Living Stories

C.S. Lewis, writer and theologian of the early 20th-century, wrote:

Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.

The heartbeat, as well as the birth and history, of all literature is story. Long before words were first inked onto parchment, and before images were carved into stone or painted on the inner walls of caves, there were stories. Even before humankind began to consider the essence of its existence and fabricate theories regarding the moment, the location, and the nature of its origin, as well as the reasoning behind it, there were stories. Stories—or rather, the threads making up the fabrics of those stories, found in the moments and events that formed them—had long since been strewn across the landscape of the earth before humankind ever took notice of them. And along with the epiphany and acquirement of story came the ability to fabricate realities, an ability that has continued to garner a growing amount of attention, and obsession, in the time that has progressed. 

Truthfully, to say that humankind has grown in its obsession with fabricating realities is an understatement. As writer Jonathan Gottschall put it in his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, “Human life is so bound up in stories that we are thoroughly desensitized to their weird and witchy power.” Underneath every fabricated human reality, or “fiction”, there is a story—and not merely a historical account of the creation of that fiction, but also a running, or living, story that makes it what it is, the story that gives it credibility in the minds of all who accept it. In this way, fictions can become “living fictions.” 

Take money, for example. If an individual in the United States has a fifty-dollar bill in their hand, that bill does not belong to them. It belongs to the American Government. In fact, Federal law prohibits any action that mutilates, cuts, defaces, perforates or glues together U.S. currency or otherwise renders bills unusable. But the value of that fifty-dollar bill does belong to the individual, so long as the fiction is maintained. If at some point the fiction were to change so that the fifty-dollar bill were to become more or less valuable, the “wealth” of that individual would change with it, while the physical properties of the bill itself would remain the same. To that effect, if the fiction regarding bills were to suddenly state that a fifty-dollar bill had no value, the individual with that fifty-dollar bill in their hand would simply be holding a piece of government-owned paper. Why? Because fictions only exist in the sphere of the mind. 

Why then do we continue to create and live by fictions? If fictions can be fabricated and altered, why do we attribute so much weight to them? In southern Argentina, there is a cave called the Cueva de las Manos, or “Cave of the Hands,” named after the silhouetted handprints found on the walls that were believed to have been painted there around the year 8000 B.C.E. There are many speculations as to the reasoning for the creation of these “handprint paintings,” but the exact reasoning is unknown. As historian Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks wrote in A Concise History of The World, “It could have been a coming-of-age ceremony for adolescents led with solemnity by adults, or it could have been a less formal coming-of-age ritual conducted by adolescents themselves, akin to graffiti tagging. It could have simply been play.” When C.S. Lewis said that literature “enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides,” he seemed to be answering the question of why we live by fictions, just as the creators of the paintings in the Cueva de las Manos seemed to be making their own case. Stories do more than simply make life worth living. They do what nothing else can. They infuse lifeless things with value, and they attribute worth to what might otherwise be viewed as worthless. They suck the marrow out of the bones that hold everything together, set it all aflame with living fire, and send out the fiery light in all directions, so that the dry bones become flesh. As 19th-century writer Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” Stories do not merely describe life—they define life, and perhaps even create it.