What would it mean to live in a world without stories? | Daily News

What would it mean to live in a world without stories?

The great 19th-century French modern realist novelist Gustave Flaubert once wrote to the Russian author Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev: “I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.” The world around the ivory tower has since grown. It is now the globalized world of the 21st century and its realities beat rapidly at all walls. Storms hit in every direction. Stories have a problem. Writers are not keeping up with what is happening in the world to help us understand what in hell is going on, but one of the major threats for writers and thinkers whose ideas and work disregard the barriers is censorship of the truth. The British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie once explained: “Good writing assumes a frontierless nation. Writers who serve frontiers have become border guards.”

Amitav Ghosh, another award-winning Indian writer of novels such as The Hungry Tide, in his latest book titled The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable examines the reasons why catastrophic events are not more readily seen in literature, and why writers find it hard to move from the backdrop of normal reality in the familiar world of the individual. Ghosh claims that writers do not know how to, or cannot change, or believe it is too difficult to try to change other people’s worldview. I know my novel The Swan Book, which was about climate change, was marketed in the US as a science fiction book, which it most certainly was not. Amitav Ghosh believes that the climate crisis is a crisis of culture and of losing our roots in the environment, and thus a crisis of the imagination. He hopes that out of this struggle “will be born a generation that will be able to look upon the world with clearer eyes . . . that they will rediscover their kinship with other beings, and that this vision, at once new and ancient, will find expression in a transformed and renewed art in literature.”

Breaking boundaries

The question for the writer of stories is how to fight your way through imposed boundaries of indifference, ignorance, or political interests, and to perhaps learn how to do this by not getting directly into the ring and wrestling the pig “because a. it is only going to get dirty, and b. you will get dirty as well.” This old cliché was how Bill Whalen, a seasoned analyst of US elections from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, explained how to fight Donald Trump’s method of relentlessly making the US mid-term elections all about him. The advice Whalen gave was not to take the bait, but to play the game differently, and the way to do this was by dealing with issues affecting people, and by telling the story another way.

While thinking about this huge subject of silencing, the muting of voices, and bullying tactics used to oppress, humiliate, manipulate, create fear and exclude, I thought about how to tell this story about censorship in another way—by visualizing an extreme situation where the world was stopped from telling stories. Let’s say we lived in a story-less world where our rich literary traditions no longer existed, and have been excised from memory. What if we become censored from enjoying the simple pleasure of reading any book? Or from hearing an amazing story told that made us laugh, or stories that have continued to bring a smile or chuckle when we remember the story or storyteller? Although I present this scenario as an imagined situation, it is close to the reality in which Aboriginal people have lived for the past two centuries, and I will come back to this later.

Fight for words

What would perish if we could no longer tell stories? The word? The world? I wonder if we are already controlled by our own inertia in a censored world of our own making. Are we fast reaching the point of not realizing how we are being censored from speaking out, or banned from telling the truth, or through our fear of the consequences of creating waves, of bringing unwanted attention, surveillance and criticism to ourselves? The storytellers who cross boundaries will soon learn in almost vigilante fashion to guard their work from being tampered with or altering its meaning (in the process of publication where decisions are more often than not made to suit market interest). We learn how to preserve the integrity of our work by becoming more skillful as writers, negotiators, fighters for words, fighters for truth. Dr. Sanaz Fotouhi, a scholar from Monash University, writes about the commodification of censorship in Iranian writing in English, and explains how the popularity of Iranian narratives in the West, framed in a way that appeals to a buying market through an emphasis on censorships and oppressions, could in some ways be seen as somewhat beneficial. But, this pattern which might get books flying off the shelves because readers pick them up to learn about the oppression and censorship that is going on in Iran, is riddled with all kinds of socio-political and ideological problems, that is inherently repeating a vicious cycle of oppression in a new framework.

Let’s say Fahrenheit 451 has been achieved. Let’s imagine we have reached the stage where all books are believed to be so treacherous to humanity because of the slightest possibility of dangerous ideas being contained in them—such as climate change and global warming scientific research, or too much compassion for others, and the possibility, as Toni Morrison says, “of sharpening the moral imagination.” Governments might say—but not to you or me—that a free mind not tied to government must be, and therefore is, completely dangerous and should be feared by the general population, because free minds cause madness for governments.

In this scenario, of imagining a world without books, [the] wonderful State Library of Victoria, a national treasure, is doomed to become a tomb. It will be a forbidden place of abandoned books through the damp winters of time, where spiders scramble over the pages of fallen books coated in mildew and scurry through the great cobwebbed world gleaming under shafts of light that shine through the grime-covered glass of the Dome Reading Room. The book I had left open on page 50 and 51 long ago—say it was Don Quixote—is unreadable under a forest of strange black fungus that grew on top of an apple I had left to hold down the pages. This place is a darkened ghost library now, kept under tight security around the clock. There are strict controls about who can go inside this building to fight their way through the webs of censorship about what must never be removed from its shelves and who is permitted to read a book from here. You will have to jump through many hoops to get permission to even read a page of any book, or to write, even if you are only writing in a bureaucratic formula that is rigorously controlled and policed by the government, or by some world authority controlling what will be written by rules it places on how to think and what to see.

If the stories that live in all of us were accused of being too reckless for the nation, too dangerous for the country’s ears with assimilatory ideals, or of threatening a narrow view of the world, what would we do? I hope that we would cultivate our memory by continually whispering stories in our mind as Aboriginal people continually do, and that we would be brave, just as our people took great risks to keep the spiritual law stories strong in secret gatherings held in the middle of the night outside missions and reserves where they had been institutionalized under state laws, and were punished for practicing Aboriginal law.

- Lit Hub



Add new comment