Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Homo narrans

Swedish author Henning Mankell (of 'Wallander' fame) posits in the New York Times that better than calling our species Homo sapiens would be to call us  Homo narrans, or Man the Storyteller.

"It struck me as I listened to those two men that a truer nomination for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person. What differentiates us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats — and they in turn can listen to ours.
Many people make the mistake of confusing information with knowledge. They are not the same thing. Knowledge involves the interpretation of information. Knowledge involves listening.
So if I am right that we are storytelling creatures, and as long as we permit ourselves to be quiet for a while now and then, the eternal narrative will continue."
 With the explosion of the internet, we have gotten into hyper-storytelling mode. A million new videos, a million new blogs, a billion new tweets... The human animal is quite capable of ignoring the present in its search for the newest narration.
So, when do we have the time to stop the talking and tweeting, and really listen? Or can we listen without indulging in a reciprocal "That is your story, and it reminds me very much of the time that I...", starting off on a fresh narrative of our own. Maybe that is the point.
I will forgive Mankell his anthropocentrism when he ascribes storytelling skills only to humans. Other species do manifest the storytelling ability, to varying degrees, as far as we can tell from scientific studies. But note, that is only based upon what we know to be provable. Maybe there is still a lot more to be learnt about the storytelling modes and mechanisms among, say, elephants. But we are still preoccupied with figuring out the physical mechanisms rather than going to the next level to find out the grammar of those languages.
Till we get out of the unspoken base assumption that we are the only species in the planet capable of narratives, we as humans will continue to ascribe to animals the voices that we cannot hear or understand, making up our own stories about their lives, as they likely do about ours.


Balachandran V said...

I look at Sancho ( my profile picture) and wonder - does he make up stories about me? Would he be telling Sally about the time when he was born and had three sisters and a mother who ran away from home? Would he tell, with great drama, how he caught Parvo Virus when he was a pup and he nearly died and his human dad and mom took care of him, sitting beside him on the table with IV for three days and nights? Would he tell her how so much this old man, his human dad loves him and bothers him always with choking hugs?

Thank you, Sujata, for letting me imagine, letting me dream...

Sujatha said...

That's what you imagine Sancho would say. For all we know, he see's it differently: "There's a top dog in my house, and I always accede to his wishes. He is a kind top dog, if rather puzzling in the way he puts his top paws around my neck all the time..." It may mirror your account, but not in the same sense.