Volume 15, Issue 6: Tohu
Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they
understand. (Mtt. 13:13)
It is a variation on the tiresome question: does the falling tree, unheard, make a sound? If a story is spoken without
a listener, or written without a reader, has a story been told? The answer of course to the former depends on what
one makes of the word sound; the latter,
story. Let us play the game and argue the negative: there is no storytelling
This does not imply that the poem in the bard's mind or the words on the printed page do not exist in
themselves, any more than a tree "soundlessly" falling implies that it creates no pressure waves in the surrounding air. It
merely means that a story is a kind of communion between a creator and a receiver. Every time the story is told to a
different person, a different communion is created; it is a cooperative effort.
The "receiver" (reader or hearer) may alter the story by getting either less or more out of it than the
author intended. By education and experience, receivers have peculiar connotations for certain words, phrases, characters,
or events in the story. They may read for pleasure or they may read deeply. They may not know what some words
mean, or may have the wrong meaning; a character reminds them of someone they disliked at school; a description of
hunting, for example, may disgust them or induce a fond memory depending on their background. For a story is also the sum
of the effects it creates.
There are more obvious ways in which receivers co-create. They can choose one side of an ambiguity of
language, recognize an intended ambiguity and appreciate its role in the story, or identify an unintended ambiguity and create
a role for it. Even when the language is clear, there are "gaps" in the telling of any story, as many critics have
recognized, which the receiver must fill. Henry James's
Turn of the Screw is one example of an intentionally "gapped" story, in
which (as he wrote elsewhere) he intended for the reader to "create the evil," thus maximizing the effect of his ghost story.
An adolescent may read Hemingway's classically understated "Hills like White Elephants" without recognizing the
central conflict, but an adult has little trouble.
Other gaps may be present. Characters give certain social cues in their actions which are intended to be
understood without explanation, but readers who do not share the same social background will miss their significance entirely.
The author may make allusions, direct, subtle, or typological, which similarly pass comfortably above the reader's head.
The sophisticated reader, however, armed with the latest critical theory, will not be satisfied until the story
passes comfortably beneath his head. The author writes a comedy and our critic discovers a tragedy; a simple tale of love
and war suddenly festers with hidden meanings of sexual, social, or economic repression. Given a certain set of
basic assumptions, one can put any number of interpretations on it regardless of the author's intention.
Whether going beyond or falling short of the author's intention forms a valid interpretation, something new
has been created. The final form of a story, then, depends in many ways on the receiver of the story. The final form of
any story, then, depends to a great extent on the receiver of the story. Not only that, but all authors are also receivers,
and they create their stories from the stories they have received and how they have received them. Storytelling
and storyhearing are mutually dependent. Some praise creation and disdain criticism (in the literary sense), but nearly
all creative works are deeply critical (in every sense), and a good critic is by definition a creative one. Creation and
appreciationcreation and interpretationeach take on characteristics of the other.
Others have dealt with the importance of storytelling; storyhearing is equally vital, for it partially determines
the effect that the story has upon us: how it alters our judgment, rebukes our complacency, moves or fails to move us
to action. How else could some hear the parables of Christ and yet not hear, listen and yet not understand? His stories
fell like trees, soundless among the dead, making and yet not making a sound.
Our framework for interpretation, the inner ear, is an outgrowth of the basic foundations of the
mindliterary theories never exist apart from larger systems of thought. As such, the fidelity of this inner ear is a moral issue. "He
is hearing what he wants to hear" is proverbial for a reason. The book of Romans teaches of those who interpreted
the story of creation wrongly because they refused to give thanks. Only those who have been given new ears will hear
the story properly. Our interpretations rest on our attitudes toward God, the world, our fellow creatures. May God give
us the ability to read and hear not only His Word, but all stories, that we may discern both good and evil, and not
turn away from their mirrors forgetting what we look like, but practice what we have learned.