Plot in fiction helps us overcome the anxiety caused by the loss of the "sacred master plot" that organizes and explains the world. Our lives are ceaselessly intertwined with narrative, with the stories that we tell or hear told, those that we dream or imagine or would like to tell, all of which are reworked in that story of our own lives that we narrate to ourselves in an episodic, somewhat semiconscious, but virtually uninterrupted monologue. We live immersed in narrative. . . .
--Reading for the Plot, Peter Brooks
As they are told and retold, stories have the function of wrestling with the ultimately inexplicable chaos of reality around us. They give it form, and in shaping and reshaping the form, they help us gain control over it.
--Interview with Alan Jabbour of the National Folklife Center
The poet C. K. Williams came to Missoula some years ago and spoke of "narrative dysfunction" as a prime part of mental illness in our time. Many of us, he said, lose track of the story of ourselves, the story that tells us who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act.
It isn't any fun, and it doesn't just happen to people; it happens to entire societies. Stories are places to live, inside the imagination. We know a lot of them, and we're in trouble when we don't know which one is ours. Or when the one we inhabit doesn't work anymore and we stick with it anyway.
We live in stories. What we are is stories. We do things because of what is called character, and our character is formed by the stories we learn to live in. Late in the night we listen to our own breathing in the dark and rework our stories. We do it again the next morning, and all day long, before the looking glass of ourselves, reinventing reasons for our lives. Other than such storytelling there is no reason to things.
Aristotle talks of "recognitions," which can be thought of as moments of insight or flashes of understanding in which we see through to coherencies in the world. We are all continually seeking after such experiences. It's the most commonplace thing human beings do, after breathing. We are like detectives, each of us trying to make sense and define what we take to be the right life. It is the primary, most incessant business of our lives.
We figure and find stories, which can be thought of as maps or paradigms in which we see our purposes defined. Then the world drifts and our maps don't work anymore, our paradigms and stories fail, and we have to reinvent our understandings and our reasons for doing things. Useful stories, I think, are radical in that they help us see freshly. They are like mirrors in which we see ourselves reflected. That's what stories are for, to help us see for ourselves as we go about the continual business of reimagining ourselves.
If we ignore the changing world and stick to some story too long, we are likely to find ourselves in a great wreck. It's happening all over the American West, right now, as so many of our neighbors attempt to live out rules derived from old models of society that simply reconfirm their prejudices.
They get to see what they want to see. Which is some consolation. But it is not consolation we need. We need direction.
The interior West is no longer a faraway land. Our great emptiness is filling with people, and we are experiencing a time of profound transition that can be thought of as the second colonization. Many people here are being reduced to the tourist business, in which locals feature as servants, hunting guides and motel maids, or local color. People want to enclose our lives in theirs, as decor.
The Native American people were living coherent lives, at one with their circumstances, when our people displaced them, leaving them mostly disenfranchised and cut off from possibility in our society. Their reservations are like little beleaguered nations battling to survive within our larger one as we continue wrecking the traditional resources of their cultures. The result, for them, is anomie, nothing to hang on to, powerlessness. We are shamed and look away, and do little to help.
So it is deeply ironic that the Native Americans are being joined in their disenfranchisement by loggers and miners and ranchers, and by the towns that depend on them. Our ancestors came to the West and made homes for themselves where they could live independent lives. Because of their sacrifices, we in the dominant society think we own the West; we think they earned it for us. But, as we know, nobody owns anything absolutely, except their sense of who they are.
One Sunday, while living in the heart of the French Quarter of New Orleans, Annick and I were out walking in the rain when we realized we were hearing the echoes of someone singing. It was a vivid unaccompanied voice in the narrow street, maybe three blocks away when I first heard her- a black woman with her eyes closed and face open to the utmost as her voice rose and fell to "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah."
She shone in the gray light. I almost couldn't look, and wondered if she cared what anybody thought as I dropped two folded dollars into the coffee can at her feet. She didn't look at me at all.
Semitropical plants were draped along the lacy ironwork balconies above the broken sidewalk, nature in a place where everything was carpentered. My shuttered door was one in a wall of shuttered doors that stretched on toward Bourbon Street, each painted thick, deep green. The light seemed to rebound from the walls, illuminating the wet bricks.
I can still hear that woman. Her life looked to be endlessly more difficult than mine. Her courage and passion were evident in her singing even if it was a street-shuck for money, and I envied her. I felt like weeping for myself, and I was afraid of it, like something in my body might break.
There I was, living near some of the best eating and drinking and music in the world, in a place where I never heard so many people -black, white, Creole, Cajun-laughing so much of the time, and I was awash with sadness.
Maybe it was because I had never lived so close to so much violence, which was the other side of things. During Mardi Gras, on Rampart Street, a little more than three blocks from our door, some lost tourist was shot every night, killed and robbed, mainly for drug money. Every week or so there was a schoolyard killing, a kid assassinating another kid with a handgun, settling scores.
The perpetrators in these crimes were most often young men from the so-called projects, publicly owned housing for the poor. Those young men were alienated and angry because they saw correctly that their situation in society was hopeless-they were essentially uneducated, their schools were war zones, and their chances of finding jobs, much less meaningful and respected work, were nil. A friend who grew up in New Orleans said, "They've got no place to go. There's no ladder up, no ladder out. They're left with nothing but selfishness. It's the second lesson you learn on the streets." The first lesson, according to my friend, is that nothing, nobody, is bulletproof.
It might be useful for us in the West to consider the ways in which the projects in New Orleans, in their capacity to generate hopelessness, are much like so many of our failing towns and our Indian reservations. It might be instructive to consider the rage that is generated by such disenfranchisement, and think of the ways it looks when it gets to the streets of our cities. It might be instructive to look closely at the events that led to rioting in Los Angeles in 1992.
It starts with broken promises. In the West, people came here thinking they had been promised something-at least freedom and opportunity, and the possibility of inventing a new, fruitful life. That was the official mythology. When that story didn't come true, the results were alienation and anomie, just like in the New Orleans projects, just like in South Central Los Angeles.
When people are excluded from what their society has defined for them as the main rewards of life, when they sense that they are absolutely out of the loop, as a lot of Americans do in the rural outback and the deep heartlands of the cities, they sometimes turn to heedless anger.
A lot of people on our streets are staring back at us, the enfranchised, with hatred that we all know to be at least partly justifiable. Some among them, we can see, might kill us for our selfishness. Fewer and fewer of them are willing to stand singing in the rain, waiting for a few dollars to accumulate in the tin can at their feet.
Many of us live with a sense that there is something deeply and fundamentally wrong in our society. Many of us feel our culture has lost track of the reasons why one thing is more significant than another. We are fearful and driven to forget the most basic generosities. We anesthetize ourselves with selfishness. It's not, we say, our fault.
Many of us live insulated, as I do much of the time. In New Orleans I liked to walk down a couple of blocks to the Bombay Club and disassociate my sensibilities with one and then another huge, perfect martini. In Las Vegas I like to stay at the brilliantly named Mirage, amid those orchids and white tigers. What I don't like to do is walk the streets and look the other side of my society in the eye.
I want to think I deserve what I get. I don't want to consider how vastly I am over rewarded. I don't want to consider the injustices around me. I don't want any encounters with the disenfranchised. I want to say it is not my fault.
But it is: it's mine, and ours. We'd better figure out ways to spread some equity around if we want to go on living in a society that is at least semifunctional. It's a fundamental responsibility to ourselves.
We inhabit a complex culture that is intimately connected to societies all over the world, vividly wealthy while increasingly polarized between rich and poor, increasingly multiethnic and multiracial, predominantly urban, sexually ambiguous, ironic, self-reflexive, drug-crazed, dangerous, and resounding with discordant energies; a selfish, inhumane society without a coherent myth to inhabit; a society coming unglued; a democracy that is failing. Its citizens do not believe in it anymore: they don't vote, they withdraw from the processes of governing themselves. On C-SPAN, all day long, you will see the other end of that same society, privileged long-faced citizens trying to figure out what to do about our troubles without forgoing their privileges. You will see a society without much idea of how to proceed.
I want to inhabit a story in which the animals all lie down with one another, everybody satisfied, children playing on sandy beaches by a stream, in the warm shade of the willows, the flash of salmon in the pools. Children of your own as you see them. How do we understand our kingdom?
It is easy to see that the world is luminous with significances. We want them to be part of the story of our life, the most important characters after ourselves. We yearn to live in a coherent place we can name, where we can feel safe. We want that place to exist like a friend, somebody we can know. What we need most urgently, both in the West and all over America, is a fresh dream of who we are that will tell us how we should act, a set of stories to reassure us in our sense that we deserve to be loved. We want the story of our society to have a sensible plot. We want it to go somewhere; we want it to mean something.
We must define some stories about taking care of what we've got, which is to say life and our lives. They will be stories in which our home is sacred, stories about making use of the place where we live without ruining it, stories that tell us to stay humane amid our confusions.
We must define a story that encourages us to understand that the living world cannot be replicated. We hear pipe dreams about cities in space, but it is clearly impossible to replicate the infinite complexities of the world in which we have evolved. Wreck it, and we will have lost ourselves, and that is craziness. We are animals evolved to live in the interpenetrating energies and subjectivities of all the life there is, which coats the rock of earth like moss. We cannot live without connection, both psychic and physical. We begin to die of pointlessness when we are isolated, even if some of us can hang on for a long while connected to nothing beyond our imaginations.
We need to inhabit stories that encourage us to pay close attention. We need stories that will encourage us toward acts of the imagination that in turn will drive us to the arts of empathy, for each other and for the world. We need stories that will encourage us to understand that we are part of everything, that the world exists under our skins, and that destroying it is a way of killing ourselves. We need stories that will drive us to care for one another and for the world. We need stories that will drive us to take action.
We need stories that tell us reasons why taking care, why compassion and the humane treatment of our fellows is more important-and interesting- than feathering our own nests as we go on accumulating property and power. Our lilacs bloom, and buzz with honeybees and hummingbirds. We can still find ways to live in some approximation of home-child heaven. There is no single, simple story that will define paradise for us and there never will be. As we know, the world will not stand still: energies and processes are what is actual; complexity is actual.
On summer mornings I can walk down Higgins Avenue to the Farmer's Market by the old Great Northern Depot in Missoula and buy baby carrots and white daisies, zinnias, snow peas, new corn, gladioli, irises, and chard. In my simpleminded way I love the old men selling long-stemmed roses, and the hippie mothers who are becoming farm wives. I try to imagine their secrets.
When I buy, I like to deal with the Hmong, refugees from the highlands of Laos. They have been in Montana since the end of hostilities in Vietnam. They were relocated courtesy of the CIA, their cohorts in the narcotics trade - at least that's the story we were told. I wonder if their old people are crazy with grief for lost villages. Maybe they are, or maybe they were glad to escape.
On the wall above the place where I write there is a bedspread embroidered by a Hmong woman: imaginary animals on a field of tropical green, a royal red elephant with black ears, a turtle with a yellow and blue and red checkered shell, a black rabbit, an orange monkey on a branch, a parrot, a peacock, and a green prehistoric creature with white horns. It is the work of a woman transported a long way from her homeland, who stayed tough enough to dream up another story. It gives me heart.