Once upon a time ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ weren’t the latest buzz words of modern-day intellectuals, but actually meant something. Now it seems you can’t read a blog or open a book of a certain kind – or even listen to the Radio 4 news – without the word ‘narrative’ splashed all over it. The world seems full of proclamations about the need for a ‘new story’ for civilisation, but it often seems to me that those who are calling for new stories have rarely understood either the implications of the old ones, or what stories are actually FOR and how they work.
There are some thoughts I’d like to offer in this respect:
First: There is, in short, no point promoting a story, new or otherwise, which envisages a ‘return to the wild’ – either inside ourselves or outside – unless you actually get out there and be in the wild. Stories spring from what you do; they’re not supposed to be an alternative to doing it. There is a certain neo-Romantic, overly intellectualised tendency these days to sit back and wish for less ‘civilisation’ and more ‘wildness’ – but there is an equal tendency not to know wild if it hit you in the face because you’re too busy sitting at your computer trying to figure out what it means. Or talking about it. Which is civilisation’s big joke, really. (Note: yes, I am sitting here at a computer writing this. I’m not suggesting that using a computer to write about wildness is bad, just that it’s not enough. To write or talk authentically about wildness you need to spend a lot of time out in the wild. Not just sit and fantasise about it or relive it in your imagination, longing for some lost golden age which never really existed in the way we imagine it in the first place. There’s no place for poetic posing in the wild. The wild sees through all that, and the wolf in the woods gobbles you up for breakfast.)
Second: Many of the people who are calling for a ‘New Story’ to replace the ‘Old Story’ (by which they generally mean the post-Enlightenment story of progress, growth, uber-rationality) don’t always seem to understand that you can’t just make up meta-narratives like that and expect the world to fall into place around them. Stories work from the bottom up. The smaller stories generate the meta-story, not the other way around.
Third: Which brings me to the question of what those stories which ultimately feed into this new and better meta-story actually are, or should be. We’re often told that the old myths and stories, which some of the older folk among us grew up hearing or reading, aren’t relevant any more. But the old stories aren’t the problem – it’s us, and what we make of them, that is the problem. Because we’ve lost them, forgotten them, forgotten what to do with them when we happen across them. The really old stories – the stories that relate to the land, to the spirit of a place, the stories that teach – are still alive and well. It’s just that these stories relate to the land, to being out in it. These stories only begin to make sense, and newer versions of them only begin to emerge, if you go out and listen to the land’s dreaming. They certainly don’t come from sitting in front of a computer or enrolling on a workshop to try to ‘think them up’.
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for transforming the old stories. Stories have always been eminently transformable – that’s part of their beauty. The best stories grow and change and adapt themselves to the times, the circumstances and the audience. But the message – the HEART of the message – remains constant. That we are part of the wild, not separate from it. That everything is animate, in its own way. That we lost our way in the woods a very long time ago, and we desperately need to find our way back. But we can’t do that purely by talking about it or writing poems about it (though such things do for sure have their place) – we also need to get out there and do it – more importantly, to BE it.