Stories, the Nature of

by Peter

This is this post’s second draft. I found my first attempt upon review to be snarky, cynical, and simplistic where I had tried to be witty, and so jettisoned it as primarily feigned material. I’ve boiled the main thoughts down and lopped off the extraneous mockery, leaving me with a list of assertions about the nature of stories that I now present to you bare. Boring, I know, but probably more valuable than the first draft was. Besides, I doubt that I will be able to refrain from opining about them at the end of the list.

[Insert a smooth transition into the list itself here.]


— Stories have the interesting characteristic of being both ontologically independent and dependent things simultaneously. Their source, generally speaking, is a single person or group of people, bound by the same cultural and cognitive limitations and biases that any other person or group of people have. Once told or written, however, the story itself becomes accessible to anyone who encounters circumstances that allow interaction with it, whether or not they interact with its author(s). It is therefore entirely independent and entirely dependent upon the storyteller simultaneously.

— An analysis of a story that disregards one of its two natures will necessarily lead to error, as does any inhibition.

— There are various strains of such immoderate analysis falling under two overarching categories: those who disregard its dependence and those who disregard its independence.

— Of the first type, the two extreme analyses seem to be that which says that not even the author can have any say over their story and that which says that the story may be interpreted in any way by any one. Of the second type, the two extreme analyses seem to be that which says that the historical context and personal thoughts/feelings/behavior of the author (at any time) have a deterministic effect on the work (if it was there in the author’s context, it is there in the work) and that which says that it is absolutely impossible to understand any given story for anyone outside of its cultural and authorial context.

— I have never come across a method to analyze myths or stories scientifically that has not in the end either killed the potency of the myth or reduced itself to absurdity.

— I have never come across a method to analyze myths or story relativistically that has itself felt like a potent analysis.

Two of my housemates (Peter Hering and Hayden Butler) and I had a conversation about all this during the time set aside on my schedule for vacuuming the living room. They pushed the conversation in two major directions. First, if those methods of analysis were not the way to look at a story then what was the correct method? Second, what is a story anyway apart from being dependent and independent? We came up with a more satisfying answer for the latter than for the former.

In answering the first question, I found that my observations were almost entirely reactive; they are critical rejections of many analyses and fail, in the end, to offer a palatable replacement for them. Finding the insufficiencies in things is only valuable when those discoveries prompt a search for more sufficient things, and is never valuable when they become dialectic ends in themselves. Thus, while I have not yet found a full replacement for those methods I impugn, it is sufficient that I end my assertions with a question and a suggestion as to how to find a replacement method.

Our conversation led us to think that the proper way to think about stories may be analogous to the way we think about the incarnation. That is, in order to think about something that is 100% ontologically dependent and 100% ontologically independent, we ought to use the same ways of thinking that we use when we think about a being who is 100% God and 100% man. The result, I imagine, would be something like Dorothy Sayer’s trinitarian and incarnational aesthetic theory (Toward a Christian Aesthetic). The implications of this I have yet to discover (for, if stories are to be thought of as an incarnation, what do they incarnate? Not the author’s mind. I may pick this topic up in another post.), but it seems like a good and reasonable starting point for the discovery of the proper method of analysis.

We answered the second question by saying that stories are explorations (or images?) of relations between things in a temporal context through the medium of language. The definition seemed to hold water and led us to questions about other things, so I’m happy to hold it currently. We also decided that they necessarily reference things outside of themselves (thus making it impossible for them to be strictly self-contained) but that this does not mean that they are characterized by being referential. This latter point was demonstrated by the fact that other things can reference them as well.

Well, so much for that. All this is to say that stories must be read neither as too dependent nor as too independent, may be thought of incarnationally, are to be understood as having relationships as their basic matter, and are to be understood as in relationships to other things. The questions with which I am now left are “how is it that one can think of something ‘incarnationally?'” and “if stories are incarnational, what do they incarnate?”, good starts for what promises to be a lot of mental work.