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The Perils of Good Storytelling

(or, reactions after seeing M Night Shyamalan’s highly-recommended new film Lady in the Water twice in one weekend):

The problem with good stories is that we cannot always live in them (barring the “good story” which is hopefully and supposedly the whole of our life–but right now I’m talking about good fiction stories; the kind that make you wish they were real). The problem with the best stories is their singularity of message: “Good stories are real! Believe in them!” And of course, they’re not real either, strictly speaking. There are no narphs and scrunts lurking round small ponds in my hometown, waiting to magically awaken greatness in me via some ancient link.

Even so, the problem has rather more to do with their truth than falsity. When I look soberly at reality I don’t find the details of Lady in the Water or The Silmarillion or Le Morte d’Artur, but on the other hand I do suppose that I believe reality really is something like those stories, at the end of the day. Reality involves things other than what we can see; reality involves hidden purposes and identities meant to be discovered; reality involves the endowing of normal human beings with abilities that, to someone from a different world, might seem magical.

No, the problem is not with the absence of “magic”–the problem is with my inability to see everything around me for what it really is (magical). And so I leave a good story feeling a sense of indescribable, desperate longing for something more exciting, more adventurous, more exotic, more epic, more fantastic, while steadfastly refusing to consider that if I were in one of those other worlds, I would be wishing the exact same thing, and a great bard of that place who told a story of Earth, her creation, the way that life springs from the very ground, and so on, would inspire me to dream great things. So the question becomes: how can we re-enchant this world? How can we de-familiarize ourselves from the radically “magical” events taking place around us always? It is not easy, and that is why we tell stories–to keep that sense alive somehow. But the result is that unfortunately I begin to desire the reality of the stories more than the reality of the real, based on unfair judgements of the real!

Alas, for now, I will keep running off to hear stories of marvelous and far-off worlds just to remind myself that such things are worth holding on to; but I hope that, instead of becoming depressed after hearing a good story and mourning the “death of the miraculous” in modern culture, I would learn to perceive the miraculous more easily all around. Clearly there is a tension here with my deeply-embedded scientific impulse to categorize and define; to resolve it I hope to be able to know both what a thing is and what a thing means. (In other words, the problem is not with any kind of scientific impulse per se, but rather the presumption of saying that knowledge of a thing’s true identity and significance can be adequately captured by scientific experimentation).

Nonetheless, we should re-establish frequent storytelling as a way to convey the deep truths of reality, even and especially if the best way to convey those truths is to speak of things like magical lands and mythical beings. Remember one of the most powerful lines from V for Vendetta: “Artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians cover it up”.

On the storyteller’s end, let us become adept at using such “lies” to tell the truth of a wonderful reality, but on the listener’s end, let us be adept at loving not the “lie” in virtue of its brilliant and captivating colors, but rather the even more brilliant and more captivating truth it (hopefully) conveys. For those like myself who love to live in the imagination, that second part will prove to be the harder of the two… But I personally hope the other side of that coin leads to an increased ability to tell the truth in story (the first part).

By Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan has been making things out of code as long as he can remember. Jonathan is the architect and project lead for Appium, the popular open source automation framework. He is also the founding Principal of Cloud Grey, a consulting firm devoted to helping clients leverage the power of Appium successfully. He has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over 15 years, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master’s degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in Vancouver, he’s an avid musician, and also writes on the philosophy of technology.

3 replies on “The Perils of Good Storytelling”

If we are to harness and conduct the magic of other worlds as so wonderfully exemplified by M. Night Shyamalan in this his latest stroke of genius, we must first, as you say Jonathan, perceive the magic that envelopes us in this world. Then, as we gain proficiency in the magic arts of our world, we may begin to see that the magic of other worlds is not as other worldly as we once thought. It is precisely this earthiness of other worldly magic that simultaneously leaves the untrained in awe and the conductor so grounded. The untrained see only the magic of another world breaking in; the conductor sees the magic of this world breaking out.

Spud was the first to point out to me just how calm Jesus was when performing his other worldly magic. A far cry from the invocations and rituals we witness today. (think spiritual laughter…)

We do live within a story where “magic” is all around us. Just like you mentioned, we sometimes forget the wonder that works to grow a plant to bear fruit when all it takes in is sunlight, rain, and soil. If i threw soil, sunlight, and rain water into a jar and shook it up, I would never end up with an orange or an apple, but the “magic” of a plant is that it is able to do just that.

[Disclaimer: It’s 5 am, and I’m waiting for a simulation to finish… enough said.]

I do think that the desire to systematize and understand our world tends to numb us to our world’s magic, Jonathan, but for me, that is only half of the story. I think that the abuse of science first disenchants us with the world around us, then completes the spell by bewitching us with it’s own little magic gadgets.

Who wants to engage with real magic when there is a better filter to design, or a faster processor, or a slimmer ipod?

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