On the Brevity of Life

It is true that storytellers are older than novelists. We catch a glimpse of this every time we find ourselves enjoying a moment of solitude. None of us can evade that vital soliloquy, which we must cultivate from the time of our birth.

No writer has captured the essence of this truism better than Wordsworth in The Prelude. That existential epic ranks as one of man's greatest reflection on human existence. Solitude is more central to human existence than, say, finding ourselves in a crowd. However, solitude does not mean isolation, or much less alienation, and all the trappings that catchword conveys today. On the contrary, our embrace of solitude allows one to reflect on the nature and purpose of the self. Only then, I will argue, can we become useful and productive members of society.

I am willing to bet that storytelling is a more indispensable response to the demands of our lives than any other form of writing or communication. We cannot deny the precise logic and inspired intuition that storytellers utilize in weaving an engrossing story. Just think of Gilgamesh. However, in our time of theory and inane abstractions, this truism will have a hard time bubbling up to the top tier of common sense.

We should realize that solitude is an aspect of human life that we cannot avoid. Unfortunately, some people try very hard to fill the hours of each day of their lives with something to do. Emile Auguste Chartier (Alain) is right that people often rush out to undertake the most unimportant things first. Could this be a way to fill time that would otherwise remain idle? If so, then what a crime this would be, for I’ve never encountered anyone giving away time.

From a very young age, I’ve conceived of storytelling as essential to the life of reflection. Perhaps this is because I was always in the company of sentient older people who conveyed many stories to me; the fabric of purpose and meaning in life was first showcased to me in stories. In any case, it dawned on me as a young boy that stories are wonderful vehicles in our quest for understanding and wisdom.

Above all, I got the impression that storytelling places the recipient, not necessarily the teller, in the middle of it all. This, I believe, has to do with the element of surprise. Storytelling helps us ground life in a more manageable and coherent foundation than we would ordinarily be able to achieve on our own.

This, I contend, is the case because our life is translucent to us. Because we are so immersed in life – living it, that is - we often fail to take stock of our own existence. Instead, we are like a roving camera that pans the field, but which remains transparent to itself.

I have no doubt that the greatest form of storytelling is that vital need that we have to make sense of our own existence. Ideally, storytelling can help us attain self-knowledge. However, it should go without saying that all sincere auto-knosis makes us appreciate the limitations, and the trials and tribulations that mark our lives. This vital lyricism that we feel - always on the verge of bubbling up - and which enables us to make sense of our lives, this is the ultimate legacy of storytelling. Try as we may, as the saying goes, “Wherever we go, there we are.” We simply cannot shed our skin - like reptiles.

It wasn’t until many years later while on a train trip from Chicago to Toronto that I truly came to understand the timeless beauty and coal-and-ice value of storytelling. By coincidence, I was reading Paul Valéry’s The Return from Holland. I was struck by his description of his reflection in the train’s window, and how, when he moved toward the glass, the image vanished, leaving him to disappear into the dark night.

Traveling through Michigan in winter, I was moved by the sight of a handful of young children skating on a small frozen lake in a clearing that was flanked by farmland on one side and woods on the other. The infinitely blue sky made a brilliant contrast with the ground, which was covered in snow. This scene reminded me of the elder Pieter Bruegel’s painting Hunters in the Snow. I was like a roving camera-eye that witnessed the world through a glass. I was satisfied in being a mere spectator, watching the world go by, like a timepiece that is not privy to the essence of time.

The train moved slowly through this area, thus affording me the opportunity to capture the solitude and stillness of that moment in time. The frigid landscape created a synthesis of life with the high sky that humanized and memorialized that moment in time.

The passage of time and the rhythm that our respective lives take on are seminal events that cannot be divorced from each other. Occasionally, we get glimpses of this marriage: the birth of a child, the ostensible finality that death confronts us with, a solitary trek through a lonely beach or the simple act of lying awake in a dark room, sleep escaping us.

On another occasion, while eating lunch in the furthest reaches of Pompeii, in a remote area, where most tourists do not care to tread, I was astounded by the juxtaposition of my solitude in this tragic museum-city, and the sight of the petrified dead, nearby. The hypnotic sound of the warm summer breeze, the immensity of the blue sky and Vesuvius in the distance allowed me a lasting imprint of the stubbornly fleeting essence of time.

That I should be privy to the horrific final moments of those poor souls before me, who are now encapsulated in a timeless cast, this made me realize that I too am a clay being, one who lives on borrowed time.

It makes practical sense to view human life as an aspect of objective reality that is best understood from the inside out. Undoubtedly, we all enjoy the fruits of science. Today we have a science of this-and-that and names for everything under the stars. Perhaps this is as it ought to be, given the far-ranging expanse of our technological curiosity and know-how. Yet I have not been deluded into thinking that we have conquered death, and how this reality-of-realities is played out in the passage of time.

I have never lost my boyhood awe and wonder for the essences that inform this material province. What you see is never what you get. Sure, the world remains after we have departed. We are wayfarers who pass through this mortal domain, like ghosts who remain in their former dwelling places.

The mystery of human existence cannot be exhausted. Neither can it be claimed by the grasp of all-encompassing science or the iron-clad grasp of timely social/political fashion. This realization has kept me grounded in the vital and lyrical quality of my existence, a reality which can never be fully appropriated from without.

I’ve often wondered: What better usage of metaphor, simile and allusion than that made by a subject that attempts to make sense of time and our role in it? Furthermore, what is the role of irony in the interplay of the living and the dead with God?

As a young man just entering college, I once asked a university professor the latter question. I was immediately disappointed. His answer was curt: “I don’t know, go look it up,” he said. The man lacked all semblance of that vital, existential hunger that allows some people to engage life on higher terms.

His lackluster response taught me that genuine and lasting reflection cannot be forged in classrooms, committees or by other collective means. There are no manuals to guide us in our vital concerns. The art of living is not so easily mastered. Time is evanescent, and in order to make sense of the treacherous train in which time rides us along, we must first know the purpose of the track we are on.

Date posted: June 11, 2012