A few days ago, I gave a lecture at the American University of Central Asia to a class of freshmen journalism students about the tripartite structure of storytelling. Storytelling of all kinds, whether myth or narrative, academic essays or news-reports. A pattern runs through history, from cave paintings in Sulawesi drawn in the dim light of a nighttime campfire, to the holograms twinkling in the light of some yet-discovered star. Stories are told in a sequence of three steps, as if on a path that only the storyteller can see: lede, body, tail. Perennially, archetypally, three.
How can we know what to put in the lede? one astute student asked. How to start, in other words? I proposed that, where for the philosopher, and also for the mystic, the Socratic injunction has always been to know thyself, for the journalist, the injunction has always been to know thy audience. Know what they would be curious to know, and even better, know what they need to know. Enter into their collective mind, see the world through their eyes, and the new and, more keenly, the news-worthy, will reveal itself to you.
Plan and prepare though I may in advance, as a journalist, a philosopher or an educator, in the moment of reporting, reflecting or teaching, I tend to obey the hints of intuition. Improvising, with those students I suddenly chose not to start with the tripartite structure of storytelling in-itself, surprising both them and myself. Instead, I started with telling a story. The story of storytelling.
Specifically, I started with the first stories: myth, folklore, legend. I invoked the Kyrgyz people’s Arthurian legend, Manas, asking not how the tale started, but how exactly it ended. There was confusion. With his death, right? asked one, anticipating a trick answer from me, the foreigner. No, with his son and grandson, Semetei and Seitek, offered another — father, son, grandson, three parts again, I silently noted to myself. Another mused, Perhaps it continues to this day, with us, the Kyrgyz people. All very good interpretations, I informed them.
And could you tell me how a news-report ends? My question is answered with bemusement. Have you noticed how a news-report often seems to have no true end? Yes, they had indeed noticed: sometimes, it peters out; other times, it abruptly stops. But what did it mean? Perhaps it reflects life, one student remarked.
The news-report as world, to paraphrase Marilyn French. The shaman’s fingers, pressing a coal shard against the stone wall, draw the outline of a hunter thrusting an intuitive spear at his prey: see the end in the beginning, per Baháʼu’lláh, even if the end is obscured in the shadow cast by the campfire light. By the time the students and I came to the lede, body and tail as such, the pattern had already shown itself without yet revealing itself.
Yet, it was no longer clear to me how the lesson itself would end — what would be my point exactly, other than, of course, to impart to them the knowledge of the tripartite structure of storytelling? I ask myself the same question here, as I write this blog post. And again, intuition hints and prods. Defy the wisdom of editors past, it whispers. Bury your lede. Start not from the cradle, but instead from the grave.
Every teacher is themselves taught, and one of the lessons the Camino taught me was the underlying unity of the path each of us walks. To those not on your path, your journey may appear peculiar. Yesterday, you were walking through farmland, while today, you go through towns. Tomorrow, will you walk through a forest, a suburb, a graveyard? Your path seems not only peculiar to others, but downright incoherent, illogical. Why can’t you just choose one way to go? Why must you meander so?
What they cannot see is that you are not meandering, even if you are not quite sure of the route. There is, if not a logic per se, neither an illogic — an alogic, if you will, a coherence neither rational nor irrational. That coherence is not as simple, I have come to understand, as merely asserting the path is such because you are walking it. Nor is that coherence the mere contrary, that somehow the path was there before and without you, and you are discovering it. There is some kind of mutual discovery between the pilgrim and the path. Your feet tread the earth, your steps like glacial fragments of erosion, yet the earth also coaxes the glacier, To here, lover, it whispers, Not there, to here, and so you turn left and not right, toward the holy city, and the plateau punctuated by hills and rounded mountains to which you have been approaching takes this specific shape, in this moment that you behold it, and not another.
A narrative stream appears on the trail ahead of me, just wide enough that I cannot simply step over. An intuitive leap and I am on the other side: my earliest, sharpest memory of logic. It is an interesting thing, is it not, that we experience logic, we can remember it? My memory is broken across three different moments, the true sequence of which, over the years, has come to elude me:
The memory starts in my bedroom. It is cold and drizzling outside, perhaps February or March, and I am realizing that I, a child; my mother, at that time a middle-aged and still breathtakingly beautiful woman; and the elderly, whom I admired for their kindness and wisdom — we were all threaded together, inexorably it seemed, by some invisible process of becoming.
Then I am in the car. My mother is driving down North Broadway, the suburban street of my family’s cycle of weekly doings, with the hospital in which I was born, our church, post office and supermarket, and it is sunny outside, the sky is blue and the trees are green, perhaps April or May. I am realizing that death is where the elderly go, and that it is to the elderly where my mother will go, and that it is to middle-aged where I will go. Hence, it is to death that ultimately, my mother shall too go. Hence, it is to death ultimately, I too shall go.
Finally, I am back in my bedroom. It is still cold and drizzling outside, while the air in the house is hot and stale, and I am understanding what death is, or rather, what it is not. Somehow, at the start of that route everyone walks, is birth, and at the end, death. I am trying to imagine being nothing, not-being, and I keep envisioning a brownish black. I am frustrated, because I sense this is inaccurate, and then I realize the contradiction, the impossibility of imagining my own death, even though that is where I must inevitably arrive.
Non-religious friends have often expressed envy at my faith. Death must be easier for you, they muse, comparing themselves to me. You are certain that the end is not the end, or at least, that it has a meaning. But I have long suspected that what has always attracted me to religion has been, in no small part, this earliest experience of logic. The promise of there being a way to finally explain the contradiction, to grasp and comprehend the impossible, draws me in, while the inescapability of my own destruction, that all these thoughts and feelings, these experiences that are me, may cease to be, induces desperation. As a child right through to this day as an adult, I have always believed there must be something more — the very logic of death implies this truth — and yet simultaneously, I have always also feared that there is nothing more — the very observation of death implies this other truth.
The threat-promise of annihilation has compelled me to seek what I have taken to call “transcendental things”, structures that go beyond the human, that outlast us — and perhaps, just perhaps, if I could connect myself to them, I could finally prove the unprovable for everyone’s sake, and that I, too, could in some sense persist.
As a child, it was palaeontology and cosmology to which I turned, with more than a few dabbles in geology. Behind our backyard was a dirt path that connected all the backyards of the neighborhood, punctuated with an old tree. I used to dig at its base, per Tolkien, seeking “roots and beginnings”. I was drawn to vastness, of time in the one, space in the other, depth in the last, that seemed to hint at the possibility of overcoming my own finitude.
Then, as a teenager, and later, as a university student in Philadelphia, it was to history I turned. Somehow the story of human civilization itself had some hidden capacity to convert the aggregate of individual lives into a meaningful gestalt. Before re-discovering the Baháʼí Faith in 2008 and reading ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s The Secret of Divine Civilization, Thucydides was a prophet to me, his History of the Peloponnesian War a revelation.
Similarly, until 2008, journalism had frustrated me in one way, fulfilled me in another. The breathless pace of the news-cycle, not to mention the superficiality of most news-reporting, left little opportunity to seek the transcendental. Yet, journalism could also bring justice, and surely there was something more, beyond, in righting a wrong. Over the years, the Baháʼí Faith has also opened my eyes to a deeper substratum of journalistic being, helped me to discern how “the secrets of the earth are laid bare before the eyes of men” in “swiftly-appearing” news-reports, and how the profession can be “the mirror of the world”, as the student mused.
I also studied philosophy in those early years, but somehow, in the personal sense, it seemed more like therapy than a serious gateway to transcendence. It may come as a surprise to those who know me well, but for most of my studies, I was a reluctant philosopher, in the professional sense. I had not yet grappled with philosophy as a way to think about thought in-itself; my sense of the discipline was somewhat obscure, as though the philosophia of Socrates was a more abstract rendition of the istoria of Herodotus.
My first Master’s at Leuven, following Michael Cook’s advice to me, was really to make me a better historian — specifically, an historian of ideas, digging up and grasping with my mind’s hand the invisible cable of insight running from Athens through Baghdad and Cordoba to Paris. It proved a fateful decision, for it was Averroës who first made me consider that perhaps there was something within thought itself that preceded us, and if so, could also outlast us. Some deep, buried geological structure, a mineral vein coursing from the recesses of cognition and surging upward to some yet-discovered notion, an earthen edge always dug up at the cracking edge of glacial realization, and thus inextinguishable, beyond desperation.
Leuven, as some of you may know, is the capital of phenomenology, but my introduction to it was through via a backdoor of sorts, in the form of Desmond‘s metaxology, not Husserl or Heidegger (a “philosophical cul-de-sac”, Desmond once remarked to me) or Merleau-Ponty — I would come to them, or perhaps, they to me, later. I remain hesitant to truly call myself a phenomenologist. Yet, as a matter of professional branding, I do what I must, for as the hunter upon the cavern wall long before me, brute survival still rules worlds, mine, an educated middle-classer, no less than an impoverished migrant laborer, just in different ways.
God be good, some cycles prove as mortal as you and I. The end of my long doctorate is starting to come into view. As the ice begins to thin and crack, hinting at the earth beneath, I find myself thinking: if it is the memory of logic that stirs the slow-moving geology of thought, then it is the cosmology of experience in which these both are ultimately to be found. If there is a hidden mineral vein, then, it is made of the dust of stars, some far away, some near, some plain to the eye, some revealed through the phenomenological telescope. And so, I am still at that tree, digging inward, but I am also, once more, also gazing upward.