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Jedi Mind Tricks: The ICR’s Power of Stories

August 25, 2009

earthIn the heart of Bloomsbury, the Institute for Cultural Research hosted The Power of Stories, a two day lecture which aimed to penetrate the murky waters of storytelling: why we tell stories and what they contribute to our society and our human development. Being a book review/arts blog, BookFreeq is constantly commentating on stories, debating whether the stories we review have a profound effect on us and what they inform us about ourselves, if at all. So we put on our jaunty hat, an intellectual scarf, a monocle of course, grabbed a notepad and headed off down there.

Bloomsbury has a rich academic and literary history that goes back centuries. This undetermined, invisible area is most notable for the infamous and influential floosies, the Bloomsbury Group – Virginia Woolf and E.M Forster being the most recognisable names today. Upon walking into SOAS I could immediatley feel I was walking on literary ground, ah to be a student again. Once I arrived, we were given name tags (all the better to network m’dear) and then gently herded into the basement lecture theatre (very nice decor I must say) and settled back for a couple days of talk, reflection and analysis.

We had notable writers speaking for the weekend: Robert Irwin, Marina Warner, Ramsay Wood, Iain Sinclair, Cecil Helman, Vieda Skultans, Chris Smith and Tahir Shah (and now breathe).

The most emphasised point of the whole weekend was that stories are integral to our lives – we tell stories to each other everyday – you tell your girlfriend of a break up, you tell your mum of the game you won or lost or your brother of a lesson learnt in your own experiences. We can’t get away from them. And yet, orally they have all but disappeared. We don’t have professional storytellers who travel like bards around communities, well, because we don’t have communities and if we did see someone telling stories in the street nowadays, chances are people would think s/he is a fruitcake.

Is there an audience anymore? Well, from listening to the lectures – yes, there appears there is. Chris Smith is founder of the Story Museum which teaches children from disadvantaged backgrounds to tell and listen to stories. What makes this project unusual is that the children learn not from books but storytelling in a way that is free from props, which we never experience anymore. Smith demonstrated this by telling us a story of a hat maker and monkeys and also of a business man and a fisherman and we, the audience were enraptured. It was physical, it was engaging and refreshing; it was the nicest hour I’ve spent in a long time, just listening to a story. I recently told Chris Smith’s stories to a friend and her words were ‘I feel like a kid again.’ Later in the afternoon, Tahir Shah said that the words ‘once upon a time’ are like magic and they tame his two adorable children. Something beats this magic out of us, yet a love for stories is hardwired into our brain and when we hear a story it stimulates those cut wires. I certainly felt it.

I read Kalila and Dimna before I started this blog and reviewed it because I loved it. From Ramsay Wood’s lecture I learnt that the template to those stories date back to 450 BC, to the time of the Budda’s Jatakas. By reading Kalila and Dimna I was connected to that remote period in history because by reading the novel today, those thousand of years are eliminated. Spacey thought, I know, but it really astounded me.

BookFreeq recently interviewed Gautam Malkani and I asked him what we have lost with this encroaching void of storytelling and he said ‘empathy.’ A few centuries ago, stories were about teaching people how to be better, live better. The ‘boxed story‘ structure (as in story within a story), according to Doris Lessing, reflected the untidiness of real life. We have lost that structure and stories do not permeate our life like they used to. Now technology perhaps fills this empty vacuum.

Marina Warner discussed how magical objects permeate the Arabian Nights and how these objects access another world. I liked Warner’s talk, she’s a smart, concise academic who brought modern day examples to bring her points to life. In the Nights, inanimate objects are infused with immense power, the more banal the object the more surprising the djinn (djinn is is the transliteration from the Arabic for the creatures of air and fire). Warner made the point of our ipods and laptops being infused with this same power today – We look to these inanimate objects with awe and we rely heavily on them, talking to them when we get frustrated with them and raving about them when they obey us. Hey, they might even start talking back to us: Apple has just announced the launch of a talking iphone. The most provocative point Warner made is that that there isn’t any literature today which encompasses technology. Like the narrator in the Nights, where the jinn’s power is harnessed by the story, today we need novels to operate in the same way so that we can temper technology’s effect on us and do not let it run unchecked and unanalysed.

Cecil Helman had lost his voice so one of the ICR members spoke for him. It was the first lecture of the second morning, we had all lost an hour of sleep because the government can’t leave the clocks alone but he had the whole room in the palm of his hand. The stories were really beautifully spoken and obviously beautifully written. Helman dealt with the role of narrative in medical practice. Storytelling is not only entertaining but can be therapeutic, can cleanse the soul, can lift a heavy burden if it is shared and is how we heal. What I learnt from his talk is that silence speaks volumes. In a world that often suffers from verbal diarrhoea (ahem), people often fill silences, ignore them or become uncomfortable around them. It is these silences that reveal more about a person, of their situation and then the underlying cause of their behaviour or illness. We have lost facial reading in a land of Myspace, Facebook and Twitter. Stories require time, attention but above all human contact: how can we spin extravagent plots and characters out of thin air face-to-face when the internet is the preferred mode of communication?

Helman spoke of a woman who revealed to him her child had disappeared in the mass movement of people in WW2. It took her decades to admit this to him but once revealed it finally gave the reason and relief for her physical ailment. Helman also told us of a man who was in the Navy when King George VI came on board his ship. This ex-sailor showed Helman a picture of his face a few rows away from the King’s. What stood out from Helman’s stories of the woman and the sailer, is how Vieda Skultans put it: ’so many important events in such an unimportant life’. It was a proud moment for the ex-sailor to be in the company of the King and one that actually united Helman to his patient as the Doctor remembered the same King sweeping past him in a car in Cape Town when he was four years old. Understandably, with the volumes of people doctors see, they are in danger of seeing their patients as defined by their illness. Helmen’s skill of listening and teasing out these personal stories by nurturing the careful roots and shoots of trust, individualised his faceless patients into people.

Does alienation flourish in cities because we do not talk to each other? We are afraid of each other – we avert our eyes on the train and drive by when we see someone in trouble because we think ‘oh no, I don’t want to get involved.’ We are all guilty of it. Alienation is the symptom, loneliness is the cause perhaps the cure to our unconnected lives is storytelling.

I found the ICR lecture extremely informative and I wish more people could hear it, the house was packed, lively with debate and very responsive. I think I will definitely attend another.

I want to thank Patti Schneider and the ICR team for inviting me to attend.

If you want more information about the ICR, about their lectures and their work with UNICEF, please go to their website.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2010 2:30 pm

    Good post buddy. Can I add your page into Delicious? I couldnt find it marked there.

    • bookfreeq permalink*
      March 18, 2010 10:06 am

      yeah course but I’m not on delicious!

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