Stories and Their Secrets

July 30, 2010

The following is an excerpt from the Introduction of Telltale: Eleven Stories, ed. Gwee Li Sui (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2010), pp. 5-15. It was read in a session with literature students of Yonsei University, Wonju Campus, South Korea, on 29 November 2010.

In our most essential form, as not citizens, professionals, students, parents, or children but mere humans, our fascination with stories does not come as a choice. When we are not reading a book or the news or following some drama on stage, on screen, or in a narration, we are involved in our own generation of stories that are either purely imaginative or about our otherwise dull and chaotic lives. These stories to which we contribute on a daily basis do not always appear to us as stories in view of their entanglement with our deep-seated understanding of self. Nationhood, globalisation, social and cultural identity, religious beliefs, modes of knowledge, family life, and personal ambition are all different kinds of storytelling we participate in. Thus, when we encounter a tale that actually declares itself as a tale, we do well to be a little more careful and reflect on what is here that must exceed our immediate enjoyment.

Consider the following short story that has been regarded by many as among the most perfect in the English language despite its economy of words and formal simplicity. The tale is written like the confession of a man who we recognise as mentally disturbed not just because of the unusual excitement and forwardness in the manner he speaks. This narrator may be intelligent, articulate, and very engaging, but he seems often uncomfortable with his own sanity, choosing repeatedly to test and confirm his fitness of mind with us. The oddity is telling and keeps us wary enough to avoid quick judgements and wait for more information to arrive via the narration. What we soon learn horrifies us: the speaker has, in fact, planned and just committed a murder, chopping up the body and hiding its parts under the floorboards of a house.

On every account, this shocking murder has been perfect; there is no clue left by the killer to connect him to any wrongdoing. Its execution has also been planned with such great care that even the victim sensed and communicated no danger for days until it was too late. Police officers, who then come a-knocking to investigate a neighbour’s claim of having heard a cry, are quickly persuaded that the man has only awoken from a nightmare. Emboldened by these successes, the murderer continues to talk in part to brag and in part to stay assured that everything still lies within his control. The more he shares though, the more he thinks that he is hearing some unnatural heartbeat pound louder and louder from under the floorboards. By the time the story ends, convinced of the officers’ actual suspicion, the man confesses to his crime and reveals exactly where he has concealed the body.

You may know this somewhat strange but riveting story as “The Tell-Tale Heart”, written by the Victorian master of mystery and the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe, and first published in 1843. During the time of our reading, we are bound to feel both intrigued by the criminal mind and terrorised by the eerie possibility of a corpse’s heart beating with growing intensity. Yet, a second after the story is over, we start to question whether the heart has twitched at all and what it is the killer must have experienced. Is it his own conscience – a faculty he has kept suppressed in his amoral mind all this while – pounding away? Is his socialised sense of right and wrong what wills him to fail in order to indict his own arrogance and moral deviance? Or has his creative passion doomed him to want to overwhelm his audience and shock the officers, then some presumed judge, reporter, doctor, or prison warden, and lastly us?

Poe’s story conveys a lot of exciting thoughts, among which is the certainty that it is not simply about the perfect murder, crime and punishment, guilt, self-destructiveness, or madness. On an obvious and yet fundamental level, this is a story about stories, a parable about the way narratives function in a generic sense. What we encounter is primarily a tale with regular features: a setting, some characters, a basic plot, a climax, and a twist. More than that, the narrator’s mind operates on another level that involves the complex business of struggling to master the story he is conjuring in real time and we are reading. As his secret crime is itself the ground on which the story, his attempt to deceive, is built, we should find it no coincidence that, once the truth is revealed, the tale also comes to an end. We are given a very simple point: this story exists only because there is something more underneath, or, to put it differently, only because the truth remains unclear, the fiction is possible here.

In this sense, the pragmatist’s usual complaint that stories are useless and do not even speak of real things must be known as a red herring. Any opposition between truth and fiction is misleading since, if truth alone had been enough, fiction itself would not have come into being in the life of human civilisation. What fiction provides is the means with which we look round the corners of reality at all kinds of social and personal human neglect: what could be or might have been or truths not said, not said enough, or cannot begin to be said. Stories allow us as readers and writers to affirm or reassess our faithfulness to our own emotions and to one another as fellow humans; they give us the capacity to experience the world that lies outside the traditions of our knowledge and the systems of our everyday certainties. Pablo Picasso is often thought to have described art as a lie that tells the truth; this notion can also explain the work of fiction, the necessary dreaming through which we may approach the complexities in truths.

Can we now not see two more common mistakes in our standard treatment of literature, one relating to the powers of authors and the other to our interpretive freedom as readers? While the talents of good writers should indeed be admired, shared, and celebrated, it remains a fantasy on our part to believe that these possess knowing control over every meaning or pattern we may find in their texts. A writer’s genius and his or her thoughtfulness are not an exact fit: what Poe shows us is precisely the way less than conscious elements – especially what deviates from a writer’s intentions – can sneak into the life of a story. For this reason, not just readers but writers themselves are always able to discover fresh significance whenever they engage or return to completed narratives. The understanding empowers us as readers with the certainty that we are fully permitted to interpret a story as we deem fit, so long as there is sufficient textual evidence for doing so.

That being said, we also ought to realise that readers are still not the clear receptacles who need only to draw on their own impressions and emotions to assess the depths in stories. The mistake here is a popular one, based on some notion that interpreting means feeling and that “doing literature” is just about communicating that feeling. What each act of reading does is quite subtle: it allows a reader to activate his or her own ability to enjoy a story via a private struggle, a process through which a part of him or her invariably gets left behind. Thus, as writers in the heat of creation are vulnerable to the way storytelling draws from their thoughts, emotions, and experiences, readers are open to a field of “misdirections” that relates to what they bring to the texts. This intrusion allows us to differentiate between mere reading and “doing literature”, the latter being a more conscious activity that involves our intuitions as well as our willingness to test, ground, correct, and study them. Its deeper implication is exciting here: we are, in fact, brought to see readers and writers alike as characters in the drama of how stories come alive!

To stress this point, “doing literature” requires us to commit to engaging a story more than once to understand why we feel what we feel about it. Like revisiting a crime scene to piece together what appears at first as unclear clues, it is a form of detective and forensic work, a science of tracing shared emotions between a reader and a character and between readers. The actual pursuit is seldom as tedious as it may sound to someone used to treating stories like disposables, commodities to be enjoyed quickly and at leisure. Through its critical process drawing on all we know about language, society, and human life at a point in time, textual analysis rewards us with greater clarity and an inner expansion not just in the sense of having learnt more about places, people, and ourselves. Rather, we arrive at a stronger realisation that the world has never been, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it, the same river we can step into twice. This truth about the moment, intense and full, is what we discover especially when the terrain remains the same; in the discovery, we feel anew how life itself always invites.

[…]

Gwee Li Sui

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