Honors Essay 01: The Essential Idea

Here is my first honors essay of the autumn. It probably amounts to the longest essay I’ve ever turned in for colloquium, excepting that one story on the Renaissance. And now, after I’ve completed and submitted it, I can’t even remember why I chose the title.

The Essential Idea: The Metaphysics of Story

When human beings universally exhibit signs of propensities toward certain thought or action, we can reasonably assume as Christians that it has an origin either in God, in Whose image we are made, or in the rebellion. One of the best ways we can study the human is to study what he creates; these creations will inevitably reflect on their creator, even as he reflects on his Creator. One prevalent product of human creation is story, which infects intrinsically not only what we create but our basic assumptions about the world. The metaphysical reality of story, therefore, should be understood as fundamental to human understanding of the world; without it our world would be incomprehensible, and it is because of story and other ways of ordering things, such as category, that we find meaning and coherence in the world.

Jorge Luis Borges, the great postmodernist author of the 20th century, once wrote as part of his collection Dreamtigers the following short essay (as translated by Andrew Hurley) titled Argumentum Ornithologicum:

I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second, or perhaps less; I am not sure how many birds I saw. Was the number of birds definite or indefinite? The problem involves the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because God knows how many birds I saw. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because no one can have counted. In this case, I saw fewer than ten birds (let us say) and more than one, but did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one, which was not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That integer—not-nine, not-eight, not-seven, not-six, etc.—is inconceivable. Ergo, God exists.

Regardless of whether or not Borges actually espoused the argument (and with Borges it is always difficult to tell), it demonstrates by the confusion it instinctively inspires that we feel the need to connect the subjective dots in our world to form a picture of an objective reality, which I hesitantly assert was probably his intent in the first place. There are two common-sense ways in which we do this, I hypothesize: chronologically and spatially.

Story forms this chronological connection. Until fairly late in the word’s history, story referred especially to a narrative of true events, and there was no differentiation between the word “story” and the word “history” until the 1500s. The word has come to refer to any narrative, but in the genre of creation especially to a fictitious narrative. Purpose and progression (or, a goal and changes to reach that goal) are perhaps how we link events into Story. There is always a will involved, a storyteller, and it is, to cite Dr. Kenyon, one of our natural assumptions that a storyteller is involved in the telling of our world’s story and so has meaning and makes sense.

But we cannot consider story merely a means to the end of understanding the world. God, for some reason, loves story—perhaps it is demanded by Purpose—and so we cannot escape a mindset based upon it. Story is universal. The inclination of the human is not only to view the world as having story/purpose, but also to create story out of the world. All cultures partake of this. The most primitive arts are intrinsically connected to story, whether invented for entertainment and edification or seriously believed. It is true, first of all, that the pre-Judeo-Christian world rarely saw time as linear but rather as cyclical. Hinduism is, of course, the standard example of this sort of perception of reality, but it is far from the only one. Nevertheless, it is easy to see, when examining these myths and ideas about reality, that they rely heavily upon the concept of story and archetype, perhaps even to a greater degree than western linearism, as they not only see a story happening but happening again and again. We will interpret what we see in terms of story. Even before the advent of the scientific revolution there has always been a belief in the cause-effect relationship; the woodcutter believes that if you chop all the way through the trunk of a tree it will inevitably fall. This is because he sees a story, a pattern, in the chopping of the wood. Our pieces of literature, except those with a conscious attempt to depart from the standard, rely on a series of events that we connect in our minds to comprise a story.

All this spurs us to create stories of our own. It is a way of identifying oneself with the Divine. G.K. Chesterton remarked in his essay “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family” in the collection Heretics, “not with the most gigantic intellect could we finish the simplest or silliest story, and be certain that we were finishing it right. That is because a story has behind it not merely intellect, which is partly mechanical, but will, which is in its essence divine. The narrative writer can send his hero to the gallows if he likes in the last chapter but one. He can do it by the same divine caprice whereby he, the author, can go to the gallows himself, and to hell afterwards if he chooses.” Man is given a will that we are not to deify but are to use; after all, in the New Heavens and Earth man will rule and govern. Creation of story is something to be sought after as not only in accordance with our human nature but beneficial to ourselves and to our fellow humans. For, seeing narrative in the world around us, we naturally seek truth in created narrative; if it is there and if it is understood, then it shall lead to greater understanding.

That is Story, and again gives us chronological coherence. In order to understand our world spatially we must use category or distinction. One might relate this to Plato’s Forms. We naturally perceive category, not just between things like dead and alive, red and blue, etc. but something more fundamental than a mere adjective. We perceive an essence shared between things of a certain character, such as a tree as opposed to a rock, which are of themselves regardless of whether or not they share texture or color, or whether it is possible for the most basic elements of one to be shared or transmuted by the other.

But the connection between category and story is far from distant. I think of words as participating in both. When I try to come up with a metaphor for the role of words and languages in our interpretation of reality, I am drawn to that of the tower. One imagines growing up in a tower, and as one attempts to find out about the world outside the tower one knocks out the stones one by one—in this analogy, the mortar between the stones remains intact. When at last our vocabulary is complete, and the tower looks more like an oddly-shaped honeycomb, we look outward and view the world through the categorization that the mortar-shapes provide.

To cite another Borges example, that author once wrote the short story “Funes el Memorioso” (“Funes the Memorious”) as part of his collection The Aleph. The eponymous character he studied was incapable of generalizing (or categorizing) anything. He could not see how one tree was like another tree due to his incapability to select essential details above the others. Once, Funes proposed a language that ascribed a different, abstract name for every “being” in the world from individual animal to individual pebble; this, however, he rejected as too ambiguous and unspecific, as objects also differ from point to point in time (incorporating exdurantism). Something must exist in category to be comprehensible. It is in God’s nature not only to love story but also to order things. Category gives us spatial order and purpose; story gives us sequential order and purpose.

The final element I would draw in is that of law or ethics and its relationship to story and category in regards to the definitions I posited above. Law could be considered to be distinct from and yet a part of story; it is yet another dimension, perhaps. For law dictates the cause-and-effect that marks a story. If a story does not follow law, then it will not be a “true” story; if we just modify the physical mechanics of the cosmos, we get fantasy or fairy tale. If we modify metaphysical mechanics, such as issues of morality, we get a false and harmful or else unrelatable creation.

But what, precisely, is law, if we look at it in the same way that we previously looked at story and category? We would perhaps be best to consider law a translation of God’s nature into a fallen material universe. There was no Biblical “Law” in Eden, when there was only one Will in the garden, which was God’s (and the harmonious wills of man and woman). Satan introduced an adverse will, and therefore sin became the definition of the Law, being what God is not and therefore introducing boundaries. Thus the given Law is a translation of God’s nature and its boundaries, which was implanted in the human heart by the act of creation, into the written word. Both the moral Law of God and the physical laws of creation intersect with story and category; for story, its essence being change across time, must change in accordance with law; for category, its essence being distinction of form, interacts with story through law. This, then, I believe is the unifying theory behind story, category, and law.

Into all this the artist comes, the one whose chief goal is to create or represent. Could it be that the meaning he transfers through his art relies primarily on his use of story and category? Does the writer who invents a new plot or loves a created character speak to both possible and existing aspects of time? Does the writer who suggests a new metaphor draw a connection and so broaden association of category? In all these things does he recognize or spurn the guiding principles of law? If it is true that one unique aspect of the artist or imaginant is that he sees the purpose behind things, then it must be that he understands, even if on a subconscious level, the underlying, invisible currents of reality. He is, in a way, the master of our interaction with that reality, for he has the ability to broaden or manipulate the way we use these things, story, category, and law, to interpret the world. His necessity is plain.

To understand these things and their metaphysical relationship, perhaps, will lead to better being able to use them creatively or to interpret reality. Alternatively, it is quite possible that this essay is entirely abstruse and transcending and has no bearing on practicality. But either way I believe it an interesting subject and one that may find applicability in a variety of studies, especially in regard to the artist who must deal with them in his own creations.


5 comments on “Honors Essay 01: The Essential Idea

  1. Oh, bother. At first I said it was my first essay of the summer…. I am far too scatterbrained in my old age.

  2. AJC468 says:

    Says the mere teenager who bellows numbers in karate class like…[please finish this simile, if you would, Kirsten]

  3. salvageroost says:

    …the horn of Boromir, perhaps? oh my.


    Please don’t let this particular essay drop into oblivion. This thing is chock full of statements that I find myself wanting to underline and scribble around and generally prepare to quote / modify / incorporate into some future work of my own. This needs to keep growing with you and end up in some Doctoral dissertation, or a book of historio-literary criticism. -Just so that I may make use of it.

    Your paragraphs are thick (who am I to talk?), and some of your wording is dense, but that did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying this read. That may not mean that the essay is NOT abstruse; after all, I did like that Hauerwaas thingie rather a lot… but there are some few scattered souls out in the world who are interested in the sort of things you’re talking about, who perhaps like me are too lazy to have acquired such a respectable research background, and who would like to be fed information of this sort to stoke their metaphysical imaginations.

    “God, for some reason, loves story—perhaps it is demanded by Purpose—and so we cannot escape a mindset based upon it.”

    –I liked the phrasing of that very muchly: perhaps it was the ironic juxtaposition of “for some reason” with the fact that the author of this statement, with or without knowing how, finds himself also particularly attached to this thing.

    The discussion of Law within Story I also found piquant, and quite familiar; I was trying desperately to remember whether I’ve read anything on the subject or merely reached my much less thorough conclusion on my own. I remember being puzzled for months after I watched Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as to why, in a film which celebrates the bizzarre, the arbitrary, the chaotic, I felt the plot to be so tight, the theme and tone to be so devastating. I eventually decided that it felt cohesive because every detail “made sense within itself”–i.e. was somehow in the context of the story rendered necessary. It followed the law–within itself.

    I don’t think that made any sense. Augh. I’m going to bed. Good essay, Friend; that’s all I meant to say.

  4. Well, writing this essay did make me happy in that I was able to reference Borges not once but twice. But I’m not sure what my ability to use my diaphragm has to do with my chronic absent-mindedness. After all, both of you were there at that supper when, after drying dishes, I wiped off my hands on the towel my cousin David was carrying, not realizing until he pointed it out that I already had a towel under my arm from the occupation in which I had just been engaged.

  5. salvageroost says:

    I did not witness the towel episode. It makes me exceedingly happy. You yourself were present for the last embarrassingly absent-minded thing that I did… perhaps I may blame my absent-mindedness upon my being a soprano who prefers to sing tenor whenever not in choir? Surely it is advisable to grasp at straws when seeking excuses for the side effects of being academically brilliant. We have our blond moments.. because of our diaphragmatic superiority.

    I also liked the Borges quotes. The one about birds puzzles me as to its intended tone, like you said. I’m not sure what was the ratio of sarcasm to intellectual desperation / straw-grasping. But I liked it.

    Work was slow tonight, so I finished the rest of Unit Two in Blumenthal. I am *very* disgruntled concerning the lack of commas after neverthelesses, howevers, etc. I find the omission aesthetically displeasing. That has nothing to do with either this essay or with the Alexandrian ramble already established, but I felt the need to say something.

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