The stories we tell ourselves

to Peter Pollock, Caren Carter and Joanne Harman,
winners of last week’s competition!

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom will be winging its way to them shortly.

In case you’re wondering ‘What’s this sudden obsession with biographies? I thought Jennie cared about culture and stuff.’ Well, I do. I care about the ‘song’ our culture is singing, its heart beat, its understanding of the way the world is, and one of the easiest ways of hearing that song is to listen to the messages in the stories it tells.

Human beings love stories. From cave men sharing their tales of the beasts they hunted and killed, to country music songs of the girl who got away, to the latest 3D adventure movies, mankind has continually told story after story about itself.

We tell stories partly simply to relay information. We tell them to build relationships. But we also tell them in order to create an understanding of the world.

The thing is, that understanding may not actually be a true representation. Yet telling it to others, and to ourselves, begins to shape our perception of events that happen around us, for better or for worse.

This is stunningly illustrated in CS Lewis’ science fiction novel Voyage to Venus (sometimes known as Perelandra). I’ve included a rather long extract here because Lewis puts it so much better than I could. First, though, a little background:

Ransom has arrived on Venus (Perelandra) and found it to be like Eden before the fall. He has met a beautiful lady, representing Eve, who has never experienced emotions such as envy, discontent, greed, pride, or even strong desire or fear. Whenever she wants food, she reaches up to the nearest tree and the fruit she finds there meets her need and desire perfectly. She has been told not to live on one particular island, and she obeys unquestioningly, not even wondering why, or wishing she could find out what it was like – she accepts completely that because the One who commanded it is entirely good, the command must be right, so she obeys it without further thought.

Yet something comes to mar this idyll. Another visitor from Earth, Weston, has arrived and takes the role of the serpent in Eden. He begins to slowly and methodically tempt her to sin, wrapping his half-truths up in the guise of ‘wisdom’ – she wants to grow wiser (or older, as she calls it), and he equates more experience with greater wisdom and also with greater beauty.

After days of persuasive reasoning, which Ransom has wrestled to counter, Weston begins to take anther tack:

“Weston’s voice…appeared to be telling, with extreme beauty and pathos, a number of stories, and at first Ransom could not perceive any connecting link be­tween them. They were all about women, but women who had apparently lived at different periods of the world’s history and in quite different circumstances. From the Lady’s replies it appeared that the stories contained much that she did not understand; but oddly enough the Un-man [as Ransom has begun to call him] did not mind. If the questions aroused by any one story proved at all difficult to answer, the speaker simply dropped that story and instantly began another.

“The heroines of the stories seemed all to have suffered a great deal—they had been oppressed by fathers, cast off by husbands, deserted by lovers. Their children had risen up against them and society had driven them out. But the stories all ended, in a sense, happily: sometimes with honours and praises to a heroine still living, more often with tardy acknowledgment and unavailing tears after her death. As the endless speech proceeded, the Lady’s questions grew always fewer; some meaning for the words Death and Sorrow—though what kind of meaning Ransom could not even guess—was apparently being created in her mind by mere repetition.

“At last it dawned upon him what all these stories were about. Each one of these women had stood forth alone and braved a terrible risk for her child, her lover, or her people. Each had been misunderstood, reviled, and persecuted: but each also magnificently vindicated by the event. The precise details were often not very easy to follow. Ransom had more than a suspicion that many of these noble pioneers had been what in ordinary terrestrial speech we call witches or perverts. But that was all in the background. What emerged from the stories was rather an image than an idea—the picture of the tall, slender form, unbowed though the world’s weight rested upon its shoulders, stepping forth fearless and friendless into the dark to do for others what those others forbade it to do yet needed to have done.

“And all the time, as a sort of background to these goddess shapes, the speaker was building up a picture of the other sex. No word was directly spoken on the subject: but one felt them there as a huge, dim multitude of creatures pitifully childish and complacently arrogant; timid, meticu­lous, unoriginating; sluggish and ox-like, rooted to the earth almost in their indolence, prepared to try nothing, to risk nothing, to make no exertion, and capable of being raised into full life only by the unthanked and rebellious virtue of their females. It was very well done. Ransom, who had little of the pride of sex, found himself for a few moments all but believing it.”

CS Lewis, Voyage to Venus (1968)

This post is too long already, so I’ll leave it there for now. But I’ll come back to it at some point, because this is the perfect illustration of how minds and opinions are shaped in our culture today.

Let me know what other examples you notice over the next few days. And listen out for the messages behind the stories you’re listening to and telling yourself, your friends and your children.

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