Missing the Mark: Representation in Storytelling

Oct 6, 2020

Mythology and philosophy were the two pillars that established early society. Without them, the world would have remained an infinite wilderness of cracks and crags with darkness all around; mythology and philosophy brought light to an otherwise abysmal landscape, and it was good. Early humanity gathered round the fire to dispense their didactic tales about the stars and trees, antelopes and the sea, legendary men and women from unknown lands, fantastical gods and goddesses who warred in the sky and breached the threshold of the heavens to bestow gifts and punishments to mankind. Early civilization would not have survived without mythology and philosophy, for they were the means to navigate the chaotic and confusing world, a way to make sense of it all, an attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Story, then, is essential to life — it is essential to the good life — for story helps make sense of the seemingly nonsensical reality of life. When we hear or watch stories — whether in the pages of a book, through dancing on the stage, or projections on a screen — we may find ourselves falling in love with them. And we fall in love with them because they have a salvific quality about them. The stories we love serve as torches for the lost among us, they are something like a map for our desert wanderings; their goodness, their beauty, their truth helps guide and direct us on our journey. We like certain stories because they bring order to chaos; they are a lamp unto our feet; they are wisdom to our foolishness. We find ourselves in similar situations as these familiar and fictitious characters, and it is good; or rather, they find themselves in our situations — for there is only one situation, one story, one truth.

If I can be so bold, The Odyssey is really the only story that truly exists. To put it simply, The Odyssey is the story of a man who is far away from home who faces various trials and temptations on his journey back to his home and the one he loves. This is the story. This is our story. There is no other story.

The canon of Greek poetry (and The Odyssey in particular) shows us that there are really only two outcomes to this story: comedy or tragedy; happiness or despair; life or death. Some of us will be Odysseus, making it home to our lover, being welcomed with open arms into the kingdom; some of us will find that we are more like Agamemnon, finding that we have been refused admittance into the kingdom, becoming the sacrifice for our own sin, and being left forever in the outer darkness. As it is: we are all far away; we are all on our way home to the one we love. But let us be mindful: that which we love might save us, but that which we love just might kill us. Indeed, we will all go home at the end of our journey, but we might be surprised and devastated with what we get: “all get what they want; they do not always like it.”

This is the lesson of The Odyssey. It is true that most of us are not a king, a veteran, a shipwrecked survivor, a Greek, or even a man, but this is not really the point. We can get too caught up in the details of a story and forget what it’s trying to say. We must realize that The Odyssey is about “no man” in particular but about all people in general; and being concerned with all people in general, it speaks to our particular selves. Its universality transcends race, gender, vocation, sexuality, disability, illness, religion, or any other notion of representation; it cuts through the surface and gets to the soul. Good and true stories are not concerned with particular people, good and true stories speak to the whole of humanity. A story fails to bring goodness, truth, light, and order when it narrows its vision, when it cares not for the laws of man nor fears the gods. Like the Cyclopes, such storytellers will become blinded by their singular vision, endlessly and painstakingly chasing Nobody.

It is the great irony of the new storytellers, then, that while they speak about particulars, they lose the general; and if a story cannot speak to people in general, but only people in particular, it ceases to be good, it can no longer be called a story — it is propaganda. Indeed, there cannot be a good story about a particular person. The hero cannot be so obviously someone, he must be so obviously everyone, or it will not land, it will not endure, it will not be true, or good, or beautiful.

Stories (good, true ones) have the qualities and attributes that can begin to save us and give us life. Let us read those old stories and heed their instruction. Let us honor our father and mother that we may live long in the land. Let us realize that these stories “were written down for our instruction”. Let us call out and say: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course…” that we might learn what it means to navigate the chaotic and confusing world and relearn what it means to be Man.

William Goodwin

William Goodwin

William Goodwin is a classical school teacher in Philadelphia, PA. Something charming and meaningful about his life, wife, and dog.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

Subscribe to the CiRCE Institute Podcast Network

Stitcher iTunes RSS