Sunday, November 2, 2008

What's the Story?

...even in the most austere scholarly report from the archives, the inventive faculty—selecting, pruning, editing, commenting, interpreting, delivering judgements—is in full play. This is not a naïvely relativist position that insists tht the lived past is nothing more than an artificially designed text...But it does accept the rather banal axiom that claims for historical knowledge must always be fatally circumscribed by the character and prejudices of the author.

- Simon Schama, Dead Certainties

I attended a wedding a few weekends ago. It was a beautiful wedding held far back in a Waiahole Valley on the windward side of Hawaii. There is much I might choose to say about the wedding, about the estate on which it was held, about the ceremony itself, about the excellent Hawaiian food that was served under a tent after the ceremony, and about the cast of characters, which included many of my colleagues at school and several former students. But in line with today’s theme, which will be dealt with more explicitly a little further down the line, I’m going to screen out most of that and focus on one small thing I noticed during the after-dinner speeches, which was that several of the members of the wedding party alluded to stories which could be told but which, given the celebratory nature of the occasion, would remain untold.

Perhaps the reason my ears pricked up when I heard that is that I had spent a number of hours over the previous week or so reading a book called Three Cups of Tea, which tells true story of Greg Mortenson, an American mountain climber who, having gotten lost on his descent after a failed attempt at the mountain known as K2, stumbles into a remote village in Pakistan, comes to love the people there, discovers that they have no school, and determines to build them one. Against incredible odds, he succeeds, and goes on to become director of an institute responsible for building schools in villages all over Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is able to succeed even though he is, to the reigning muslim authorities, an outsider and an infidel. It’s an inspirational story, very well stitched together by Mortenson’s co-author, David Oliver Relin, from conversations he had with Mortenson and from subsequent visits to the area and interviews he conducted with the many characters who figure in the story. I was about halfway through the book before it occurred to me that Relin’s depiction of Mortenson’s life and thoughts and mission was so completely and unambigously worshipful that it began to raise seeds of doubt in my mind. I couldn’t help wondering if this guy had any flaws at all, and if so, when they might ever appear. I began flipping toward the back of the book, and noticed that the last few pages include lots of information about how readers can support Mortenson’s efforts to “dedicate the next decade to achieve universal literacy and education for all children, especially for girls.” There is even a list of nine recommendations for what to do in the event that the book “inspires you to do more,” starting with visiting their web site and ending with the injunction to “Please direct media or Three Cups of Tea inquiries to or call 406-585-7841.”

Now I certainly think Mortensen’s work is admirable, and, if he is even half the man he is portrayed to be in the book, eminently deserving of knighthood, sainthood, legendhood, or whatever sort of hood one might imagine. It’s just that I can’t help having two suspicions: first, that we’re not getting the whole story, and second, that the story we are getting has been shaped with a particular purpose in mind, which is to generate support, moral and financial, for Mortenson’s mission. By midway through the book I began to feel, to some degree, manipulated, not to say milked. And at that point my enthusiasm for the book began to fade. The bookmark is still sitting there, right where I put the book down two weeks ago, on page 211, and I’m not sure when, if ever, I’m going to go back and read the last 120 heartwarming pages.

Surely it’s true enough that there is no pure story, not Mortenson’s story, not my story, and, and Simon Shama argues above, not history. The stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives we bequeath to our children, are I suppose inevitably riddled with significant omissions (some intentional, some inadvertent or perhaps conveniently forgotten) and with embellishments and elaborations that are not exactly lies but what Mark Twain liked to call “stretchers.” Even Hemingway, whose stated writing ethic was to “write one true sentence,” and then another, and then another, was known to indulge in creative mythologizing, shaping his own life story to his own ends. But I do feel more comfortable, I guess, if the story I'm being told has either the appearance of objectivity, or is acknowledged up front as being a work of fiction pure and simple.

Of course, as soon as I make either of these two assertions, I find myself standing at the edge of the kind of conundrum that David Foster Wallace was so adept at articulating. The first one would go something like, if all stories are in essence subjectively rendered versions of events, "circumscribed by the character and prejudices of the author," aren't the ones that present themselves under the aspect of objectivity even more deceptive and morally objectionable than the ones that make their biases explicit? The second one would go something like, "Is it even possible to create a work of fiction, "pure and simple"? Aren't all stories based to a greater or lesser degree (and often to an extreme degree) on lived experience?" In the telling of stories, what is legitimate and what is not? It's a question with very real pragmatic consequences, as James Frey, among many others, has discovered.

Then there's a different kind of perhaps more benevolent manipulation, which is to use story as a vehicle for the delivery of content in the classroom. Two years ago I heard Brian Greene give one of the keynote addresses at NAIS, in which he made the argument that the most effective way of delivering any content in the classroom was to link it to a narrative. In his lecture he illustrated his point by framing a discussion of string theory as the story of an attempt to mediate an argument between Newtonian physicists, whose theories seem to work well at the level of ordinary human experience on planet earth; and Einsteinian physicists, whose theories seem to do a better job of explaining what’s happening when we consider the universe as a whole. As a person who managed to graduate from college having taken only one science course and no math courses at all, I was perhaps Greene’s ideal listener, and the fact that two years later the gist of his argument remains clear in my mind, when so many other lectures and presentations have fallen out of my head, remains for me a convincing demonstration of the educative power of an artfully constructed story.

And of course, the presidential campaign has been in large part an attempt on both sides to create a credible story that resonates with voters, and to argue with or try to discredit the stories told by the opposition. How that story ends is about to be demonstrated, at long last, on Tuesday.


Carsten said...

I think you should read it to the end. Greg Mortensons 'story' presents the other side of the coin, compared to the side we are constantly fed. As it turns out this side has such a brilliance that the reader is caught by surprise and awe: he demonstrates, even proves in practice, that crossreligious respect and understanding is actually possible, and that education is the key.

As for Gregs personal virtues: I believe one of the strengths of the book is the disclosure of Gregs weaks points, which is what makes him human. Maybe this is more evident after page 211

Bruce Schauble said...

Okay. That's encouraging. I'll pick it up again this week and see what happens. Thanks.

- B