Storytelling Might Be as Old as Humanity, but What Goes Into a Good Story?

wrote a novel. It is called Outside the Gates and, in simplest terms, it retells the true story of French intellectual, Jean Wahl’s escape from Drancy Internment Camp during World War II, his entrance into hiding in Paris, and his harrowing flight to the free zone in the south of France. I would like to tell you why I wrote it and, partially, about the fundamental ingredients that I poured into it.

The Vision within Stories

It is nearly a truism that storytelling is as old as humanity. Not only is the form of intelligence intrinsic to narrative older than concept and theory, but it is also a condition, a necessary setting for the appearing of concept and theory. To cite a prominent exemplification of this perspective, Plato’s philosophy presented in the dialogues demonstrates it both in its enactment (as a dramatic narrative) and through its argumentation. Regarding the latter, it is almost as if the dialogues quite often seek to work out the limitations of theoretical intelligence in order to turn to story, which can lead Socrates and his interlocutors further down the path into the transcendent order that frames mortal being.

Stories have an intelligible structure, a beginning, middle, and end. They derive from the articulation of an account that our hominid ancestors would have given to one another for the sake of survival. The hunter leaves the settlement (beginning), performs the hunt (middle) and returns to tell the location of the game (end). Soon, the story becomes detached from the survival account and becomes a mode of play: remember the story of the Ancestor, who left the settlement, performed the Great Action, and returned (either to the settlement, or, more fundamentally, to the other place, the Place of Origin). In the modes of survival or play, the story delineates something essentially human.

An ingredient essential to every story is not merely the triadic structure that articulates it (a mere account has this structure too: I went to the stream to collect water and returned). Nothing happens here. It is, instead, the ingredient of crisis or challenge, the dramatic problem that transforms the account into a story: I went to the stream to collect water. A bear was in my path. I could see the sun shining on the water behind it. Slowly, I picked up a stick; the bear turned, and stood on its hind legs; I looked into its eyes, etc.

Stories invoke a problem that demands a resolution. What is going to happen? Stories, further, are told by someone transformed by the events; the storyteller is a messenger. He or she has “something to say,” a message that contains the promise of a new vantage on the world. The activity foregrounding theoretical intelligence—the use of concept and theory, deriving from the perception of fundamental contrasts intrinsic to the way things are—called by ancient Greeks “philosophy,” possesses an identical aim: to see the world differently, to pass from the partial to the holistic, from illusion to truth, to solve the riddle of things, to find the definitive.

Philosophy possesses this aim because it derives from and is ordered by story; from the more primordial narrative order of intelligence it is provided the original coordinates through which it perceives the distinctions out of which its concepts and theories are forged. Philosophy, in this classical sense, is particularly related to a certain kind of story, the stories of sacred quality, sacred because they claim to provide a total account, commemorating and therefore bearing, in themselves, access to the definitive (i.e., what defines us, the absolute conditions of our mortal frame), our origin and end. They tell us where we come from and where we are going. These special stories have some shadowy, elusive connection with the definitive actions of humanity that bring about a collaborative action with the powers (or power) that transcend(s) and frame(s) the human experience. I mean, of course, ritual.

The above could be said otherwise or better in this or that aspect by the anthropologist, or theologian, or sociologist. But in its basic contours the account should hold. We could, if we were so inclined, to ratchet up the account given into a problem by recognizing the implicit value it has in telling us about our humanity itself: the stories we tell, our myths, and the theories we construct out of our intellectual perceptions of distinctions together propose to lead us (and not, of course, without ritual) to some insight into the meaning of our humanity itself. If these three elements, ritual, myth, theory, start failing to give us anything definitive (access to which is predicated on maintaining the transcendence of the definitive through our encounter with it), we discard them.

Nietzsche, Heidegger, and even some of our contemporaries (Jean-Yves Lacoste, Jean-Luc Marion) diagnose our modern times as an era of discarding old ideas, stories, and rituals and the search for new ones. They call it “nihilism.” For the former two philosophers the escape or overcoming of nihilism involves the resolute embrace of mortality itself as the definitive, without remainder, wholly without any transcendent contrast from which to derive its meaning; for the latter, the civilizational collapse (of which nihilism is certainly nothing less) leads to the clarification of the real enigma of ourselves, too quickly shut down by reconciliation with our mortality alone, which holds no necessity over our transcendent aspirations.

I wrote Outside the Gates in light of this problem, the problem of nihilism or the collapse of the West, which I see as only an instantiation of the general rule of death that Nietzsche and Heidegger counseled us to embrace: humans come into being and disappear; languages, cultures, values, civilizations are no different, they are born and die; stars and universes apparently do too. Everything is mortal; Death is absolute. There is, of course, a contradiction to the claim of the reign of death over humanity and its meaning found at the center of Christian faith: it is articulated in the Easter proclamation: Christ is risen! Christianity is based on a community’s claim of witness to the relativization of death by the resurrection of the crucified Jew from the dead. Faith in the resurrection harbors the promise of the transcendence of death for humanity, and in that transcending, the recovery of its access to the definitive order for which it has always aspired as for its native place through myth, ritual, and theory, but also through art, morality, politics, and so on—whatever is irreducibly human.    

The Problem of the Catholic Novel

What I want to say is that the perception of a contradiction between the rule of death and its eclipse lies at the basis of Catholic storytelling. We could rearticulate it in dramatic form:  

Let us call it the Problem of the Catholic Novel. To articulate it, I will have to continue to be a little direct about the transcendent implications of the content of Christian faith—uncomfortably so, I must say, under the regime of Western liberalism (which does not like to permit any absolute but the reign of death: a thread that runs through its inaugurating document, Locke’s Second Treatise; see, for example, § 95, which sets it in ironic continuity with the great philosophical prophets of its demise previously named, Nietzsche and Heidegger). Easter, thinks the Christian, harbors a promise for all humanity, and, in fact, for all creation (as wild as that sounds), and it demands to be understood as such: Death is not the last word.

The Problem of the Catholic Novel, as I see it, is double:

  1. The best story has already been told—or, more precisely, is being told. It is found in the Gospel.
  2. The artist must tell the truth, but the truth is difficult to tell. Sometimes it is beyond words, whether horrifying or glorious, ugly or beautiful, enchanting, rapturous, or repugnant to morality and public decency.

The first aspect of the problem I learned from J. R. R. Tolkien; the second, from my other storytelling master, Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly (the French Catholic Dandy, Decadent, critic, novelist, and short-story writer, who died in 1889).

From Tolkien

It seems that stories, if they are good at all, are approximations to the Best Story. They are measured by it. Should we ignore it as soon as we are writers? At the cost of hypocrisy and infidelity to what matters most. Yet, when writers try to write, explicitly, approximations to the Best Story, readers immediately see it as kitsch, as pseudo-art. With this awareness, necessary for the Catholic artist, the problem immediately changes. It becomes: how to tell a good story without merely aping the archetypal story?

As is well known, Tolkien thought his pal Lewis came dangerously close to that aping business with The Chronicles of Narnia. The analogy between the lion Aslan, son of the Emperor over the Sea, and Jesus Christ is rather apparent. To my mind the criticism certainly flags a danger, but it misses the mark, for it is precisely the magic of the likeness between the Lion and Christ that electrifies the story every time he appears, and, for that matter, when he is absent. Be that as it may, the episode elucidates the problem at hand. In the epilogue to his essay, On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien said:

Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it.

Talking about his chosen genre, the “fairy-story” (though he expands it, by implication, to story as such), he continues:

The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving; ‘mythical’ in their perfect self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe [‘happy ending’: viz., Easter].”

For Tolkien, fairy-stories partake in the experience of joy that Easter faith essentially imparts. Their truth is derivative, then, from that original.

After the Big Story is told or heard—or is being told and heard—no story remains the same. Accessing a great metaphysical truth at the heart of the Catholic vision, Tolkien will say: “In God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small.” The good storytellers are going to be able to realize that proximity, to sustain that intensity; in Tolkien’s lexicon they are “subcreators.” Their raw material is the same as the Big Story’s, and this archetype of all stories (here I speak like a classical philosopher) heals, elevates, draws to perfection, liberates, we could say, all of them. According to Tolkien, in short, every good story enjoys “the very taste of primary truth.”[1]

Tolkien could take us further, but we only need to grasp for now that the trick to avoiding kitsch and hypocrisy is to see every story, whether fact or fiction, myth or history—or something in between, like historical fiction—as happening within the Big Story, as a moment that finds its proper place in connection with the archetypal story itself. “Derived from or flowing into.” The Gospel has not demolished all other stories; it has sanctified them in some way, it has electrified them with its own electricity.

From Barbey

Now to Barbey, hero, if it tells you anything, of the novelist Léon Bloy, and who counted among his other literary devotees Proust, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James. In the preface to the 1865 republication of his controversial novel, The Last Mistress, Barbey said, in response to his critics (both Catholic moralists and atheist “freethinkers”) that the truth of the novelist may offend, perhaps deeply, our pieties, and transgress the refinements of our sensibilities:

There is something, if I may put it this way, more Catholic than one would think in the inspiration of all those painters who wanted to depict the beauty of Herodias, splendid as gold, as imperial purple, or as snow, of the butcher, the executioner, the murderer of St. John. They did not omit a single one of her charms. They painted the divinity of beauty, gazing at the decapitated head being offered to her, and she is all the more infernal for that divine beauty! Here is precisely the task art must set itself. To depict what really is, to seize human reality, whether criminal or virtuous, and give it life through the omnipotence of inspiration and form, to show reality, to vivify it up to the level of the ideal—that is the artist’s mission.

He continues in the next paragraph: “the morality of the artist resides in the force and truth of his depictions. In depicting reality, infiltrating it, breathing life into it, he has been moral enough; he has been true.”[2] But why, says the apprentice to his master, why risk such damage in your art? Why court such danger? (It goes without saying that immorality is dangerous to a Catholic.) I imagine Barbey’s response would run something like this:

The truth is the sacred aim of the writer, to not flinch before the truth, whether belched or sung, and more than likely both within two breaths of another, says Barbey to my imagination, that is itself a risk— The truth is a risk! To love the truth, said St. Augustine in an unsurpassable way in the Confessions (book 10), is the single task of the philosopher, the single task of the human being of which the philosopher is simply meant to be the purest, burning exemplification. The problem, St. Augustine continues, is found in our love-hate relationship with the truth: we love the truth when it shines and delights us, when it confirms our preconceptions or upsets, exposes the falsehoods of our enemies. And we double-minded, fickle creatures, we hate, we loath the truth when its harsh light is directed on us, when it exposes and burns us. But, insofar as it is the truth, we are called to love it for its own sake; whether it warms or burns, delights or exposes, we are to love it, simply because it is the truth.  

And secondly, Barbey might tell me, because the truth is a risk, being human is a risk; we ourselves are a risk, whether we like it or not. And to be ourselves, we must expose ourselves to the risk of the truth.

One way that we human (human here is a verb), is by exposing ourselves to the truth through storytelling: Jesus of Nazareth did it, the prophets before him did it; our prehistoric ancestors did it, amidst the leaping interplay of fire and darkness on the walls of their caves; Catholic priests (to pick a relevant example to me; I am a seminary professor) do it too: they tell, retell, interpret and reinterpret the Story, and, as sacramental enactors, open doorways of exposure or risk into it. Authors and readers likewise do it in their own way. The author takes on the risk of attempting to tell the truth about himself, about his reader, about our common humanity; and he risks failing the art. The reader risks, he and she dare—whether conscious of it or not—you dare to face your humanity in the mirror of the art when you take up and read. One could, or should rather, judge a story by its capacity to expose the risk that our humanity itself is.

The truth, then, the sacred object of Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, returns us to the orbit of the Best Story of Tolkien’s concern, the story of Creator and creature, of humanity, of angel and beast and rock and star and sky and sea, of the unfathomable reaches of visible and invisible worlds upon worlds . . . of love and hate, of immortal longing, of loss and revenge, of desperation, freedom, vice, joy, madness—the story where all hangs on the edge of a knife, of horrified silence, and of an unanticipated recovery, of restoration and transfiguration, of judgment and mercy, and of a new, definitive beginning, a partnership of the Almighty God and his fragile blinking newborn creature, embarking together onto the uncharted territory of an unfathomable, eternal adventure.

The Archetypal Story never ends. Every good story, in my view, must signal that unfinished character; myths are necessarily fragmentary. And their ingredients, so to speak, are the same, the same things, the permanent enigmas that grow in stature the more we get a handle on them—the human things. To recapitulate the ground covered:

  1. The greatest story is the one we are in; this transfigures the art of human storytelling. Thank you, Tolkien.
  2. We must not flinch before what’s real; if we are to be a Catholic artist, one who trades in truth. Thank you, Barbey.
  3. We can conclude now that this double-problem of the Catholic novelist can, like most every intellectual problem, be distilled to one: it is the problem, or rather the enigma of our humanity that it wants to reach.

This enigma, naming it, disclosing it, letting it appear in all its terrible splendor, its full chiaroscuro of the brightest light and the darkest darkness—that is the problem—let’s now call it the task—of the Catholic novel.

Storytelling Outside the Gates

And so, to my story. If it succeeds as art, the reader has come to see the world a little differently through it.

It is a true story—I hope—and not just because it is based on history. This history is the story of a European man from last century, a Frenchman and a Jew, a bachelor, a philosopher, and a poet; it is, as I noted at the beginning, about his odd escape from Drancy Internment Camp under the nose of its Nazi superintendent, S. S. Hauptsturmführer Theodor Dannecker (death by suicide in 1945); it is about his entrance into hiding in Paris and, with the help of the Resistance, his harrowing flight to the Free Zone in the south.

That is a story told by Outside the Gates—or better, fictionally retold: the true history of Jean Wahl. It is also a story within a wider story—a story I intend to continue telling: from his shocking betrayal by the outspoken fascist and collaborationist Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (death by suicide, 1945), leading, on 30 July 1941, to his arrest on and brutal interrogation (at the hands of the aforementioned Nazi Captain), his subsequent imprisonment for six weeks at Paris’s Santé Prison, his transfer to Drancy and existence within the camp, to the moment of his escape: that is the prequel, entitled First Born, ending where Outside the Gates begins.

And on the other end, it is the story of an enraged Dannecker’s pursuit into the south of France and Wahl’s flight, now, to Morocco, his arrest there on disembarking, and another miraculous release, this time through the intervention of his former protégé, the royalist anti-Semite Pierre Boutang (a man of great contradictions and genius, eventually rehabilitated and made Professor of Metaphysics at the Sorbonne; d. 1998), to, finally, the moment, on 30 July 1942—precisely a year to the day of his arrest—that he sees the Baltimore skyline from the deck of a Portuguese ship, holding hands with his fellow refugee, the brilliant and enigmatic Rachel Bespaloff (Ukrainian-French Jewish philosopher; death by suicide in 1949): that is the third and final installation of the series, Wilderness and Refuge, yet to be written.

The trilogy tells a single year. Now the success of the storytelling hinges on many things, but not least the recognition that this story, with its beginning and end, is provisional, unfinished, inset, in other words, within an even wider story. But even history itself—the span of a life between birth and death—is not the full story of any life. On that note, Wahl’s life, it should be said, has a happy ending: he waits out the war in America, teaching at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts; he returns to Paris, gets his old job back (Chair of Philosophy at the Sorbonne); he marries a very beautiful and much younger (former) student and has four children: three daughters and a son who, sadly, passed at birth; he lives to a ripe old age, writing many books and shaping the intellectual life of Paris, of France, and of Europe for decades.

Yet the dovetailing of stories I have named so far remains still incomplete, for the stories of writer and reader too are involved, themselves inset within stories upon stories, altogether now a kaleidoscope of moments, somehow, in the One Big Story of all.

A prominent theologian once used the phrase: Das Ganze im Fragment (“the whole appears in the piece”). We are all of us a world, all of us a complete story told with the same secret ingredients (love, joy, fear, wonder, angst, evil, freedom, goodness, and their dramatic interplay). The central component in the tale of everyman is the encounter with Death and the enigma of what lies behind its pale grin. The storyteller aims to tell the truth, without flinching, about his own mortal humanity shared with his readers, sometimes its fragility, sometimes its tragedy, sometimes its contradictions, sometimes its comedy, sometimes its fleeting beauty, its raptures, sometimes, even, its transfiguration…

Jean Wahl’s story, as I tell it, is meant to be an exemplification of our mortality; a mirror in which we are to gaze and see something of our truth. For Outside the Gates is, within its pages, a history told; in the story there is a teller and a hearer: Jean Wahl and . . . someone enigmatic to say the least. The tale is told and heard outside of another sort of gate altogether.

Of course, the artist’s view of his own art does not exhaust its meaning: our creations always exceed our intentions; they are, like miracles and like people, un-anticipatable. And that very excess of meaning itself signals too the strange paradox, the undying enigma, the wonder of the beings that we are.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is, loosely, the transcript for a talk given by the author to several dozen of his readers at Saint Meinrad Seminary in southern Indiana. He would like to thank them for their perceptive intelligence and enthusiasm for the story.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas Collins (eds.). London: HarperCollins, 2008, 77-79.

[2] This preface is available in English as the second appendix to a recent (and very fine) English edition of his Les Diaboliques. Raymond N. MacKenzie (trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, , 279-286. The quotation is found on page 283.