We hear it everywhere these days. Time for a new story. Some enthusiastic sweep of narrative that becomes, overnight, the myth of our times. A container for all this ecological trouble, this peak-oil business, this malaise of numbness that seems to shroud even the most privileged. A new story. Just the one. That simple. Painless. Everything solved. Lovely and neat.
So, here’s my first moment of rashness: I suggest the stories we need turned up, right on time, about five thousand years ago. But they’re not simple, neat or painless. This mantric urge for a new story is actually the tourniquet for a less articulated desire: to behold the Earth-actually-speaking-through-words again, something far more potent than a shiny, never contemplated agenda. As things stand, I don’t believe we will get a story worth hearing until we witness a culture broken open by its own consequence.
No matter how unique we may consider our own era, I think that that these old tales – fairy, folk tales and myths – contain much of the paradox we face in these stormriven times. And what’s more they have no distinct author, are not wiggled from the penned agenda of one brain-boggled individual, but have passed through the breath of a countless number of oral storytellers.
Second moment of rashness: the reason for the generational purchase of these tales is that the richest of them contain not just – as is widely purported – the most succulent portions of the human imagination, but a moment when the our innate capacity to consume – lovers, forests, oceans, animals, ideas – was drawn into the immense thinking of the Earth itself, what aboriginal teachers call Wild Land Dreaming. We met something mighty. We didn’t just dream our carefully individuated thoughts – We. Got. Dreamt. We let go of the reins. Any old Gaelic storyteller would roll their eyes, stomp their boot and vigorously jab a tobacco-browned finger toward the soil if there was a moment’s question of a story’s origination.
In a time when the Earth is skewered by our very hands, could it not be the deepest ingredient of the stories we need is that they contain not just reflection on, but the dreaming of a sensual, reflective, troubled being, whilst we erect our shanty-cultures on its great thatch of fur and bone?
It is a great insult to the archaic cultures of this world to suggest that myth is a construct of humans shivering fearfully under a lightning storm, or gazing at a corpse and reasoning a supernatural narrative. That implies a base line of anxiety, not relationship. Or that anxiety is the primary relationship. It places full creative impetus on the human, not the sensate energies that surround and move through them, it shuts down the notion of a dialogue worth happening, it shuts down that big old word animism. Maybe they knew something we have forgotten.
Two routes towards the cultivation of that very dreaming was through wilderness initiation and, by illumination of the beautiful suffering it engendered, a crafting of it into story to the waiting community. Old village life knew that the quickest way to a deep societal crack up was to negate relationship to what stood outside its gates. Storytellers weren’t always benign figures, dumping sugary allegories into children’s mouths, they were edge characters, prophetic emissaries. More in common with magicians. As loose with the tongue of a wolf as with a twinkly fireside anecdote. These initiations facing the rustle-roar of the autumn oaks or grey speared salmon had banged their eloquence up against a wider canopy of sound, still visible on the splayed hide of their language.
Part of a storyteller’s very apprenticeship was to be caught up in a vaster scrum of interaction, not just attempting to squat a-top the denizens of the woods. To this day, wilderness fasting disables our capacity to devour in the way the West seems so fond of: in the most wonderful way I can describe, we get devoured.
The big, unpalatable issue is the fact that these kind of initiations have always involved submission. For a while you are not the sole master of your destiny, but in the unruly presence of something vaster. You may have to get used to spending a little time on one knee. May have to bend your head.
Without a degree of submission, healing, ironically, cannot enter. It is not us in our remote, individuated state that engenders true health, but soberly labouring towards a purpose and stance in the world that is far more than our own ambitions, even our fervent desire to ‘feel better’.
So, I claim that the stories are here. And they include all these difficult conditions. That’s the price tag. This is not in any way to claim redundancy to modern literature, but simply to hold up the notion of living myth.
So the stories are here, but are we?
I think we are losing the capacity to behold them. We see them for sure – our eyes swiftly scan the glow of computer screen for the bones of the tale, we audition them for whatever contemporary polemic is forefront in our minds, and then we impatiently move on. It is not hard then to suggest that we are fundamentally askew in our approach: we are simply not up to the intelligence of what the story is offering. Our so-called sophistication has our sensual intelligence in a head-lock and is literally squeezing the life out of it. When we see something we have stayed pretty firmly in devouring mode, when we behold it, we are in a lively conversation.
But these stories I speak of are not being brought slowly into our bodies, wrought deep by oral repetition. We have lost a lot of the fundamental house-making skills for how to welcome a story.