To a Dancing God and Waterland: Storytelling as a Religious Faith

Gary S. Weissman 7/89

In chapter ten of Graham Swift's Waterland the narrator, Tom Crick, tells his history class and the novel's reader that history is important because it provides explanation, thereby allowing better understanding of the present through the past. The question of how truthful this understanding is--or could possibly be--remains to problematize Crick's reasoning.

Sam Keen's To A Dancing God (Harper and Row, 1970), juxtaposes storytelling and history in much the same way as does Waterland. In chapter three, "Reflections on a Peach-Seed Monkey or Storytelling and the Death of God," Keen has written that human beings provide themselves with identity and meaning through storytelling, and that although "images and stories may reduce the proportions of reality to a scale that is manageable by the human spirit, their distortion serves the cause of truth" (p. 97). Tom Crick reduces the proportion of history covered in his classroom to that of his own family, presumably serving the cause of truth.

For Keen, storytelling is a religious undertaking, and the belief that storytelling provides explanation (thereby allowing better understanding of the present through the past) requires the faith of storyteller and audience; thus Keen wrote, " the death of God is best understood as modern man's inability to believe that human life is rendered ultimately meaningful by being incorporated into a story" (p. 85). Keen explains that "we can get some notion of the implicit confession of faith involved in the act of telling a story" by examining how the story served a religious function in "traditional cultures":

In telling stories, traditional man was affirming the unity of reality. The individual, the tribe, nature, and the cosmos fit together in concentric circles of integrated meaning. All of the parts were necessary to form a coherent and artistic whole. Past, present, and future were, likewise, bound together in a thematic unity. Thus, the individual standing on the ever-disappearing point of present time could affirm that the meaning of his existence was not destroyed by the passing of time. He took courage from his knowledge that he had roots in what had been and that his memory and deeds would be preserved in what would be. (p. 97)

Crick's description of history coincides with Keen's when he describes it as "History itself, the Grand Narrative, the filler of vacuums, the dispeller of fears of the dark" (p. 47) and "a struggle to make things not seem meaningless. It's all a fight against fear . . . What do you think all my stories are for. . . I don't care what you call it--explaining, evading the facts, making up meanings, taking a larger view, putting things into perspective, dodging the here and now, education, history, fairy-tales-- it helps eliminate fear" (p. 182). Among the greatest of human fears is that of dying insignificantly, of being forgotten and leaving no mark. A meaningful factor in Waterland is that Crick describes and in a sense recreates his family roots--tracing his roots in "what had been"--because he has no child who will, in turn, preserve Tom Crick in "what would be". Whereas Crick's wife steals a baby, Crick's mission may be forcefully to adopt the students of his history class, to preserve his memory and deeds in the "what would be" of "his schoolchildren, his children, who once, ever reminded him of the future" (p.47). Price, the only student Swift, and therefore Crick, differentiates from the generic history-class-at-large, foreseeably becomes the focus of Crick's mission, and it is an embarrassingly frank moment of awkward victory for Crick when he tells the barman, who asks if Price is eighteen, that, "Yes. I should know. He's my son." (p.182). Both Keen and Crick (to what degree Swift's beliefs correspond with those of his narrator is questionable) place faith in history as a kind of religion observed through storytelling. And, like Swift, Keen argues that the modern ahistorical attitude may mean the death of storytelling:

It now appears that the ahistorical attitude created by the triumph of technological mentality and American ideology may be destroying the function of the story as a source of metamundane identity. The hero of the American story is Adam--the man without a history, living in the wonderland of the innocent present. Henry Ford stated the American dream in a manner that can hardly be surpassed: 'History is bunk.' In the non-story we tell in the new world, a man's identity is fashioned by doing rather than remembering; his credentials for acceptance are the skills of a trade rather than the telling of stories.(p. 86)

Interestingly enough, Waterland 's narrator is a storyteller by both faith and trade, which implies that the modern storyteller cannot survive by the storytelling faith alone, but must somehow integrate it into the larger workings of a profession and that even then the storytelling aspect must be marginal. Crick feels that because he has shown that "he himself was only a piece of the stuff he taught" he has been targeted as a threat by the headmaster, Lewis, who represents the ahistorical mentality of the powers-that-be, and the notion that history is bunk, "a rag-bag of pointless information" because it has no "practical relevance to today's real world" (p.17). As a result the powers-that-be disband the history department and force Crick to retire.

The reader gets to know the character of Tom Crick through his trade--history teacher--as well as through his storytelling. On the other hand, Crick's opposition, Price is only related to the reader by his presence in the immediate moment of confrontation with Crick. Although Price might share Lewis' bias that history is bunk, his faith is quite distinct from that of the headmaster; for Price, "today's real world" is not something to serve, but something to protest. Price is what Keen describes as a hero of the ahistorical age. He is, according to Keen, "The existentialist hero who tries to live in the immediacy of the present moment is a figure who typifies our age. . . Wherever he appears, one metaphysical assumption governs identity--there is no future, there is no past, so live in the moment. . . The linear, historical, storytelling mentality belonged to another age." Keen would most likely add Price to his string of "existentialist heroes", following in the line of Camus' stranger, Kerouac's beatnik, and the hippy (designated as the most recent example of the existentialist hero when Keen wrote his book, which was published in 1970). Keen foresees Swift's depiction of the existentialist hero in the nuclear age:

It is only within the present century that the metaphor of the story and the outline of the traditional drama which have been commonplace in Western civilization have been radically criticized and widely abandoned. For the contemporary intellectual the metaphysical myth has ceased to provide the context for identity. . .

The new metaphor which reflects modern experience is the happening. Nature and history are governed by chance and probability. Luck is the only god, and crossing the fingers or knocking on wood is the only liturgy appropriate to a happenstance world. One thing happens after another, and although there are causes for events, there are no reasons . . . If history tells a tale, it is the tale of the idiot. It is up to the individual to give his own life meaning by creating a project to which he may give himself. . . . In the face of the absurdity of existence, the only option for the lucid individual is to create a reason for existing by writing a book or joining a political movement, etc.(94-95)

Price has chosen the project of joining a political movement, and Crick the project of storytelling. The reader may well wonder: does storytelling deserve our faith more than other projects? How does Crick's storytelling in his history class compare to Swift's storytelling in his book? To what degree is Price's reluctance to understand the nuclear threat within a historical context equivalent to his animosity towards storytelling? Price rejects history because he identifies it with a kind of storytelling that offers explanations to calm fears without actually doing a thing to change the very real and threatening causes of these fears. It follows that Price places no faith in history and storytelling; to him they are false religions. How did Price gain this perception of history? Is Crick's teaching of history a reaction to Price's rejection, or is Price's rejection a reaction to Crick's teaching? Crick teaches contadictory notions of history; although he says, "I don't care what you call it--explaining, evading the facts, making up meanings, taking a larger view, putting things into perspective, dodging the here and now, education, history, fairy-tales-- it helps eliminate fear" (p. 182) he also claims "above all, what history teaches us is to avoid illusion and make-believe, to lay aside dreams, moonshine, cure-alls, wonder-workings, pie-in-the-sky--to be realistic." (p.81). A significant inconsistency exists between storytelling and history as they are presented by Crick, and so his notion of history is not fully conceived; therefore Price's scepticism of the storytelling faith is understandable.

Keen argues that storytelling faith must be rehabilitated because the metaphor of the happening, which Keen calls "the contemporary candidate to replace the story", provides no "overarching principle of order or meaning" and no "assurance of continuity between past and future", and therefore no meaningful context for human existence (p.96). Keen argues that because the widespread faith of storytelling has been destroyed "by the ahistorical attitude created by the triumph of technological mentality and American ideology", it must be reasserted on an individual basis. Thus he writes, "If God is gone from the sky, he must be found in the earth" (p. 104). In Freudian terms he explains: "The path to health involves the de-repression of these hidden memories and the reconstruction of the individual's personal history" (p.102). Keen adds that in addition to placing faith in individual storytelling, the storyteller must find "his own history" in "the story of every man" (p.103). Keen's concluding sentence looks optimistically at a non-Judaic-Christian faith in storytelling:"And perhaps, if each of us learns to tell his own story, even if we remain ignorant of the name of God or the form of religion, it will be sufficient" (p.105).

Tom Crick exemplifies the believer of this faith, although just how far he travels down the path to health and how able he is to find what Keen calls "a universitality of experience that binds him to all men" (p.103) remains problematic in Waterland. Both Crick and Keen must face rejection for their faith; Crick is forced to retire, and a theological journal rejected Keen's Reflections on a Peach-Seed Monkey or Storytelling and the Death of God and returned it with a critique which maintained: "it is true that I don't actually think much about his conclusion . . . the basic level of thought that underlies the paper, it seems to me, is unimpressive. It is a little premature, in my judgment, to concede the whole field to the radical theologians" (pp.128-129). However, both Keen and Crick survive these failures. Although Keen's essay was rejected by a journal, he was able to publish it in his own book. As for Crick, despite retirement, he wins the support of his students, and of Price in particular. And he does conclude the telling of his personal history, although we cannot be absolutely sure at this point who makes up his storytelling audience.

Postcolonial Web United Kingdom OV Swift OV Waterland OV