Intangible Permanence

Posted in Anthropology by Arasmus on September 20, 2006

Once upon a time in a land far away I was born the eldest son to the eldest son. My position at the start of the next generation afforded me periodic access to the intimate interactions of the previous. At a young age I was already aware of the existence of an exclusive community between my father, his brothers and my Grandfather. I observed their behaviors and customs with the intense interest and feigned detachment of the reluctant outsider. Whenever the extended family gathered together, in thunder, lightening or on sunny days, my Grandfather and his sons would start retelling old stories. By the time my sister was born, several years later, even I knew all these stories, but the retellings continued. I learned the code. For example, I knew that the use of the phrase, “there was some hold on you” in the telling of one story was a quick side-reference to another story in which that was the punch-line, with the aim of picking up the theme of that side-story (say one of frustration) and layering it into the first so that those-in-the-know knew the character in the first story was extremely frustrated, though the narrative had not yet explicitly revealed that fact. This inter-textuality came naturally to us as we sat around the fire and, when I later found out that this was a feature of post-modern literature, I enjoyed the thought that we knew how to do this years before the French. Everyone listened intensely to the retellings, the slightest change of phrase, the discovery of a new relationship between the characters or indeed any new data-point had the potential in this interlaced network of narratives to rock our world. By the age of 18 I too was able to exchange knowing nods and glances with this band of men of which, at that point, I had become a member. In the subsequent years, though time put space between us and years between retellings, the code survived – we grasped at it periodically at airports and funerals.

I thought of those retellings late last night. I was searching through the collection of video snippets on YouTube for the opening sequences and theme music of American television programs that I used to watch as a kid. I entered phrases like, “the Fall Guy,” “the A-Team” and “the Six Million Dollar Man.” When I found them I tagged them as Favorites. I also searched for television shows that I hated to watch as a kid; Degrassi Junior High, Wonder Woman and the Muppet Babies. I saved them as Favorites too. I slipped gradually back into the mind of a 7 year-old and it was a nice place to be. Mom had stopped painting and was making dinner as I watched television. Dad was going to be home in an hour and we were going to Granny’s that weekend. We would see my Uncle’s new sports car there and that would be so cool. Click. The 50-second clip came to an end on my computer screen and I was once again clothed in the realization that I was now a man and all the memories of everything that has happened between then and now began to pile on top of one another. Within minutes I couldn’t smell my mother’s cooking anymore. I searched the internet again and again. In the early hours of the morning I emailed the long list of Favorites to my friend in New York. This morning he replied “this was awesome.” I knew what he meant and that felt good.

Professor Ronald Arnett wrote in a 1986 paper entitled “Communication and Community” that “for a community to survive, it must have a story. That story must be one that individuals can relate to, feel a part of, and affirm. It is a communicative vision of where they are going and why that keeps a community vibrant and healthy.” No doubt it is just another expedience of evolution that we should feel such joy and comfort in repeating well-known stories to one another – a reinforcing of shared bonds that may need to be cashed-in some day in the cynical marketplace for security. But I aspire and hope that its something more beautiful than that – I choose to feel that these stories will always be there and that we, and those we love, will live forever by dwelling within them.