I remember now the story of a clerk from the North Midlands. An inconspicuous man, with an inconspicuous name that now evades me. A name so mundane and common, that even if it chanced to cross my mind again, would quickly fade into obscurity.
There was not much to distinguish this particular clerk from the tendencies of his brethren. He too, like most clerks, had slowly adopted the banal apathy of a practical profession. He drank his coffee lukewarm, because he had once read an article that stated that this was the healthiest option, and slept early, incredibly early, as, all things considered, there was not much for him to do after work.
Work. ‘Work.’ His life was his work, but I do not mean to say that he attributed any inordinate importance to his work. No, it was just that he attributed less value than others to all other aspects of his life.
I’m not particularly interested in the particularities of the life of a clerk in the North Midlands. I’m quite sure that you share my sentiment. I write about him, because, as you might imagine, there are some elements that are not so standard, not so mundane.
The clerk first noticed that something was amiss one rainy Wednesday morning (a very standard time and setting for a suburban clerk), when he walked past an old man on the street with an uncanny resemblance to his deceased father. At first, the clerk did a double take, surely not! he thought. The resemblance, you see, really was uncanny, to the extent that the clerk felt it was utterly natural to stop the man in his tracks (something that would have ordinarily seemed incredibly peculiar after all; no respectable samaritan accosts a stranger on the street!) and begin explaining, in a rapid, fretful voice (something also quite uncharacteristic of the clerk), that his father used to be a librarian at the council library.
The old man listened on with polite interest, until he finally raised his hand, demanding silence.
Enough, my boy, he said, full of tenderness. I remember… and with this, began recounting stories that had been privy only to the clerk and his father. Stories that he had never before told anyone else. The clerk at first, as all reasonable people would (and the clerk was a paragon of reason), thought that the old man must have been an acquaintance of his father.
Did you by any chance know my father? The clerk finally ventured, and the old man looked at him in shock. Your father? Young man, I don’t even know who you are.
With that, the old man left.
Peculiar, indeed, but what was even more peculiar was the fact that similar events occurred the following weeks, always on Wednesday mornings, and always when the clerk was walking alone to work. He would meet strangers who looked (in varying degrees) like people familiar to him, and these strangers would possess knowledge proportional to their degree of similarity with said friends and family. What I mean to say is, the physical features the strangers had adopted from people the clerk knew, seemed to carry with them chunks of memories of character traits.
At first, the clerk did not know how to respond. Ought he to report this strange phenomenon to the police? Reporting strange phenomena to the police seemed like the paradigmatic thing for a man like the clerk to do. But he realised now (not without some acute sense of unease), that he had never reported anything to the police before. Would he not disturb them with something so trivial? And even if it was something that fell within the purview of a police report, what conceivable measures could they take to rectify the situation? Surely they could not just accost the strangers and demand to know how they had gained access to their memories (after all, the clerk had tried this a handful of times to no avail).
So the clerk decided (as with most other dilemmas that had previously surfaced in his life) to ignore the problem and continue as before. He spoke to the strangers, he accommodated their strange desires and revelations. And never again did he challenge them on their identities, never again did he try to push the boundaries of this mystical memory. He accepted the particularity as it was.
Definitions, I believe, function in a similar way. We all feel that they hide something personal, something that only we should know. And when another uses them in a way that encroaches on this personal domain, we feel a tenderness and fear. Tenderness at the familiarity they have constructed with the appropriate use of words, Fear at the insight it gives them into our souls, an insight that we had thought until now utterly solitary, utterly defended from foreign eyes and thoughts.
I’ve asked Konstantinos to fulfil an impossible ask: to articulate, conclusively, a definition of storytelling. I should state, since I’m giving away the game so, so early, that the act of assigning this task to anyone is indefensible, much less to someone who knows their characterisation will be unpacked by another.
To communicate, is in an essential way, to translate. Speaker and listener (i.e., the giver and receiver of information) must respectively translate thought to language, and language to thought. This manipulation of information gives us a good starting point for my exploration into the nature of storytelling.
I should also add that I've recently begun to suspect that coming up with a definition may not necessarily feel satisfying or conclusive, at all.
The first question we must address is what distinguishes the communication of stories from the communication of any other set of information. Here, we can initially state that the information itself (that is, the content of the stories) is in no way privileged with regard to any other sets of information. This might seem facile at first, but it allows us to focus all of our attention on the form and style in which this content is presented.
I wonder if I wanted him to come up with his definition for storytelling to learn the mysterious force of something not yet named in himself somewhere, an idea or concept or feeling. To hear him gesture to it. Much like a definition alludes to the freedom of the force of something, before it was imprisoned under the guise of the word-object, ‘storytelling.’
A story is a thing. Storytelling is an action. It means to ‘tell’ stories.
Maybe as soon as something is defined, the potential actualisation of the force before it was named weakens, becoming ever-more elusive, thin in its nature. Or, at least, the energy is tangible only tangentially compared to before. Before, that is, the moment a definition’s been committed to.
The world around us is filled with all kinds of information. However, the majority of this information is presented accidentally, or coincidentally.
Definition of definition
a: a statement of the meaning of a word or word group or a sign or symbol
b: a statement expressing the essential nature of something
c: a product of defining
In the case of stories, any perceived information is dependent on the agency of the creator/s. In other words, a crucial feature of stories in the sense being discussed is intent. To perceive a leaf falling is not in itself a story. To listen to the waves crashing upon the shore is not a story. What is needed is the presence of an agent.
Intent, like this person named 'Konstantinos Doxiadis,' seems impossible to define, even from the point of view of the creator. Sometimes creators of art may not necessarily know why they made something, just that they felt somewhere inside that they had to, or else something would be lost from them permanently. On the flipside, intent is impossible to analyse as a reader of a story, as a viewer of a work; all we have as clues are statements made by their creator. And, after all, creatives like to lie. So for Konstantinos, what about his authorial voice communicates how he moves, on the inside?
However, we are still lacking a key element. Speaking to an attendant at a shop is a form of communication. Asking for directions on the street is a form of communication. These are also instances of communication where the interlocutors provide sets of information intentionally. However, they are not stories. What they lack is an aesthetic criterion.
Konstantinos began this piece, as you read already, with a story. Trying to assert, within it, the beginnings of his definition. An attempt to begin to shape it, resisting the pull to send it to me through the format of any other entry in an ‘official’ dictionary. If he’d done that, the interview would have stopped there.
But what is an aesthetic criterion? What is aesthetic value? Presumably, it is a way of structuring and presenting information. But the common conception of aesthetics, as presenting that which is ‘beautiful,’ is too vague and subjective to tackle in the context of a rigid definition. Thus, I will do my best to provide clarity to the discussion, touching only upon the speakable. More specifically, I am interested in the speakable with regard to the limits that it imposes.
It seems to me that aesthetic criterion is assembled from a compilation of intentions, actions, misfires and curations intended to create momentum. It is a site of exploration and contortion in relation with its own constraints, forms, and limits. What is aesthetics, if not a list of collisions, united by creative hunger?
I said previously that intent (or agency, or the human element) is a core component of art. But intent is not only the desire to begin, it is also the desire to end. The artist is the one that decides where the story ends, and this finality is often what determines whether a story is successful as a work of art or not.
What motivates the need to end something? For me, what storytelling is doing seems like something else to consider here. How does a sentences sound? How does a word contradict the meaning of the sentence before? What images are snipped out of the paragraph where they belong, which flow smoothly from one moment to the next chapter, based on their placement? How can the rhythm of a piece manipulate how a reader feels? That wasn’t a definition, just a set of questions, a list. Trying to get closer, with Konstantinos, to the centre of what brings together, and propels a writer to finish, making a story.
Finality is a concept that fits nicely within this talk of structures. More specifically, if we think of finality as ‘self-justification’ we can say that a story is complete when it can independently (i.e., without the addition of content) justify its existence. To whom, you ask? To the ideal reader. And who are they, you ask? The artist. And what does ‘justifying its existence’ mean, you ask? Providing from the speakable, insight into the unspeakable.
Maybe finality and definition mean the same thing?
But there is no need to procure definitions when they already exist. In 4.114 & 4.115 of the Tractatus Wittgenstein writes:
…[philosophy] should limit the unthinkable from within the thinkable. … It will mean the unspeakable by clearly displaying the speakable.
This holds as strongly for philosophy as it does for art.
If storytelling is the creation of a mirror-experience of the present through an arrangement of choices, why try to define it at all?
The investigation (or perhaps even ‘definition’) of storytelling procured above has some structural value, but is still quite detached from the emotions. After all, a qualitative definition carries weight only when we know of its relationship to the procurer of said definition.
What could this be called, this piece that isn’t art nor, exactly, a set of information arranged by logic alone? I leave this, somehow less sure of what I was looking for, nor clear about what I’ve exactly I've learned.
Konstantinos Doxiadis: I never expected I would become actively involved in literature. My first contact with storytelling came through the development of video games. For a long time, I focused on interactive narrative structures, wanting to give an audience the tools with which to explore the worlds I was creating. But as time passed, I soon realised that I was not satisfied with relinquishing control, and that the rigid structural constraints of more static forms of art, such as writing and film suited me more.
Micaela Brinsley: What about fiction appealed to you, as a form?
KD: Storytelling primarily appealed to me because of its formal and structural manipulations of information. I was less interested in what was being said in a story, as I was in making sure that it is said as efficiently as possible. Of course, at the core of it, there is a strong psychological desire to explore certain emotions, but approaching the matter from a more structural perspective makes it easier for the emotions to surface on their own. In many ways, consuming and creating stories serve very different functions for me. The former provide an escape, and are an actively enjoyable activity, whereas the latter constrains and oppresses me, making me feel that any imperfections have the power to neutralise the impact of the story.
MB: What does your creative process look like?
KD: Speaking in more practical terms, I always start with a very specific image or idea. But I am committed to the fact that this image is only a start, and will very rarely rear its head (in any way) in the final version of my story. Writing, in my process, is inextricable from editing. To write means to deliberate, and to deliberate is to edit. As such, I have a very iterative process. For example, for a short story I’ll start with a two to three hundred word descriptive piece, and then begin iterating on it, adding more and more information until I have a full, fleshed out story. At this stage, I will take this much larger descriptive text, and begin editing stylistically. Inevitably, throughout this process, a lot of changes will need to be made, meaning that the tenth iteration will look nothing like the first. The motivations driving it will be very different too.
To communicate successfully: it’s in many ways a balancing act. When you’re retelling a story, you’re working both as a reader and a writer. You’re starting with a specific set of narrative information, and then making very conscious decisions to present it in particular ways. The moment you try to tell a story, you’re instantly restricting the reality you’re describing. When you walk through life, you don’t have much agency over how things are presented. When you’re in the world, you’re experiencing things through it. Very little of it is actually within your control. When you’re presenting a work to someone, the presentation itself will really impact how you experience it. In retelling a story, the fact that you already have this foundation of content allows you to think more carefully about style and technique. That’s part of what drew me to modernist epics such as Ezra Pound’s Cantos, which bases itself on a variety of antecedent literary works, taking the stories and radically altering the ways they are told.
Essentially, we’re engaging in a process of mutual translation. Our thoughts are converted into speech, images, music or any other medium. Then, our interlocutor is tasked with making the opposite conversion from the interpretable medium back into thought.