Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The authority of a story

An interesting read:
Homer was Homer, a bard of the late Bronze Age. In the Bronze Age stories were the primary means of storing and transmitting knowledge: they were the public memory; they preserved the past, instructed the young, and created communal identity. So we're prepared to make allowances. We do that also with those other writers of the era, the writers and redactors of the Hebrew Bible. For them as for Homer, there was nothing like a purely factual discourse; there was no learned observation of the natural world that was not religious belief, no history that was not legend, no practical information that did not resound as heightened language. The world was perceived as enchanted.

In the Iliad there are many gods; in the Bible, the one God to whom the biblical writers cede authorship. But under many gods or one God, the stories told during this time were presumed to be true by the fact of being told. The very act of telling a story carried a presumption of truth.

We make allowances for Shakespeare, too, but for the reason that he is Shakespeare. By the time of the Elizabethan Age religious inspiration was becoming distinct from scientific fact, truth was something to be proven by observation and experiment, and the aesthetic event was a self-conscious production. Reality was one thing, fantasy another. God was institutionalized, and in a world deprived of enchantment by rationalism and empirical knowledge, stories were no longer the primary means of knowing. Storytellers were recognized as mortal, however immortal some of them would come to be, and a story might be believed, but not simply because it was being told.

Today it is only children who believe that stories, by the fact of their being told, are true. Children and fundamentalists. And that is the measure of the 2,000-year decline in the story's authority.

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