Timeless Stories

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Part 1: The Coon Attack 

The moon was full like a perfectly round yellow balloon waiting to be popped.  A swarm of stars peaked through the obstinate clouds as small sparkles of light.  I imagined the night sky was a long road waiting to be traveled and the stars were the lights that guided one there.  As I moved my eyes down toward the corn field I marveled that no one would ever be able to experience the infinite length of the starlit path that seemed so impossibly distant from Earth.

            I was startled from my reverie by Carl’s wailing voice, “Thay’s somethin’ in ma corn!  Thay’s somethin’ in ma corn!”  Carl is a middle aged man who takes pride in three things: his fish which bob lethargically like pickles in his man-made pool, his bees of which he knows every trivial fact and his corn which obtains a majestic and natural beauty in his spacious back yard.  Linda, Carl’s wife, arrived charged up with spirit ready for battle and armed only with a flashlight- we set out in search of coon.

“Getouttamacorn!”

Linda had charged in screaming when she abruptly stopped like a terrified rabbit.  She stared with eagle eyes at a bed of flowers that had been growing like weeds around the corn.  She hastily picked the flowers- I contemplated that Linda was planning on using her wilderness instincts to beat the savage animal with the mallet of wild flowers.  To my amazement she explained that she was gathering a bouquet for her dining room table.  She quickly finished with her irrelevant act and ran into the corn as if she were a native who had found inspiration in the flowers.  I followed closely behind her knowing that I could lose her if I were to trip only once.  The corn stalks were scratching me profusely as if I were a pole being clawed at by a cat.  We soon spotted three corn stalks that had fallen to their death in the unexpected coon attack. With great stealth Linda entered the corn in search of the cheeky animal.  We were quickly sucked into the darkness.  In the distance we could see the pugnacious creature scurry away, spooked by the humans who had disrupted its banquet.  A sense of relief bubbled over me as I realized that there was no longer anything in the corn to be afraid of. 

My euphoria was truncated as I was suddenly confronted by the night creatureIts eyes glowed yellow as both the creature and I froze in our steps, each trying to intimidate the other through intense eye contact.  I tried to call for Linda knowing that she would know how not to be bitten by the rabid coon.  I stood cold trying not to move my mouth or make the slightest movement, as I whispered Linda’s name.  Linda emerged from the stalks exclaiming, as if the world should hear her message, “Annie, speak louda!  What do ya nee me fo?!”  As she spoke the rodent ran away.  Linda laughed and quickly turned around walking in the direction from which she had come. 

Linda and I were suddenly in un-chartered territory.  It took great skill to get one foot in front of the other without toppling into the tilled soil at our feet.  There were no longer any stalks to grab a hold of as we stumbled around like drunks.

“Were’n the potato patch!”

We nearly perished among the rambling tubers but were comforted by the sight of Linda’s flat driveway which we approached as if it were our life’s achievement.  Without hesitation and with euphonious sounds of night returning to our conscience, we stumbled our way towards the pavement knowing we had done what we had come to do. 

With tattered skin and sore ankles, and done in by our twists and tumbles over the never ending mounds of uneven earth, we walked through the rear door of the small ranch style house excited to tell Carl about our brief adventure.  Not surprisingly, Carl was asleep on his beige coach that always seemed as if it was deteriorating under him, his body imprint branded into its cushions.  I tried to keep as quiet as possible, so as not to wake Carl though my body was filled to the brim with excitement.  I could not stop moving as Linda and I jumped around the living room trying to release our emotions into the carpet.  We then plopped down on the closest coach with a sigh of relief knowing that our adventure was over, for tonight anyway.

 Part 2: The Analysis

            Like my story above, stories have, for centuries, been a means for humans to make sense of, share and interpret their realities.  By reality I mean the true events, without emotional connections, which occur at every millisecond of each person’s life.  No story is written completely detached from its author.  Even if a writer does not believe the content of her story, she maintains a connection to it, however distasteful.  This connection between the author and her literary product is very important, since the writer is a member of a community, culture and generation that has a significant influence over the author’s feelings and behavior and, therefore, her written material.  Everything in a writer’s reality has an effect over the topics she chooses. 

In this course, we have been discussing how stories have evolved over time in order for them to continue to relate to a targeted group.  We have also discussed the generativity of stories and how even a college student, like me, sitting in a classroom can create a plethora of different narratives to go along with the one story, painting or piece of music presented.  To take these two concepts beyond the realm of what was taught in class, I have created three subgroups that incorporate all stories that exist today.  Before these subgroups are listed, we must remember that only through retrospective thinking can we place each story in its respective subgroup.  The categories are lost/soon to be lost stories, revised stories and timeless stories. 

The lost stories pertain to any story that was unable to be told to a subsequent generation.  For example, those stories that influence the current issue of the time in which it was written.  Even if the author is fully connected to the topic, once the emotion associated with the experience has subsided, the literature is most likely discarded because of a lack of relatedness.  Almost all stories have been forgotten because they were not written down or they lost their relatedness to the present day. 

The next category, evolved stories, pertains to stories, like Howards End, that connect with a reader to such an extent that a reader, like Zadie Smith, is compelled to rewrite the story.  Zadie Smith, I suppose, was able to relate Howards End to her reality and then generate her own, present day, story of the events.  Her story allowed Forster’s literature to be passed into the next generation, relating to a large portion of the population.  The original piece of literature must only relate and generate a more prevalent story in one person in a subsequent generation for it to survive.  

The last and most intriguing subcategory for me is those stories that have not been changed or lost and still exist today in their original form.  Which stories are able to avoid being sifted out or altered?

            Mine is a story of my experiences in rural Maine.  Having grown up in a New York City suburb, I rarely encounter farms.  Linda and Carl opened their house to me, a stranger, so that I could participate in Linda’s summer acting camp.  The story is about one night on Linda’s farm when she discovers that there is a raccoon in her corn patch.  The adrenaline and nervousness of the whole experience significantly, after reviewing my piece, influenced the aspects of the story that I emphasized and the bits of information from reality that were intentionally or unintentionally (forgotten) left out. 

My piece is a perfect example of a story that will be lost in the generations to come.  I put my feelings, observations, and work into a piece that will probably not live longer than the paper on which it is typed, after it is thrown into the recycle bin to be made into a brand new medium on which another author can create, edit and complete their piece of perceived reality.  My story will die leaving room for new stories and reinterpretations of old stories.  There is no symbolism or alternate meaning, and there is no overarching moral lesson.  It is simply what it seems to be by an average reader, a short interpretation of my reality on one specific night out of my twenty years.  I absolutely try to connect with my reader, yet it is unlikely that my story will relate to my readers to such an extent that it will generate new stories that a reader would want to publish themselves, evolving my original piece.   

            Two stories that we have discussed in class extensively are Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Forester’s Howards End.  Incredibly, Zadie Smith was able to take a story about class structure in equestrian England and connect the story to her reality in order to generate her own story about race and class structure enveloped in a university setting.  With Howards End being very specifically about a snapshot in time and place, it probably could have easily become part of the millions of written and verbal stories that have been lost through the centuries.  With Zadie Smith’s help, Howards End has not only evolved into a new work of literature that can more readily relate to the present population, but is also taught in English classes, like my own, allowing Howards End to be apart of a select group of literary pieces that has evolved into new literature for a new generation.  These two books are a perfect example of how authors are able to take an original piece, connect, generate and then publish a revised and more prevalent piece for a changed audience, giving its new readers an opportunity to connect with the overall purpose and meaning of the original work.

Like nature, literature has a system similar to that of the famous biological motto “the survival of the fittest.”  An animal like a story can become extinct (lost), have a genetic mutation and evolve to its changing environment (evolving stories) or it can be well adapted to a variety of different environments without changing molecularly (timeless stories).  Just like lost stories, extinct animals are unable to keep up with the ever changing environment (or reading base for literature).  However, by having a gene mutation (or someone reinterpreting the original piece) to better survive in an ever evolving environment (audience type), the animal (story) can survive over a long period of time.  Those animals that are readily able to adapt to their changing surroundings without needing gene mutations are very comparable to timeless stories that have survived over an extensive period of time through many generations without revision.  This type of organism (story) is exceptional in that it is very rare that an organism or a story can last throughout generations without any type of mutation (revision), making Plato’s Allegory of the Cave an anomaly of sorts.

Unlike my story and Howards End’s connection to On Beauty, one story that has been in existence since 360 B.C.E. is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.  An allegory is “an extended metaphor, especially a story in which fictional characters and actions are used to understand and express aspects of concepts relating to human existence” (SIL International).  Plato’s allegory tells a remarkable tale about prisoners in a cave who, from birth, have been chained to chairs in front of a wall, unable to move even their heads.  For years, the prisoners sit staring only at the shadows that form on the wall, doubling as a screen.  Socrates tells Glaucon of these hypothetical prisoners, stating rhetorical question after rhetorical question.  The setup is as follows: there is a fire on the opposite side of the cave from the prisoners near a passageway to sunlight.  Between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway that has a wall of bricks on one of its sides (the side closest to the prisoners).  The prisoners are on the farthest side of the cave facing a wall that shows shadows of the “vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall” (Kreis). 

Socrates mentions that if the prisoners spoke to each other they would be merely “naming what was actually in front of them” (Kreis), the shadows of the objects.  Also, if the men holding the objects were to speak, the prisoners would surely believe that is was the shadows that were speaking.  “Truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images” (Kreis).  I will touch on the importance of truth in this allegory and how the concept of truth has allowed this allegory to connect with every generation since its publication, but for now, understand that the shadows are the prisoners’ reality.

Socrates, after the introduction to the placement of the objects and people in the cave, presents to Glaucon a hypothetical change in the experience of the prisoners.  “See what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error” (Kreis).  The freed prisoners would stand up and look at the light from the fire, their unknown reality, with pain, since their eyes had never seen light as bright as that which was coming off of the fire.  Socrates challenges his student to imagine the prisoner would now be informed that his previous experiences were mere illusions and the fire is closer to the truth of their reality. 

One of the prisoners would then be dragged up through a passageway to the surface of earth, being completely blinded by the light from the sun.  To gain full truth, the prisoner must slowly adjust each day to his new surroundings.  “First he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other subjects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven… last he will be able to see the sun” (Kreis).  This prisoner would feel as though he was the guardian of this newly found upper world and pity those prisoners he left behind in the cave.  He would ascend back into the cave, unable to see the shadows for which he had previously lived.  The other prisoners would notice this and forbid the pilgrimage, with death as punishment, of anyone who would try and take others up out of the cave, for sight to them is priceless. 

            The allegory is easily connectable with virtually every culture.  That is what makes this piece of literature so remarkable!  For as long as the human brain has been able to store memory and thought, mankind has been pry to the convenience of myth; humans and communities are often blind to reality and embrace the more comfortable traditional explanations.   We are seemingly comfortable in our ignorance, just as the prisoners were with their situation in the cave.  It is all we know of our world, and seemingly all we want to know.  Some have been able to venture out of their ignorant lives, possibly after reading Plato’s allegory, and gone on a quest to seek truth, while their peers reside unaltered and unmotivated to move away from their present day illusions fostered by Hollywood’s spin.  The first truth-seekers left their community’s beliefs (illusions) behind in order to learn more about their reality (the men walking behind the wall carrying objects), which is what I have been doing in my Evolution of Stories class.

            One of the major themes of the course was centered on the concept of truth and how it can be sought and approached, but never fully achieved.  Plato’s allegory uses symbolism to enlighten those about our world of sight compared to our world of reality.  We can make the ascent from our world of illusions to a world where intelligence triumphs, but we are still unable to completely see the source of truth, the sun.  My class demonstrates that students are still learning about truth and its relation to our life’s illusions.  Since the concept of seeking truth is still being taught in its original form, Plato’s story has been able to triumph and survive for centuries.

            Plato, unknowingly, was able to create a precise formula for allowing his allegory to survive through shifting generational ideas, beliefs and thoughts on truth and ignorance.  Plato had to relate well with each subsequent generation for his work to have achieved this exceptional longevity in its original form.  Plato’s story allowed his readers to generate new stories concerning the meaning of truth within their world.  However, none of Plato’s readers could have felt compelled to change the piece thinking that their version would better connect with the generations to come.  His allegory survived through time because its message is clear, generative, intriguing and relevant.

Although Plato’s story is not perfect and we still can’t look completely into the sun for truth, it is one that has remained unchanged.  This illustrates that many during their life would have been able to connect with Plato’ story of the prisoners to their realities to such an extent that they would feel obliged to contribute it to the literature in their subsequent generation (for example, by reading the allegory to their children).  And although for now Plato’s allegory can be considered timeless, it is unknown if it will still connect with its readers even one generation into the future, where it could become just another piece of literature that used to be read and admired by many.  Time will forever divulge the “fitness” of the story of truth.      

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