Our society esteems doers over talkers. When we talk about education, we describe subjects like engineering and finance as practical and the humanities as soul-building but ultimately ornamental. We lavish megamillion salaries on corporate titans and pro athletes. But it’s the (relatively) starving novelists, the screenwriters, the poets, the lyricists—the storytellers—who serve the most essential role in society. They take the chaotic jumble of circumstance, the “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” and turn it into a collective reality.
While many of us would like to believe that we live in “the real world,” a world of concrete and stone and wood and metal, that’s only true in the strictly physical sense. Psychologically, we live in a different world, one that’s created for us inside our head, a world that’s infused with meaning at every level. Everything we see, touch, hear or smell is festooned, by invisible and irresistible psychological processes, with significance. We can’t help it. When we see a picture of a loved one, we don’t just see the contours of their nose, eyes and cheeks; we perceive their entire essence, in a way that not only imparts information to the visual cortex but causes a surge of hormones in the bloodstream. When we take a taste of a Coca-Cola, we don’t just taste the sugar and the fizz; we literally taste a whole lifetime’s worth of associations with the famous red-and-white logo.
Much of the meaning that infuses our world is obtained passively, as a result of everyday experience. But, uniquely among animals, we also have the ability to consciously craft meaning. This is the art of the storyteller. Instinctively, pre-consciously, we create narratives to make sense out of the randomness that surrounds us. It’s just how our brains are built. Even that basic unit of human thought, the declarative sentence, is a kind of mini-story: a subject did a verb to an object. In telling stories, we impart order and meaning on the world where before there was none. Have you ever had the experience of not knowing how you felt, until you started telling someone?
Stories give meaning and purpose not only to our individual lives but to the entire culture. Without a poetic vision of our times, life is worrisome and unsatisfying. In his movie Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen tells the story of a hopeless romantic who feels disconnected in the present tense and longs to go back to the storied past of Paris in the 20s, a time and place abuzz with famous writers and artists. By stroke of movie magic, he does return in time, only to fall in love with a woman who is equally disenchanted with her own time, and longs to go back to the even more distant Golden Age of the Belle Epoque.
I think we can all relate to the characters’ sense of dissatisfaction with the present tense. The petty quarrels and opaque maneuverings that swirl around us all seem so meaningless. But that’s precisely because it takes time for artists to come to grips with a changing time. We haven’t yet assigned significance to our experience. All we feel is chaos.
Of course, it was only after Hemingway, Picasso, and Stein created their art that Paris in the ‘20s acquired its special halo. Before that, like every other present tense, it was a seething cauldron of randomness and worry. More so than most, in fact. The world of the 1920s had been upended by the slaughter of the First World War and by new technologies such as the automobile, the airplane, and the radio. The old poetic visions simply didn’t apply any more.
The world needed a new kind of art, and the artists rose to the occasion. To make sense of a world that had been turned upside down, the Modernists stood painting and literature on their heads. Later, their heirs the Beatniks and Abstract Expressionists came along to make sense of the tumultuous ‘50s. And later still the civil rights movement and Vietnam and women’s lib called forth a renaissance of rock music and a flowering of independent cinema.
Today we live in a slow time for great art. Where is a painter whose cultural urgency rivals Picasso’s? Where is the writer who can cast a shadow as long as Hemingway’s? It’s not like we don’t need them. After decades of quiescence, the gears of history have begun once more to gnash. We feel that we are on the edge of a great confusion. Economic catastrophe looms. Technology is sweeping us up in its whirlwind. The world has become once more a strange place. As the poet Auden once observed from the edge of an earlier abyss, “Defenceless under the night/Our world in stupor lies.”
Yet they will come. In a few years, or maybe more, we will begin to hear voices. We will hear stories like we’ve never heard before, songs that will stir a part of us we didn’t know we had. And we will recognize ourselves again. We will say, “So that’s what it has meant, all along.”
Of course, by then, time will have rolled on. The familiar will already have begun to seem strange. The present tense will be confusing. And before long the lost and discontented of the age will think back to our time and imagine that back then it all made sense.