The extent of human storytelling was something I didn’t fully grasp until quite recently.
In the beginning, when I was a child, stories were something that came in books or something that was told. It had an obvious boundary. It usually had an obvious structure – the classic beginning, middle and end. It always had a point, if not a moral. It could feature anything, real or imaginary and the imaginary ones were the best, the more whimsical the better.
As I grew up and went to school the kinds of stories I read from the library and in class began to change. They became more complex. They more often than not did not have a moral or a purpose so much as a range, like a country to explore. There were so many that their diversity began to divide them up into different kinds of countries, with different expeditionary companions: fantastic, futuristic, historical, action-drama and romance. Then there were those which were dealt with under the label of Literature for their efforts to accurately render some part of the human experience without the use of Story Special Effects. These were valued for their verisimilitude.
The most marked divide was that between fantastic tales and ‘real life’ fiction. It was at this point that I first glimpsed the fact that the divide, apparently so clear, was an illusion. I only pushed at this notion a bit because I felt resentful that the stories I loved were being pushed steadily into the background because they were considered childish. At almost exactly this moment in my grumpy expansion I had a teacher who liked Science Fiction. She had us read Brave New World (Huxley) and Animal Farm (Orwell) just before we got into our exam text of 1984 (Orwell).
These books, although fantastical, were considered Literary. Other books I read at the same time, like Dragonflight (McCaffrey) were not. We spent a long time considering the world and story of 1984. The only difference that I could perceive between them was that 1984 (and BNW and AF) was using its fantasti-fu powers to grind a very grim and ugly axe with which to crack the reader’s head repeatedly (You Will See How Horrible And Or Alarming This Is, Damn You), while Dragonflight and the others of its kind did not have such an axe and wandered loosely about making vague statements almost accidentally. I formed the conclusion that Literary SF had to be grisly, brutal and alarmist to be taken seriously. Fantasy fiction had to be Lord Of The Rings, which was only let in the club because it had mythological, literary roots and was a tragedy in parts. Or it had to be written by C S Lewis.
At the same time I had begun to study Classics, purely for the stories. It was comforting to read stories of gripping drama and grisly adventure which had been enjoyed for thousands of years. Here the history of story in all its forms was clear and unburdened by the modern novel and its conceits about the purpose of fiction. Here too were writings about writing, which said, quite clearly, that all of life was a drama. But even then I didn’t appreciate how deep the story went. I could see that people enjoyed creating a big stink about various things in their lives and how they generated the events of tragedy and comedy as a result. At this point it was all still on the outside. People thought things and then they created some story and went about acting it out. Their thoughts weren’t something I saw as fiction. I thought that they came from some real, original source, within the individual. This was the stopping point, where story started and ended, and where reality began.
It was only when I really got into yoga for the second time in my life, aged 48, and began to look inward for long periods of time that I saw how far down the story turtle went. To paraphrase the late, lovely Mr Pratchett. It’s stories all the way down.
So, where is reality? I decided there was no way I was going to die without finding out the truth.
To see it all you have to do is lift off every story you have. When every story is gone what you are left with is the real. Here you are –