Expansive Poetry & Music Online, Page 2

The Marriage of Praxis and Poeisis

by Arthur Mortensen

    "That every individual life...can eventually be told as a story with a beginning and end
      is the prepolitical and  prehistorical conditon of history...although everybody started
      life by inserting himself into the human world through action and speech,
      nobody is the author or producer or his own life story."
             Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition: Action

Copyright (c) 1998 by Expansive Poetry & Music Online

A novelist spoke quietly and intensely in my ear at a party some months back, describing the plot of her new book.  She was invisible compared to her much more famous mother.  But, even if Satiyajit Ray's greatest star had been in the room, I doubt that she could have outdone this daughter of celebrity in her conviction of her own importance.  And indeed,  the egos of storytellers are amusingly bold -- today as yesterday.   Donald M. Murray, the Boston Globe's columnist featured in the new PIVOT, once said that "novelists are like great, wounded bears, passing each other in silence."  However, as is rarely the case with politicians or actors, there is good reason for a storyteller's ego.

For without the storyteller, action and actor are invisible and therefore meaningless.   Much as in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, where a particle (or the moon)'s existence depends on an observer creating it, so too a story gives life the additional and, for human beings, the essential trait of  visibility.  We require the writer to take private memory and translat it into a public language so that the subjects of these stories, including ourselves, might exist.   So too the reverse:  the doing of praxis and the making of poeisis are a symbiotic pair, for storytelling without the actions and speech of human beings (or of allegorical substitutes for them) would be tapestry that could not be decoded even for its raison d'etre.   Why is this so obvious (except among critics who scorn narrative, whether in prose or verse)?

Look at the fear, anger, and love the powerful invest in the authors of stories about themselves.   These authors literally determine who the powerful are, as they determine the existence of any of the rest of us,  whether in a news flash for NBC, a novel, a documentary or a human interest feature in the NY Times.  And for all the libel suits, the public scorn of newspaper reporters, of the mass media's gossipers, and of the whole chatting class,  most of us cannot wait for that day when our story is (as are we) revealed by a storyteller.  For it is at that moment we come into being.  The life of the imagination notwithstanding, when we act, we reveal ourselves; the storyteller, whether a gossip, a poet, or a moviemaker is that disclosure's essential agent.

Of course it isn't necessary that the storyteller be a writer for the NY Times or for CNN, or of a fifty million dollar movie or a 500 page novel.   For example, in village India, until very recently, there was a storyteller in every town whose role was to weave familiar myths, contemporary stories and recognizable individuals into an ongoing narrative that, despite  its technological crudity, could hold a crowd of hundreds entranced for hours.  The storyteller made the invisible appear in a cloth woven from no more substantial thread than strings of words.   There is no greater magic on earth; to cast that aside is to commit suicide.  And the power of technologically amplified storytellers in mass produced magazines, books,  television, and film springs directly from this: the storyteller's public revelation of acts create human reality  in a way that nothing else can.   In light of this, the foolishness of a critical stance opposed to storytelling in poetry becomes self-evident.   Why?

Such a surrendering stance guarantees that poets who take it seriously will themselves disappear.  Why?  Their subjects are not human acts and speech.  Thought divorced from act,  nature divorced from human consciousness, while fascinating and sometimes rich, are not the human story.   And like it or not, we are not ants, dolphins, whales, sentient moss or Venusians; the stories that make us real to one another and to ourselves are about how we fit and act in a world that without us would be absolutely alien.  What does that require of writers?

As we write a story, we bring together praxis and poeisis; we marry actor and maker.   Unlike the builder of a skyscraper, or the maker of pretty verses, the storyteller acts to make the world real by the making of art; in this, he or she practices a profession unlike any other.   And, for a poet to declare himself averse to story, or for a novelist or filmmaker, is to pronounce himself on the side of chaos and of death, an ally in the destruction of the human world, itself a grand artifice fusing nature and nurture, science and art.  We cannot forget that the act of writing is not to be one with the whales and the amoeba, nor is it to presume to define or to to legislate, but to make the invisible visible, to give eyes that the living might see one another,  and to make the presence of human beings in the world known.  To forget that is to forget who we are and why we work.

                                    Arthur Mortensen