Like much of America, I hate-watched the end of Game of Thrones. Ultimately, the ending was unsatisfying, but there have been worse disappointments in the world of television. I come not to bury or to praise Game of Thrones, but to instead highlight a good statement from about the middle of an episode (albeit, not advice the show actually followed):
“What unites a people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.”
This is a common view. I have a textbook for American Government called America: Stories of a Nation. Its format is to teach American Government and culture by embedding the ideas in stories of different people in the US. Jonah Goldberg liked to talk about how the French government began school days with a recitation of “Our ancestors the Gauls…” even in Africa. Jews and Christians (and to a lesser extent, I gather, Muslims) ground their beliefs in a narrative. There’s a reason they are called the Religions of the Book. I could also invoke GK Chesterton’s democracy of the dead, or the description of civilization as a gift from the past preserved in the present for the future.
We understand ourselves and our place in the world via stories. We read older stories and see in ourselves the potential to be, ourselves, in the story. We hope to measure up. We aspire to have something worthy to add to the story. Tolkien dipped into this idea in having the Lord of the Rings start under Bilbo Baggins, be continued by Frodo Baggins, and concluded by Samwise Gamgee.
What makes a civilization is the shared story. The deepest parts of the civilization are so thoroughly shared and embedded in the culture, we don’t even recognize them as stories until the origins of the cliches are pointed out. Our ancestors, the Gauls, who are not actual biological ancestors. But their story is our story. A Triumphal Arch for the Romans reflecting a practice (passing under the yoke) that -by the time of their construction in the Imperial Period -Rome hadn’t practiced in a century. But the meaning is understood.
I’ve said for some time that the decline, the decadence, of a civilization can be seen in the breakdown first of the monuments it makes, then the history it writes, and finally the stories it tells. This is why.
The shared stories of the society, the shared culture, can only be appreciated if everyone is in on it. It’s a kind of jargon. There may be people excluded from the story -but at least in theory, everyone who has been initiated can enjoy the story. American monuments are very particular for most of our history. Obelisks and temples that reference Rome or Greece. A statue of a man holding a musket. These are symbols that tie to the cultural story. No one in American is an actual ancient Roman -but when we look at the Obelisks on Bunker Hill or the Washington Monument, we know the meaning behind them. The Minuteman is another symbol we understand.
But as the culture decays and is not passed on, the symbols no longer carry the meaning they used to. To design monuments for the entire civilization, we must then take a step further back in abstraction. This is how we get meditation gardens for 9/11 memorials. We can’t put civilizational symbols there (I continue to believe that a Minuteman standing on a block of granite inscribed “Let’s Roll” and the names of the passengers was the best United 93 memorial we could have made) because not everyone knows those symbols, or sees themselves in the symbols. The Eisenhower monument is an abstract catastrophe, but it has to be abstract, because the actual symbols of the military, of Kansas, and of Ike himself don’t translate anymore. (The monument should be a statue of Ike in civilian clothing mimicking Washington resigning his commission, by the way.)
With the cultural touchstones that make the monuments gone, it also becomes harder to tell the story of the society itself. The monuments exist to say “this happened here.” But the monuments no longer speak, so the histories have to include the details -or the histories have to become so vague the narrative thread of the nation is lost. This is how you get the oddities of American universities who don’t know what the Louisiana Purchase was, but do know slavery was the worst thing America ever did -and don’t have the slightest idea that the two are related. History becomes not a narrative into which successive generations try to place themselves, but a thing done by others. Others we have no need to understand because what is their connection to us?
And since the first stories we learn are the histories -over time, the inability to tell a coherent national story bleeds over into our ability to tell any story. The stories we tell are either retreads of previous stories -taken up a level of abstraction when they aren’t simply near-exact retellings -or curiosities borrowed from another culture. The culture has decayed so much that there is no longer a language that stories can be told in. We can’t even speak to previous generations, anymore, because we don’t speak their language, not even as a second language. Barely in translation.
If culture is a conversation between the generations, we must have something shared to serve as the medium of communication. When the medium dissolves, the conversation becomes impossible. And shortly after, the culture itself must cease.Published in