The Tragic Power of Narrative

The Tragic Power of Narrative


Artists are the educators of humanity. Tutors and professors instruct princes and kings, but poets (and all genuine artists are poets) educate nations.—George H. Calvert, Essays Aesthetical

The longer I reflected on Plato’s criticism of the poets, the stronger the dawn of the rational mind blushed, revealing what’s at work at the heart of such censure and marking it as the beginning of humanity’s sneakiest and vilest abuse. Though the poets’ expulsion was characterized by noble intent, it essentially set the stage for a curious form of violence, which was organized and executed to secure power and privilege, across generations, through the mastery and control of women and men. This raises a few questions. How were the Socratic philosophers able to marginalize the poets? Why is narration such an effective way to enable or disable human beings? Wherein lies its power? Taking a searching look into my past, in an effort to uncover the stories that were shaping my own life, has made visible the unbearable reality that I was manufactured— that is, a product of my environment. Since realizing this, I have never felt so beset by narrative forces, stories that are competing to shape my perception of reality; for there is a constant tension between the storytelling power of my own mind and the narrative forces in my surroundings. The key word in the last sentence—shape—is one of the images I will use to guide this inquiry. It opens to view the formative function of storytelling. It’s an idea that develops the epigraph by George H. Calvert, which points to the educative or formative purpose of art, an observation that draws attention to the deep, underlying emotional value integral to narration. The imagination is another component that plays a significant role in the act of telling and hearing stories, seeing that narratives consist of symbols, images, or emotional imprints that excite an audience’s imagination, and thereby show them how to feel, which in turn molds what they think. I intend to explore the power of narrative, to arrive at an understanding of its tragic character, which is revealed in the act of supplying the collective imagination with the images that deeply shape what its listeners feel, and as a result, controls how they privately perceive themselves and essentially, the world.

When I think about the power of storytelling, what comes to mind is the work of pottery. What’s fascinating about this craft is that it illustrates what’s happening fundamentally when stories are narrated, either socially to the public or personally to oneself. Being craftsmen, potters toil to shape clay into vessels, bricks, and earthen ware. It’s an ingenious process that consists of three elements (perhaps four but three will do for now) which are reflected in narration: the potter’s wheel, the potter’ s clay, and water. In storytelling, narrative is the potter’ s wheel, the imagination is the potter’s clay, and emotion is the water. Seeing as the poets were artistic craftsmen—poet in Greek is poietes meaning “maker”—they were uniquely sensitive to impressions of beauty. For this reason, they were qualified to reproduce it. Their deep perception of the beautiful set them apart from everyone else, and consequently, made them a cultural necessity. That’s why they occupied a high position in olden times, which allowed them, through the ideals of beauty, to culturally organize the world.

This begins to establish the relationship between the power of narrative and the cultivation of the arts. It is the moral vision of art and poetry to contrive and produce patterns of beauty, then to assemble these examples into an iconographic system of meaning that’s verbally represented, particularly, in stories. This was important to note because from here I began developing, in some measure, an answer to the question: wherein lies the power of storytelling? To describe human beings as “story-telling animals” as William Adams does in “Political Poetics: Narrative Imagination and the Art of Politics,1 means that we are wired to narrate, driven to create and organize meaning and to communicate it through stories. To acknowledge this is to identify their deep-seated need for meaning and for an iconographic language. For mimetic purposes, it’s valuable for human beings to be shown by way of images the whats and the hows in life. This means it’s important for them to learn by seeing, through exemplary actions that are drawn and presented through narratives. A story consists of ideas, themes that essentially declare to the cultural mind, This is good, This is desirable, and This is beauty.

Verbal iconography is one component that characterizes the power of storytelling. It’s at work at the fundamental level of narration. Seeing narrative as a wheel, the potter’s wheel, is vital to understanding how narratives drive the formative process. I imagine this to be Adams’s understanding of Plato’s concern regarding the poets when Adams writes, “Art and artist are worth worrying over because they work within the deeper and formative poetic system.”2 This points to the framework of aesthetic ideas, the potter’s wheel, the “formative poetic system” that organizes, supports, and drives the conception of the beautiful, the good, and the desirable. It outlines the first layer of storytelling’s features. Built into the structure of a narrative is an aesthetic that lends to a story the tools that allows it to use beauty to cultivate a culture’s deep, emotional character. That an aesthetic dimension is intrinsic to narration, a key source of storytelling’s power, becomes evident upon taking a closer look at the root meaning of aesthetic in the Greek language. It’s a word derived from aisthetikos, meaning “of sense perception.” This calls attention to the value of an image, which lies in its ability to evoke sensual responses; that is, when the image is vivid. The Aesthetic aspect of a narrative, in the context of poetry and politics, usually refers to the quality of its imagery, its capacity to arouse the senses—specifically, sight and hearing. This establishes the relationship between the narrative framework and the poetic power of the story’s symbolism. In light of this definition, I sense why the poets could be discredited or why the philosophers would covet their high position, because the poet’s way of narrating was powerfully—therefore, disturbingly—sensual. And being artistic, they used a verbal iconography to shape a culture’s imagination. Sense perception sounds carnal, fleshly, even seductive, which the philosophers had to see as low, of the earth, a threat to true spiritual enlightenment. Hence, the fall of poetry and the integration of its potent models into politics.

To take this inquiry a little deeper, I had to consider some things in the light of my past. As a child, I was exposed to a pattern of conflicted narratives about myself, about life; most of the time, I didn’t hear stories, so I didn’t see meaning in anything. I suppose it was a form of silence that was created in the absence of a narrator to shape my understanding of things. So, I grew up in some ways shapeless, and in others misshapen. I bring this up to reflect a little deeper on the meaning of Adams words when he describes, “the nurturing and shaping process, what the city deliberately or unconsciously provides, that pins desire to objects and activities that tell us what to want or in what measure.”3 Being narrator-less, meaning not having an active parent in my life, I was vulnerable to the visual iconography of the modern “formative poetic system” of television, music, and to some degree, social media, which played a crucial role in informing me about the seemingly good, the wickedly desirable, and the misleadingly beautiful. And going into the world misshapen, fashioned after the likeness of these ideals, I became entangled in a lot of the wrong things. This also illustrates and amplifies the shaping power of narration. How the ideals inherent in its system shapes the imagination and how it perceives virtue, beauty, and what’s worthy of desire.

As I reflected more on the shaping power of narrative, I started to notice the relationship between its influence and the imagination. Narration is founded on a system of images that drive the formative process; what’s happening in one’s imagination as these images are being received? In this lies the usefulness of working with the idea of the imagination as the potter’s clay. The imagination is a malleable substance that can be shaped and fashioned after any pattern of concepts or ideals. Narration transmits symbols or images or coded messages of virtue and vice, good and evil, pain and pleasure, which deeply molds the cultural imagination. As a child, I grew up in household of domestic violence. I suppose, as a result of witnessing and experiencing so much abuse, I became a timid, fearful kid. I was terrified of doing the most trivial things like going to the bathroom or coming out of my room without permission. I imagined that these things were wrong for me to do. These childhood experiences organized a self-perception that was based on something being wrong with me. Consequently, I grew shy, meaning I was accustomed to imagining that people were offended by the sight of me, by the very sound of my voice.

These experiences collectively established a narrative framework, a potter’ s wheel, that powered a shaping process that produced in me an image of myself that affected how I behaved, how I expressed myself, how I chose my friends, to even how I spent money—these actions being based on satisfying others, which I imagined was in my best interest; a way to compensate for how offensive I imagined myself to be. This brings us to William Adams’s observation that, “What distinguishes one political universe from the next is both the general tone and detail of the imagination that informs each one, that surrounds and invest political practices with their peculiar and distinctive significance.”4 I want to understand “political universes” and “political practices” in terms of domestic constructs. Though Adams is referring to certain patterns of thought, like Republican or Democratic, Poetical or Philosophical way of understanding the world, thinking of these ideas as domestic constructs extends their meaning to my childhood, the “political” universe of my daily life. Domestic in the sense of being internal and inland products of narration. My mind was a misshapen piece of clay, with an organized universe and a set of practices that I inhabited and enacted each passing day. What images, symbols were transmitted to my imagination that shaped this universe and its activity after the patterns of bashfulness and fearfulness? What made me so socially timid?

Perhaps the narrative of authoritarianism that organized my interior world, communicated its images of intolerance and domination through the symbolism of my mother’s nightly abuse and me being forced to have permission to, dare I say, inhale or exhale. These images in my mind fashioned the “general tone and the details of imagination” that enabled practices of self-hate and disabled healthy self-assertion. It was proper for me to need permission to be and wrong to assume I could live on my own terms. The case of my upbringing illustrates how the symbolism in narratives communicates, indirectly through the language of storytelling, and directly through the work of abuse, conditions the imagination to function in a certain way. The malleability of the imagination implies that it can be molded to operate in one way, rather than another; it can be shaped, like potter’s clay, to see some things, while being blind to others.

Thus far, what I have learned is that the act of storytelling sets up the creation of two things: a narrative system, which fundamentally arranges images to represent an aesthetic value, and that in turn shapes the imagination to produce certain characters and outcomes. These activities organize a social universe and its practices. These two ideas establish the shaping power of narration. The last piece of evidence I will bring to bear will open to view the role emotion plays in this entire formative process. It being the deepest factor, the vital force that makes the potter’s work possible. If narrative were emotionally unappealing, it would be utterly useless to the philosophers. Hence, the value of integrating the models of poetry into politics. Earlier in this reflection, I began to unpack, to the best of my ability, the possible implications of William Adams’s insight pertaining to human beings as “storytelling animals.” What does the word “animal” suggest? It points to a sub-function in storytelling that operates beneath the human capacity to think. It suggests, I imagine, that narration is driven by emotion; to narrate is an emotional instinct. The emotion is the energy of the images and symbols, that shape what or how things are perceived. Emotion is the molding force in the Potter’s work; it’s the water. A poet creates from a place of emotion, out of what they feel, their impressions of what they observe. These feelings give birth to thoughts, that stimulate and move the human mind toward something. The potter’s creation doesn’t happen without water. This illustrates the relationship between the shaping power of narrative and emotion.

The political and cultural imagination is fundamentally animated by feeling. Its symbolism and imagery only serve to quicken the emotions, which enables the recipient to be shaped after a certain ideal. In fact, emotion is derived from the Latin term emovere, which means “to move from.” The source of the poet’s power was their capacity to create and arrange images in a way that evokes responses from the human heart, to move them from one form to another. And poets being “the educators of humanity” means that they are uniquely qualified to work at the emotional depths of humanity, to shape them after higher or lower patterns. To some degree, this is actually frightening, because if one can create imagery in a vivid and evocative way, one has at their disposal the means to move the world hither and thither. In light of what’s been discussed so far, this etymological outlook on emotion deepens my understanding of Calvert’s words “artist are the educators of humanity.” To the reflection of the term emotion can be added the English word educate, which is derived from the Latin terms educo, educare; e and duco, meaning, to lead; thus, the definition to bring up, as a child.5

However, both words are derived from educo, “to lead.” These are significant details to consider in connection with emotion, because if to educe is to bring or draw out, that is to draw out emotion and to educate is to bring up, meaning to build up the emotional tone, then this would explain why the poets are the true educators. They are the heirs of aesthetic ideals-specifically, balance and rhythm and poetic language—whose purpose is to resolve the essential disharmony of existence, who are gifted to work to reconcile opposites. The value of poetic imagery and symbolism is essentially hinged on its ability to invoke an emotion, which in turn provokes a thought that motivates a specific action. Take, for example, the childhood I experienced. The emotion of fear that was often stimulated by the facts and images of abuse and violence that organized my domestic environment led me to become a shy, timid, hyper-sensitive child. The symbolism that painted my internal representation of external realities narrated to me that I was the source of my abuse; something was wrong with me. Therefore, I was afraid to offend by word, sound, movement or simply by being visible. The fear that was invoked by the imagery of pain educated me in a low version of self-knowledge, which basically set me up for future failures.

The emotional impact of narration answers how it is able to cripple some while empowering others. This was the native power of poetry, its genius to create living images and arrange them according to an aesthetic system of ideals. It contains the power to invoke feelings, which makes possible the formation of a culture’s imagination as a whole. Political universes revolve around emotion, their practices are hinged on emotion. Because human beings are “storytelling animals,” this animality—their capacity to feel—governs who they are and what they think; that is to say, if you can command how humanity feels, you can control the fate of nations. In this last statement I feel something tragic. What if the controller, the commander, the philosopher, the potter who is shaping our political and cultural sensitivities has oppressive tendencies? Case in point: Who we are and how we live seems to be decided by powers too deep for us to fathom, and we are affected by this power way before we’re even aware of its presence in our lives, to resist its influence. When are we free to forge our own destiny—”free” meaning able to live uninhibited and unbound by immobilizing narratives? The small liberties Americans enjoy seem to be only the indulgence of rights and privileges within a narrative of democracy; although the context of freedom, that deeply shape what it means, differs widely across the ethnic groups in this country. This is the tragedy in the American humanity. Tragic in the sense that it’s a world with preexisting ideologies of race and power that organizes a range of choices each race could possibly make; a world where the white inherit privilege and power, and everybody else is fated to compete for the scraps.

This tragic power is discernible in the case of Rodney King. Let’s take a look at Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1993 article “Reel Time/ Real Justice.” This is a case of the white imagination set against the black imagination. How are the cases of racial brutality narrated in the mind of white supremacists? With this question, I want to call attention to how the LA police officers in the Rodney King beating, the defense attorneys in his trial, all being white, are equally vulnerable to the shaping power of narration as King and his community was. This doesn’t by any means defend such horrid practices; it only serves to point out that racial supremacy was the dominant narrative that was organizing American life, and that the whites, the everyday people that executed its ideas as well as the blacks, the everyday people that were affected by them, were also victims of its power. William Adams agrees with Plato that “we are the creation of our stories.” Or in other words: As we narrate, so we are. Take, for example, the process of disaggregation, a method that was conceived in the white imagination to protect the dominant racial ideologies and their narratives of power. This process was executed by human beings shaped and set in motion to generate certain outcomes, just as vessels shaped on a potter’s wheel are designed to fulfill a certain function.

This formative power of narrative was important to recognize, because if the whites are shaped into the ideals of white supremacy, then the problem isn’t with people, white people in particular, but with ideas. In another vein, what did the baton, the stick used to strike Rodney King symbolize in the white imagination? It was an image of power; a symbol of racial superiority that represented power over the baton-less. This, among other things, had to shape and sustain the image of racial supremacy in the white imagination. On the other hand, what images were afflicting the imagination of the entire black community of LA in the 1980s and ’90s, including Rodney King? Perhaps images of unchecked violence or images of unresolved police brutality or images of black vulnerability to criminalization. The dominant images in the public mind were the formative forces that molded how the white saw “reasonable force” where the black observed “police brutality.” Taking a closer look at what went on in the court room of the Rodney King trial, Crenshaw’s words support the characterization of storytelling’s power as tragic:

Each micro-moment of the beating was broken down into a series of frozen images. As to each one, the defense attorneys asked the experts whether King assured a compliant posture, or might a police officer reasonably conclude that King still posed a threat to resist. Once the defense broke the video into frames, each still could then be re-weaved into a different narrative about the restraint of King6

Thinking about what’s happening in the trial scene represented by Crenshaw, the disaggregation of video evidence, the misrepresentation of Rodney King’s behavior, all point to the underlying power of narrative that enables discriminatory actions. Applying what’s been discussed so far­ narration’s capacity to deeply shape, through its framework of images, and their potential to command emotion, the human imagination to see and act one way, rather than another-only serves to enhance the feeling that there is something tragic about American life and its political abuse of narration. The question this provokes is: in what sense is it tragic? The fact that racial hostilities are built in its system of life constitutes its tragic nature. The defense attorneys, the LA police officers inherit self-glorifying images that motivate and justify the hostile treatment of blacks. The racial discrimination that the blacks of LA were experiencing were narrated into existence by white supremacist and their racial ideologies. In Crenshaw’s description, there are present “defense attorneys,” “Rodney King,” the “police officer,” the jurors and the wider culture, which these few represent. To the white imagination, they are the protagonist in the American story, and the blacks (along with the indigenous peoples), perhaps representing Nature, are the antagonist. Thus, white supremacy is the narrative of the dominance of Nature. So, I imagine that in the white’s version of truth, when they see a black man being thrashed—being handled by “reasonable force”— they are witnessing the drama of their triumph over Nature; a victory  that  was achieved at the cost of slaves and Indians. The whites succeeded in organizing a political-cultural system that’s centered on the integration of poetry and biblical interpretations into politics, and driven by a hunger for power and privilege. Is this not the inevitable outcome of the philosopher’s success in deposing the poets? There is something tragic in this.

The tragedy was perceptible once I connected the fourth component to the pottery analogy: The potter’s hands. In American society, these are the deep-rooted ideologies, the overall central vision of racial supremacy, that’s responsible for reproducing social products like “defense attorneys,” “LA police officers,” even all the Rodney Kings of the world. The potters sitting at the wheel of American pottery are not the aesthetes, the poets; they are the supremacist, the hungry for power, and not the devotees of beauty. With their racial ideologies, the system sustains the narratives of racial inferiority that help them protect their power and advantages. The white imagination, the black imagination, my own childhood imagination was being fundamentally shaped after a vile image, way before we were consciously aware of and responsive to the political world. Is this not tragic? Tragic in the sense that “before we are ever self-conscious to pose questions regarding the constitutive elements of political life, the world is already organized in narrative terms.”7 the source of racial hostilities, racial discrimination, racial inequality is already built into our social structures. White supremacy is an inherited American tragic mask; black inferiority is an inherited victimhood. The blacks were sacrificed for the fantastic greater good of a white man’s world.

The tragedy is in understanding that our futures are the outcomes of the stories we inherit. In essence, how can the narratives that fund the social constructs of race and privilege, that sneakily justify racial discrimination be contested? I think it comes down to understanding that the work of disrupting racism and inequality is the vocation of the poets. “Artists are the educators of humanity.” This indicates that contesting narratives that are shaping the experiences of racism and discrimination in American life is a deeply cultural task; therefore, a poet’s crusade. They are the only ones equipped with the tools of a craftsmen and the imaginative gifts of an artist to challenge and undo the prevailing narratives that plague American society.

  1. William Adams, “Political Poetics: Narrative Imagination and the Art of Politics,” (unpublished manuscript, 1983), 8.
  2. Adams, “Political Poetics,” 7.
  3. Adams, “Political Poetics,” 13.
  4. Adams, “Political Poetics,” 3.
  5. “Educate,” Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828 edition.
  6. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Reel Time/Real Justice” Denver University Law Review (1993), 285.
  7. Adams, “Political Poetics,” 8.
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