What’s that well called?
There once was a well, in the middle of a field. It was known, quite unimaginatively, as the well in the field. Then, one morning, the farmer who owned the field found a drowned body inside. Shocked, the nearby villagers changed the well’s name to well of ill luck. They avoided it, superstitious lot that they were, and it was considered bad luck to pass that field at night.
A few months later, it emerged that the body belonged to a notorious criminal, who had escaped the authorities. Henceforth, the well was known as the well of Divine justice.
Thus, local storytellers interpreted reality in three different ways.
As time passed, zealous locals embellished the story. A just spirit now resided deep within the well. Anyone making offerings to it, would get justice. People started referring to the well with reverence, and those who had been wronged threw coins and jewelry inside. The farmer now spent all his time managing the well, until a small temple was built on top; then a larger one.
Thus, local storytellers shaped reality.
When did it all start?
Okay, there was no such well or subsequent temple. I made it up, based on an old Zen story. But it made you think, didn’t it? Perhaps it even made you look differently at things.
This is the twin power that lies at the heart of narrative. To not only interpret, but also shape reality. You may think me wise to have discovered this, but actually I’m a little late.
The very first mention of the power of narrative is made in none other than the Bible. For what is the devil’s power but that of a storyteller? When he convinces Adam and Eve to go against God’s will and eat the forbidden fruit, all he has done is offer an alternative interpretation. One where God is portrayed as a jealous entity who fears man’s potential power. And thus, the world as we know it is formed – at least, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Reality has been shaped.
The Greek origins of the devil’s very name allude to this. Diavallo literally means to besmirch; to sully; to slander. More liberally translated, to twist one’s words in order to defame them. This is the devil’s sole power and best-honed ability: to whisper a self-destructive narrative in our ear. That is why Jesus referred to him as “a liar and the father of lies.” By contrast, He declared Himself to be the Truth. So much did early Christians detest lies, that they’d rather face terrible death, when a simple Peter-like lie (“Me, a Christian? You’re joking, right?”) would be enough to save their skin.
Any other examples?
The power of narrative has been used this way throughout history. You may be forgiven for never having heard of the old man in the mountain (no, not the Unabomber), but he led one of the most feared Islamic cults of Medieval times: the Hashishin sect. Even Saladin and the Crusaders feared him.
You see, when the old man wanted to get rid of an opponent, his men would find the perfect patsy, drug him and take him to their mountain sanctuary. This palace was designed to resemble paradise, with lush gardens filled with exotic trees and wild – yet docile – animals. Beautiful girls played the lute in every room, their sweet voices singing joyous songs. There were all the gorgeous women the poor soul could enjoy. Copious amounts of wine and hash enhanced the experience. Delicious food spilled over from every table (presumably, most of it sweets).
After a few heavenly days, the kidnapped man would be drugged again and taken back to his village and his dreary dreg of an existence. Upon waking up, he was told he had experienced a glimpse of heaven; a heaven that he could enjoy for all eternity, if only he did a small deed for the old man. He need not fear death, for even if he failed, he would still be a martyr and go to heaven.
Needless to say, few failed to meet their goal, and thus the term assassin (Hashishin) was born.
How about them Nazis?
No exploration of the power of narrative can be complete without a hat tip to the masters of propaganda; the Nazis. Goering is quoted as having said the following:
“Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
Besides Goering’s eerily contemporary words, Nazi propaganda before the start of World War II had several distinct audiences, as described by democraticunderground.com:
- German audiences were continuously reminded of the struggle of the Nazi Party and Germany against both foreign and internal enemies, especially Jews.
- Ethnic Germans in countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Soviet Union, and the Baltic states were told that blood ties to Germany were stronger than their allegiance to their new countries.
- Potential enemies, such as France and the United Kingdom, were told that Germany had no quarrel with the people of the country, but that their governments were trying to start a war with Germany.
- All audiences were reminded of the greatness of German cultural, scientific, and military achievements.
Until the conclusion of the Battle of Stalingrad on February 4, 1943, German propaganda emphasized the prowess of German arms and the supposed humanity German soldiers had shown to the peoples of occupied territories. Pilots of the Allied bombing fleets were depicted as cowardly murderers, and Americans in particular as gangsters in the style of Al Capone. At the same time, German propaganda sought to alienate Americans and British from each other, and both these Western belligerents from the Soviets.
After Stalingrad, the main theme changed to Germany as the sole defender of what they called “Western European culture” against the “Bolshevist hordes”.
In a particularly poignant example of Nazi propaganda, on June 23, 1944, the Nazis permitted the Red Cross to visit concentration camp Theresienstadt in order to dispel rumors about the Final Solution to the Jewish question. In reality, Theresienstadt was a transit camp for Jews en route to extermination camps, but in a sophisticated propaganda effort, fake shops and cafés were erected to imply that the prisoners lived in relative comfort. The guests enjoyed the performance of a children’s opera, Brundibar, written by inmate Hans Krása.
The hoax was so successful for the Nazis that they went on to make a propaganda film at Theresienstadt. Shooting of the film began on February 26, 1944. Directed by Kurt Gerron, it was meant to show how well the Jews lived under the “benevolent” protection of the Third Reich. After the shooting, most of the cast, and even the filmmaker himself, were deported to the concentration camp of Auschwitz.
So, there’s no hope?
All wars and atrocities start with a narrative. Our neighbor is stealing our land. We are threatened by a fifth column right in our midst. There is human vermin that’s threatening us and needs to be exterminated. Desensitization is always the first step to a massacre, whether in Nazi Germany or modern-day Rwanda and Serbia. And it all starts with a story – one of fear.
Thankfully, narrative can also offer salvation. Socrates; Buddha; Lao Tzu; Jesus Christ; Gandhi: these are just a few of those who changed the world for the better not by force, but through their words. Empires were felled and built by the narratives they offered, and humanity grew through them.
They also tried to warn people against destructive narratives; whether they come from within, or without.
“The mind is everything. What you think, you become,” cautioned Buddha. One of the Five Buddhist Precepts is “to abstain from false speech,” just like one of the Ten Commandments is, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
Islamic tradition lists lying as the seventeenth greatest sin, and clarifies: “All the evils have been locked in a room, and its key is lying.”
Lao Tzu so distrusted the power of words, that he repeatedly warned against them:
True words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not true.
Those who are good do not debate; Those who debate are not good.”
(If you think that last line is a simple warning against lawyers in general, please remember they were rather scarce in 4th century BC China).
Where does that leave us?
What prompted this post is that I often listen to writers describe what they do with a bit of an embarrassed smile and a shrug. Indie authors are often the worst, as if the publisher’s medallion missing from their book’s spine means they’re nothing but hacks. As if their words are meaningless. As if the endless hours spent writing; editing; proofing and marketing amount to nothing.
It’s almost like we’re ashamed of our chosen passion. Like it’s the sort of thing best done behind locked doors at night. With the lights off and the curtains drawn. Almost like watching Reality TV.
Well, if you ask me, we should take more pride in what we do. We should be aware of the power of our words, and use it wisely. We create worlds, characters and stories. We share our vision with the world. We touch people’s lives with every book, every blog post and every tweet we write. Hopefully, this post will remind you of just how much your writing matters – how much you matter.
So, next time someone asks you what you do, lift your chin and say proudly, “I’m a storyteller.” And smile, for you don’t just describe and interpret reality: you shape it.
When not practicing in front of the mirror how to say “I’m an Indie author” with pride, why not read my children’s book, Runaway Smile, for free?