“Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted.”
“Seeing the world from the position of the weak person is a great education,” Chinua Achebe observed as he contemplated how storytelling helps us survive history’s rough patches. “Stories,” Neil Gaiman wrote, “are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.” Some of our most important stories — those most responsible for our civilizational advancement — have to do with how we narrate humanity’s difficulties and the lives of the people most affected by them.
That’s what Rebecca West (December 21, 1892–March 15, 1983) explores in her 1941 masterwork Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (public library) — the source of her abiding wisdom on survival and the redemption of suffering, drawing on her three visits to Yugoslavia in order to examine “the past side by side with the present it created.”
Considering how storytelling helps us transmute mere events into a sense of history and culture, West weighs the importance not only of the triumphant heroes in our stories but also of the tragic ones. (It is, after all, to a tragic hero and the long tail of history that we owe the greatest scientific discovery of our time.) She writes:
As we grow older and see the ends of stories as well as their beginnings, we realize that to the people who take part in them it is almost of greater importance that they should be stories, that they should form a recognizable pattern, than that they should be happy or tragic. The men and women who are withered by their fates, who go down to death reluctantly but without noticeable regrets for life, are not those who have lost their mates prematurely or by perfidy, or who have lost battles or fallen from early promise in circumstances of public shame, but those who have been jilted or were the victims of impotent lovers, who have never been summoned to command or been given any opportunity for success or failure.
Art, West argues, is not only what helps us survive history’s difficulties, but what transmutes mere existence into life, into vitality, into a meaningful story of being:
Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted. If one’s own existence has no form, if its events do not come handily to mind and disclose their significance, we feel about ourselves as if we were reading a bad book. We can all of us judge the truth of this, for hardly any of us manage to avoid some periods when the main theme of our lives is obscured by details, when we involve ourselves with persons who are insufficiently characterized; and it is possibly true not only of individuals, but of nations. What would England be like if it had not its immense Valhalla of kings and heroes, if it had not its Elizabethan and its Victorian ages, its thousands of incidents which come up in the mind, simple as icons and as miraculous in their suggestion that what England has been it can be again, now and for ever? What would the United States be like if it had not those reservoirs of triumphant will-power, the historical facts of the War of Independence, of the giant American statesmen, and of the pioneering progress into the West, which every American citizen has at his mental command and into which he can plunge for revivification at any minute? To have a difficult history makes, perhaps, a people who are bound to be difficult in any conditions, lacking these means of refreshment.
Complement this particular portion of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon with Ursula K. Le Guin on how storytelling expands our scope of the possible, Saul Bellow on how art reveals the hidden realities of our world, and Susan Sontag on storytelling and what it means to be a moral human being.
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