Why Tell a Story?08-30-2019
By Nikita Nelin
Reading Arendt has caused me to consider the generative quality of my own work. All too often I find myself swinging from the narratives of hope to the voice of alarm and despair. From week to week my voice will vacillate between historically informed caution and a pragmatic optimism, which feels to be bordering on faith. Only loosely depending on the news of the day I am either warning people against the reactionary spirit that rises out of labeling our current predicaments by standards of the past, or I may be referencing history as an instructional warning to the path our culture is heading down.
“We must try to think and to judge and to act not without taking account of the past but without trusting the validity of any so-called lessons of history.”
The range of these narrative swings begs a personal inquiry. As a researcher I can come up with the necessary facts for any story. And at this moment in our post-modern world we have all the facts we could need for the construction of any story. Global warming, mass shootings, growing inequality, a return to tribalism, Twitter and Facebook and the constant state of attention deficit disorder, rising corporatocracy, and whatever it is that’s happening inside of the White House at this moment – all equals to a prognosis of doom. And yet, increased representation, daily scientific and technological discoveries, a proliferation of media technology that more generously amplifies individual voices, the extinction rebellion, a heightened discourse on colonialism and racism, and more – all point towards the potential for a fairer future. Because of this I can no longer rely just on facts to report a story. This idea, of course, goes completely against my empirical training, though not against my experience as an author and human being.
If I can no longer just report on the current state of the world, because there are just too many states running simultaneously, then instead I have to choose the character of the story I want to tell, and allow that character to accumulate the necessary facts as it speaks. I choose if that voice is compassionate or mean, caring or bitter, lofty or practical, in pain or in the process of mending, rigid or capable of holding multiple perspectives at once, and so on. Of course there is another option, to simply turn to the old Jewish joke: “maybe good, maybe bad,” but this is too passive for my constitution, and ultimately this proverb leaves us with no momentum and thus no story.
And so, paradoxically, the only thing that actually sounds honest is my own experience, or more precisely, the process by which I choose how to tell a story. This is a trait of post-modernism – if all the stories are available then the real story is in the process of the voice, the choosing itself.
If we believe that history is a cycle, then the world cannot discover anything truly new, and I in my description and address of the world, can reveal nothing new. I can only graph us to our particular location in the cycle of history, to temper our escalation into crisis by telling you ‘we’ve been here before.’ But this prospect sounds terrible, just repetition, disempowering agency and basically void of meaning. The thought follows; why even tell a story, why even try? But for a writer to stop is to die. And so, I find that I have to take a leap. Not one of faith, or at least not in the way we consider faith in the Judeo-Christian tradition as in the singular G-d and all-knowing judge and consciousness of the universe. Rather, it is a leap of faith in human interaction. What I mean here is that it is through conversation with others that I am challenged to go on with curiosity. I am not so much convinced of the hope for the future, or its despair; I do not necessarily think that in conversation we are discovering some new moral technology or angle for political change; rather, I just become a little more willing to participate in the considerations of others, to mingle consciousnesses. The product of this is that I become a little bit more comfortable in ambiguity, a little less isolated, less prone to hysteria and the animal brain reactivity it produces.
Hannah Arendt’s essay “The Crisis Character of Modern Society” is responding to the crisis of that moment, the war in Vietnam, but carries a message for our thinking about crisis today. Today, as far as war goes, we have finally come to a place where we no longer believe in it, but we can’t stop it. This is Hyper-normalization at its finest, when we know wars are a proxy for the tides of domestic policy and corporate shielding, but this knowledge lacks impact. This is just one of the signals in our post-modern world of the separation between knowledge and impact.
My sense is that Arendt’s message in this address is working on two additional levels. One, the message affirms that we are in crisis (and by “we” I mean the western world post WWII). In doing so Arendt’s words remind us that we are not in crisis for the first time. On another level, Arendt reminds us of our history, not its assumptions but its impartial cycles; Arendt is warning us against hysteria. This is important because hysteria is a state of panic and self-absorption that steers us away from connection and communication. Hysteria, the panic of the mind, creates and feeds off of isolation. In Arendt’s view, if we are to ever resolve our state of crisis, it will only come from engaging with one another. She writes:
“By talking, therefore, about the unprecedented and by making decisions as we must, even though they may one day prove wholly inadequate, I believe we will become better able to deal with the underlying crisis even if we fail to define it, and will eventually lay the groundwork for new agreements between ourselves as well as between the nations of the earth.”
Under the conditions where the “traditional verities no longer apply,” the mind, which is always searching for potential dangers, loses its center and spins out into hysteria. If there is no precedent then the mind assumes everything to be a threat. And so, our first response to anything is to its potential for danger, putting the labor onto the object or event or individual to which we are responding to convince us otherwise. Arendt, naturally, does not offer a precise alternative vision, for that would be simply fiction. Instead, she offers conversation; she encourages us to build in real-time.
Arendt is calling for that most simple of actions, for us to gather, to talk. She gives no solutions, instead just urging us to meet. She adds to this a necessary urgency: “The only condition… is that we are and remain aware that our problems are unprecedented and that we do indeed live in a situation of crisis.”
In our post-modern construct this does make me consider that maybe “crisis” is actually now just a really poetic description for the state of “now.” That is, only “now” is ever on the verge of breaking, or emergence, because the past already did and the future cannot yet. Only “now” holds all the potential of change and balloons with possibilities when we meet there and give it attention. And “now” can only happen communally. In isolation, I sit with the past, or I sit with the future, and from this I can weave stories of hope or doom as conclusions arising from unlived and unchallenged facts. But meeting with others I can only do in the “now,” by facing the living. And the story of meeting with others is the story of real-time emergence. But that is exactly the practice that’s becoming hardest for us. It seems to me that the one thing that can be said with the outmost confidence about our post-modern time is that there now exists a great rift between the global assumption of connectivity and our lived in experience of loneliness. The stats show us to be more isolated than ever and yet the other side of the world is only a click away.
And yet, Arendt writes:
If we are to ever agree on all the other things, if a truly “new code of conduct” is to arise, we must first risk traveling across the rift. We must risk meeting “now.”
“I personally do not doubt that from the turmoil of being confronted with reality without the help of precedent, that is, of tradition and authority, there will finally arise some new code of conduct.”
Nikita Nelin has conducted research through the Harriman Institute as well as translation through Yale Press, and has written on the convergence between fringe and at-large cultural trends for the Hannah Arendt Center. He holds an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College, is a 2019 Associate Fellow at The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, and is a member of the Southern Experience Collective.