The Narrative Quality of Experience I Mundane Stories and Sacred Stories

There are powerful grounds for thinking that narrative form is artifice; that it is simply one of the ways we organize a life of experience that is in itself inchoate. We are being reminded nowadays that stories are fictions after all.4 Of course there have been many forms of narrative— epic, drama, history, the novel, and so on—and our knowledge of the origins and development of such genres has given us a keen impression of their cultural and historical relativity. Furthermore, among some of the most important modem writers there has occurred a determined reaction against all standard narrative forms, partly on the grounds that such forms represent a subtle falsification of the immediacies of experience, of the modem experience in particular. Even wTiters who retain recognizably narrative forms have experimented with them freely. The great storytellers of our time as well as those who refuse to tell stories have made us aware of how much art is involved in all storytelling. It no longer appears natural and innocent in our eyes.

The studv of traditional folk cultures has also made us aware that there is more to narrative form than meets the eye (or the ear), and at least it raises the question whether that may also be true even for a culture as fragmented, sophisticated, and anti-traditional as ours. For within the traditional cultures there have been some stories that were told, especially on festal occasions, that had special resonance. Not only told but rituallv re-enacted, these stories seem to be allusive expressions of stories that cannot be fully and directly told, because thev live, so to speak, in the arms and legs and bellies of the celebrants. These stories lie too deep in the consciousness of a people to be directly told: they form consciousness rather than being among the objects of which it is directly aware. As such thev are intimatelv related to what we have called "style/' and so it is not surprising that these stories can hardly be expressed at all without an integral fusion of music with narrative. Every serious attempt to express them creates poetry. The expressions admit of great variation in detail, but no variation fully grasps the story within these diverse stories.

We sometimes apply our ambiguous term myth to this "story within the story." But it is not identical with the "myths" or legends we

4. The point is brilliantly argued and elaborated in Frank Kermode. T};c Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Tneory of Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 196S). Professor Kermode warns that "It we forget that fictions arc fictive we regress to myth... (p. 41). My argument may well illustrate what he is warning against. 1 do deny that all narratives are merely fictive, and 1 go on to deny that myth, or what I call sacred story, is a mere regression from a fiction. But it is ungrateful to single out my disagreements with a book from which 1 have derived uncommon profit in pondering my theme.

are able to read in ancient books, although these give us valuable access to those stories which have so powerfully formed a civilization's sense of itself and its world. We might also call these stories ''religious/' except that this designation implies modem distinctions between religious forms and secular, artistic, political forms, and these distinctions are misleading as applied to traditional cultures. Certainly these mythopoeic stories function quite differently in traditional cultures from the way conscious art does in what we are pleased to call higher cultures. They are anonymous and communal. None of our individualized conceptions of authorship are appropriate to them, and while rich powers of imagination may be expressed in them they are certainly not perceived as conscious fictions. Such stories, and the symbolic worlds they project, are not like monuments that men behold, but like dwelling-places. People live in them. Yet even though they are not directly told, even though a culture seems rather to be the telling than the teller of these stories, their form seems to be narrative. They are moving forms, at once musical and narrative, which inform people's sense of the story of which their own lives are a part, of the moving course of their own action and experience.

I propose, with some misgivings, to call these fundamental narrative forms sacred stories, not so much because gods are commonly celebrated in them, but because men's sense of self and world is created through them. For that matter, only the musical stories that form mens living image of themselves and their world have been found fit to celebrate the powers on which their existence depends. For these are stories that orient the life of people through time, their life-time, their individual and corporate experience and their sense of style, to the great powers that establish the reality of their world. So I call them sacred stories, which in their secondary, written expressions may carry the authority of scripture for the people who understand their own stories in relation to them.

The stories that are told, all stories directly seen or heard, I propose to call mundane stories. I am uneasy about that term also, although it is not meant to be in the least depreciatory. It simply implies a theory about the objectified images that fully articulated stories must employ, i.e., about words, scenes, roles, sequences of events within a plot, and other narrative devices: that such images, to be capable of being plausible objects of consciousness, must be placed within that world, that phenomenological mundus, which defines the objective horizon of a particular form of consciousness. In order to be told, a story must be set within a world. It mav not be an everyday world, i.e., it mav

be an imaginatively augmented world. But even the most fanciful stories have ¿heir proprieties. We speak of a universe of discourse, and this too has its limiting firmament above and below, beyond which nothing can be conceived to happen. Historically there have been a variety of such worlds, correlative to the historical forms of consciousness. The stories of an age or a culture take place within its world. Only in that sense are they necessarily mundane. Here, in some world of consciousness, we - *

find stories composed as works of art as well as the much more modest narrative communications that pass between people in explaining where they have been, why things are as they are, and so on. Set within a world of consciousness, the mundane stories are also among the most important means by which people articulate and clarify their sense of that world. In order to initiate their children in "the ways of the world," parents tell them stories — although in recent times, particularly, the problem has arisen that the children find themselves having to make their way in quite a different world, for which they have to devise quite different kinds of stories than those their parents taught them.

Sacred stories, too, are subject to change, but not by conscious reflection. People do not sit down on a cool afternoon and think themselves up a sacred story. They awaken to a sacred story, and their most significant mundane stories are told in the effort, never fully successful to articulate it. For the sacred storv does not transoire within a conscious j *

world. It forms the very consciousness that projects a total world horizon, and therefore informs the intentions by which actions are projected into that world. The style of these actions dances to its music. One may attempt to name a sacred story, as we shall try to do in our conclusion. But such naming misleads as much as it illuminates, since its meaning is contained—and concealed—in the unutterable cadences and revelations of the story itself. Yet every sacred story is creation story: not merely that one may name creation of world and self as its "theme" but also that the story itself creates a world of consciousness and the self that is oriented to it.

Between sacred and mundane stories there is distinction without separation. From the sublime to the ridiculous, all a people's mundane stories are implicit in its sacred story, and every mundane story takes soundings in the sacred story. But some mundane stories sound out greater depths than others. Even the myths and epics, even the scriptures, are mundane stories. But in these, as well as in some works of literary art, and perhaps even in some merry little tales that seem quite content to play on the surface, the sacred stories resonate. People are able to feel this resonance, because the unutterable stories are those they know best of all.

It is possible for such resonances to sound in poetic productions that seem to defy all traditional forms of storytelling. For the surface of conventional narrative forms may have become so smooth and hard that it is necessary to break it in order to let a sacred storv sound at all. Such a necessity may signalize that the sacred story is altogether alive, transforming itself in the depths. Break the story to tell a truer story! But there are also darker possibilities in this situation, as we shall see.

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