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The Purpose of Storytelling - The Evolution of a Viewpoint

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The purpose of storytelling - The evolution of a viewpoint


            This class would not have been quite the same had there not been opposing forces of religion and evolution, religion and science and between all stories in general. It has centered on these opposing stories. Would there be evolution of stores if there was not conflict and leading to great discussion? It might not be important that we believe one story or discredit the other, but rather that we see the importance of all the variations in stories being told. It seems without variation and selection, there would be no evolution. Therefore, the telling of stories not only build communities and fosters the unity of people, it also causes divides between them. However negative or positive we see these divides, they are that which allows us to step back and look at issues being raised and whether a particular story stand up strong to questionings. In fact, the ability of the stories we construct to answer the questions of life can change over time.

With the interplay of other stories comes modification and challenges to others. Might some interpret the bible differently now than several hundred years before the advances in science we have made since? The stories of science have been created from evidence we collect to explain the world around us, and many open their minds to both the stories of science and religion. Is science comparable to religion? I’d definitely say it's fair to call science a story. Take chemistry, for example. Scientists, over the course of years, have come up with a generally accepted way of drawing little dots, letters, and lines on a piece of paper in order to explain something we cannot (and may never be able to) actually see. The explanation of the interactions of molecules is comparable to the explanation of history, for which we only have evidence in the form relics. Religion is an example and gives an explanation as to where we come from.

Though, science does seem more authoritative. Whereas individual variations in one's interpretation of the bible is (at least in the U.S.) supposed to be respected (even though it sometimes is not), it is expected that in chemistry all students are taught in a very standardized way and all have the same understanding of how molecules operate. Because, the whole point of this understanding is prediction. If one understands the different flavors of reactions and interactions of molecules, she can apply general themes to specific scenarios on paper. Learning the rules is synonymous with a game of chess - it takes a short time to learn how to play, it takes a lifetime to master the game.

Though, a lifetime from now, chemistry will look notably different from how it looks today. This is what makes it similar to all stories, its ability to change. I will dare to say that all stories probably change over time, to some degree. But what about novels? They’re usually written once, then that's the end of it, right? (Ok, excluding Whitman’s years of revisions). Well, consider this: a story might take on a slightly different meaning for me today than it did when it was written one hundred years ago. Along with the evolution of culture comes the evolution or extinction of our interpretations of stories. The bible has remained mostly the same for quite a while now. What we draw from that story emerges with great variation and complexity. This is particularly so when we try to analyze a modern-day scenario through the lens of the bible. Look at the issue of abortion, for example. There is great disagreement as to whether abortion is morally right according to god and the bible. Many say the bible forbids it. Nowhere in the text is abortion mentioned specifically that I am aware of, I don't think they had abortion when Jesus was around. Rather, it is under interpretation that issues such as this can be debated.

            The bible is a cannon, and the interpretations of the text have both evolved and diverged. But what makes any literary canon have the qualities to be defined as such? Well, we know that one aspect of the bible is that it can be viewed through the lens of today's modern world. Its themes are still applicable over a span of many centuries. Is timelessness what defines a canon? Maybe it's the ability of a piece to get to the heart of human feeling and emotion and touch upon those internal aspects of which we are not consciously aware. A text which we can use as a model of some sort might be in this definition. Whitman's Leaves of Grass has turned into something of a household name. Why was a book that was first published 154 years ago (Neary) still read in English classes throughout the country and the world?

According to Ed Folsom, professor of English at the University of Iowa, Whitman can be viewed as trying to create the voice of “what democracy was going to sound like.” Folsom, in an NPR interview further mentions that “[Whitman] began to see democracy as photography. Anything that the sun would shine on would create an impression. He was trying to absorb and contain every aspect of America’s and the world’s diversity (Neary).” Whitman avoided discrimination and the negative connotation that can sometimes come with it, depending upon how it’s used. He saw the voice of the future democracy as being one “which would not discriminate (Neary).” Another intriguing aspect of Whitman was that he spoke of death as something to be celebrated – as a continuation of the life cycle (Neary). We don’t just listen to Whitman’s work because it sounds nice. We listen to what he is saying and what it meant in the context of the time it was written. Furthermore, we listen to his words because they continue to reverberate 154 years later. Whitman ultimately did not see the height of his work’s popularity. The legacy of his poem will continue on as the voice of an American.

            Take a look at an excerpt from Whitman side-by-side with a song released April of 1990. The Highwaymen were the four country music legends Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. In the song ‘American Remains’ the group sings of the resiliency and hardened determination of all those types of peoples who call themselves American. As each vocalist takes on a different American within the song, there is an air of pride and a determination to “ride again.” It is a similar sort of pride Whitman speaks of – a pride for the unifying characteristics of those from all corners of the country. We see here that there is a theme of the American Voice – a voice that takes many forms. This voice is the underlying focus and something which, I believe, made Whitman’s great work a canon, his ability to touch upon a theme that runs deep in American culture – that of taking pride in diversity and pride in our perseverance.

            The importance of stories being able to withstand time stands side-by-side with the importance of their ability to mould to the context of the time. The story of what it means to be an American, as portrayed by these two pieces, has certain undertones that remain, but specifics which have changed as America itself has changed. Different sorts of people contribute to diversity, but Freedom still remains held in high regard.

            So, it is also the endurance of stories which contribute to both community-building (“American” as a unifying factor) and their ability to be acknowledged enough by the general population to be influenced by and grow from it.




American Remains

I am a shotgun rider for the San Jacinto line,

The desert is my brother, my skin is cracked and dry.

I was riding on a folk coach and everything was fine,

'Til we took a shorter road to save some time.

The bandits only fired once, they shot me in the chest.

They may have wounded me but they'll never get the best,

Of better men:

'Cos I'll ride again.

I am a river gambler, I make a livin' dealin' cards.

My clothes are smooth and honest, my heart is cold and hard.

I was shufflin' for some delta boys on a boat for New Orleans,

I was the greatest shark they'd ever seen.

But the Captain bumped a sandbar, and an ace fell from my sleeve.

They threw me overboard as I swore I didn't cheat,

But I could swim:

And I'll ride again.

We are heroes of the homeland, American remains.

We live in many faces and answer many names.

We will not be forgotten, we won't be left behind.

Our memories live on in mortal minds.

And poets pens:

We'll ride again.

I am a mid-west farmer, I make a livin' off the land,

I ride a John Deere tractor, I'm a liberated man.

But the rain it hasn't fallen, since the middle of July,

And if it don't come soon my crops will die.

The bank man says he likes me, but there's nothin' he can do.

He tells me that he's comin' but the clouds are comin' too.

He ain't my friend:

And I'll ride again.

I am an American Indian, my tribe is Cherokee.

My forefathers loved this land they left it here for me.

But the white man came with boats and trains and dirty factories,

An' poisened my existence with his deeds.

Nature is our mother, we are sucklings at her breast.

And he who trys to beat her down will lose her to the rest.

They'll never win;

I'll ride again.

We are heroes of the homeland, American remains.

We live in many faces and answer many names.

We will not be forgotten, we won't be left behind.

Our memories live on in mortal minds.

And poets pens:

We'll ride again.

(The Highwaymen - American Remains Lyrics)







Leaves of Grass



I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,

Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,

Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,

Stuff'd with the stuff that is coarse and stuff'd with the stuff

that is fine,

One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the

largest the same,

A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and

hospitable down by the Oconee I live,

A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest

joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,

A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin

leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,

A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye;

At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen

off Newfoundland,

At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking,

At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the

Texan ranch,

Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving

their big proportions,)

Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands

and welcome to drink and meat,

A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,

A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,

Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,

A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,

Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,

Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,

And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,

The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place,

The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place. (Whitman)


            Storytelling can both build community and provide a gateway for the progression of stories. Not only can culture be supported by a shared understanding, but more importantly, discontinuities can bring about change. Why do we look back at old stories, like that of Darwinian evolution? It has more recently been added to and tweaked with new scientific advances (like the discovery of the gene as a unit of inheritance). Well, it might be that we tell old stories to appreciate the new. Take, for example, the stories created by the father of psychoanalysis - Sigmund Freud. Many of his writings on the functioning of the mind are outdated from the perspective of a modern-day psychoanalyst. His theories have been revised by Neo-Freudians. Although we don't learn Freud's approaches as being commonplace in the reasoning processes of a psychologist, we do learn that his work was groundbreaking and paved the way for later development in psychoanalytic theory. He advocated techniques like free association that are still around today. Repression of thoughts and the concept of the unconscious are terms we use in modern times.

            So it is the usefulness of stories to not only bring us together as a cultural unit, but also to separate us. Unfortunately these separations yield some of the most terrible rifts involving violence and warfare. This is the downside of division. Stories have been strengthened and deteriorated by the sword. Though, cultural, historical, and power struggles are often underlying factors in a dispute given the name "religious war." Having said this, some of the most widely recognized wars involving disagreement over religion include the radical Muslim jihad, the Crusades, or the Reconquista. Religion has also been cited to justify war. Saint Augustine described a "just" war in Christianity, or one which was justifiable for religious purposes (Religion and Ethics). There should be a distinction between the conflict of war and the conflict of constructive discussion.

            I found it particularly interesting when Professor Grobstein noted the way in which Daniel C. Dennett was useful. The author sparks interest and questioning on the part of the reader. Even if one doesn't totally agree with what Dennett is saying, he can have an internal debate and raise new questions of his own. This is what makes new stories so useful, particularly Dennett's. His story about Darwin's theory of Evolution is far-reaching and profound. Many may disagree with him, but his claims can help us formulate questions in order to reach our own conclusions.

            People can have internal conflicts between the story being told around them and their opposition to this story. A novel by Hermann Hess describes the growth of a young character struggling emotionally as he drifts away from Christianity. What makes the fictional character so interesting is the emotional roller coaster he experiences in the course of battling himself, his concept of right and wrong, and his acceptance of the story told to him.
            The novel is known as a bildungsroman. It portrays the evolution of a character (Sinclair) in the transition from boy to adult. This retrospective novel shows the importance between the conflict of good and evil through the eyes of a boy whose world-view is shaped by his experiences. One of the central experiences in this novel is his interaction with the mature and clever Damian. Damian gives Sinclair a reinterpretation of the bible story of Cain and Abel. He suggests later on that the God of Christianity represents goodness and that in the world itself there is both good and bad. Therefore, believing in the god found in the Bible is inadequate; we must value the world as it is – one that contains both light and darkness, good and bad. Although Sinclair seems, at times, to be living in his own world of fantasy and isn’t completely in touch with reality, his journey is intriguing and some of what we learn about him is enlightening. Years after his first encounter with Damian, Sinclair finds a note from him which mentions Abraxis, an ancient god who represented both god and the devil. In the evolution of Sinclair’s lost character, we see highs and lows of emotion as well as a sort of obsession with the figure of Demian. It’s almost as if Sinclair worships him. But in the end, Sinclair is freed from what seems to be a psychological dependence upon Demaian, and later on, Demian’s mother Freu Eva. It is the climax to an intriguing journey through several years of psychological growth and hardship. Sinclair ultimately becomes independent of Demian when Demian tells Sinclair there is a Damian within him. Now, Sinclair is no longer dependent and has gained strength to face the challenges of life on his own. The psychological underpinnings of this story are part of what makes it so intriguing. The main character has internal battles he must face – one of the greatest being with the rejection of Christianity and the notion of not being guided by the concept of good and evil (Hesse).
            Finding oneself seems to be part of sorting out what one believes from what one does not or is not sure about. It seems that figuring this out gives us the strength to make decisions in life and find answers more independently. And, just as evolution of a story can occur on a larger scale with the masses, it too can be found within the individual. Internal conflict over the acceptance of a given story can account for many a distressed person in the history of storytelling within the community. Thus, storytelling as a means of community building may have adverse effects for the individual who is not comfortable buying into the accepted beliefs of those around her. But, conflict can ultimately lead to evolution of the individual, as portrayed in Hess' novel. Just as storytelling can have the purpose of generating new stories from old, it too can have the benefit of inspiring one to seek the most internal and self-defining aspects of herself- that which she believes.

            Another theme we can take away from this novel is the necessity of opposing forces. Light opposing darkness, good opposing bad, Christianity opposing the disbeliever. These are all conflicts that promote change, not only within Sinclair and not only within you or me, but also within the masses of mankind. If we look closely, we can also realize that conflict can also lead to resolution and understanding.

            If storytelling had solely the purpose of community building, its ability to promote discussion and change over time would be stifled. How boring would it be if we all told the same stories? This class has been evidence to the fact that we do not. It is also evidence to the fact that we can discuss our stories with respect and acceptance towards multiple versions and multiple areas of storytelling. The story of evolution has served as a model for how we can look at other stories told to us. Although focusing on evolution has been the main theory under discussion, we can apply the practice of analyzing to other stories as well, just as we can apply the general themes of a particular sort of chemical reaction to specific cases. Just as my perception of a story's utility has evolved from paper one to paper four, so too can my perceptions of the conclusions we can draw from the evidence around us. There are many ways of looking at and perceiving the world - as exemplified by Professor Grobstein's discussion of optical illusions. The image I recognize now might be a revision of the one I previously perceived. The human mind has the capability of recognizing that, although not seen simultaneously, the two different and distinct perceptions are neither contradictory nor falsifiable. Neither one is "wrong" and yet both exist. Looking at the grander scheme of things, one might realize that we cannot only find unity in telling the same story, but community and utility in telling differing ones. I think this is one implicit observation that can be made from Eng 223.


















"Religion and Ethics - Ethical Issues." BBC. BBC World News. 13 May 2009


Neary, Lynn. "Celebrating Walt Whitman and 'Leaves of Grass'." Poetry. 04 Jul 2005. NPR.

Podcast.14 May 2009.>.

Highwaymen, "The Highwaymen - American Remains Lyrics." LetsSingIt. 15 May 2009>.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The Origional 1855 Adition. 1. Dover Publications, 2007.          Print.

Hesse, Hermann. Demian. Courier Dover Publications, 2000. Print.