On the Importance of Storytelling

Alexander III of Macedonia, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was 22, when he landed in Asia Minor with an army of 50.000 soldiers. Once he put his foot on shore, he symbolically stuck his spear on what for him was Asian ground and said: this land is mine”. This is the incipit of one Alessandro Baricco’s memorable lectures on the vital importance of storytelling and, of course, he chose a great story to tell in order to get his point, so let’s keep on with the narration.

First of all: why did a Macedonian king claim those vast Asian territories named Persia, the greatest empire of the time? It could seem like madness at first glance, but he had a powerful reason: to save the honour of the Greeks. Long time before, the Persians had invaded Macedonia and Greece, a war which was won eventually by the Greeks, but at great expense for the people. Everything had been destroyed: villages, houses, temples. As the Persians had come there and burnt their temples, hence it was his right to conquer their land and burn theirs. Alexander had inherited this pan-Hellenic project from his father, who had hired Aristotle himself for his education. When his father died and he was awarded the generalship of Greece and used this authority to launch the campaign for the conquest of Persia.

By the way, it was a crazy enterprise. He arrived with “only” 50.000 soldiers, a small bunch of men if we consider that the Persian empire was inhabited by millions of people who could be recruited any time by Darius, the King of Kings. Wherever he went, the Persians could have put together an army three times his. Something more had to be done, that’s why Alexander’s story of conquest and revenge took necessarily the form of legend. He wanted his people to see him more like a God than a king. That is why he started his conquest of Persia with three symbolical actions. First of all, he went to pay homage to the tomb of Protesilaus, who was the first  to leap ashore at Troy, and thus the first to die in the war. That was the destiny of any “first” man who put his foot on Persian land according to a prophecy. Alexander, wanted to be the first to touch the ground, but he didn’t die, thus proving that predictions didn’t work on him as he was a God.

Then he went to visit the tombs of Achilles and Patroclus along with Hephaestion, his life mate. Achilles was among those legendary figures of the war of Troy, the one and whose values he identified himself the most and he was a demigod, after all. Finally, he felt the urge to do something apparently nonsensical. He risked his life and that of the comrades who followed him to reach the Libyan desert to ask the oracle of God Amon  the following question: ” Am I Amon’s son”? Alexander must have had a monumental ego, this is a matter of fact, but all this was to make his story more appealing. They were about to fight a war, which would subdue Persia under the Greek dominion and the only one who could lead them to victory couldn’t but be a God. Gods are no losers.

Well, they won. Alexander won because he had an appealing story to tell, made of dreams, legend, conquest and his people followed him to victory. He had understood the immense power of storytelling. Can we give a definition of storytelling to make all this clear? Of course. Reality = facts + storytelling, namely, it is the reality devoid of facts and a fact without a storytelling does not exist, it is not real. Only those facts which are part of a narration are true.

At this point of Baricco’s lecture, I understood. Those large movements, which are growing worldwide, are fed with storytelling and they will never be stopped by facts. The facts of the unattainability of electoral promises or the evident incapability of this or that politician, these are facts, but they can’t be a barrier to what is mostly irrational and emotional. It is a sort of collective automatic response, an indomitable stream. It follows man’s animal instinct, the one which makes you believe to absurd things. Alexander wanted to conquer Persia, as they had destroyed the Greek temples 150 years before. Never mind if they were not exactly your temples, as Alexander was Macedonian, it is a meaningless detail compared to the power of the storytelling.

That is why, as long as we want to oppose those movements taking the evidence of the ineptitude of leaders or the folly of some election programmes, with facts, we are in the wrong. Facts do not appeal masses. We need to find a new storytelling; and soon.

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The Barbarians

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It is undeniable that the new technological connected world has brought to the collapse the past idea of relation, politics, education, art and somehow given voice and shape to a very long gallery of people who would have barely seen the light before: scarcely educated, rude, arrogant, tasteless, they flood the world with their superficial, trivial, sometimes violent but incredibly effective messages. As barbarians they implacably destroy our certainties and nothing seems it can be done but walking hopelessly among those ruins of the past. The point is: are these barbarians ruthless destroyers or maybe is this only the way we perceive and fear change ? After all, whatever cannot be fully understood is often seen as a threat. Am I just growing old and losing touch with the new? Maybe, we should just modulate the way we look at things rather than feeling continuously under attack.

bar2This is what suggests Alessandro Baricco, Italian novelist and essayist, for whom the barbarians represent innovation rather than violence and destruction. In his ” The Barbarians: an essay on the mutation of culture“, Baricco remarks that the beginners of a new era have always been considered barbarians by their contemporaries, because they smashed past tradition. What they had in common was a good degree of that foolishness so dear to Steve Jobs: the clear perception of change. In the past Diderot and D’Alembert must have seemed barbarians at the eyes of the intellectual elite of the ancient regime, let alone the revolutionary music of Mozart and Romantic poetry, of course, which in fell swoop destroyed all the canons of classicism.The use of simple, unelaborated language, common themes, blank verse, for the purist of the age was a barbaric act on classic form. Actually, I myself have often  thought while reading Wordsworth‘s “Daffodils”, for example: “uhm , so puerile” and quite annoying all that flood of synonyms of the word “happy” (bliss, joy, jocund…)  as  if that were the only way to communicate the reader how happy he felt, but rather, resulting in my mind as a sort of Pharrell William walking in that wood singing and dancing wildly “because I’m happy“. And pray, don’t be offended by the word “puerile”, I borrowed it from Shelley‘s comment on the poem. All these people had to vandalize past canons to let their genius explode.

bar-3You wouldn’t believe it, but even Beethoven was considered a barbarian for his age. The critic of the Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review used the following words to review his most celebrated ninth symphony in 1825: Elegance, purity and measures, which were the principles of our art, have gradually surrendered to the new style, frivolous and affected, that these days of superficial talent  have adopted. Brains that, for education and habit, cannot think of anything else but clothes, fashion, gossip, reading novels and moral dissipation, are struggling to experience the more elaborate and less febrile pleasures of science and art. Beethoven writes for those brains, and in this he seems to have some success, if I have to believe the praise that, on all sides, I bloom for his latest work.” And even the American reviews did not spare negative comments:”…very much like Yankee Doodle,” sniffed a Providence, R.I. newspaper in 1868 and “Unspeakable cheapness,” declared Boston’s Musical Record in 1899. Hence; Beethoven was only endowed with a superficial talent for them and treated like a pop musician.

bar6Baricco says that nowadays modern Barbarians are people like Larry Page and Sergey Brin who were only twenty when they invented Google and had never read Flaubert,of course; Steve Jobs, creator of the Apple world and that touch technology which is so typically childlike;  or Jimmy Wales the founder of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that has formalized the primacy of speed over accuracy. These people sincerely did not reject all the past, yet, at the time of designing the future rather than using the tools of tradition, they employed new standards with the side effect of destroying to the root, entire estates of knowledge and sensitivity that lie in a shared heritage of civilization.

So far, then, I understand that this sense discomfort that pervades me depends only on my inability of accepting the mutation of this age, as, put it in this way, the barbarians seem to be absolutely necessary for the evolution of our civilization to the same degree they accomplish the precious function of fuelling with young blood  and energy the world of ideas. But then, Baricco introduces a new category and everything becomes more clear to me. The presence of the barbarians has a physiological consequence: the growth of the numbers of the barbarized. This phenomenon has always occurred, but in an age of mass communication where everything happens so rapidly, the barbarized may eventually prevail and change the course of events, before the revolutions of the barbarians might be effectively rooted in society. Furthemore, differently from other ages, the barbarized are no longer hidden and victim of the contempt of the refined, but they are fiercely visible on tv, social media etc., some of them has even pursued a career in politics. Hence, is this what the new world is going to be like? A world in the hand of the barbarized?