Roger Rosenblatt’s Essay: Once Upon a Time

December 24, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: In the final days of the Warsaw ghetto, the Jews imprisoned there had no doubt that they were going to die. They had seen others taken away to the extermination camps, and they were dying on their own of starvation and disease.

Still, in those last days, the people wrote stories: Fragments of autobiography, diary entries, poems, letters, accounts of events. They wrote them on scraps of paper and rolled them into the crevices of the walls of the ghetto. They knew that they were done for.

They felt certain that the Nazis had taken over the world; that if their little writings were ever discovered, it would be by the Nazis, who would laugh at their puny efforts and toss the scraps of paper away.

Why did they do it? Why bother to tell a story that no one would hear? And why make the telling of that story their last act on earth? Because it is in us to do so, like a biological fact — because story-telling is what the human animal does, to progress, to learn to live with one another.

Horses run, beavers build dams; people tell stories. Chaucer’s pilgrims go back and forth from Canterbury and feel compelled to pass the time by telling tales. The Ancient Mariner, crazy as a loon, grabs the wedding guest and forces him to listen to an incredible yarn.

The birth of Jesus, the onset of all of Christianity, is called the greatest story ever told, and it is told several ways. In the Book of Job, the messenger says, “and I only alone am escaped to tell thee,” just as Ishmael says at the end of “Moby Dick,” says, “and I alone am left to tell the tale.” Shakespeare said that life is a story, “a tale told by an idiot.” But life the way we live it is not the tale, but the telling of the tale.There is a story within us, and that story is us, which we tell and we tell until we get it right.

In this millennium year, people are making guesses as to what will happen. The only thing certain is that they will make guesses as to what will happen: They’ll talk about it, they’ll tell stories about it. We like to commend ourselves as a rational species; that lies exposed all the time. But we are a narrative species. Our brains are formed to bind and blend information.

SPOKESPERSON: People on the sidewalk. Oh, Joseph, you know that animal, don’t you?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: As children, we learn language to tell stories that are already in us, not the other way around. And we spend the rest of our lives telling, learning, repeating, making sense of stories, which is our way of making sense of us.

A law trial, for instance, is a competition of stories. One story is told by the prosecution, one by the defense. The jury chooses which story it likes better. Businesses rely on stories to make money — stories of former successes and failures direct decisions to buy, sell, merge, expand, downsize, go public. See the story of Big Mac. See the story of the World Wrestling Federation. See the story of Martha Stewart. It’s a real good thing.

In medicine, the patient tells the story of his or her symptoms. The doctor heeds the story to know what to do. Then the doctor tells another story, of therapy. The doctor tells the patient, this will happen and that will happen, until, one hopes, the story has a happy ending.

Everything we do is a story: History, poetry, painting, sports, science, gossip, ourselves, of course. And it is a story told again and again. We tell the same stories over and over, of our strivings for heroism, for honor, for profit, for social progress, and understanding and sympathy and power — most of all, for love. In one way or another, every story is a love story. Boy meets girl. Boy meets boy. Boy and girl seek bliss.

We yearn– how we yearn– for improvement. That’s what evolution is all about– refinement, improvement. And evolution itself is a doozie of a story: Little animals beget bigger animals until one emerges with something to say. What do you have to tell me? What do I have to tell you? We stare at each other over the air of the years, and reach to tell the story of a lifetime.

We did this thousands of years ago, and, with luck, we will do so thousands of years hence, millennium after millennium, once upon a time.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.