Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Memory of Gilgamesh

Image result for Hope Baugh Some short time ago the storytelling world lost a wonderful friend, artist, listener, and brilliant human being, Hope Baugh. She was for many years the Young Adult Services Manager at Carmel Clay Public Library in Indianapolis. She was also a vibrant storyteller, actor, teacher, and theatre reviewer. I feel blessed to have received the attention of her critical eye and to have been included in her voluminous theatre blog, I have never felt so seen, honored, and appreciated by any other reviewer.

In memory and gratitude I post here her review of my presentation at Going Deep: Long Traditional Storytelling Retreat in 2009. Thank you Hope.

2009 Going Deep: “Gilgamesh” by David Novak

This is the fourth of four posts in a series about the third annual “Going Deep: Long Traditional Stories Retreat” held in Bethlehem, Indiana, on March 19-22, 2009.

The Storytelling
On Saturday night, the last night, I and the other retreat participants walked over to the Schoolhouse from the Storyteller’s Riverhouse to hear a version of “Gilgamesh” written and performed by David Novak and presented by A Telling Experience. Priscilla Howe introduced the show. Steve Boyar was the stage manager.

Yes, stage manager. David comes to oral tradition storytelling from theatre and, I learned later, from busking (street performance art that in David’s case includes clowning and mime.) His “Gilgamesh” piece incorporates the best from all of his backgrounds – the intimacy of storytelling, the interpretive skills of acting, the physicality of busking, and the design elements of theatre – to let his audience see that this 5000-year-old story is still a good one, and still relevant.

Steve is a storyteller, too – in fact, he and David met through one of David’s storytelling classes – but in this production he is content to stay completely behind the scenes. He told me later that the story is a little different every time. As the stage manager, he doesn’t follow written cues. He said, very modestly, “I just know the story.”

I imagine that being the stage manager of this storytelling show is a very organic and intuitive activity. Even though David and Steve have done a lot of work ahead of time and deeply considered each aspect of the show, the two men also co-create each performance as it goes along.

When the audience arrived Saturday night, the chairs had all been turned to face the small, raised platform at the end of the schoolhouse’s meeting room. The space had been outfitted with several theatre lights and extra sound equipment. Seven bamboo poles were stuck in weighted burlap sacks so that they stood upright. There was a pattern of smaller poles almost in a star shape – or maybe it was an arrow? – on the back wall, between two free-standing bamboo screens. Draped on the floor in front of the platform were two long pieces of brown plastic, with shards of clay and two or three loose bamboo poles strewn across them.

You can see a picture of a portion of the “set” with the house lights up in Priscilla Howe’s account of the “Going Deep” retreat on her blog.

I was delighted to learn later that every time David and Steve present this piece, they cut new bamboo canes from near their homes in Ashville, North Carolina. In my mind, this honors both the transience of oral traditional storytelling and the stagey quality of live theatre.

The “Gilgamesh” storytelling piece incorporated portable theatre lights, too, and several pieces of recorded music.

David wore black trousers and a subtly-striped, black and grey, short-sleeved shirt. He looked as if he had respected his audience enough to dress up, but his clothes also allowed him to move very freely, even incorporating joyful and impressive acrobatics from time to time.

The story was completely new to me. It went something like this:

Gilgamesh is the proud ruler of a magnificent city called Uruk. He is two parts female (from his mother, who was a goddess) and one part male (from his father, a human man.) He is raised mostly by his mother, but then a goddess makes and civilizes a friend for him, a man called Enkidu. Gilgamesh and Enkidu at first want to fight each other, but then they become best friends and witnesses for each other. They share many adventures, each of which has meaning. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh seeks immortality to ease his pain. After more adventures, more learning, and more pain, he finally finds peace instead. “Love the person you’re with, and eat the bread while it’s still warm.”

Oh, I am not doing justice to the nuances of the plot or the characters at all, but it is a powerful, powerful story, especially as David and Steve present it.

Later, when I learned the word “bromance” (buddy story about straight men) from a TV-watching colleague at my day job, I immediately thought of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

And David and Steve, for that matter. I wish I had thought to ask them what their wives think of this show. This version of “Gilgamesh” is much more than a re-telling of the first recorded bromance, however.

My experience of the piece was as layered as the piece itself. I laughed a lot – sometimes in recognition, other times in surprise. At times my face was wet with tears. Other times I was almost unbearably turned on. And still other times I felt just plain pleased to be taken not only to ancient Sumeria but also to the nineteenth century and George Smith’s re-discovery of the ancient cuneiform tablets, and, through brief references to pop culture, to various decades of the last century. David (and Steve) made the whole, complex piece very easy to follow.

There were two parts divided by a ten-minute intermission. At the end, David passed around a loaf of bread that Steve had baked during the show. We all pulled off pieces to chew. It was delicious!

The Workshop
The next morning we all gathered in the living room of the Storyteller’s Riverhouse for David’s workshop.

He said he didn’t have any of the handouts or other things that we had enjoyed in the first two workshops of the retreat, but “I will give you myself as much as I can.”

This is no small gift. David’s mind is as well-stocked as the great library of Alexandria. He also has a knack for exegesis, for exploring and explaining something point by point, word by word, or in this case, artistic choice by artistic choice.

His “Going Deep” workshop was therefore more of a companionable, conversational lecture than an invitation to self-reflection or a hands-on introduction to ritual, but it was textured and fascinating, rich with both personal insights and scholarship. Even though it was very different from either Liz Warren’s workshop or Marilyn Omifunke Torres’ workshop, I found it equally satisfying.

David had brought an iPod in a small case that converted into a nifty little stereo system. He played the pre- show music as we all were getting settled with our notebooks and coffee cups. He had also brought a small crate of books. He spread them out in a loose pile at his feet, ready to hold up as he mentioned them in his talk.

He began by saying that he planned to go through the show again, sharing information about the artistic choices he had made. However, first he wanted to give everyone a chance to integrate the stories from the previous two nights as well as the one he had told. He asked everyone to help him create a conversation of images and moments from all three pieces, “Like an overture in musical theatre weaves together the themes of an entire piece.”

He said, “Present whatever image occurs to you as you’re remembering the stories. Listen to the images that others present and relate your images to those. But just speak the images, don’t talk about them. We’re not having a discussion yet, just weaving connections. It’s okay to have some silence in the conversation, too.”

Someone said, “The red horse in the Grail story...” and we were off.    Afterwards, I did feel more deeply connected to all three of the stories.

David said that he does this exercise with his storytelling students before they tell. They share images from their own stories, listening for possible connections and resonances. Then when the students listen to each other’s full stories, they listen in a more coherent, woven manner.

It also helps them begin to move into teller mode. “Beginning storytellers are often caught in a fixed text,” David said. “This exercise challenges the grip of the literary mind...The challenge is to move freely within the story...The mind of a storyteller is different from a writer or a reciter.”

I want to try this exercise with my own storytelling students.

For the rest of the morning, David took us back through the “Gilgamesh” story. He played bits of music from the show – some of which he had created himself using “Garage Band” – and explained each bit’s purpose, such as foreshadowing, or focusing, or filling in emotional gaps, or mirroring the fusion of elements in the story, etc.

He referred to other stories and to other artists’ performances. He referred to ideas, quotes, books, poems, songs, and theories. He referred to issues and information from his personal life and his own journey as a storyteller. He brought forth from his own mind and heart all kinds of items to deepen our connection to the Gilgamesh story through his explanation of his own creative decision-making for this piece.

I scribbled notes as fast as I could, only speaking up to ask how to spell things like “trochaic tetrameter.” I took way too many notes to share all of them here. I’ll just share a few of the many, many items that intrigued me in David’s talk:

  • On the importance of having and being witnesses: “How can we know another until we know ourselves? And yet how can we know ourselves until we know another?” 
  • On the challenge of providing an epic experience in a modern setting: “We are not a tribal, traditional community. We don’t have a common principle of silence, where you don’t speak what everyone knows already (so our art has to fill in some of the gaps for our listeners)....There’s more to it than just the story. There’s the experience. How to make it immersive?”
  • On honoring the original source: “If you just read aloud a translation of the cuneiform writing, you might think you were honoring the original story, but it would actually be like just reading aloud a libretto from a musical comedy or just reading aloud Shakespeare. You would not be honoring it... (And anyway) there is no such thing as a definitive text. The first written story of Gilgamesh was still recorded a millennia after the story was first told.”
  • On being fearless as an artist: “Some artists think that being fearless is about coarseness and crudity. It’s not. Being fearless is not the same as being disrespectful. Anyone can be insulting. The challenge of the modern artist is to try and mean something. The truly dangerous thing is to be sophisticated and nuanced. Real nakedness is enigmatic.”
  • On building a long piece that keeps the listeners engaged: “Bertoldt Brecht said, ‘As soon as your listener knows what you’re going to say, they stop listening.’ So you have to break the expectations.” 
  • Gilgamesh felt abandoned by the goddess, but at the end he realized that he had never left her hand.
I hope I get to hear David Novak’s telling of “Gilgamesh” again some time.

By the way, David sent me some production photos, too, but I loved the sexy ambiguity of the show poster, so that is what I used here on my blog. You can see photos of David and learn more about his work on his website,

Hope Baugh – This entry was posted on Sunday, March 29th, 2009.

Monday, January 22, 2018

A+ Fellow

A few years ago I joined the ranks of Teaching Artists with the A+ Schools program here in North Carolina. The core philosophy of A+, integrating arts into every aspect of the curriculum, strikes a deep personal chord with in me:

The A+ Schools Program is a whole-school reform model that views the arts as fundamental to teaching and learning in all subjects. A+ Schools combine interdisciplinary teaching and daily arts instruction, offering children opportunities to develop creative, innovative ways of thinking, learning and showing what they know. In A+ Schools, teaching the state’s mandated curriculum involves a collaborative, many-disciplined approach, with the arts continuously woven into every aspect of a child’s learning.
Downlaod the A+ Brochure here:

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Flowering Forward

At the Williamsburg, VA Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Price of Admission

...He saw the golden slipper filled with blood.
 "Was it for me you suffered this abuse?"
"It is the price a woman has to pay, 
If ever she should hope to wed a Prince."
––  Cinder Girl, Novak

So I'm 14 and and I decide to join the high school Key Club - a youth service club affiliated with the local Kiwanis Club. My older brother had been in the Key Club for years, our father was president of the Kiwanis Club, so I felt I should join. I did not realize that I would be required to submit to a week of humiliating initiation at the hands of the senior club members, culminating in a brutal late-night hazing on the beach. Even so, I wanted in. So I spent the week ducking and dodging as best I could, but when it came to the final night, I skipped out altogether. I had a get-out-of-torture-free card: I had rehearsal. (Most of my high school years were spent in rehearsal for some play or another.) I dodged the big ordeal and became a probationary member of the Key Club. Probationary because it was not to be official until I submitted to the hazing. That threat hung over me for weeks until I finally had the nerve to resign. It wasn't that important to me. Sour grapes, perhaps, but in truth I had a passion for another, greater, membership. I was a Thespian, and I wanted to be in the theatre.

I had been on stage since age 7, working backstage, acting, writing and directing as a student in our local children's theatre school. The theatre school regarded everyone as essential. There were no small parts, only small actors. Ego was not allowed. Lead players worked their way up the ranks, taking on more and more responsibility. We were expected to be true leaders supporting every member of the cast and crew. There, I learned how to walk and talk and live in community. There, I found my heart's desire: to be a real player in the theatre world.

At high school our drama club produced straight plays. But there was also a choral group, Contemporary Music, which produced musicals. After running spot for their production of "The Fantastiks," I knew I had to get out there and sing. But, after all my years on stage, I had never really learned to sing or dance. But I auditioned anyway and hoped for my chance. I got it. Sort of. Our choral director, Mr. Hill, was very enthusiastic about my joining the program. But, he said, I needed to improve my singing. He suggested I take private voice lessons and recommended a friend of his, Robert. Robert was a professional pianist; a short man with muscular technique that made Chopin sound like Rachmaninoff.

Mom set up a series of lessons and we began. Robert taught me to read music, to sing arias and to appreciate opera. He was also a fan of Johnny Mathis and soon had me crooning pop ballads as well. I learned the "y buzz," mask resonance and deep breathing techniques. Eventually I could belt out show tunes.  He treated me like an adult and I liked that. Soon he was picking me up after school for my lessons and driving me home afterwards. He started teaching me to drive, allowing me behind the wheel of his Cadillac. We'd stop for coffee and he'd lecture me on Romantic Idealism. He brought me to openings at the local playhouse to see Broadway shows and symphonies.

And he propositioned me. Repeatedly. He was gay and believed that I was too, but that I didn't know it yet. He'd say "don't knock it until you've tried it." When I declined, he withdrew. The friendship cooled and he became the dispassionate teacher, talking down to me. Back at school, I still waited to join the inner circle of our chorus group, to be given a shot. I learned that my choral teacher and my voice teacher were members of a larger community of friends in the arts. Robert took me to a party and there they were, along with some other students in the program, the leading players, acting outrageous and flirtatious. This, I thought, was the real, grown-up, theatre scene. These were the people that held the opportunities I sought.

So Robert seduced me. I lost my virginity to him. I rationalized that maybe he was right about me, maybe this was who I really am. Maybe it was okay. Maybe now I would open up and realize my full potential. I flattered myself that I was an adult and a member of a very special club. After all, I was now 15.

It was clear that if I wanted to be considered for roles, I needed be a player in this game of men and boys. So I tried. But I was ashamed and conflicted. I knew in my heart, this was not me. But I also knew that this was the way to work in the local and regional theatres. I did learn to sing. But the cost was high. Robert owned me.

This is not about homosexuality. (Although the experience helped affirm my heterosexual identity.) This is about a toxic mixture of power, vulnerability, and desire. It is about an economy run on weak self-esteem and strong ambition.

Eventually, at age 16, I mustered the courage to break it off. I focused on creating my own work. I figured that if I could learn to make my own theatre, I would be in control. I continued to study theatre in college, where the game was also in play. I went on the road after that and never went back to my home town. Once or twice I found a theatre group that had the same ethic I valued: an egalitarian work ethic where we practiced and produced and co-created quality stage plays from our passion for the art. But I kept coming across the game. In graduate school as intern at a prominent regional theatre company, I played alongside a Hollywood star brought in for the lead. He gave me useful tips on playing Shakespeare...and he propositioned me. (Nevermind that I was married.) He offered me entry into the business, the chance to travel, to make movies, if only I would be his consort, his boy toy. I declined.

I saw no way to dodge the game. To continue in this career, I realized, I could not advance on merit alone. I sank into despair and depression. I fell back on my solo practice and returned to my childhood passion: children's theatre. I began to interpret and tell stories for school children. I was good at it. I started creating like crazy, developed a varied repertory with something for every age. I embarked on a new, ex-theatre, career: storytelling. I gained a new voice, a fresh imagination, and a liberated sense of play. I entered a new community of musicians, writers, librarians, teachers, and folkies, all of whom had been lured into the telling of stories. They welcomed and encouraged me and valued the merit of my work. I began to heal. I began to recover confidence, dignity, hope and renewed enthusiasm for my art.

The rest is history. But there is a crippling legacy. Self-promotion nauseates me. False promises haunt me. And, for the most part, I continue to work alone. 

Often I am asked why I left acting to become a storyteller. My standard reply is that I found the business of theatre had less and less to do with the life of an artist. That was true. But in addition, I was not willing to pay the price of admission.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Earth v Jobs

Recently the president celebrated the opening of the pipeline from Mandan, North Dakota, while blaming the Paris Accords for job-losses in the U.S. This prompted me to re-post an Earth Day blog from many years ago, feeling iot remains relevent:

Earth Day 2011

This is an exciting time to be involved in Storytelling and Education. As I see it, our Cultural Mythology and Personal Narratives are in a state of rapid transformation. In a way, we are moving from a sky-centered story to an earth-centered story. We are truly "coming down to earth." Still, we are moving against some strong anti-earth stories rooted in our American Dream (aka Myth). For example, here is a cover story from USA Today on December 10, 1997:
We are presented with a choice: adopt the Kyoto Accords and save the Earth or reject them and save American jobs. This is a classically self-involved American Story. Unhappily, at that time, we chose door number 2: jobs. Today, I think that has begun to change. Paradoxically, the motion back to earth from sky may have been sparked by our first effort to leave the planet entirely: the moon landing. For when our astronauts reached the moon, they sent us our first look at the earth (and ourselves) from space. That image still ripples through our consciousness and seeds the rewriting of our stories.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Bullies Are Coming!

I published this story a few years ago when Sarah Palin was performing her theatre of the absurd. This was originally written as part of a program I created called "American Parables" and continues to be relevant.

July 4,2011:

Whatever Sarah Palin may think, there is a big difference between the legend of Paul Revere and the history. But we create legends out of our need for myth, and the myth of Paul Revere is important to who we are. It is not about our right to own guns, it is about e pluribus unum, "out of many, one." It is about the interdependence that forms the vast community we call the United States of America. When the U.S.A. became independent from England, we did not become a nation of rugged individuals. We became, instead, a national community.

Here is my take on the myth of Paul Revere. With a nod to American mythmaker, Henry W. Longfellow.

The Midday Ride of Jimmy Greer, an American Parable
by David Novak

Listen my children and you will hear
Of the midday ride of Jimmy Greer.
Jimmy was perched in the Sycamore tree
He used for a lookout waiting to see
What Benny the scout was going to do
To play with a ball that was red or was blue.
If red then it said that the forthcoming dread
Would appear from around old Ferguson’s shed.
If blue then he knew that the danger at hand
Was coming from over the park playground sand.
Below him at ready at the Sycamore’s side
Was the red painted roadster Jimmy would ride
As soon as he got Ben’s secret report.
He would jump down and ride with his news to the fort.
He would speed on his steed and spread the alarms,
Warning the neighborhood kids to take arms,
To rise and resist the tyrannical rule 
Of the neighborhood bullies so tough and so cruel.
To take arms against their troubles and then
By opposing assure that never again
Would they suffer in silence or cower in fright
Never daring to go out by day or by night.
For the bullies had bullied too hard and too long
And though they were big and though they were strong,
Jimmy and Ben and Libby and Kate
Latisha and Alex, Shariah and Nate
Decided united they’d stand or they’d fall
That all were for one and each one was for all.
The bullies were Andrew and his buddy Matt
And Cassie the warrior and Paula the rat.
They’d gang up on the kids and force ‘em to pay
A tax if ever they wanted to play
On the swings or the slide or the sand or the grass.
They made ‘em pay tolls in order to pass.
And that wasn’t all if kids went to the store
They’d stop ‘em again and make ‘em pay more.
If you played with a kite or a jump rope or jax
They’d gather around you and make you pay tax.
And what did they take from those kids all those times?
Pennies and quarters and nickels and dimes
Candy and bubblegum, soda pop too
For if you refused you know what they’d do?
They’d tie you to trees all covered with ants 
Or put gum in your hair or pull down your pants.
Now some kids tried saying ‘this isn’t fair!
There’s room here for everyone why can’t we share?’
But Andrew just laughed and Cassie threw rocks
And Paula and Matt kicked dirt on their socks.
So Shariah and Alex and Libby and Kate
And Jimmy and Ben, Latisha and Nate
With paper and pens acting very professional
Met in the fort in a manner congressional.
They wrote up a letter outlining their views
Then went down the streets delivering the news.
Now Libby was clever and Shariah was bright
Nate was inventive and Kate sure could fight
And Benny lived near where the bullies would be
And outside his windows Benny could see
If they would be coming by park or by shack
So Ben was sent out to scout the attack.
But Jimmy alone of the whole rebel band
Was the speediest biker in all of the land.
So Jimmy was sent to the Sycamore tree
As part of the neighborhood plan to be free.
It was twelve of the clock with the sun bearing down.
An ominous calm hung over the town.
No breeze was astir no pet was let out,
No bird was heard singing no bug buzzed about.
Bang! The door slammed opening wide
As Benny the scout came running outside.
High in the air Ben tossed a red ball.
Jimmy was startled but he didn’t fall.
He leapt on his bike and sped through the wood
Pushing the pedals as fast as he could.
Right down the drive as his tires were humming
Calling out loud ‘the bullies are coming!
‘The bullies are coming!’ his voice rang out clear
‘The bullies are coming!  And soon will be here
‘The bullies are coming !  Rise up one and all!
‘The bullies are coming!’ Jim sounded the call.
Down Jefferson Street along Franklin Drive
‘The bullies are coming! And soon will arrive!’
He cut down an alley to Washington Way
‘The bullies are coming!  Today is the day!’
He turned at the corner of Lexington Court
Then climbed up the oak tree they used for a fort.
‘Good work,’ said Libby ‘now you draw them near
We will get everyone ready out here.’
Then out of the tree and into the heat
Jimmy went speeding down Longfellow Street.
He rounded the corner of Ferguson’s place
And slid to stop right before Cassie’s face.
‘Who said that you could go riding today?’
Cassie asked Jimmy ‘what did you pay?’
‘I didn’t pay nothing,’ Jimmy replied
‘It shouldn’t cost money to go for a ride.’
‘It does if you want to ride safe,’ Paula said
As she and the gang came around Fergie’s shed.
‘Yeah,’ Matt chimed in ‘you could fall and get hurt.
‘You could land on your face and have to eat dirt.’
‘Of course, if you pay,’ Andrew stepped in
‘You won’t lose your bike or get kicked in the shin.’
Paula ran up as Jimmy wheeled round
Cassie leapt forward but fell to the ground.
Jimmy had sped between Andrew and Matt
Matt swung as he dodged and knocked Andy flat.
Then around the next corner but not very far
Jim hid behind Mr. Hamilton’s car.
Andy and Matt and Paula and Cass
Ran round the corner and started to pass
When Jimmy called out “who made you king?
I don’t think it’s fair and I won’t pay a thing!”
He zipped out behind them and led them away
“I won’t just serve you and let you have your way!”
They ran after Jim and he stayed in sight
“Just because you are strong doesn’t mean you are right!”
Jim put on the speed as they started to rally
And led them across Washington alley.
“You say that our freedom requires taxation
But I won’t pay tax without representation!”
Paula and Andrew cut off Jimmy’s route
Jim hit the brakes while spinning about
But Cassie and Matt had him surrounded.
“You’re saying,” sneered Matt “that our taxes aren’t founded
On sound moral ground?  Don’t be idiotic!
Everyone knows that its plain patriotic
To let those in power make all the rules.”
“Yeah,” Paula said “you babies are fools.
We big kids know best and we work hard to see
That the neighborhood’s safe enough to be free.”
“And who knows” Andrew closed “you might be infected
“With germs and disease, we should be protected
From people who threaten and put us in danger
You might be a spy or a crook or a stranger
Trying to wreck our great institutions
That’s why we work hard to come up with solutions
That serve to protect all the folks who obey
And silence the ones who want their own say.”
Paula stooped down and picked up a stone
The others did likewise as Jim stood alone.
Cassie lifted her stone “its like this Jimmy dear,
To keep people in line you must keep them in fear.”
“There was no fair vote!” Jim started to cower.
“The day you did nothing is the day we took power.”
They lifted their hands just about to attack
When a sound from the ground made them jump back.
Jimmy blew on his whistle and jumped to his feet
As the sound of his whistle awoke the whole street.
Then bells started ringing from Benny’s front lawn  
And drums from the playground as others came on.
The sounds were now growing louder and strong
The bullies looked round and saw a great throng
Of kids, any one of whom the bullies could beat
But not when they all stood up in the street.
Then, out of the doors, to the bullies’ great shock
Came grown-ups with bells up and down the whole block.
They rang with the kids in one glorious chorus
“No party of bullies will make the rules for us!
We choose to be free and to stand for the good
And so we’ve united the whole neighborhood.
The U.N. we’ll call it and it will prevail
To see that no bully will ever assail
The rights of each child, each woman and man
To liberty, justice and the power to plan
Their own way of living and worship as well,
To speak and assemble and peacefully dwell.
The right to enjoy self determination
So long as their actions cause no limitation
On anyone’s rights to these freedoms too
To do unto others as we’d have them do.”
Cassie and Andrew and Paula and Matt
Let Jimmy go and helplessly sat
While a jury of peers decided their fate.
A sentence was given, delivered by Nate,
That they would repair any damage they’d done
And also repay all the money they’d won.
And further provide service to all,
Such as tying a shoe or pumping a ball,
Or stopping the traffic when folks cross the street.
And promise to never attempt to repeat
The tyranny with which they once tried to rule.
Instead they should start to study in school
Not how to make war or how to be strong,
But how to make peace and how to right wrong.
And since that great day of Jimmy’s alarm
Our United Neighbors have kept us from harm.
But if from without or within should appear
A threat to those freedoms we all hold so dear,
We know what to do for united we stand.
We all raise our voices and join freedom’s band.

Friday, December 9, 2016

No Knowing What: Truth, Post Truth

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
LEWIS CARROLL (Charles L. Dodgson), Through the Looking-Glass.
Reality is a social construct determined by the narrative styling of truth. 
Storytelling is the original virtual reality. 

What do I know? How do I know it? What distinguishes belief from opinion? Is what I believe to be true, actually true? How do I know what I know? That is the problem. 
And the problem is, I don't know, I believe. But I believe on a deep level that is so unconscious, it manifests as knowledge. "The sky is blue." A  simple statement of fact. But that fact is formed from a linguistic agreement about "blue" "sky" and "is." If I don't have those implicit notions embedded in my thoughts, there is no statement of fact.

Fact, by the way, derives from Latin facere, "to do." It is a past participle, meaning "a thing done." A related word from the same origin, but not as commonly used, is factitious, meaning "made" or "artificial." In other words, a fact is a thing that is done, a factitious fact is a made fact, a fake fact. The making of facts (factition?) is a popular practice at present. Increasingly today, facts are factitious acts of fiction.*

We think of facts as irrefutable and unchanging truths. A fact is, regardless of whether we believe in it or not. There is a chair in the room. It is a solid entity. There is no denying its existence. We see it, sit on it, know it through all our senses. Even if we do not know what a chair is, we cannot deny that the thing others call a chair is there in front of us and, should we choose to ignore it, we will still trip over it. This sense of a fact is embedded early in childhood as we begin to comprehend object permanence: a thing exists separate from my sensing it. [When I close my eyes, the chair is still there even if I no longer see it.] Once the notion of object permanence is embedded in our minds, we can accept the notion that a chair exists elsewhere, even if we do not see or feel or otherwise experience it. I have a chair in my room. You tell me there is a chair in your room. I accept that your chair is as real as mine. Your chair exists, because I believe what you tell me. Hence, a fact is able to exist beyond my ability to verify it with my senses, because you tell me so. There's the rub!

Suppose I visit your home one day. I see that there is no chair there. I say "hey! you said you had a chair. What gives?" You tell me that the chair was there but now it is gone. You gave it to a friend. I accept this. Your chair continues to be real, a fact, even though I have no empirical proof of its existence. Now I have a truth embedded in my world: there exists a chair that once belonged to you, but now belongs to your friend. This chair, by the way, is wooden and finely crafted with lathed supports and a walnut varnish. It is lovely. It is true. Yet, it is also imaginary. It exists in my factitious reality.

How is this possible? Facts are believed, in part, because we are inclined to accept what others tell us as true. It is part of the implicit social contract. The philosopher, Paul Grice (1913-1988), described what he called the "cooperative principle" in human communication. He observed people in conversation cooperating according a set of socially embedded, unconsciously assumed, rules or "maxims." Among them was what he defined as the Maxim of Quality** in which it is assumed that the speaker is speaking the truth, or what they believe to be the truth. You tell me you had a chair and gave it to your friend and I accept it as true. I have no reason to believe otherwise.

But the Maxim of Quality only goes so far. I am not completely gullible. I am only willing to believe you up to a point. Tell me there is a unicorn in your garden and I begin to doubt.

So what more is needed to make me believe something is true?
I am more willing to believe something if it is expressed in the language of truth.

The language of truth changes from culture to culture, era to era. In Western Culture, for long periods, the language of truth was spoken by the church. "This I know, because the bible tells me so." For some in the West this is still the language of truth. However, the dominant modern language of truth in the West is now spoken by science.

This is a language and style issue.
Bible style: "And the Lord spoke, saying, Behold! I will bring unto you an unicorn to bless your garden and this shall be a sign of my eternal love..."
Science style: "According to research data, there is a significant probability that single-horned mammals of the family Equidae, may inhabit isolated botanical regions such as gardens..."

This is my point: If you want me to believe in your unicorn, it all comes down to the story you tell and how you tell it.
Now get this, the word True comes from the same root as the word Tree, and the sense has to do with something that is solid and steadfast, as in made-of-wood. The word Druid derives also from the same root and combines with the proto-indo-european root for vision, yielding one-who-sees-the-tree, i.e. one-who-knows-the-truth.

Culture regularly assigns the role of "druid" (i.e. knowers-of-truth) to particular storytellers. In the case of religious truth, the priests are the truth-tellers. In the modern instance of scientific truth, the truth-tellers are the scientists, experts, and other kinds of authoritative  (authorized) reporters who practice a style of truth-telling we might call "the illusion of objectivity" more commonly known as "news."

SO, if you style your story in the language of truth, some people will believe you. Especially if you attribute your report of the truth to other, accepted truth-speakers, experts, and tellers:

Oh, and if you put a picture next to your report, you will add the gravitas of reality to your assertion. Pictures never lie, right?

Every good storyteller knows that one of the most effective ways to tell a ghost story is to treat it like a news report. The more factual it sounds, the scarier it is.  This is because the language of truth is so ingrained, we are reluctant to doubt it.

But in order for something really outrageous to embed as true, I need to have room in my factitious reality for it to take root. (Truth is a tree, remember?) To clear a space to embed a truth, I need to cultivate doubt. Using the language of truth against itself, I can create a counter factual narrative. Say, for example, I create doubt about the voices of truth by claiming the authority (the media) is biased. I make assertions that news reports are unfairly weighted in favor of a specific moral issue, economic trend, or political party. Doubting one voice of truth, allows another voice to be heard. And so it goes.

In the present cultural moment in the West, the established language of truth is in doubt. As the notion of objective reality becomes more and more subjective, truth is balkanized*** into factitious factions. We choose the reality we want, neither more nor less. Truth ceases to be solid and tree-like, becoming uprooted and nebulous.

As the established truth-tellers lose their authority, we are left to discover for ourselves a language that will have the emotional and intellectual ring of truth. We can either inflame and enrage, or enlighten and enlarge. In the new nebula of truth, the storyteller must be a wayfinder. The challenge of the time is to reconstitute a social contract of truths we can once again hold to be self-evident. 

*Factitious Disorder, also known as Munchausen's Disease, is a mental health disorder in which patients deliberately create false symptoms of mental or physical illness. Baron von Munchausen (like the Norwegian Peer Gynt) is a fictitious German noble who spun tall tales of outrageous adventures.
** For more on the Gricean Maxims:
*** Ironically, it happens that much of the recent fake news has come from the Balkans!