With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, when it comes to story, the medium is not the message. Yet the medium certainly affects reception of the message. As I’ve written earlier in this blog, storytelling began even before we had language. Back in our species days in caves, whether it was the events of the day’s hunt, or what was to be discovered beyond the distant mountain, I’m quite certain our ancestors told stories to one another with grunt and gesture.
Once we began to label things with actual words, oral language developed rapidly and disparately, into many languages. The medium was as dynamic as it’s ever been. It was immediate, face-to-face, and personal. Stories became ways in which we could explain things, like how we got here, or why life was so arbitrary, or what the bleep that big bright orb was which sometimes rose in the night sky and sometimes didn’t. Or stories became a way in which we could scare our children away from wandering into the forest alone and getting either lost or eaten.
Then, somewhere back about 48 centuries, in Egypt, it occurred to some bright soul that words could be represented by symbols. Hieroglyphics—the first alphabet—appeared. The art of communication has never been the same. The great oral tradition of storytelling began to wane, superseded by written language, a medium that is both more rigid and exclusive. To learn to read and understand, as opposed to listen and understand, was more arduous, difficult enough that it had to be taught, and then not until a child was old enough to grasp the meaning and system behind written words.
It was not until about 1000 BC that the Phoenicians developed a more phonetic alphabet, which in turn became the basis for the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic alphabets, and thus the alphabet I use to type this word. The Phoenician alphabet was wildly successful, spreading quickly into Africa and Europe, in part because the Phoenicians were so adept at sailing and trading all around the Mediterranean Sea. More importantly though, it was successful because it was much more easily learned, and it could be adapted to different languages.
We are talking a revolutionary change here. Prior to this time, written language was, to echo Steven Fischer in A History of Writing, an instrument of power used by the ruling class to control access to information. The larger population had been, for some 38 centuries—and to employ a modern term—illiterate, and thus royalty and the priesthood had been able to communicate secretively and exclusively among themselves, to their great advantage. It’s not hard to imagine how the common folk back then must have at times regarded written language as nearly magical, as comprised of mysterious symbols imbued with supernatural powers.
We are arriving at the nub of it now, aren’t we? Every medium of communication, whether it be used for telling stories or not, brings people together, but some media do it better than others. Stories build communities, and this is a point not lost on writers of language as divergent as Joseph Conrad and Rebecca Solnit. In his luminous Preface to The Nigger of Narcissus, published in 1897, Conrad writes that the novelist speaks to “the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts.” For a story to succeed, we must identify with the characters in it, and Solnit writes in 2013, in The Faraway Nearby, that we mean by identification that “I extend solidarity to you, and who and what you identify with builds your own identity.”
Stories are powerful vehicles, with profound potential benefits for humanity. But they can also bring evil. As Solnit has also written, stories can be used “to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live.” The Nazis had a story to tell, all about why life was difficult, and who was to blame, and how we might make life better.
The content of the story matters; the intent of the storyteller matters. And the medium by which the story is told has its effect. As storytelling media have evolved through time, the story is received differently, by different people. Sometimes that’s a good thing; sometimes it isn’t.
To be continued…