storyteller. As Flannery O’Connor made clear, her purpose is simply to give expression to “experienced meaning,” not to explain to others or even to herself. As a con man has to first con himself, if a storyteller didn’t get lost in her own stories, neither would her audience. The fisherman gets tangled up in his own net and sometimes drowns — that is a cost of the job, demonstrating how highly effective is the net. As such, a storyteller lives and dies by the stories told.

“When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.”

Flannery O’Connor, “Writing Short Stories”
from Mystery and Manners (as quoted in Biblioklept)

3 thoughts on “A Storyteller’s Experienced Meaning

  1. If you think about it, the key way that politicians get elected these days is to tell a narrative. That’s what the whole purpose of propaganda these days is all about.

    • Stories are tied up with meaning. That is true for all of us and in all areas of our lives. Our minds are mired in story. We are storytelling animals. Anyone who understands that can use it with great power, whether for good or ill. The difference with modern propaganda is that stories have become intentional manipulation. In the past, stories mostly developed organically within cultures and weren’t arbitrarily imposed by authoritarian rulers.

      Even when the Roman Emperor decided to impose Christianity on the Roman Empire, he chose Christianity because it was a religion that organically emerged from within the Roman Empire and so represented something inherent to that society. Christianity would never have been accepted by Roman subjects if not for it already having been a familiar part of their lives in how it was a typical syncretistic Roman religion, as it heavily borrowed from salvific resurrection godman cults, virgin Isis-Meri worship, and the mystery schools.

      Civil religion today is quite different. Ethno-nationalist patriotism and similar bullshit is a rather recent invention. These public narratives lack any deep roots in the Western moral imagination. It has required the heavily-funded implementation of modern propaganda techniques to eliminate traditional stories and replace them with narrative rhetoric more convenient to the authoritarian state. It was the lingering presence of traditional stories that made the revolutionary era possible. I worry that, as the traditional past recedes from living memory, invented fictions will undermine the vestiges of autonomy.

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