Journalism as Narrative

One cannot spend long listening to mainstream media without realising that a “narrative” is being laid out. By narrative, I mean a conversation, a view point, a focus upon a certain perspective [character] with a certain struggle [crisis] and seeking a certain resolutions [catharsis].

This is well acknowledged by commentators. Factoids are thrown about such as “more people are killed by obesity than by shark attacks” or “more people die walking down the street than in plane crashes” or most significantly, “more people die daily from prevantable diseases and hunger than in terrorist attacks.” Yet the media has a narrative to tell and mostly this narrative is driven by what the audience, the readers, are interested in reading or viewing. Unashamedly appealing to the feelings and fears of the viewers, media will focus on the shark attacks, the plane crashes and the terrorist attacks. The viewer must supplement their world knowledge through self study.

This is a curiousity to note, especially because many of us state, “I’d rather read the news than fiction, I think the real world is interesting enough” or ” I want fact not fiction”. Journalists are bound to various codes of conduct not to perjure or malign people or companies unduly or not to insert opinion into their pieces, retaining an impartial reporterly perspective. However, the bias evident in what is reported and how it is reported is remarkable and one that the user generates.

Brandon Stanton, photographer of the wildly successful blog “Humans of New York” gave this brilliant TEDx talk in 2013. He highlights how the media selects their content and how this content does not reflect the greater reality of life. His blog seeks to counter that and tell a different narrative.

Fiction is simply another form of narrative. Let us read with discernment.

Poetic Inspiration

Where do great stories come from and why do some people have the knack to tell consistently amazing stories, and others – hit and miss?

According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge,  Kubla Khan, was composed one night after he experienced an opium-nfluenced dream. He had read a work describing Xanadu the summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China. Upon waking, he set about writing lines of poetry that came to him from the dream until he was interrupted by a visitor. The poem could not be completed as the interruption caused him to forget the lines. Out of despair from losing the inspiration, Coleridge left it unpublished and kept it for private readings for his friends until 1816 when, on the prompting by Byron it was published.

Roald Dahl depicts dreams as small cloudlike puffs, to be caught in a net, bundled into a sack and blown through a pipe into sleeping children’s ears. Other writers speak of being visited by a muse or suffering mysterious writer’s block as though an external source had stemmed the flow of a stream.  Elizabeth Gilbert, writer of “Eat, Pray, Love” discusses this phenomenon to a contemporary audience, an audience steeped in a scientific-rational context. She manages to package the mystery of poetic inspiration in modern terms.

My take home thought from Gilbert’s speech is that by holding external to self, the artists’ gift of inspiration – as though through a muse or genius – the writer is free to be a humble human. One of the many results of the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the rational humanism of the 19th century, has been an existential despair in the 20th century as humanity contemplates solitude in the universe. For us all meaning rests within. All success or failure, meaning or purpose, stems from the individual will. The crushing paralysis that comes with such belief, can be eased by artists who can frame themselves in a dance with the universe, the Spirit, a muse. This simple surrender can be the release for an artist to let inspiration and industry flow.

The Truth of Fiction

This delightful video by Mac Barnett on “Why a good book is a secret door”  brilliantly depicts the power of narrative – wonder, joy and beneath the fiction – TRUTH.  Citing Pablo Picasso, he reads,

“We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth, at least the truth we are given to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

To add my thoughts to Picasso, we have the ability to engage in poetic belief, because narrative is so closely aligned with our dreams and our dreams spring from our deepest being.  If we allow ourselves, we can read stories with the automatic comprehension of one who dreams. An artist needs no more to convince others of their lies, as to convince other they are dreaming.

The Book of Job as Satire

A favourite genre of mine, wierdly, is Modernist literature. Characteristic of writing between the turn of the century until the 1960s, it is characterised by a heavy cynicism about society, morality.and break with tradition.  Influenced by artistic movements of impressionism, cubism, surrealism and scientific turns from Newtonian physics to Quantum theory, interspersed with two world wars and other social upheavals, the period turned literature into introspective, doubtful and even absurdist narrations of human existence.

Gogh

I love Hemmingways experience of life through the senses – almost a verbal impressionism; I love Samuel Beckett’s tirade against reason in Waiting for Godot. I love Joseph Conrad’s journey through Imperial Africa to the heart of darkness. I love J. D Salinger’s depiction of a young man dissolving into madness and Sylia Plath’s depiction of her heroine’s dissolution in the Bell Jar.  Perhaps at the core of my love of Modernist literature is a turn to classical Greek and Roman literature to find meaning beneath life in archetypes and dreams, a kind of Jungian journey into the soul.

A novel that moved me greatly was Joseph Hellier’s “Catch 22”. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughter House Five”, It artfully depicted the absurdities of war. Intelligent generals wishing to send young men to their death. Sane young men, not wishing to die but facing the catch. The only way to evade duty was to declare madness, but only the truly mad would go happily go to their death. Thus the sane cannot evade death, though they desire to, and the mad will not evade death, since they will not declare insanity. And so the circle goes – the Catch 22.

catch22

When I heard at school that the Book of Job,  was not only one of the oldest pieces of literature in the world and also one of the most celebrated greats, I was facinated to read it. Unlike any other book in the bible it reads like a play, with behind the scenes notes, and lengthy dialogues between protagonist and antagonists.  Loving Shakespeare and Homer, the Book of Job struck me an epic Jewish classic, fit with mythical beasts and the voice of God from a storm. What delighted me the most was the cutting, at points sarcastic way Job addresses the platitudes of his friends and the way the narrative holds up their views as absurd. It intrigued me. It was almost an anti-text the way much of Modern literature cut against the optimism of society at the turn of the 20th century.

Why did I resonate with this text so much ? Well as an Aussie I love a good deal of cynicsm and sarcasm. It feels realer to me than boundless optimism and it’s candyfloss texture. It increasingly occurred to me that The Book of Job was not unlike “Waiting for Godot” and Job’s complaint not unlike the Catch-22.

Job

So could Job be satire?

I examined the text and found something interesting. Even though elements of the text may have originated early in Israel’s history, many charactertics of the text resembe Menippean Satire, a form of Greek classical poetry and prose between the 2nd and 3rd century BC. The lofty scenes of heaven set against the gritty reality of earth, the behind the scenes view privy to knowledge not shared by the protagonist, the strange denoument and restoration of Job’s fortunes ten fold. Most interesting was the establishement of the satiric norm – the ideal against which antagonists are placed to point out the absurdity of their views. Scholars believed that the Book of Job was thus compiled late in Jewish tradition, in a period when faith in old platitudes of the wisdom literature, placed into the mouths of the unfeeling friends, rang hollow to the suffering remnant.

menippean satire

How fascinating?! If Catch 22 and the like were written to a society experiencing bitter disappointment in the wake of the optimism of the 19th century, then Job was written to a Jewish audience experiencing the humiliation of the Roman occupation and the smashing of naive notions of a mechanistic blessing-cursing relationship to the law. Job faces the very real catch 22 of this law – he is as good an upright as any man can be. But man born is born to mischief as the sparks fly up [Job 5:7].   So are we born to condemnation?! No, he will not accept this resolution. Nor will he accept the resolution of the friends that he need simply repent to regain blessing. He pushes through this transactional approach to God and demands a hearing. When the God he calls upon appears, he is cowed – understandably overwhelmed by the awsome display of splendour from the clouds. However, this awesome divinity approves of Job’s faith – for Job sees through to the heart of the matter. Law can only condemn, but faith in the redemptive nature of the divine is commended.  Job cannot save himself through pennitance, but by grasping to God, not cursing nor turning from God, he clings to the knowledge that God alone can provide a solution to the Catch 22.

Unlike Modernist novels, The Book of Job ends “happily ever after”. Another characteristic of Mennipean satire. But here the book affirms biblical themes, those who orient themselves to God in faith are righteous, not those who abide by the law.

Selah.

What is “Bear Skin”?

Bearskin is in fact number 101 of the Brother’s Grimm collection of fairy tales. It is more commonly retold as “Beauty and the Beast.”

The tale begins after a bitter war, and of a soldier, who finds himself homeless as his parents have died and his brothers have no place for him. Lost one night in the woods, he encounters a green-coated man with a cloven hooves who offers to make him rich beyond his wildest dreams if he wlll engage in a wager.  For seven years he can not cut his hair, clip his nails, bathe, or pray. In addition he must wear a Bearskin cloak without removing it once. He cannot be free of the Bearskin cloak until a woman falls in love with him, with only the truest of loves. At the end of the seven years,  if he has not found anyone to love him, the devil will take his soul.

The desperate soldier, with little other option,  agrees  and the devil gives him the Bearskin cloak. The devil departs, telling the young man that he would find in its pockets a limitless supply of money. He renames the young man Bearskin and disappears.

Bearskin sets out on his way, finding many good friends upon his travels. He has limitless wealth in his pockets and can find companions easily. However, soon, because he cannot remove the cloak, nor cut his hair, clip his nails, nor bathe, he grows so revolting that he has to pay heavily in order to get any place to shelter. It becomes harder and harder for him to find friends and companions and people occassionally absue him and fear him because of his appearance.

bearskin

After four years, Bearskin hears an an old man lamenting and persuades him to tell his tale. The man recounts to Bearskin how he has lost all his money and does not know how to provide for his daughters. He cannot pay his debts and so he will be sent to jail. Bearskin, taking pity on the poor man, gives him two bags of gold, one for his debts and one for his family.

The old man is so grateful that he invites Bearskin to his home, saying that he will surely give one of his daughters as a wife to him.  However, when Bearskin and the man arrive home and the daughters are called, all is not well. When the set eyes on Bearskin, his hair matted, his nails long like claws, his body smelling without a bath in four years, the oldest runs away, screaming. The second daughter does not run, but she begins to ridicule Bearskin, saying she will never marry such a beastly man as he. It is only the youngest daughter, a soft sweet girl who loved her father dearly who consents to marry him.  Bearskin gives her half a ring and promises to return in three years. When he leaves, her sisters chastise their father and ridicule their sister at length.

At the end of the seven years, the devil reappears to Bearskin and demands that he be free of his curse. The devil asks whether Bearskin has found a woman to love him truly. Bearskin tells the devil of the farmers daughter who has agreed to marry him and the devil only chuckles.  The devil bathes Bearskin, clips his nails and cuts his hair until he a handsome fresh young man again. He then accompanies Bearskin to the farmers house dressed as a fine gentleman. Here the older sisters serve the two men not recognising Bearskin.  The youngest daughter, his fiance shows no reaction to him. The devil then announces to the old man that this young Prince would like marry one of his daughters. The two older sisters run off to dress splendidly, but the youngest sits mournfully in the corner. The devil challenges Bearskin saying “these girls do not love you, but they love the prince they imagine you to be.”

Bearskin calls to the youngest girl, asking whether she does not wish to marry him after all ? She answers, “oh no, I’m pledged to a man quite different to you, sir! His name is Bearskin and he will return for me this very year.” Bearskin drops his half of the ring into a wine cup and gives it to his fiance. She drinks it and realizes that he is her bridegroom. Upon seeing this woman’s true loyalty and love for Bearskin, the devil curses and disappears.

The young man and farmers daughter are soon married. Upon realizing who he was and what they gave up, one older sister hangs herself in rage and the other drowns herself. At the close of the story, the devil knocks on the young man’s door to tell Bearskin that he had gotten two souls for the price of one.

bear skin 2

To me “Bear Skin” captures much of what is powerful about the nexus between theology, philosophy and narrative. Embodied within the story is not only a “message” per se but a picture of a truth through fiction.  A man, desititute, encounters an offer of untold wealth in exchange for slavery to a beastly form. He agrees and faces social exclusion, lacking true human love despite his gold. It is only upon the encounter with true love that the curse can be liftted.

In one version of the tale,  the devil refuses to belive the girl’s love is genuine to Bear Skin based on his incredible wealth. It is only when she surrenders her life, and the devil gets his wager of a “soul”, that her love is proven and Bear Skin is returned to human form.  This tragic ending, while unsatisfactory, rings true.  Love is sacrificial.  Wealth and power often bestow a beastly form upon humanity.

As a Christian, I see in this tale, not unlike the Narnia tales, the embodiment of a message of the human condition.  In exchange for power, humanity has gained a beastliness that bars us from true intimacy and love to and from others.  Our animal nature can only be restored through true and sacrificial love, this by the innocent death of one who loves us without condition.

What I understand from this narrative, that is lacking from the Grimm’s version, is that this death is in fact the genesis of new life, not the end but the beginning. The fairytale ends with a wedding and so does the biblical narrative. Weddings signify the beginning of something new, a new creation and new life.