The Stories of History and the History of Stories

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.

5 thoughts on “The Stories of History and the History of Stories”

  1. You’re being profound again. And you know I can’t let you be profound without shoving my oar in, especially when you’re talking about narrative theory.

    Yes, there is a limited number of stories in the world, history included. However, there are so many people. Story is experienced differently by each player – as you might have seen yourself if you’ve ever had an argument with a sibling about just what happened on Christmas Eve 1978: you *know* that what happened was X, but your brother *knows* that it was, in fact, Y – and really, you’re both right. The limit on stories is the same as the limit on human variety – we’re all stuck with having two arms, two legs, one head with two ears and eyes and a single nose, which is pretty restrictive. But some of us have more impressive noses than others. There is an infinite variety of humans, even with those restrictions, and so there is for Story.

    And also, sure, you can look behind you at previous headlines, but they are not going to tell you *which* part of the story you are cast for this time. You might think you’re playing the white hat and it’s obvious where things are going to go in your dealings with the bad guy – but all along, you’re the comedic sidekick or even the red shirt, and the one you’ve had pegged for the bad guy is, in fact, the hero-in-disguise.

    1. But you’re talking about individual perspectives on the same small number of stories, aren’t you? Even though the number of perspectives is quite large (billions), the number of stories doesn’t change, does it? Regardless of perspective, I think we’re still stuck with the same short list of stories and the same limited cast. Maybe we come on stage in slightly different costume, but are the perspectives even all that different at the end of the day? Are anger or love or envy or pride or courage all that different from the Sudan to San Diego?

      1. Perspective is *very* different depending on where you stand on that stage. Believe me, the story of one conflict becomes three different stories depending on whether you’re the winner, the loser, or the guy who turned his back on it all and busied himself making peace with his friend and playing a game of checkers.
        I’m saying that the individual perspectives ARE the story. Any line you draw into the sand to differentiate between Stories (capital S, Ur-Stories, as it were) and stories (small s) is, of necessity, arbitrary. Campbell gives you one single Hero’s Journey, Whatshisname (can’t remember just now) pegs the number of plots at seven, the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Tale Type Index to date has 2399 identifyable types.

        This really gets at the base question: What *is* a story? When we figure that out, we’ll have the answer to your original question – but I have a hunch that that’s not happening, either.

        1. Hah – so I finally got around to re-reading Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories”. And look what I ran across there:

          ‘They are inclined to say that any two stories that are built round the same folk-lore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are “the same stories.” We read that Beowulf “is only a version of Dat Erdmänneken”; that “The Black Bull of Norroway is Beauty and the Beast,” or “is the same story as Eros and Psyche”; that the Norse Mastermaid (or the Gaelic Battle of the Birds and its many congeners and variants) is “the same story as the Greek tale of Jason and Medea.”
          Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but they are not true in a fairy-story sense, they are not true in art or literature. It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count. Shakespeare’s King Lear is not the same as Layamon’s story in his Brut. Or to take the extreme case of Red Riding Hood: it is of merely secondary interest that the retold versions of this story, in which the little girl is saved by wood-cutters, is directly derived from Perrault’s story in which she was eaten by the wolf. The really important thing is that the later version has a happy ending (more or less, and if we do not mourn the grandmother overmuch), and that Perrault’s version had not. And that is a very profound difference.’

          I rest my case. 🙂

          1. Hmm. I think you have defeated me. Though, I find it interesting that Tolkien uses the phrase “the undissected bones of the plot.” That seems to indicate a perspective that the foundational plots themselves don’t change much… (I’m going down fighting).

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