Expansive Poetry & Music Online Essay 
Reflections on Narrative Sense and Nonsense
essay by Arthur Mortensen

At a recent conference, a speaker bemoaned the embarrassment she felt when a student didn't know that Mexico had supported the Confederacy during the Civil War.  She was pleased to announce that the student did know who the Governor of New York is, and that the Governor was a Republican.  However, she continued, her student opined that he would vote Democrat in his first election because, he said, as everyone knows, Republicans are in favor of bringing back the slavery that Abraham Lincoln had so enjoyed in the 1860's.  Many in the audience smiled and shook their heads; some looked like they might start screaming.  But one, a friendly woman from Nebraska, stood up and asked if it were not sometimes better to believe in a better story than the one that had actually happened.  She wondered if, in the Second World War, had parents, siblings and friends known what conditions soldiers were facing, they would have supported the war.  One was tempted to ask in response whether, had Americans had been told by the press and the government what many knew by 1944 was happening at Auschwitz-Birkenau, would they have been more in agreement with Secretary Stimson, who wanted to reduce postwar Germany to an agricultural colony?

However one answers either question, it's no news that Americans are increasingly ignorant of our own history, not only from laziness but from a carefully guided effort by public educators over the past twenty-five years to end any teaching of history but that of world history.  We were to be content knowing a little bit about the whole world but nothing about ourselves.  While this has a certain we are the world charm, a people that knows nothing of the workings of its own institutions is little better off than the citizens of a dictatorship.  Such innocence also smacks of the innocents in H.G. Wells's Time Machine, who were content to have pleasant, happy lives until they were eaten by their keepers.  Asking if  ignorance is better for good feeling seems like a foolish question. But a lot of people feel that way.

Some are products (or teachers) of the public school systems in large cities, where good feeling and the illusion of equal results have created generations of people unsuited for the cities and times they live in.  One doubts this was the intention, but it is the result.  At best, even American students afforded an education learn, and usually second-hand, only of the latest exception to an old story, whose participants and actions they may not even know beforehand.  The exceptions, such as the proposed fathering of Sally Hemmings' children by Thomas Jefferson, or the secret desire by Franklin Roosevelt to be a medeaval warlord, or the Lincoln who was an unabashed racist, however shaken in his belief by Frederick Douglass, become the sole bases for judging a person, a country, or an entire age.  It's a little like critiquing Eugene O'Neill as a bad playwright because he was an alcoholic.  Why this is inappropriate for both history and for narrative seems self-evident.  But isn't that what popular journalism does?

While judging by exception is a standard means for choosing what to report on a television station -- news is a breach with norms as today, there was an attack on the World Trade Center, at some point, if we are to know how to act or to gain any perspective, it is necessary to look at the context of an event.  Why was it attacked?  Who did it?  What are they giving as their reasons?  Is there any truth to what they have to say, or are they using an amalgam of suspicions and fears to gain support for a pathological delusion?

But, exception is no proof in judging the past.  While Jefferson owned slaves, and may well have loved one named Sally Hemmings, he and his generation set in motion effects that, fifty years after his death, resulted in the end of three centuries of slavery in the West, and underpinned the revolt against imperialism in Africa and the East that began fifty years later.  Even a hypocrite can move us to acts of conscience; this is a good thing as, beneath any noble surface, you will find a flaw.  We are human, not gods, even those born after the Second World War. If a writer lacks historical awareness, or doesn't do the necessary exploration of a subject, he or she will never know this or be able to express it.  For this, the news is no enough; you have to find the story.

In another example from the past, while Franklin Roosevelt, by all accounts, clearly enjoyed his wartime leadership role, imagine a world after 1945 where Hitler had been the dominant force in the northern hemisphere.  Whatever Roosevelt's motivations were, the overall story was that they were part of a necessary transformation of the world.  Mistress, fondness for war, arrogance and all, it would have been a hellish world without the decisiveness of people like FDR.  There again, to judge those events by the news would be an abject failure to represent what happened; one has to find that story in full perspective.

And in the last, while Lincoln's view of Africans was decidedly out of touch with progressives, even in his own time, without his insistence on both prosecuting the Civl War and emancipating African slaves in the Confederacy, the historical trend set in motion by Jefferson's generation might not have concluded in 1865 or even in 1965.  The news of an historical figure's foibles and hypocrisy are not the story; we have to find the perspective and the context beyond the news.  When we don't make that distinction, we stumble in the dark, both in history and in storytelling.  Why shouldn't be a hard question.

What's called, perhaps ironically, critical thinking, becomes inverted; we judge people in the past for not behaving as we think they should have had they lived now, presuming that the only basis for change, whether in the notions of property held by southern plantation owners, or in what constitutes legitimate action by a national government in 1940's Germany, lies in  contemporary thought.  Examined even casually, this is transparent nonsense.  The slave plantation system was destroyed by the Civil War; we had nothing to do with it.  The version of Germany inscribed by the Nazis was destroyed by Russia and by the Western allies; our parents and grandparents did that, not us.  Even though they or the officers and politicians who sent them into action may have been racists, homophobic and anti-feminist, they ended Hitler's reign of terror and the Holocaust, not us.

Segregation in the South ended legally in 1965; in Mississippi, heart of many Civil Rights struggles, half of the elected officials are African-American in 2002.  The legal process was done before most of us were born, had originated in the late 19th century, developed through advocacy writing and speechmaking, lawsuits, strikes, boycotts, and demonstrations throughout the 1920's and 1930's, and culminated in landmark decisions beginning with Brown vs. Education in 1954, when few of us were old enough to read.  A writer knows nothing about the struggle to expand the political, cultural and economic franchise in America until he or she goes back more than a century.  One shouldn' t have to ask why.

In storytelling, to short circuit a similar process of development and discovery leads to fractionated plot lines and characters who are either all evil or all good with motivations that only reflect correct or incorrect ideology.  While popular in the Middle Ages -- the Morality Play's characters were not people but types, to a modern sensibility this kind of approach, even in juvenile entertainments in the movies, is fairly regarded as unsophisticated at best and idiotic at worst.  Why shouldn't be hard to guess.

Character types reflect prejudices, not narrative plausibility.  When types -- guardian angel, evil devil, charming idiot, scheming genius, avaricious rich, morally perfect poor -- are employed, the author's objective is to appeal directly to prejudice, to let the reader tell the story.  In its casual form, it's the hack's genre novel, or TV "journalism".  In its worst form, it is "marketable" history -- the story that people will believe, whether it's true or not.  Haven't we had enough of that?

When types are employed, the author appeals direction to suspicions, not to reason.  It is no news that many among the poor, in seeking a reason for their condition, may be suspicious of not only the rich but of the anyone who is not poor.  So, tell them what they want to hear; tell them that the rich and the middle class eat poor people's babies.  Tell them that the rich and the middle class only want to keep the poor in their place.  Don't tell them that the precarious balance between generation of wealth and making sure that it's spread wide enough to preserve domestic peace is the oldest story in any politics.  To do that would be to threaten the franchise of the Democratic Party.  And Marxists and fascists have done this since the beginning of their political ideologies and to effects where we are still counting the dead.  The differences between the manipulative dogmas and propaganda efforts of Nazi and Bolshevik were more matters of style than of substance. Both relied profoundly on appeals to feeling rather than to a narrative and historical sense; and hysteria, not rational consideration, is a prerequisite for popular support for political violence.  As soon as one sees that, it's not hard to fathom the appeal of Osama Bin Laden, who relies on not only those tactics, but on a fusion of them with religious dogmatism, all to manipulate mass audiences into an hysteria with which one can neither reason nor negotiate.  It's also not hard to fathom the appeal of domestic fascists in the United States, whether on the left or on the extreme right.  Without perspective, however, one cannot see much of anything in the present but flashes of light, whether the explosion of Tower 1, or the flickering of candles in a bunker.

Fractionated plot lines suggest there is no causal link between events, nor between actors.  Things just happen.  One day, a crazy woman killed her children.  Commentators scream about the nature of evil without bothering to find out what the context of the event was.  Some blame feminists. Some blame the media for demonizing motherhood or the family.  Some blame religious belief.  Some blame both parents for having too many children.  No one can understand why a close friend called her a loving mother.  But, such "thinkers" are participating in news, using the instant photography and chatter of bystanders as a means to substantiate their own feelings, not to investigate and ultimately tell a version of the story.  If we were to look closer and find that a profound and widely observed psychotic disturbance, one associated with hormonal disturbances caused by multiple births in rapid succession, was observed for years in the killer, including two bloody attempts at suicide, and that husband, friends and a doctor conspired to ignore an obvious need for observation and treatment, as well as protection of her children, how might we or our audience be affected?  One guesses that judgment of the murderer, while no less urgent, would be both more complex and more complete, and might engage an entire family, its friends and its doctor.

It hardly needs saying that the effect of a storyteller or reporter failing to do this is to perpetuate hysteria, suspicion and hatred, which feed on stereotypes, fear and prejudice.  A cohesive narrative, exploring all the significant details, even about the most horrendous events, can be a means to finding peace, if not world peace, an illusive quest, then peace for a community, a household, a couple, or an individual.  But if writers and their readers have become willing to accept a shotgun blast of effects as a depiction of what the world is, and what a story should be, what can we expect but a sense of numb powerlessness, akin to flashback memory of combat veterans -- an unintegrated impression of a story that is never told?  If you think that's a good place to be, ask them.

It is arguable that a tyrant would prefer fragmented, sensational reporting and stories.  When stories don't make sense, his subjects would judge solely on the basis of internal prejudices, having no basis for anything else.  This is ideal for a tyranny, where what is supposed to be "internal" assessment is more often the internalization of tyrannical rules.  Beyond the wars and mass murders they executed, the profoundest damage done by the totalitarian experiment in politics, both with the Bolsheviks and the Nazis, was to consciously deprive resisting populations of any means to express alternate opinions.  As a psychologist, or a student of the workings of propaganda, can tell you, there is a point past which individual thinking cannot survive; between constant manipulation of reality through propaganda and lying, and periodic and oftentimes only selective intimidation, the tyrant destroys both popular and personal capacities to judge him.  What better stories to serve such politics than those which make no sense, which afford neither perspective nor logic to a sequence of events?

It is an interesting correlative that Modernist painters frequently suggested that only thing that mattered as far as a painting looked was what each viewer saw in it, that history, context, tradition, and subject were meaningless.  In contemporary reader theory, the author's point of view is held as insignificant or at odds with the "truth" of a story. The relationship of Modernism to fascism, and of reader theory to "cultural" Marxism, as it is sometimes caused, is particularly vivid in such opinion; each aims at demolishing either the fact of or the responsibility of authority, that urgent skill and desire to lance the liar's boil and bandage the fabric of reality.  Why they want to do this, of course, is to replace the healing skill of the writer with the dominating fury of the ideologue.  Don't let them; find the story.

                          Arthur Mortensen