I have discovered by chance a recording of a beautiful exchange of ideas and perspectives on storytelling between John Berger and Susan Sontag on Youtube. Their take on storytelling is especially fascinating because of the relation they have with it – both of them are writers of fiction. Thus, we get perspectives on storytelling which deal not only with the process of reading stories, but also creating them.
Storytelling has always existed with us because it is how human beings have coped with the randomness and chaos of life – by creating and telling stories. John Berger begins the conversation by telling how storytelling for him is associated with the concept of shelter. Stories reveal both a rather physical sense of shelter, perhaps of the soldier or voyager who lived to tell the story, a kind of habitation. But then inside the story there is another kind of shelter, the one that shields the story being narrated from oblivion, forgetfulness and daily indifference.
This view of the story is not shared by Susan Sontag. She believes that people make a distinction between a story that is true and a story that is imagined or invented. There is a kind of ambiguity in the very notion of storytelling. On the one hand, we think of storytelling as a truth telling activity – ‘tell me the real story’, which means we see stories as bringing information and revealing secrets. But we also think of stories as – ‘that’s only a story’ or ‘don’t tell me stories’, meaning ‘don’t tell me lies’. This means that the very essence of storytelling faces two directions; on the one hand, it is connected with the idea of truth. On the other hand, it is connected with the idea of invention, imagination, lies.
Yes, agrees John Berger, the story exists somewhere between the imaginary and the truth, but for him stories begin off as truths. The essence of stories, though, lies both everywhere and nowhere and it is this displacement of time which makes something fiction. John believes that by reading the story, one experiences it as one’s own, thus the story gets displaced from where it really took place. Fiction to him goes beyond its immediate time and its immediate place.
Susan, however, believes that a story is always situated in a certain place and time and it does not apply to the reader’s experience of it at all. She does not think that stories apply to her experience, they rather instruct her. In her view, stories are not universal only because they are read by different people. Because of the compact form stories have, they could get very abstract and in that sense they acquire a certain universality. Still, it is the particularity of the storytelling, illustrating specific places and times in the world, which fascinates us the most. As she puts it “I don’t ask that the story address my experience, but that my experience makes it possible for me to understand the story.”
For John stories are mainly about telling a life’s story. He also believes that most stories begin at their end, that is after the protagonist’s death, which Susan considers to be the traditional way of storytelling – to tell the story of a life, to give value to a life. The stories that appeal to her are those telling about human dilemmas, which often turn out to be catastrophes. She believes that people feel the need to travel outside themselves; they feel the need for vicarious experiences that are not necessarily identical with the need for truth. There is a longing among people to see taboos broken, to let the imagination run riot. Fiction is after all a perpetual engagement in speculativeness.