Native American myths and legends often deal with death, and I often wonder how today’s children would like them. When I was little, my mother thought that H. C. Andersen’s or Grimm brothers’ fairy tales were too cruel, so she’d change the endings as she read them to me. She feared I was too sensitive. I don’t think so; I would have just probably pestered her with questions she wasn’t sure how to deal with. I remember finding a collection of Inuit stories in my parents’ large library and being absolutely terrified and yet drawn to their stark universe, in which life and death coexisted, not peacefully, but not at polar opposites either. Last night I read the story (not Inuit; this one’s from the Pacific Northwest) of Blue Jay and his sister Ioi, who married a ghost. Blue Jay went to visit her in the land of the dead, where he had a grand time switching skeletons’ bones, ripping them off, and being generally wicked. The story ends thus:
Eventually, the ghost people complained about Blue Jay’s tricks, and Ioi’s husband told her to send him home. At first he didn’t want to go, but he finally left. On his way, he came to a prairie that was ablaze, and Blue Jay burned to death. Then he went back to the land of the ghosts. His sister met him at the river and went over to him in her husband’s canoe. . . . When they came to the village, the people were playing games and singing. Blue Jay shouted at them, trying to get them to fall into piles of bones, but the people just laughed at him. He kept pestering them to no avail until finally his sister told him that he was dead, too. And then he became quiet. (72)
I like how there is justice and there is logic to the story, but also this soft transition from the living to the dead, the consciousness of illusion, and the life that goes on, regardless of death.
Interestingly enough, the day after writing skeptically about “the power of storytelling” and feeling terribly bold about it, I read a 2010 BOMB Magazine interview with Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst and essayist I’d just discovered. Here is a passage that made me prick up my ears :
SP: One of the things that most resonates for me in “On Balance” is your writing on the dissonant, disjunctive, essentially random nature of existence. My last question concerns this state of incoherence. A word that is bandied around a lot at the moment is storytelling. It’s applied to branding, marketing, everything. In its wide, popular usage, the word is becoming increasingly incoherent. I literally don’t know what it means anymore. Could you talk a little bit about that?
AP: You can see the issue in a current debate in psychoanalysis. One version of psychoanalysis will say that the definition of mental health would be the capacity to tell a coherent narrative. From another psychoanalytic point of view, that would be precisely the problem. I think both things are true. People who have suffered ruptured, violated lives need and want some narrative coherence, but narrative coherence quickly can be a problem when it becomes a refuge from thinking. I agree that the idealization of narrative coherence is a bizarre cultural development. The problem is finding forms of incoherence that are listenable to. . . . Somebody’s got to find a way of making a form of incoherence extremely revealing and alluring. It’s a really interesting cultural task—not that we should become better storytellers, because that’s the most boring thing on earth, but let’s become better antistorytellers. There is more to life than the stories we can tell about it. . . .
People need to be educated into believing that evocation is more important than information. If we could bear listening to people, without trying to understand what they’re saying, we would get more from them. Effectively, psychoanalysis listens for the incoherencies that are saying more, or something other, than the coherences. It’s got something to do with the musicality of people’s voices and intonations; it’s a form of listening that’s less hypnotized and distracted by their coherences.
There is something about this idea that makes my heart beat faster. Maybe it’s because I have tricked myself into believing my own story, and playing the character I imagined I was with laughable zeal and conviction. It’s true that words have a life of their own. The ease with which they come to me is deceitful, because it also signals that I am always up for one hell of a ride. Fiction writers often describe how, in the middle of the book, characters seem to take a life of their own and, at some point, almost hijack the story and dictate it back to the writer. I think this might be true in life as well. I wish I could meet Blue Jay and see if, when he claps his hands, I’d really turn into a pile of bones? Or not yet?
Lastly, Phillips’ statement that “there is more to life than the stories we tell” and his call for incoherence of narratives reminded me of this brilliant documentary by Sarah Polley. You can watch it here. It is so worth it.