What do stories mean? What lessons can we learn from them?
As a History major at the University, I’ve wrestled with these questions for a while. What could be a more legitimate account than History-capital-H? What could be truer than something buttressed by books, supported by sources, established by experts, proofread by professors, and printed on paper? And, if we swallow that old Latin chestnut, historia magistra vitae est, (‘History is Life’s teacher’), it follows that we can therefore learn valuable truths from the past…
Actually, I tend to be wary of people who look for ‘Lessons’ in History.
Yes, I think we should learn from our mistakes. Our past experiences, after all, form the basis for much of our identities. Upon remembrances of the past, entire peoples have risen from (or fallen into) glowing ashes. As Ernest Renan so eloquently proposed, it is the common heritage of loss and suffering that helps to forge a nation. George Santayana reminds us ominously that those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.
But what, if you think about it, are we supposed to learn? And then, if you dwell on it a little more, who decides?
Something has always itched in me, when conversations of history turn to the ‘lessons’ we can learn from it. Somehow, it always felt a little trite, to fractionate the rich, grand stories of our foremothers/fathers, boiling them down to how they can be ‘used’, as if the Past were some self-help seminar with Clear Deliverables to Make a Million Dollars.
Consider: the grand, slow exodus out of Africa, Man’s first Age of Exploration. The epic, westward voyages of the Austronesian peoples from Borneo, as far west as Madagascar, long before the compass or the satellite, what Professor Ann Kumar at the Australian National University once affirmed as the ‘single most astonishing fact of geography’. The story of humanity, unfurling unnoticed, as radiantly as the star-foamed firmament overhead. Fierce, bright glints in the longer character arcs of galaxies.
Consider: the self-improvement books that could be written! The Paleo fads and trends it would engender! The merchandising millions that could be made with little plastic outriggers manned by little plastic action figures (batteries not included)! The lessons we could condense them into, bullet-pointed for mass, rapid transmission and consumption! The Art of War, the Tao of This, the Subtle Art of That…
I have always been uneasy, but wordlessly so, until recently. In Singapore (as with, to be fair, many other places), history is pressed into the service of nation-building, yoked to the unsmiling grammar of Necessity. The vivid brutality of the Japanese Occupation (1940s), the cunning of the communists (1950s), the explosive violence of racial riots (1960s)—such historical episodes are segmented,
simplified streamlined, then continually held up as Teachable Moments to the peace and prosperity of the Singaporean present (1980s-present). To save students the agony of excessive memorisation, of uncertain exam results, these chapters are summarised neatly into key learning points. The Bad Old Riot Days, the Good Old Kampung Days—these are narratives all Singaporean schoolchildren grow to know, in the same way they know the words of their Malay National Anthem, but rarely its meanings, or its contexts (no time for a lesson there).
I too, grew to think of History (my major at the University) in terms of its lessons, its uses. In part, this was because I had to continually justify and explain my decision to study it. Disciplines which were more ‘functional’ and ‘pragmatic’, like Economics, or Psychology, or Business Analytics were somehow self-explanatory.
In response to the same insightful questions about The Future, asked by the same insightful types, I developed a pre-set list of marketable things the craft of history taught you (‘competencies’). Responding to the same piercingly intelligent wisecracks about how History-only-produces-teachers, I generated a list of other potential career options.
Scrappy, impulsive and defensive, I was determined to defend my discipline. But I fought only a losing battle. The dialect of moneymaking realism tends to reduce emotions, colour, memories, stories, the bright and breathing world to bland, flat things.
Recently, I chanced upon the writings of Ursula K. LeGuin again, that Doorkeeper to Earthsea, who tells such lucid and limpid stories. An essay of hers offered me another way to think of stories, an idea which I think can stretch to how we think of histories too:
‘I don’t do messages. I write stories and poems. That’s all. What the story or the poem means to you—its “message” to you—may be entirely different from what it means to me… a well-made clay pot -whether it’s a terra-cotta throwaway or a Grecian urn—is nothing more and nothing less than a clay pot. In the same way, to my mind, a well-made piece of writing is simply what it is, lines of words…What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do. My only wisdom is knowing how to make pots. Who am I to preach?’
I guess what I’m trying to say is: maybe the past is beautiful on its own, too. Maybe it has no need for justification, rationalisation, simplification. Maybe like all good stories, like deep wells of sweet water, the past allows us to draw our own meanings from it. Like all true stories, they can resonate with deeper, darker parts of us, too.
Maybe we can sit, and listen, and mourn the fading of the Orang Laut, the Sea Peoples, without having to worry about what ‘use’ grief, or decline, or yesterday can hold for us. Maybe we can marvel at the Silk Road and Samarkand, the stunning grandeur of human ambition and ingenuity, without worrying about Key Takeaways.
Maybe, just maybe, we can ask, with bated breath and starry wonder ‘and then what happened?’ without having to dryly, impatiently, demand ‘so what’s the Point’, as if History were only ever a weapon, to be deployed like hatchets and knuckle-dusters against one’s enemies.
I confess: it is still a little difficult to love a thing for itself, here on this island with its serrated skylines, where everything seems to have a Point and a Purpose. Where, according to an old song written for our National Day Parades, every creed and every race must have its role and have its place.
I know it’s a little difficult, to picture a thing for its own pleasure.
But here’s an Idea: stories for themselves. For the telling and the savouring. For the quiet joy of following heroes, or heroines, on epic adventures. Underdogs and exiled kings. Quiet hopes and secret dreams. Strongmen swallowing demon-vomit, or crying on national television…
I contend: all the ingredients for Great Stories, that carry nations and peoples into the future, that have the potential to resonate and liberate, that lift us into the light, or warn us of our hubris, all sit somewhere in the past, waiting to be read, and heard, and savoured again, anew.
I say: don’t boil it down to bullet-points. Our imaginations will die in disinfected, mechanised efficiency. I say: weave the stories—carefully, sensitively; with love. Let us wonder, briefly: how heavily the mountain sat in Hanuman’s hands; how generations have delighted in this telling. How it must have felt on both sides of the Causeway, to watch Japanese artillery sear the night sky above northwestern Singapore on 8 February 1942…
Let us, if only for a moment, let the Lessons go, because the past is not (just) a vending machine, dispensing sugary codas. I say: Let us love the art, the pathos of powerful stories too.
What is history ‘for’?
Perhaps what all good stories, and true stories, are ‘for’: for the nourishment of the human spirit. For all the things that make life so wild, and precious, and meaningful.
Read Ruizhi’s first post with us: ‘Beginning and Introductions‘.
Ruizhi prefers to be lost in stories, but occasionally he gets lost in cities too. He is currently completing his Masters thesis on colonial fisheries at the National University of Singapore, where he also teaches history to undergraduates. He runs @singapore_stories, an Instagram project offering alternative insights into Singapore’s pasts, presents and futures, and lives in a quiet neighbourhood named after conquerors from a faraway land. There, under the shade of a Central American tree, his grandmothers tell him stories he can’t find in textbooks.
Ann Kumar, ‘The Single Most Astonishing Fact of Human Geography: Indonesia’s Far West Colony’, Indonesia, No. 92 (October 2011), pp. 59-95.
Ursula K. LeGuin, ‘Teasing Myself Out of Thought’, Words are My Matter: Writings about Life and Books, 2000-2016, (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016).