University of Queensland
Beautiful lies my father told me
Two kinds of true?
'There are two kinds of tales, one true and one false,' Socrates proposes to Adeimantus in the course of exploring the proper place of literature in The Republic (1935: 376). In this short paper, I will explore Socrates' proposition in the context of family storytelling, in particular in the case of my recently completed family memoir, Learning How to Breathe, which contains many instances of family storytelling. Some of these tales turned out to be true; some of them turned out to be false. And some of them turned out to be falsehoods that revealed a hidden truth. In order to investigate the sometimes blurred lines between what is true and what is false, I will examine one family story in particular; this family story was told - or, in this case, performed - by my father. To shed light on aspects of lies and truth that are revealed through a close reading of this story, as well as other issues of family storytelling that needed to be addressed while writing a family memoir, I will draw on the work of John Forrester, in particular Truth Games, as well as the work of Langellier and Peterson and Elizabeth Stone regarding family storytelling.
For many folklorists, the truth-factor of an oral narrative plays an important part in how any particular story is classified. The basic criteria seem to rely on 'the extent to which a narrative is based on objectively determinable facts' (Littleton 1965: 21). Some folklorists, however, rely on the distinctions made by the particular societies or community groups in which the tales are told between 'narratives regarded as fiction' and 'narratives regarded as true by the narrator and his audience' (Bascam 1965: 4). More recent studies of oral narrative have begun to disregard the importance of any determinable truth factor in the distinction between jokes, anecdotes, local legends, tall tales and personal narratives (Halpert 1971: 51). Some theorists, such as Degh and Vazsonyi, have gone so far as to maintain that 'objective truth and the presence, quality, and quantity of subjective belief are irrelevant' (1976: 119), and that what is important is that the narrative 'takes a stand and calls for the expression of opinion of truth and belief' (1976: 119). Limon observes that, in some instances, belief might be quite secondary to performance itself and therefore, along with Degh and Vazsonyi, he also calls for a "scholarly determination as to 'how these legends relate to true belief and how social function reinforces them'" (Limon 1983: 191). This last point relates especially to the particular storytelling habits of a family as it narrates its own history. If oral narrative takes place in a social context, perhaps, as Richard Bauman suggests, the dynamics of variability and negotiation are relevant to questions of the acceptable levels of truth and invention in any particular tale (1986: 11). In other words, what is considered truth and what is not, in the context of a story, 'will vary and be subject to negotiation within communities and storytelling situations' (Bauman 1986: 11). Is it possible that this matter of context is related to the 'stray field of languages' which Roland Barthes proposes as a definition of 'culture' (1971: 1302)? Is it also related to the observation of Stuart Hall who thinks it is the way a story is told that matters more than what it says, what biases it reveals, or whatever truth it might purport to express (Hall 1974: 7)?
The initial culture in which I was reared, and which formed the fertile
bed in which my love of telling stories was conceived, was an Irish/Celtic
Catholic family of story tellers, lounge-room singers and musicians, whistlers,
and anecdotal raconteurs. It was perhaps itself the 'stray field' to which
Barthes refers, full of diverse accounts, narratives that obscured or
disregarded the facts, and differing versions of reality. Stories were
told not to just identify the self, but to amuse, to entertain, and only
sometimes to instruct. In a way, stories were a form of anti-truth; or,
if not anti-truth, then a version of the truth which was perhaps richer,
more fantastic, and sometimes more profound than the whole truth and nothing
but the truth. The cultural context of storytelling in which I was reared
and which possibly formed my storytelling facilities when I started to
explore them was quite clear. Negotiations were implicit. We were told
stories so that we would be amused, entertained, delighted, scared; and
those who told stories did so for the same reasons. The truth of the stories
was never an issue. Sometimes they were true; sometimes they were not.
It was part of the game of storytelling to blur those delineations. So,
like well-trained psychoanalysts, we 'grew up with an equanimity concerning
distinctions between truth and lying' and therefore operated perhaps with
a 'very different notion of the rules concerning truth
and lies than those implied by the blacks and whites of moral condemnation'
(Forrester 1997: 4-5). Perhaps, in our case as well,
as Forrester observes, we also recognized that 'the lies of [our] childhood
[i.e. those told not by us but by our father] were
of great significance'
I never thought, in relation to his stories, that my father was a liar; we knew the cultural codes in which they were being told. Dad's father was a coal miner from Manchester; he had been born and reared in a harsh world. We understood that such impecunious beginnings might breed a whole generation of storytellers and raconteurs for whom pleasure, as a kind of delayed reward for their earlier lack of it, is a primary motive. These storytellers like to connect with their listeners, through words and also through actual physical closeness. They lean in, desiring a kind of bodily contact that their inhibitions prevent them from seeking directly. Their stories create a world that envelops; perhaps narrative might, in an aural sense, be a substitute for an embrace. As Muecke observes in Reading the Country, 'the materiality of the voice cannot be denied; its substance is a vibration which penetrates the bodies of those listening or present' (Benterrak et al 1996: 25). So stories, true or not, were told for the sake of their telling, and for the relationship that they set up between the teller and those to whom they were told. The stories spoke not just their text, but their sub-texts as well; they were full of engagement, humour, fancy, whimsy, as well as a sense of their own power.
The traymobile story
In Narrative Truth and Historical Truth, Donald Spence argues
for the existence of two types of truth: narrative truth and historical
truth, the first being the truth of creative art and the second the truth
of actuality. But while 'psychoanalysis is supposed to deal in historical
truth, in accordance with Freud's metaphor of the analyst as archaeologist
unearthing the traumatic events of the past, Spence says it actually deals
in narrative truth' (cited Malcolm 1996:
34). I will purloin this observation and apply it to my experience
as a child listening to my father's stories. I never mistook them for
historical truth. I knew they were narrative truth; they were creative
acts, and contained a similar magic to that of stories I read in books.
The lies they contained were legitimate, in my view, because there was
no question that they were presented as anything else. They were perhaps
also inventions of necessity, to make more colourful and bearable an otherwise
bleak, impossible world. And we loved hearing them for the same reason.
They were projections of possibilities, a kind of lying that 'awakens
us to the unknown
in the dialectic between the real and the possible,
lying plays an indisputable role' (Forrester 1997: 23).
Family storytelling as a strategy of social control?
In 'Family Storytelling as a Strategy of Social Control', Langellier
and Peterson offer another position on the issue of family storytelling
in their comment on the work of Elizabeth Stone in contextualizing family
stories: 'Whether dimly remembered and mute, told aloud with pleasure
and show, confided discreetly or kept secret, Elizabeth Stone asserts
that all people carry family stories "under their
skin" borne variously as weightless treasures or painful tattoos'
(1993: 49). They see these narratives,
which provide, in Stone's words, 'what blood cannot' (1988:
70), not just as simple representations of family history or even
merely as aesthetic performance or socio-emotional release by family members.
Rather, they assert, family storytelling names practices of social control
(1993: 50). Are these views of Langellier and Peterson valid in the context
of 'The Traymobile Story'? Or in a family memoir such as Learning How
to Breathe, a text full of family storytelling rendered for many of
the above reasons: as representations of family history, and especially
as performance and release by the family and its particular members? Are
these stories made, performed, recalled, and even transcribed as a form
of social control? And if so, what exactly is this control - and over
what - that the stories attempt to exercise? Do they seek control over
the teller of the stories, those who hear them, or those that then pass
them on? Do the stories merely represent a pre-existing genealogy or an
expressive family tradition? Or do they, as Langellier and Peterson contend,
legitimate dominant forms of reality and lead to discursive closure that
restricts the interpretations and meanings of family stories (1993: 57)?
Games of truth or lies?
To consider these questions above, I will refer to Truth Games, in which John Forrester makes this observation about the usefulness, perhaps even the necessity, of lying:
'The Traymobile Story' illustrates not just this imaginative power perhaps,
but also the cunning and language skills that Nietzsche observes the Greeks
may have admired in Odysseus: 'his capacity for lying,
and for cunning, his ability to be, when need be, whatever he chose'
(Nietzsche 1974: 156).
Is it possible that oral narratives, tall tales, family stories, also
work this way? The hierarchies of narrative once classified the spoken
word, the performance poem, the oral history, as inferior to 'literature',
and, as Muecke observes, the 'tracings on paper' i.e. the words, and 'the
voice have a different origin, a different form, and different purposes'
(Benterrak et al 1996: 25). The two forms, however, are connected through
the conduit of transcription. In the case of transcribing family stories
delivered orally, these stories need to be spoken before they can be written
down. After they are written down they can be traced back, and therefore
understood in a kind of reverse motion. Creative lying that makes it onto
the page, therefore, must first have been uttered orally (Forrester 1997:
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Linda Neil is a writer, musician, and documentary producer who recently completed a PhD in Creative writing at the University of Queensland, where she has taught Creative writing, Professional writing, as well as Cultural and Media Studies. Her book, Learning How to Breathe, will be published by UQP in 2009. She is also the ABC New Media Artist-in-residence for 2009.
TEXT Special Issue No 5 The Art of the Real