People who study story agree that there are a limited number of stories in existence. The numbers vary. Some say seven. Some say there are more than a dozen. What’s important, though, is that there is complete agreement that the number, whatever it is, is limited. Very limited.
In a similar vein, it looks like the number of stories in human history are equally limited. I don’t know if you want to call them stories. Perhaps there’s a better term, such as social cycle or macro-events. On the other hand, perhaps story is the best term for human history as well. And, like fiction, we are doomed to repeat the stories. Repeat them in painful and stubborn ways, ways that we realize are even more painful and stubborn as we look back and realize how blockheaded a certain country or movement was. But then we’re just as blockheaded–aren’t we?–because we merrily continue operating within that same limited repertoire of stories.
I don’t imagine there’s much disagreement on the basic idea of limited story (for history or for fiction). The same figures cross the stage: the fool, the genius, the lover, the man addicted to power, those who sacrifice themselves at the various altars of greed or lust or selflessness. The cast is small and the figures seem to disappear into the fog of history, lit by the floorlights, vanishing into the dressing rooms backstage and then reappearing a few moments or decades or centuries later, made up in fresh grease paint, wearing a new costume, speaking a new language, perhaps, but the lines and motivations and the plot’s denouement are the same.
Yet, the critics write passionately of new hope and progress and the thrill of change. Perhaps their myopia does not allow them to look back into the past? Or perhaps they choose not to. In either case, the result is the same and, due to such write-ups (the Walter Durantys of each era), a great deal of the masses eagerly buy their tickets to go see the next great play…
As I said before, I don’t think there’s much disagreement on this topic, if one is willing to stand and watch and remember carefully. However, there’s another question that is now buzzing around in my head. Two questions, really, but they’re the same.
Why are there such meagre limits on the number of stories in fiction?
And why are there such meagre limits on the number of stories in human history?
I see little difference between fiction and human history. The imaginative life of the mind is just as real as the stranger-than-fiction events of human history. My most cynical and caustic interpretation of the limit question is that the master of the laboratory has only so many variations he can build into the maze for us, his rats. The chemical and evolutionary interpretation is that chance is not infinite in its variables; in fact, it is quite painfully limited. Chance only has two dice, each with six sides.
My kindest (and most dangerous) interpretation of the limit question is that there are two players hidden in the shadows around the eternal chess board of existence. Darkness and light. Darkness limits the stories because he has only a few sharp-edged tools at his discretion: greed, lust, envy, sloth, gluttony, wrath, and that keenest of knives: pride. Light limits the stories because he has a handful of particularly important seeds that he must plant before time runs out and the sun winds down its course: faith, hope and love.
And so, the stories repeat themselves. In our libraries, on our kindles, in Barnes & Noble, on CNN and Fox, on the grimy stages of Detroit and Chicago, the bloody floorboards of Syria and Afghanistan, under the hushed houselights of Tehran and Paris and Washington DC as small shadows creep forward to hit their marks and say their lines in great pride, expectant of praise in tomorrow’s dailies, expectant of sparkling one-offs from the critics. “Dazzling!” “Fresh and daring!” “Peace in our times!” “Novel and progressive!”
But, really, no. All the stories have been told. All the stories have been lived. So, if you wish to read tomorrow’s headlines, look behind you.