STORY HAS been of fundamental importance to humankind for thousands of years. You need only look to the stories of Aboriginal Dreamtime, Celtic mythology or ancient China. Stories were used to communicate, educate, learn, entertain and predict the future.

Whether through intimacy with a place or from passing through many places; whether through dreams or conscious thought; stories lack the impeding boundaries that restrict other forms of communication.

In the rich West, and probably globally, there appears to have been a decline in the subjective importance of story for at least the past 100 years.

Why this shift away from story as an important medium?

Is it a shift in priorities from personal and community well-being to material and economic well-being? Is it a collective saturation by information? Is it a collective disconnection from our real world and a fanatical attachment to the sleek new market-based digital world? Maybe we no longer trust or respect our long storytelling human past?

Today we generally get our truths from the media, most of us from commercial media. Yet, many of us have numbness or mistrust toward the mainstream media charged with providing us truth, which is all too often justified. Time and again it is shown that truth is censored,  rearranged, altered and disregarded by the media, or before it gets to them.

The frame has become so great, the picture is disappearing.   

But whilst the subjective importance of story declines with every year we push further ahead into this experiment we call modern humanity, the objective importance grows.

In a world where our sensory overload of information, disinformation and confusion has numbed us to the reality and truths behind the media, stories and other art can gift us more truth than the rest of the media flooding our mental environment.

Polish writer and journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski referred to the Latin phrase silva rerum (the forest of things), when describing his writing. Kapuscinski was a journalist and poet who believed you must live and experience what you report, to penetrate it as deeply as possible. There are two versions of his work; the original report; then sometime later he used story to make sense of the forest of things, “to give shape and coherence”.

“You need art to feel a truth: For the obdurate people will not believe
What they do not see and distinctly feel.”

Hermann Hesse

This approach allowed Kapuscinski to express the reality of what he lived through, the feelings, the reflections, not just a brief cold report that merely scratches at the surface of reality. Surely story conveying the emotions, feelings and complexities (the soul) of an issue is more sincere, more truthful than the soul-less report. Feelings and emotions are not so easily falsified.

The art of communication and the communication of art – perhaps there is no difference.

Indeed a piece of graffiti can say more about a political issue than a politician avoiding questions for 15 minutes on the 7:30 Report. A Michael Leunig cartoon can say more about the war in Iraq than weeks of reporting. Picasso’s Guernica has lead many to discover many a hidden truth about the Spanish civil war. Richard Flanagan’s Unknown Terrorist gives us as much insight into Australia’s current truths as news and current affair programs. The Herd can nail Australia’s approach to global issues in one song. Even in terms of predicting the future, George Orwell’s 1984 was arguably more accurate than the popular media or politics.

“Artists are the antennae of the human race.”
Yeats

As people become more and more disillusioned with their search for truth, they may begin to discover it is where it has been for most of our human history, in the arts, in story.

Could we be witnessing the beginnings of a return to a humanity in which story again becomes our primary means of discovering truths, of educating and communicating information, a transition back toward a fundamental component of our original humanity?

Could this spark a transition back toward some other early human traits, such as communal cooperation, which has been swallowed by individualist competition, or spiritual exploration and an intimate relationship with nature, which has been replaced by entertainment, marketing and an almost complete disconnection from the natural world?

There is endless evidence to indicate that many problems for both the well-being of society and individual, such as mental illness, violence, spiritual poverty, individualism, and an inability to empathise, are caused by our new world, or its distance from our old world.

It’s a long shot. However, these are things which humans need for survival, or at least, a fulfilling existence, and perhaps it is logical that sooner or later we begin to realise that rather than continuing a soul-less pursuit toward our own destruction, we would prefer to just start acting like human beings.

We may find some merit in looking back before we move forward. While we search for technical solutions and a world of greater complexity, we should consider that sometimes progress may mean simplification and even a return to some of our old ways.

Whether for survival or a desire for a meaningful existence it will pay to recall our long relationship with story, and art more generally. This relationship may be vital for the progression, course and theme of humanity’s story.

First of a two-part series by Hobart writer James Dryburgh

James Dryburgh

There is endless evidence to indicate that many problems for both the well-being of society and individual, such as mental illness, violence, spiritual poverty, individualism, and an inability to empathise, are caused by our new world, or its distance from our old world.

It’s a long shot. However, these are things which humans need for survival, or at least, a fulfilling existence, and perhaps it is logical that sooner or later we begin to realise that rather than continuing a soul-less pursuit toward our own destruction, we would prefer to just start acting like human beings.