A World Made of Stories?

Wednesday February 16, 2011

“Un récit? Non, pas de récits, plus jamais” the writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot once wrote: “A story? No, no stories. Never again.” Yet when Blanchot wrote these words, he could not avoid the fact that they were already a part of a story, that even in invoking the idea of “never again” he was already narrating, already spinning yarns.

The latest book by writer, philosopher and Zen practitioner David Loy, plays with precisely these kinds of paradoxes. “The world is made of our accounts of it because we never grasp the world as it is in itself, apart from stories about it,” Loy writes; and this slim book – which is presented less as an argument and more as a kind of free-form meditation – attempts not only to unpick the place that stories have within our lives, but also to say something about the “No, no stories,” towards which Blanchot gestures, about those curious territories where stories no longer have any purchase on us.

Loy’s book is structured around a series of quotes that range from Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna to Lord Voldemort, and that are interspersed with terse, aphoristic reflections. This is, quite deliberately, a collage more than it is an argument. Nevertheless some of the questions that Loy opens up along the way are interesting ones: What does it mean to say the world is made of stories? Where do stories end? Do we own our stories? Do we fashion them or do they (as Dan Dennett claims) instead fashion us?

One of the strengths of Loy’s book is that he draws his reflections not only from his extensive knowledge of both Western and Asian philosophy, but also – as a committed Zen practitioner – from his experience of meditation. Meditation is of particular interest in thinking about narrative because – as I myself wrote here on this website a few weeks back – in meditation it becomes apparent that the body tells no stories. Meditation could be seen as a kind of practice of awareness without any overarching story, or even as a practice of – temporarily at least – un-storying ourselves. Of course, this is what makes meditation so damnably hard to talk about: the moment that we attempt to talk about this curious absence of stories in meditation, we find ourselves telling tales again. But one of the reasons meditation is powerful, I have come to increasingly suspect, is that it allows us to slip the bonds of the habitual stories that we tell; and this relative looseness in relation to stories is something that might allow us the flexibility to find new tales to tell about the world and about our place in it. Meditation, in other words, might be able to give us a certain leeway, a suppleness when it comes to the moving between the various possible tales; and as such it might help us to navigate – as I suggest in my own – the sea of stories on which we fid ourselves. Loy’s book, in particular the early sections, has some terrific passages on this weaving and unweaving of stories and selves.

There is much, then, that is suggestive and interesting here. Nevertheless, there is along the way much that is obscure and puzzling. The danger of writing in an aphoristic style is that aphorisms can often teeter dangerously between the insightful and the trite. What, for example, are we to make of “God needs us as much as we need God. We need God because we are God’s stories. God needs us because we are God’s way to make new kinds of stories”? It sounds neat, perhaps; but on closer inspection it seems hard to work out what is going on here. Perhaps Loy is saying that humans, in general, tend to weave tales about God or gods; but that in these tales that we tend to weave, we often tell of how these various gods are the ones that weave us. Or perhaps he is saying something rather different. It is hard to tell. This ambiguity is no doubt deliberate; and perhaps it is down to us to tell our own stories about the suggestive stories that Loy himself is weaving. But at the same time, this kind of thing has to it the faint air of mystical hokum.

There is, however, a larger problem with Loy’s approach to the question of stories, and it is in the passage on meditation that this problem begins to become apparent. It is whilst he is exploring the realm of “no more stories” – the curious nature of experience in which there is no storytelling about experience – that Loy invokes a term that becomes central to his book: no-thing-ness. When letting go of all stories in meditation, Loy writes, I become “no-thing”. And about this no-thing, nothing can be said, for to speak of it is to betray it by telling tales about it. This, it seems to me, is where the real trouble starts. As the book goes on, this no-thing-ness becomes elevated to ever greater heights: it transcends all situations in which I might find myself, it is perpetually free and unbound, it is not subject to death (I can neither say that my no-thing-ness survives death nor can I say that it does not survive, because both ways I’m making a category error. This no-thing-ness is unborn, uncreated, unproduced. How then could it die, be dismantled or destroyed?). But it is precisely this no-thing-ness, Loy writes, that is “our essential nature.”

This is Loy’s jumping-off point for an elaborate story of his own. “We want to believe that there is a transcendent plot, an all-encompassing storyline that makes sense of everything, that will (or can) have a happy ending,” he writes at one point. Maybe so; but this transcendent plot seems, in the end, precisely what this book is providing. And what a curious tale it is: a kind of mystical hotch-potch in which Sartre rubs shoulders with gnosticism, psychotherapy with Advaita Vedanta, in which we are, each of us, parts of a “cosmic evolutionary process”, and in which the problems that confront us – personal problems, environmental problems, political problems – might be overcome by responding to the “divine influx.” The book ends with a kind of mystic’s call-to-arms. “If the world is made of stories,” Loy writes, “who know what our best stories might accomplish? If we ourselves are Buddha, who but us can create the Pure Land?”

Of course, Loy is a subtle enough thinker to know that this all-encompassing tale he is weaving, too, is Just Another Story. It is just that, when it comes down to it, I’m not sure how persuasive, how plausible, or how humanly useful, this particular kind of story actually is.

# · Anreal Perception

Thanks for the write up, you’re new site is looking lovely!

My questions to you would be:

- How do you determine the usefulness, plausibility and thus persuasiveness of a story, any story? – Does it have to be useful/plausible/persuasive to YOU in order for it to be considered useful/plausible/persuasive for OTHERS? – And then finally, what precisely did you find ‘not persuasive, useful and plausible’ about it?

I’d love to know.

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# · m s dinakar

Yes !
… each symbolic encoding of our perception/experience is an imaginative vignette of a story … I am reminded of this Zen quote: – If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are. –

# · Jason Man

World is really build up of so many different and amazing stories.People and their true stories fulfill the world with such a magic and make it so colourful.Great post.

# · Barnaby Thieme

I think it’s important to emphasize this, however: the fact that all perceptions and beliefs are contextualized by a frame of reference does not mean that they are all equally valid.

The Tibetan orders following Dharmakirti have a strong philosophical vocabulary for dealing with this problem – in their language the issue at hand is one of “conventional validity.” That is, we have be able to preserve the distinction between a mirage and water. Both are alike in their non-inherent existence, but while the water is a conventionally valid appearance, the mirage does not exist as water in any sense whatsoever. It is a /completely/ false appearance.

While the Zen folk clearly eschew that kind of verbose philosophizing, an equivalent idea can be found in the traditional warning against allowing the idea or experience of emptiness to supersede your ability to make conventional distinctions. This is called the “Cave of Black Demons,” a striking parallel to Hegel’s “night in which all cows are black.”

If we can make a distinction between a mirage and water – that is, if we can say that the mirage appears to be water but on closer inspection is found to be a mere false appearance, while the conventionally valid water can perform the function of water – then it seems to me that for the good Madhyamika the world is not made of stories. There are grounds for distinguishing between true and false appearances that do not depend on ultimate analysis, you simply have to take a closer look.

Very interesting blog, I’m glad I found it.

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