Why tell stories?
Storytellers have never been mere entertainers. Once they were revered as the wisest teachers because their memories were the whole clan’s library. Cave stories about predatory creatures kept us on our toes. As thought and language evolved into the abstract, stories were used to make sense of the world. Thunder made for particularly lively mythology, from gigantic Native American birds to hammer-wielding Hemsworths. Myth helped us to coordinate as groups with identities, loyalties, and moral codes. Over ages, stories turned humanity into the world’s most powerful species. Knowledge could now be passed on and built on over generations and across the globe.
In embryonic societies, people could just about be held together by kinship and neighbourly bonds, but as societies started to grow we needed stories to remind us why we should fear some strangers less than others. The Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus contain the founding myth for the community of Israel, arguably history’s most powerful ever. Amid tales of cunning snakes and giants stalking the land are stories of a chosen people journeying through exile to a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’. The Torah’s diaspora stories have enabled a remarkably unitary identity for a community that has been diffused for centuries. Today, Zionism argues that the land of Israel is finally being restored to the Jewish people, staking a territorial claim so ancient it is unprecedented in history, and predictably, a total mess.
This kind of ‘imagined community’ underpins British citizenship so clearly that it can be distilled into a multiple choice exam. You might have to know when Windsor Castle was built, when St. George’s Day is celebrated, or which classical music concert takes place in the summer. See if you’re British enough at https://lifeintheuktests.co.uk/life-in-the-uk-test/. Passmark 18, otherwise just deport yourself.
Identity isn’t enough for order, we need stories to instill a fear of the law. Tales of interventionist gods and righteous afterlives have enabled us to coordinate in larger and more complex groups than any species ever. Modern ‘secular’ fantasies now keep us in check, innate human rights like ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’, capitalist and communist ideologies that guide idiosyncratic lawmaking. Even to grown-ups, a story with no moral leaves that funny, unsatisfied sensation of a Woody Allen. Christened ‘Mathilda’, I was eternally teased— I must not tell the dreadful lies of Belloc’s most mischievous child, else one day when I bellow ‘FIRE’ I’ll just be met by ‘shush, you liar’, and join the boy who dared cry wolf (and that funny-moustached man Adolf), as just another naughty child, who died and is by all reviled. Oh, the twisted obituary of kids that didn’t toe the line.
The other magic ingredient to order: hierarchy. People who believe weapons are the key to power are sorely mistaken. Stories are. Stories of divine rule to immortalise monarchs; stories of glorious conquests to sugarcoat massacres; stories of male strength to inculcate female insecurity. Female virginity, believe it or not, is one of the most elaborate stories of all. It tells of this mystical creature called ‘woman’, made with a built-in virginity detector (the “hymen), a sort of freshness-seal that ‘pops’ after first use as a warning to latecomers that she’s past her best-before date. This is why first-time sex is therefore ‘supposed to hurt’ woman. Yet the mythicised hymen is so much more interesting than the real-life hymen, which doesn’t necessarily break during sex (many sexually active women have intact hymens), or might break from something completely unrelated to sex. As a physical state, virginity doesn’t exist. But the myth is so widely loved that popular crime series like CSI adopt sophisticated plot-twists like, ‘but she can’t have been raped, she has an intact hymen!’, and in some parts of the world you must show government officials that your hymen is intact if you want access to jobs or to ever make rape accusations.
The greatest story of all
As a once-very-keen history student I promise you something: all history ever is is a bunch of conflicting stories. Historians are more like editors, compiling overly nuanced chapters into tidy, digestible narratives. They look for patterns to make sense of the world, and isolate lessons we can pretend to learn from.
The biggest library in the world is the library of lost truth. It contains the story of how America was discovered lifetimes before Columbus (who basically did nothing but bounce around the Caribbean slaughtering people and then die thinking he’d made it to India). Over the next 100 years, half of the world’s languages will be added to its shelves.
A much smaller library is the archive of known history, a fascinating compilation of fictions. The Emperor Augustus published Virgil’s Aeneid, even though Virgil, on his deathbed, asked his friends to burn it. Why? He wanted a poem to challenge Greece’s Odyssey and Iliad, to give Rome a say in history too. That’s how history works. Greece and Rome wrote down the most epic stories, so their histories dominate our imaginations and curricula.
But where does that leave the stories of people who never learned to write? The poor, the women, denied education? Or what about the cultures that simply didn’t value literacy? That told their stories orally, around fires at clan gatherings? Stories told in languages that were violently erased, taking entire cognitive universes with them that conquerors would never have the privilege of knowing. Their achievements were plagiarised in a foreign telling of history that was forced into their own schools.
This is why Revisionist History (a brilliant podcast), is my first recommendation. Sidenote— to recommend “revisionist history” will be laughable to history students who are told everything they learn these days is revisionist. In my experience (I was at Cambridge), the progress our universities claim to pioneer is basically mostly bullshit in my experience. Everything from course guides to student demographic is blatantly unequal for institutions that talk a lot about pioneering change. For my undergrad, I spent two compulsory terms on the British 18th century, an excruciating length of time for a topic that didn’t require any preliminary cultural research, since I’d grown up there and everything. I was finally allowed one eight-week term on ‘World History’. I did centuries of China in a week, the colonisation of America in another; then the colonisation of India, then how colonisation interacted with Islam, then how the Byzantine Empire fell to the West… you get the picture.
If you’re a student, decolonise your own curriculum by reading papers and novels from unsolicited authors, because your reading list is probably not sufficiently varied no matter the tokenising that’s occurred. Refer directly to revisionist societies (like this academic blog: https://decolonization.wordpress.com/about/).
For casual readers, diversify! Here’s the challenge: the next 3 books you read must be written by someone of a totally different background and worldview to you. Same goes for your comics / movies / records— whatever your downtime hobby.
We all know that every story has a thousand versions. Pledges to ‘objectivity’ are frankly ridiculous (a controversial view I state as fact) because nobody has ever experienced anything in any way other than subjectively. Our worldview is shaped by what we’re exposed to, and that shouldn’t be a controversial claim. It’s true for historians, it’s true for news reporters.