Weekly Newsletter #3. August 13, 2014. “Stories”

The world is like an impression left by the telling of a story — Yoga Vasishtha.

Summer is waning in Boston. The days are visibly shorter than they were in June and July. My daughter’s thoughts are turning toward school. She will be starting in three weeks but two of those are in a camp organized by her school teachers. This is the last week of unstructured time for her. We are going to take a mini vacation to cap the break. I will not be in town for the Friday newsletter, but I didn’t want to break a tradition almost as soon as I began it two weeks ago. So here’s this week’s newsletter, a couple of days early.

Storytime

My grandmother was an excellent storyteller. She created worlds out of thin air; anything was possible once the lights were off at bedtime. Whitehead said that all philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato. I suspect all my thoughts are interpretations of my grandmother’s stories. It’s no coincidence that we read stories before sleeping. Stories and dreams are creatures of the night; weaving new worlds as our bodies rest. I don’t consider storyweaving to be a metaphor. The world is made out of stories.

On the face of it, it’s a really weird idea. We think of the world as real, hard and made of stuff. At most, we are willing to make an exception to that general rule by admitting other equally solid but insubstantial entities like numbers, sets and other mathematical and logical objects. Stories are the very opposite of hard; they are soft, flexible and in our current ontology, inside our minds. Hard can’t be made out of soft, could it?

There’s a simple answer to that conundrum, for it’s a very old idea with a new twist. Let me give an example. India is full of pilgrimage sites — the Divyadesams, the Jyotirlingas, the Viharas — often marked with a temple. Most sites are associated with a deity and often a guru figure. Each one of those sacred places has several stories that are attached to it. There are myths of gods and semi-divine heroes who have bestowed their blessings or done heroic deeds at that place. There are famous, i.e., historical, not mythical, gurus who taught or had an enlightenment experience there. There are the tales of people who were cured of their ills after visiting one of those places.

Interestingly, the 108 Divyadesam’s get their identity from being mentioned in the poems written by the Alwars. They’re places that exist because they were written in stories. It’s Austinian “how to do things with words” with a vengeance. My guess is that most pre-modern communities were similar. They don’t have the Cartesian, geometric intuition about space that we do.

I believe that we’re about to re-experience the world in a similar manner. Technology is moving us toward a non-Cartesian intuition about space, space that has meaning and value on top of geometry. The most obvious reason is that stuff is becoming smart. As a layer of software gets baked into our built environment, we too will experience space as having value, meaning, interaction and stories. I have this app — made by Google, of course — on my smart phone that pings me whenever I am near a landmark in it’s database. It immediately calls up the history of the landmark, who’s lived and worked there and what significance it had then and now. I would say that app prefigures a world marked by stories.

As the mobile experience blends into augmented reality and internet of things, I think it’s more or less inevitable that our experience of the world will have a narrative character. I also think it will prompt us to rethink our metaphysics. Perhaps it’s stories all the way down — that value and significance aren’t just a human thing. In our attempt to de-anthropomorphize the world, we might have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

This week’s links

  1. An interesting article on narratives in games. I like how the author contrasts the strengths and weaknesses of different narrative media such as literature, movies and games. We know it’s hard to turn novels into movies. I invariably prefer the book. What about turning stories into games?
  2. There’s Alan Kay telling us that explanations aren’t stories, that we need to think differently in order to do science. I disagree with him, but he does tell a nice story.
  3. Myth and philosophy are key to bridging the gap between scientific and fictional narratives. If you haven’t read Roberto Calasso, you should. He seems to have ready every book in every language while writing quite a few of his own. One of my favorite books of all time is Ka, his synthesis of Indian myths.
  4. The quote from the Yoga Vasistha is one of two epigraphs at the beginning of this newsletter. The infamous Wendy Doniger wrote an excellent book on the YVbefore she got into trouble for applying the same techniques to Hinduism as a whole. Moral of the story: write about books that people don’t read.

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