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 or numbers.
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.
Problem 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, think.
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 ‘future.’
Failure of academics
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 civilisation.
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.
Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.