Archive for the ‘John Steinbeck’ Category

Things I believe are the same as or different than things you believe. Even so, even so! —Some notes on so-called Christian art.

In Anxiety, Awesome Your Life, Carolyn Elliott, Christian Art, Christianity, Constantine, David Hume, Disney Movies, Epistle to Diognetus, Friedrich Nietzsche, Genesis, Homer, Immanuel Kant, Jesus, John Milton, John Steinbeck, Jonah, Leo Tolstoy, Making a Mistake, Michelangelo, Moses, Myth, Plato, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rene Descartes, Rumi, Saint Aquinas, Sigmund Freud, Socrates, Soren Kierkegaard, Story, T.S. Eliot, Tertullian, The Way, Walt Whitman, What can Christian art do better?, William Blake, William Faulkner on 22 June 2012 at 7:20 PM

Recently, a journalist asked me to respond to the following question: What can “Christian Art” (i.e., art marketed by Christians for Christians) do better? But my ideas were snipped from the article. Therefore: I thank you, Technology, and I thank you, Democratization of Ideas via the Internet: my full response is below.

The question itself—What can “Christian art” (i.e., art marketed by Christians for Christians) do better?—assumes at least two things I do not like to assume: one, that art belongs to markets, and two, that we uphold as a thing-to-be-bettering this category of art called “Christian art.”

I’d like to make it clear, then, that while I believe the above question comes from a good, sincere, loving and lovely place, from true intentions, the truest kind, that it comes also from the honest human search for good and beautiful things—still, it misunderstands quite a lot, too.

I want to speak into what I perceive as those misunderstandings.

In a very old Christian document, the Epistle to Diognetus, there is a description of Christians from the very earliest days of Christianity, a beautiful description of the Way of Christianity—which lays down how different Christians were from the rest of the world:

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric life-style. This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious men, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life. By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility.

In a very real sense, then, there are some things that separate “us” from “them.” And I do want to uphold this difference. It is there; it is real.

And to some degree we can expect artists who identify themselves as Christians to create art in a Way different from their non-Christian colleagues. Still, if Christianity is true, then Christianity is Truth, is the Way of the world, is—beneath the name “Christianity” which might make it seem like just one way among many ways—a true description of God’s creation and His actions within human history.

What Christians are devoted to, then, is not a set of creeds, not theology, but something much bigger, much deeper, much richer: we are devoted, above all, to Truth; to abiding in the mysteries before us in our journeys; to the world as God made it; to the Way the world goes; to seeking out all that is good and true and beautiful; and devoted, as we go along the Way, to becoming so good, so true, so beautiful. Christians, then, are not actually devoted to Christianity, but Reality.

Jesus Christ—this life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension—is not merely an excuse for Christians to cultivate a set of peculiar practices and disciplines, not an excuse to gather on Sundays and pray in unison; rather Jesus Christ is the purpose of history, is the focal point of the universe. If Christianity is true, then the laws of physics and mathematics, the laws of thought, art, music, poetry—that is, all real things—are united in Christ. Nothing separates itself from Him. All true things belong to the Way. They only ever speak His name.

Tertullian, many years ago, said something similar:

Though under the oppressive bondage of the body, though led astray by depraving customs, though enervated by lusts and passions, though in slavery to false gods; yet, whenever the soul comes to itself, as out of a sleep, or a sickness, and attains something of its natural soundness, it speaks to God; using no other word, because this is the peculiar name of the true God. “God is great and good.”—“Which may God give,” are the words on every lip. It bears witness, too, that God is judge, exclaiming, “God sees,” and, “I commend myself to God,” and, “God will repay me.” O noble testimony of the soul by nature Christian! Then, too, in using such words as these, it looks not to the Capitol, but to the heavens. It knows that there is the throne of the living God, as from Him and from thence itself came down. (Apology, Chapter 17)

And If Christianity is true, and if the soul is as Tertullian says, “by nature Christian,” then we should create, make, build, express, sing—with Christ at the center. We should seek God’s face in all things, that so in making art—in our reading and writing and philosophy, in our history and rhetoric and theology, in covering the canvas with paint, in putting together notes to form a melody, we aim ourselves at, as Jesus’ first disciples used to call it, the Way, and we belong to it, to Truth, to Goodness, to Beauty—to their unity in one person, who is God.

Still, of course, we are not the only religious folks—or nonreligious folks—who claim to have the In on Truth—and this is a great cause of anxiety for many Christians; it has been for centuries. Many, many evils have been committed because of this anxiety, in Jesus’ name. And this anxiety is responsible for, among many other horrors, the creation of the category of art called “Christian art.”

The history of Christianity since Constantine’s time, as Christians gained more and more power throughout the earth, is one of increasing anxiety—so much so that, in contrast to the description of Christianity in the Epistle to Diognetus, Christianity grew into a system, among other things, of political presumption, one whose presumption was so great that, by the 17th Century in England, it was not a matter of whether Christian ideology should be in power but whose Christian ideology would be in power—an absolute reversal of Christianity’s earliest days, when “Christian” and “power” were—politically, at least—opposites.

England’s 16th and 17th centuries—the centuries of Bloody Mary and Queen Elizabeth, of the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell, and, incidentally, of the height of epic poetry in John Milton’s Paradise Lost—were a kind of climax of Christian political power, during which many questions about Christianity and power were raised, debated, and fought over, and killed for.

I have a rehearsed conversation with my four-year-old son, Jonah, a conversation we’ve practiced since he began watching Disney movies about two years ago—Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, The Lion King, etc.—about their heroes and villains:

“What does Snow White want?” I ask him.

“She wants love.”

“And what does the evil Queen want?”

“She wants power.”

“But what does the Queen really want?”

“Love.”

“What does that mean?”

“She’s making a mistake.”

We, in great part—as Americans; as capitalists; as Protestants who conceive of ourselves as participating in a marketplace of religions and ideas; as ones whose historical era follows that so-called Age of Enlightenment; as ones who compete, compete, compete!—we have inherited many bad questions from that time: questions of whose Christianity was right; questions that increasingly fragmented the Church rather than questions that moved it towards unity; questions of precisely which Christians should be anathematized or executed; questions of whose Christianity should be at the head of the state; questions of whether to abandon one’s home country where one kind of Christianity was the head of the state, in order to sail across the Atlantic Ocean and install another kind of Christianity as the head of the state; and, incidentally, for artists like John Milton, questions of how to use his Christian art to “justify the ways of God to men.”

In demanding so often and so loudly and sometimes so violently to justify the ways of God, we have stirred up great anxiety in ourselves, anxiety of the presumption of power, anxiety of sustaining that power, anxiety that separates rather than unites, anxiety that creates strange categories like “Christian art.”

We practice this anxiety when we agree to make the question about “our” art as opposed to “their” art, when we agree to enter “our” art into the “market,” and when we compete, compete, compete! with other ideologies and philosophies for wall space, airtime, pages in a literary journal. And we begin to exist as though in a parallel universe, in some club, in an other place, rather than generously and peacefully offering our artistic expressions to the world alongside the world’s artists—as Christian physicists work alongside atheist physicists, towards one ultimate truth—no matter one’s creed, in the continued efforts of moving toward all that is true, all that is real, always creating, always becoming, always finding and making beauty, which is how to love as God loves.

I said above:

If Christianity is true, then the laws of physics and mathematics, the laws of thought, art, music, poetry—that is, all real things—are united in Christ. There is no real thing that separates itself from Him; rather all true things belong to the Way, and only ever speak His name.

In one context—the context of Christians with other Christians—these words comfort us. They are the kind of words we speak to one another in Bible studies, after church, in conversations at restaurants, to assure and to be assured that what we believe is true, to remember that the soul is indeed by nature Christian, to remind us of our rich heritage, to show one another that what we hope in has the depth and beauty of something worth hoping in.

But in another context—say, in what many Christians perceive to be the hostile media, in academia, among the believers of other religions, among atheists—we so easily lose our cool. We become agitated. We “stand up for what we believe.” And we forget the deep consolations of what we have told one another in those conversations during Bible study, the comforting reassurances of all the beautiful truths we believe in. And we grow anxious. And our inheritance stirs up within us.

I believe we must remember that no one would speak seriously of “Christian physics” or “Christian mathematics,” or “Christian chemistry.” There is no such thing as “Christian logic.” We speak about physics, mathematics, chemistry, logic, et al.—disciplines united to Christ, as art is united to Christ—without anxiety, and we rightly encourage curiosity, creativity, and exploration, because to call something true is good enough.

So this is a mistake of “Christian art,” and of Christianity in the past few centuries, which is our inheritance: like Snow White’s wicked stepmother, like Simba’s uncle Scar, like Madam Mim and Maleficent: we mistake power for love. We generate anxiety that, by its nature, alienates rather than unifies. By isolating ourselves into categories such as “Christian art,” we refuse to accept peacefully the world as it is. Rather than abide in the inherent vulnerability all artists are exposed to when they create something new, we instead isolate ourselves from the world, anxiously preserving among ourselves what little power we have left. Then, as though to console ourselves, now falsely, we call it “Christian art.”

And we are making a mistake.

Carolyn Elliott, in her brilliant book Awesome Your Life: the Artist’s Antidote to Suffering Genius, gets it right:

The only reason to read or write poetry at all is to be helped on your own trip towards becoming a poet in this strong sense.

A poet is not an insipid person who writes nice verses and gets them published to widespread approval in pretentious magazines among polite professors.

A poet is a soul-maker. She’s a dynamic force that radically changes the movement of thought and imagination within her generation. A real poet is a shaman and a healer, a warrior and a scientist, a philosopher and a living dream. She might write some verses or she might not. The verses might be published or they might not. This has exactly no consequence or bearing for the poet’s actual purpose and mission, which is to bring soul into the world, by whatever means available and necessary.

I realized that the reason I’m completely uninterested in most work produced self-consciously as “art” is that such work tends to configure itself in a manner that aims to be legible within the present system—the mad world. As such, even if it offers to communicate high ideals, it leaves me rather cold, because such ideals are betrayed by the very fact that the work presents itself as a cultural commodity rather than a pure gift.

Too often, this kind of work lacks an essential generosity—it offers itself for the sake of being seen and admired rather than for the sake of giving forth love and power to its receiver.

I reflect, for example, that one of my most favorite poets, Rumi, gave his poems out wildly and freely.

Creative work is most inspiring and most exciting when it offers to freely lead us towards the realization of our best possibilities. I suggest that if you’ve ever felt in any way creatively under-realized or blocked, perhaps the source of your discomfort is that you’ve sought to make something that we will recognize as valuable “art” within our present condition rather than seeking to make or do things that call both you and us to our gift nature, our genius—a state where we are empowered, expanding, free, realized. (Kindle Locations 426-433, 513-523)

And so let us remember what William Faulkner said in his speech at the Nobel banquet, that “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself…alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” And there is what John Steinbeck said in the dedication of his great novel, East of Eden. As the story goes, the dedication is referring to the first finished draft of the novel, which he had placed inside a wooden box, so that its recipient, Pascal Covici—or Pat, as Steinbeck called him—could open the box and read this note, the dedication, on top. The note says,

Dear Pat,
You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, “Why don’t you make something for me?”
I asked you what you wanted, and you said, “A box.”
“What for?”
“To put things in.”
“What things?”
“Whatever you have,” you said.
Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full.

If Christianity is true, and if the soul is by nature Christian, then we are here—as human persons, all—to deepen our understanding of, and our interactions with God, ourselves, and the world; and, as artists, to make our creations in the Way of the world. We are here to find the truths of “the human heart in conflict with itself,” to understand “pain and excitement” and “the pleasure of design and some despair.”

As we make art, as we explore ideas, let us make these, the words of T.S. Eliot, our aesthetic goal and personal goal:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. (Four Quartets)

Artists, all artists, do something very difficult, which is to learn how to engage, confront, wonder at, reflect upon, and thank God for the beauty and glory of existence in its entire—the good stuff and the painful stuff. This takes knowledge of the world, of ourselves, and of God as we—and they—really are.

Our part as artists, readers, critics, theorists, philosophers, conversationalists—seekers, makers, listeners, pray-ers—both personally and aesthetically, is to pay very close attention to the world around us, and to devote ourselves to our inward life; then, as a result of these two working in conjunction, while we bring beautiful stuff into the world (a kind of funnel), we bring also God’s kingdom, we bring goodness, truth, and beauty, we paint His face, we shine His light, in new and surprising ways.

Moreover, let us remember: if the soul is by nature Christian, then “God has set eternity” into the hearts of all people, that they may seek His truths, just as He gave Himself personally to a man from the East, who was Job, this righteous man not of Abraham’s line; just as He sent Jonah to the Assyrians and Daniel to the Babylonians; just as He allowed wise astrologers to elude Herod and find the newborn King; just as He allowed the Roman centurion to proclaim, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” If Christianity is true, then the search for God is available to all who live, and we must accept this generously, and trust God’s movements without anxiety, without entering into the resentments of competition, without primarily giving ourselves over to the market, and seek instead to encounter Him in all places, in all art, in all creation and culture, since God speaks and works not only within those who call themselves “Christian.”

If Christianity is true, and if the soul is by nature Christian, then we—whether theist or atheist, whether Christian or Sufi—in our artistic expressions are aimed at revealing the truths of creation. Great literature, great philosophy, great paintings, great music—these are the result of human acts of creation, of making sense of “pain and excitement,” and, no matter the title of one’s “system,” God keeps at us. God shakes us up. God chases us down.

It is the Way of the world.

Additionally, even though we may not be in “agreement” with some great art, even though we find ourselves in contention with Homer or Aquinas or Descartes or Tolstoy or Nietzsche or Freud, God does not require that we be in agreement, because art, whether beautiful or ugly or good or bad, is nonetheless a part of our growing up in the Way.

Let us remember that art is not itself the Way: art is only ever at best in conversation with the Way.

Art, our best metaphors, our best images, our best rhythms for the Way the world goes, is really a conversation: these metaphors, images, and rhythms create tensions that press on us, press us into uncomfortable and important, press us into gruesome, and, in the end—through honest and open dialectic, through wrestling, through prayer—press us finally into loving circumstances.

The conversations of art, the hundreds and thousands of ways to approach art, the hot debate we get ourselves into, the wonder we experience, the drop of the stomach as we stand before Michelangelo’s David: these are the search for truth, for ourselves, for God, these conversations with the Way, in the Way—because God, because the Way the world goes, these are always here, always moving, always chasing us down—whether or not the art is “Christian”—because we believe the soul is by nature Christian.

So we artists, and we who receive art into our lives, let us open ourselves up to art, to the conversations, to the questions. Let us make friends with those who disagree with us. Let us look for and unite to the goodness in all things. Let us move always along and into the Way, always willing to be in conversation. Then we might be free of our inheritance—free of that anxiety of the ages: if we are open, generous, loving, powerless.

Let us, as Kierkegaard says, seek rather to “rest transparently in the Power that established you,” than, as Milton demanded, to “justify the ways of God to men.”

Without anxiety, but with generosity, let us enter the human experience as God established it, and let us love and hate and admire and pity characters of all great stories; let us simultaneously uphold aspects of Blake and Whitman in one hand while upholding aspects of Descartes, Hume, and Kant in the other; let us love Milton’s rhythms, his worship, while we pity his sexism and his anxiety; let us love Odysseus’s search for home and love Achilles’s final compassion, while we love also Plato’s attempt to usurp the Athens founded on Homer’s poems, that Athens that executed Socrates; let us see and love and hate and admire and pity, finally, the Adam and Eve in every great work, and let us see ourselves truly as we see them: persons we love who make mistakes, in order to love God’s creation while we hate what we’ve done to it. Let us continually be in search of Jesus who rescues His creation, yes, yes, in search of Jesus even as we have already found Him—wherever He is expressed, in any and all paintings and music and storytelling.

Let us study and create according Faulkner’s instruction, Steinbeck’s standard, and Eliot’s exploration: Everything is here—good, bad, shame, wonder, the human heart in conflict with itself, exploring, returning—

“Then” Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “from His place of ambush, God leapt out.”

So this is art as we should begin to see it—this is literature, music, painting, philosophy, history, theology, rhetoric at their best, apart from anxiety, apart from the marketplace: in the end, there is only ever one Conversation, one Goodness, one Beauty, one Truth to surround and uphold all truths—God leaping out.

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Storytelling

In C.S. Lewis, David Foster Wallace, Gabriel García Márquez, Genesis, Homer, James Frey, John Steinbeck, Michael Chabon, Myth, Pitt, Rob Bell, Story, William Faulkner on 23 June 2011 at 9:20 AM

In an interview I came across once, the late David Foster Wallace said,

I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, …imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.

Less than 100 years before, C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone,” which is to say the same thing, only better, more concisely. In his famous Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner said of storytelling, “…the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself…alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” And there is what John Steinbeck said in the dedication portion of his great novel, East of Eden; as the story goes, the dedication refers to the first finished draft of the novel, which he had placed inside a wooden box, so that its recipient, Pascal Covici—or Pat, as Steinbeck called him—could open it and read this note on top. The note says,

Dear Pat,
You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, ‘Why don’t you make something for me?’
I asked you what you wanted, and you said, ‘A box.’
‘What for?’
‘To put things in.’
‘What things?’
‘Whatever you have,’ you said.
Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full.

Later in the book, in chapter 34, Steinbeck breaks out of his role as narrator, and writes an essay about what story is. The beginning and end of it go like this:

A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and the chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?

…In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.

We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.

I know a man, Ronaldo, a percussionist from Colombia, whom I met eleven years ago outside a coffee shop. I had come to listen to my friends play folk music, to drink coffee, to smoke cigarettes, and to read some of John Updike’s book of short stories, Trust Me. When I arrived to the coffee shop, there were no empty tables, though there were plenty of empty chairs, and I saw that this man, this Ronaldo, whom I’d never met before, was sitting at one of the tables, reading a newspaper. I asked to join him, and he agreed on the condition that I not smoke—since, he told me, grabbing his chest, he had a heart problem. He was in his forties or fifties, fat, dark skin, and had a small Afro. He spoke with an accent. We sat quietly for a few minutes, listening to prerecorded music through speakers while my friends set up their instruments, and I opened my book to read. He saw that I was reading Updike, and he asked me whether I’d ever read him in Spanish. I told him, No, but I’d like someday to read the great Spanish authors in their first language. I mentioned Don Quixote and the stories of Jorge Borges, and he nodded politely—probably because he figured, as I did, that I was just putting on a show, that probably I would never get around to doing it, ever (though, incidentally, a few years later when I travelled to Ecuador I did buy my first Spanish Borges book, Ficciones). And then I mentioned—and this part was true—that I’d read One Hundred Years of Solitude only a couple months prior, and that I imagined it was a beautiful novel in Spanish, and he assured me that it was indeed more beautiful than I could imagine. From there, our conversation moved naturally along a kind of winding path: we talked for a while about the nature of translation, and that Updike’s use of alliteration, in particular, and the thick sounds he can produce out of his paragraphs—especially when he seems to be showing off—cannot easily be replicated in Spanish. We talked for a long time about art, and about music in particular, how it moves “up” through the ranks of economic class, from the slaves (where African dance music, brought over from their original home, had begun in the Americas), to the ruling classes (where samba and all the other músicas latinas were refined and formed into art). He told me of music he had played, and where. He told me about great percussionists he had played with, people I’d never heard of, and how, after thirty or forty years of playing, he still looked back to the 1970s as his favorite time. Then, excitedly, he told me about a show he played one night in a bar in Colombia. The place was small and dark and not very crowded. People were sitting and listening and drinking and talking and smoking and laughing. When they had finished about half their set, one of the waiters brought them a tray full of drinks—courtesy of one of the members of the audience. A few songs later, another tray full of drinks came. Then another. Then another. Who was paying for all these drinks? Who enjoyed the music so much that he would continue thanking the band with all this expensive alcohol? The waiter told them: It was G.G.M. (in Spanish, it is pronounced Heh Heh Emmeh, the initials of Colombia’s greatest writer, Gabriel García Márquez). The band was in disbelief. No, could it be? No! Of course not. Then the waiter tried to point him out, and he pointed to a man sitting alone at his table, but the place was dark enough that nobody could know for sure. All they could see was that this man, whoever he was, wore bathroom slippers and smoked enormous cigars. Still, though, the drinks continued to come. At the end of the show, G.G.M. lingered—yes, it really was him!—and the band got to talk to him. At this part of the story, Ronaldo’s eyes grew big and proud. “Ciento Años de Solidad had come out a few years back,” he said to me. “It was the best book I had ever read. And here he was, the master himself, buying me drinks!” Ronaldo went on. “We sat and talked. All night. Just him and the band. He kept smoking those cigars and buying us drinks. He told us that it was his job, that people paid him all kinds of money, to tell lies.”

Now it occurs to me to say something about the things I’ve said—about the things, really, that I’ve listed—which are things other people have said about stories. When I reflect on all the things I’ve listed here—things all which seem good to believe about what story is, or what story is for, things all which I agree with in one way or another, things all that are not unlike many of the other things that throughout history many smart people have said about story (from Aristotle to Tobias Wolff)—I find that an interesting kind of paradox begins to poke up a bit, which is this: Stories are a kind of beautiful, poetic union of telling the truth, and telling lies.

They are truth, of course, insofar as they speak of the honest-to-goodness “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” of “pain and excitement,” of “feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation,” of “the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil,” of the “ineluctable part of being a human self”—which is suffering. They are true because they remind us of the greatest truth, that “we are not alone.” They are truth in this way because they represent the way of the world as it actually is, the metaphysical scheme of things—sharing with all religions at least two metaphysical truths: 1) There is something wrong with the world, and 2) It must be fixed.

A preacher named Rob Bell asks of the creation myth in Genesis: which is more important, whether the story in the Garden of Eden, the story of humanity’s great fall—whether that story actually happened, or whether it happens: Whether or not they are historically accurate, he says, stories nonetheless communicate precise and fundamental truths of the human condition. Adam and Eve are relevant because their story happens all the time: We try to hide the wrong inside us. At bottom, the truth of history is less important because the truths of the heart are the most fundamental, the most basic, the most universal.

It is true, however: Mythology, that group of stories which create for individual cultures their sets of morals and ceremonies and vision and values, was powerful precisely because the stories’ hearers thought those stories were true—not only in a poetic sense, but in a historical sense as well. Odysseus’s pride, when escaping the Cyclops’ cave, is wrong not only because too much pride is a vice, but because there were consequences—real consequences, consequences which all Greeks believed occurred in time and space—for his actions. His story served in part to warn and encourage all Greeks with this great metaphysical truth: Humility will earn you the favor of the gods.

And, yes, it is true even today, in our contemporary version of historically true mythology, creative nonfiction, since there is a great deal of disappointment when it is found out that, say, James Frey had imagined, conjured up, lied about history, in much of his so-called memoir.

So we like our stories true, and we demand that they be true, because there is something amiss when it turns out stories are not true, perhaps because there is something inherent to humans, a kind of “narrative empiricism,” maybe, which tries to justify the significance of stories by assuming that a story’s significance must actually be played out in “real time.” And there is something to this, because—yes, I admit—it is deeply satisfying to hear a story that has actually happened. (I confess: I watch the news; I like movies “inspired by a true story”; I watch E! True Hollywood Story when I can.)

On the other hand, for almost three thousand years the significance of Homer’s epics has remained with us, and that for many of those years we have known his stories to be—historically, at least—false. Historical truth, then, really is not the essence of what makes a story a story, but truth of a different kind: poetic, metaphysical, symbolic, experiential (as opposed to propositional). Odysseus’s journey, his convictions, his virtues, the suitors violations of hospitality, Penelope’s loyalty—these make up the wonder of the Odyssey. It is not whether the Odyssey actually happened—but that it happens—which makes it significant.

And so fiction—that art of telling lies, that offspring of mythology—is born. And indeed, stories are a batch of lies—aren’t they?—and this even if stories have the possibility of having occurred in history, even if stories have that “it really happened” credibility, they are still a batch of lies, since they take us away from what is before us, from what is here and now; they distract, they mesmerize, they surround us with what is something other-than-this. They bring us fantasy. In short, they lie.

In so many words, Michael Chabon agrees:

The brain is an organ of entertainment, sensitive at any depth and over a wide spectrum. But we have learned to mistrust and despise our human aptitude for being entertained, and in that sense we get the entertainment we deserve.

I’d like to believe that, because I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations. I could uncork some stuff about the reader response theory, or the Lacanian parole. I could go on—God knows I’ve done it elsewhere—about the storytelling impulse and the need to make sense of experience through story. A spritz of Jung might scent the air. I could adduce Kafka’s formula, as the brilliant Lorrie Moore did in this space last year, of a book as an axe for the frozen sea within. I could go down to the café at the local mega-bookstore and take some wise words of Abelard or Koestler, about the power of literature, off a mug. But in the end—here’s my point—it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure. Because when the axe bites the ice, you feel an answering throb of delight all the way from your hands to your shoulders, and the blade tolls like a bell for miles.

And so it was with us one night, for a class project in graduate school—Robert, Rachel, Carlos, Sarah, Christine—telling lies, however true they might have been historically, as our experiment. We set out to see what would “come up” if we put ourselves in a place that stories can come about naturally (more or less)—in our case: around a table, sipping drinks.

This is how the idea came to us: After all kinds of theorizing between us, after all lofty ideas about what a story is capable of, about stories being at the foundation of all civilizations, Robert reminded Rachel and me that what we have left are people—regular people, theory-less people, in the hours after work at the bar, or stuck in a car together for several hours, or between a father and son on a fishing trip, or—in the most extreme of conditions—stranded together, snowed in, sharing the space of a small cabin for a few days.

Robert asked Rachel and me to consider what happens in those situations, and in the countless others like them.

Stories, he said. We tell stories.

Yes, we resort to stories, even though there are, technically, alternatives: we might, for instance, recite numerals to one other, seeing how far we can remember pi. We might list moral imperatives, back and forth, all night: Respect your parents, Do not lie, Do not cheat, Practice honor in the workplace, etc. We could hum. Or whistle. Or say nothing. But we do not. Instead, we tell stories. We talk about our day, we gossip, we make sense of our childhoods. We tell each other great truths, and dirty lies. We relate to one other great sadness and joy, heartbreaks and victories. We confess, we brag, we enter into psychotherapy. We listen to country music. We play video games whose characters aim at a definite goal. And we do it all in the form of storytelling. Even without knowing why, we go naturally to it, and it is a mystery, and it is the most natural thing in the world.

So it was with this in mind that we went to the Silk Elephant in Pittsburgh, and ordered drinks.

Our situation was, admittedly, a bit contrived: we were members of a class—and not, say, regular patrons of the bar. This was not Cheers. Our lives did not naturally overlap in a way that made this night especially comfortable or easy—a condition, I would argue, necessary for confessions or the stories of true, vulnerable heartbreak. On top of this lack of intimacy and history together, there were some things which made it feel unnatural, like the presence of a tape recorder (for the purposes of the assignment), and Robert’s prompt cards (with possible story topics on each one, like France, or Fashion Errors, or the 1980s, or Cattle). Still, while we understood that some conditions for great storytelling were missing, we also understood that this was a class project, that most of us had known and liked each other for more than two years, and that we were more or less at ease with one another. So we tried to make this as smooth a night as possible, tried to make the best of a somewhat unnatural situation. Plus, beer helped.

And what did we find?

That stories told off the cuff—that they have in them the same qualities as the stories of great art, if somewhat less refined. We listened to characters developed, described, compared to things. We heard surprise twists in plot. We saw how failed stories lacked a central conflict.

In re-listening to Robert’s story about his attendance policy, I found myself thinking about Malcolm Gladwell’s slow, methodical approach, as well as comedians Martin Lawrence or Dane Cook—who, in order to reach a climax, tell one large story arc with many smaller, funny parts that build up to it.

In Rachel’s story about breaking into a stranger’s changing room at a clothing store, we saw evidence that repetition of events—in this case, Rachel’s continued banging on what she thought was her friend’s changing room door, saying to whom she thought was her friend inside, “Let me in! Let me in!”—is a key element to building tension, not unlike the Big Bad Wolf’s repeated visits to each of the three little pigs’ houses, or, in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, the Boy’s repeated action of coming to the Tree with a request.

In the story about my surfing accident, specific details help the story’s payoff: 1) that I was a prepubescent teenager, having continued the theme from an earlier story about painting my naked armpits black with marker, and 2) that I was a well behaved church boy, using what compensatory skills I had acquired in my years of “moral” development. Having planted those details early on in the story, I was able to use them later to create key moments of awkwardness and pain.

But Sarah told the best stories of the night, and her style was very clear: introduce the characters by way of their traits, along with short “scenes” of evidence of these character traits (mimicking the great principle “Show, don’t tell”) by way of impersonating her characters…then, finally, entering “real time” (“One day…” or “Once…”), to give us a short crisis to relate to. Her stories, three of which are included on the tape, are the most perfect, the most refined, and the best evidence that successful stories—no matter the venue—retain their most essential features in every situation.

I believe I saw in our organic-ish night of storytelling what Ronaldo and I talked about eleven years ago: not only in our raw versions of stories, unrefined as they were, we had the beginnings of what, as it travelled “up” through the classes, could be turned into a form of high art. In an analogous sense, we created the sounds of African music that could (and in the literal case of the African music, would) be turned into músicas latinas. I believe we experienced all the lofty ideas about story, as well as “mere” entertainment. I also believe that, had we been better friends, and had no tape recorder been there to make it public, our time together could have gone on long into the night, and we would have been listening to one another, not alone, not expecting or wanting anything else, and we could have told each other all the truths of humanity, all of our suffering and hope, in all kinds of little lies.