Stories are non-verbal

The other day I went to a lecture by a mathematician who also studied philosophy of religion (bien étonné de se trouver ensemble) about the rationality of stories. He argued the point that stories have more rationality to them than we would expect, and that if we want to know about ‘reality’, stories are not as inferior to science or scholarship as we tend to think. Historical treatises for example are -essentially-stories. But fiction too can make a point about ‘reality’ and frequently does.

I wasn’t too impressed by the lecture, but it was good enough to get my thoughts started on the subject. I think I have to retract part of my earlier post about non-verbal communication, and the difficulties religious fundamentalists have with it. This is what I said:

Ultimately, language can only deal with dry reason and logic, which doesn’t reach human feelings and emotions as effectively as the arts.

Even though I included literature among ‘the arts’, the above quote underestimates our abilities with language. Language is able to deal with much more than mere reason and logic, if and when used with skill. In fact, good literature does exactly this: use a tool that seemingly is only good at logically and reasonably describing reality (language) to the effect that it suggests human emotions and feelings to the listeners or readers (arts).

The Dutch writer Gerard Reve once wrote in his book Zelf schrijver worden (becoming a writer yourself, 1987) that in literature you shouldn’t simple describe that your character ‘feels lonely’. Instead a good writer should -for example- describe the room in which this character is situated in such a way that it causes the reader to think: ‘he’s lonely’. In that sense, stories are non-verbal. Even though they use words, they’re only the tools. What they convey is emotions, feelings, moods.

I’ve blogged before about what happens when religious stories fall into the hands of fundamentalistst. In that blog I said:

Reading religious texts literally may not be the exact same thing as fundamentalism, but it’s a necessary prerequisite.

By ‘reading literally’ I then meant disregarding the linguistic, cultural and societal background to an old text and reading your own cultural prejudices into it, usually without even noticing the process. It changes the meaning of the text. But there’s more to ‘literal reading’ than just that. It’s also insisting on the nature of a story being verbal and neglecting the possibility that it intends to make a point that isn’t verbal but that addresses emotions. That not only changes the meaning, but also the very intent of the story.


2 Responses to “Stories are non-verbal”

  1. […] didn’t realise it, but it’s a midrash: a story to explain a biblical passage. A story to explain other stories, basically. Religion is made of stories, and so is […]

  2. The program I’m in studies the great Western texts. We do read the texts as stand-alones. We do disregard the background to the text, as that can take a great deal of time to cover. The instructor focuses on attempting to identify exactly what the author is saying.

    In the non-Western programs, background is taught before the great text is read. It is correctly assumed that Americans know little of the background.

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