January 04, 2017
Say the word ‘thinking’, and the image evoked
is that of abstract ideas, facts, numbers and data. But what if I say that this
is our first and most common error about the nature of thinking? As religions
have always known, human thinking is conducted primarily in stories, not facts
Human beings might be the only living
animals that can think in stories. Facts and information of some sort exist for
a deer and a wolf too, but fiction, and thinking in fiction?
Now, stories are celebrated for many
things: as repositories of folk knowledge or accumulated wisdom, as relief from
the human condition, as entertainment, as enabling some cognitivist processes,
even as the best way to get yourself and your children to fall asleep! But all
this misses the main point about stories: they are the most common, most
pervasive, and probably the oldest way for humans to think.
Of A Fundamentalist Reading
Having missed this point, we then proceed
to reduce stories — and their most complex enunciation, literature — to much
less than what they are or should be. For instance, a good story is not just a
narrative. It does not simply take us from point A to point Z, with perhaps an
easy moral appended. Religious fundamentalists who see stories only in those
terms end up destroying the essence of their religions.
Let us take one example: the Book of Job.
The fundamentalist reading of the Book of Job stresses Job’s faith. In this
version, the story is simple: Job is a prosperous, God-fearing man, and God is
very proud of him. Satan, however, argues that Job is such a good man only
because God has been kind to him. Give him adversity and you will see his faith
waver, says Satan. God allows Satan to test Job, by depriving him of
prosperity, family, health. But Job’s faith does not waver, and finally all is
restored to him. The fundamentalist reading — which reduces the story to a
narrative — is simple: this is a parable about true faith.
To leave the Book of Job there is to stop
thinking about it. Because the narrative of Job is secondary to its
problematic. One can even argue that the narrative is misleading: in the
restoration of Job’s children, health and wealth, we have a resolution that
fails in our terms. We do not expect such miracles in real life. Hence, it is
not the narrative of Job that is significant.
What is significant and useful are the
problems of the story. For instance, when the righteous, believing Job is
afflicted with death and suffering, such questions are raised (in the story and
by Job’s friends): Who is to be blamed? Is God unjust or uncaring? Has Job
sinned in hiding (or ignorance) and is therefore being punished? Does it all
make any sense?
Job adopts a difficult position throughout
the story: among other things, he neither blames God, nor does he blame
himself, but he demands an answer. When one thinks of this, one comes to the
kernel of the thought of this story: how does one live best in a world where
undeserved suffering sometimes befalls the good? It is not the unbelievable
narrative which makes this a significant story; it is the way Job’s reactions,
his friends’ prescriptions and the problematic of the entire story make us
think. Moreover, as God’s incomplete ‘answers’ to Job indicate, stories can
make us think in very complex ways.
Religions have always known that human
beings think best and most easily in stories. That is why religions consciously
think through stories: the ‘facts’ and ‘details’ of these stories change with
changing human circumstances, but what does not change is the bid and ability
to make us contemplate, imagine, reason, induce, examine — in other words,
Strangely, politicians have also known
this. All major political movements have depended on the power of stories. In
the decades when the Left was on the ascendency, it had a powerful story to
tell — of human exploitation, human resistance and eventually human achievement
in the shape of a ‘classless’ society. In recent years, the Right has managed
to tell us stories that, for various reasons, seem more convincing to many:
inevitable state-aided neo-liberalism, for instance. Narendra Modi’s victory in
India, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s in Turkey, and Donald Trump’s in the U.S. — all
three are driven by powerful narratives that explain the ‘past’ and promise a
Unfortunately, the one area where thinking
in stories was taken seriously — and not just reduced to mechanistic
explanations — has lost confidence in itself. The Humanities have been too busy
trying to justify stories in all possible terms — entertainment, discourse,
narratology, cognitivist structures, reader response, etc. — instead of working
on how to best think in stories. The total failure of academics, publishers and
editors to talk of literature as literature — not just what sells, or a set of
‘reader responses’, or a soporific, or passing politics, or ageless
‘Darwinism,’ etc. — is an index of this failure.
The so-called post-truth society is not
primarily the result of our inability to focus on facts; it is due to our
failure to read stories deeply. Just as there are ways in which facts can be
used positively or negatively, there are ways in which stories can be read — to
make us think or to prevent us from thinking. Literature — even in the days
when it was written with a capital ‘L’ — was the one area of the Humanities where
this was a serious endeavour. This has changed at great cost to human
Humans still think primarily in stories.
But the failure of standards in education and literary criticism has combined
with the rise of fundamentalism (which is not piety or religious thought),
scientism (which is not science) and numerical neo-liberalism (which is not
even capitalism) to deprive more and more people of the ability to think
critically, deeply and sensitively in stories. This explains many of our
current political and economic woes.
Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.