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Amber Paulen

On the Necessity of the Story

I am standing stock still on a creaky wooden floor in one aisle of a second-hand bookshop. It smells a tad bit musty in here. A couple to the other side of the shelf before me talks muffled. The clerk sits behind a book-littered counter methodically flipping pages of a square and yellowed book. He too converses as if with a rag in his mouth. He interacts with customers without his eyes raising from the book before him. His fingers are always pinching an up-curled corner. My head is cranked back at an uncomfortable angle. I am attempting to catch the titles on the top-most shelf. I already have clasped between my elbow and my side, three books, though I know I will not buy them I can’t help pretending that I will. Somehow, and for as long as I remember, I experience ecstasy. The physical nature of which, leaves me light-headed; the metaphysical nature of which, gives birth to deific dreams.

Like stuffing gunpowder down the barrel of a heavy firing gun; as if stumbling upon a shot of adrenaline. Liquefaction. And it surges through me as one.

What is it about standing in the presence of such multitudes? The book as object: something I decorate my shelves with. The book as author: the portal through which I communicate in spirit. The book as found treasure: a title (or author) I’ve been patiently expecting to stumble across. Or the book as simply book?

As I sift through such a sandy pile, one pile composed multifariously and of multi-layers, golden granules hitch the wind as they fall between my fingers. There is a diamond hidden within, brightly twinkling, like the one star of the North; the book as vision and poetry: the fallible story the author set out (or did not set out) to tell. It is as if, standing thus, spellbound and with a crick in my neck, I have been given all creation. There is a polished promise among so many pages; a promise of the spiritual wealth of man. Not a promise to come but that already is.

For the sake of clarification, the books in question are fiction, stories, tales, legends, lore, myth, fantasies skimming the surface of reality and by doing so entering it, with all the dexterity of a slim needle, in its most chaotic and disordered actuality. With the reading of such books as The Lord of the Rings or The Brothers Karamazov we are transported, not away as an escape, but closer to, for reality can only be looked at side-long. Anyone who has begun reading in their earliest years can recall the thrill of being taken, the child’s mind so much more malleable than our stoic own. Opening the pages of a book was an adventure of unknown proportions embarked upon solely through the imagination. The child finds no pleasure or point in message or theme. The stories are within the child, vivid and alive.

The story is a necessity. I would even dare to say that we would not survive stripped of our fantasies and dreams. What a dull world indeed, like grey winter all year round. Our minds thrive and grow when they fly the furthest. We will always be up for the challenge giving way to accomplishment, both natives of our imagination.

Really, what do we not make-up? The legends and stories we weave are so much a part of us that we even begin to consider such things as the nightly news as reality. Sometimes we are so enraptured by our own dramatics that we forget to step back and look at the part we are playing. Our routine is full of holes, like the moth-eaten sweater pulled out of the closet, we stand staring and weeping over spilled milk. But those holes are there for a reason. What we see through them ties us to the reality beyond. Back and forth through those holes stories oscillate, pulling us out of ourselves and into the greater humanity. We are shown a way, lit by the lamp of the mystics, we walk the path of the storytellers. We find ourselves joined hand in hand; we are but one. Reality may only be grasped by vague words, the tighter we clasp to it the more fleeting it becomes. Art shows us a way.

Recently, I watched the movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in succession. A story as classic as it is epic. The great journeys and the great battles, the diffused divisions between good and evil, the characters in every variation; it is a world only available by seeing with the mind’s eye, a world constructed purely of imagination. And what an imagination it is! Armies of beasts, armies of men, armies of dwarves and elves and the suffering Hobbit struggling amidst it all. Can it be only one man that has created it all? The idea is towering. The man is miniscule besides his creation, and so are all of us who enter in.

It was with this in mind that I wrote my last piece. I wrote it quickly, and as an experiment. I wondered with what facility could I tap into any such fabulous worlds, such as those given in fairy tales or those of the great myths. I found it to be one of the easiest things I have written. It was as if all I had to do was put my own faces on archetypical characters and plots, as if the forest and the village already existed and all I had to do was to enter it. I have read interviews with Doris Lessing stating such an experience—though on a much larger scale—when she wrote The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five:

That book is pure myth. There has never been a book that I enjoyed writing as much as that one. It was a piece of cake, very unlike most of my books, which are agony. I really loved it.

It is such stories, legends and myths, that we all hold within ourselves. We each have our own version of the origins of creation and the duality between good and evil, that in the end, stripped of all the finery, are the same. I found it quite stunning and doubtful when I first read somewhere that no one can ever write, or even create, anything unique or new, but now I am certain of it. Certain stories are an integral part of us all.

Within all this is unity. Isn’t that what the Bible, one of the greatest collection of stories that there is, has struggled with? It was only those separationists that fucked it all up. And now, in the realm of literary criticism, academics and intellectuals, religious bastards if there ever were some, shoving books under headings and sub-headings, as if the book were the thing in itself. Why can’t we let it be? Picking away until nothing but crumbs are left. And what good to us are crumbs? No substance. Nothing but more sand to the wind.

And so, my fingers plod around oblivious. I am like yourself, my own greatest fabulist. What fiction can I not weave? What land do I not wish to travel to? What language do I not wish to speak? What adventure do I not seek? Who do I not wish to be?

We have been blessed with every possibility. What matter if some stories and fantasies, of necessity, must remain within ourselves? The truth is clearest to those who give themselves up to the furthest distance; a spiraling distance, for in such realms there is no such thing as linear. Take the wildest dream, caress it and you will experience a blossoming no spring could compare to.

Shutting the door of the bookstore, the little bell messily chimes against the window’s dirty glass. I have not bought a book, just as I had thought. I already have so many I so wish to read. I walk slowly out, as if emerging from the deepest sea. There is ground but I must find it. I make the transition quickly from experience. In this moment, which lasts merely seconds, I mutter a brief prayer for safe passage. Amen!

Bracciano, Italy
December 2007


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