The Muses: Whose Story?

In the United States, we have a number of difficult conversations going on right now.  I hear these conversations as stories.  They are the stories we tell, the stories we are trying to tell, the stories we are trying not to tell, the stories we wish we could tell, the stories we fear we might tell.  They are stories about who we are and who we are not.  They are stories about our strength, our weakness, our loves and hates, our glory and our shame.  We often spend a lot of time arguing about how to tell the stories rather then telling them, and that is a story all of its own.  In my view, they are all stories about our relationships with each other, the other peoples of the world, and the earth itself.

In Ovid’s epic work, The Metamorphoses, the poet oftentimes through the 15,000 line work embeds stories within stories.  That is, he begins telling a story in which a character tells a story within which a character of that story tells a story. In one of those instances the Muse, Calliope, chief of the Muses and the mother of Orpheus the great Bard, beginsOvid's Met telling a story within which Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and war, tells a story, within which one of her characters, a human being, tells a story and so forth until six stories are embedded within one another.  What frequently happens to me when reading The Metamorphoses is that I lose track of the embedded tales and even forget that I am reading a story within a story within a story–that is, until the one I’m currently reading is brought to and end and the context takes me back to the story it was embedded in.  I am, at that moment, jolted into remembering that this story was part of another one that was part of another one and so on.

This is more than an impressive literary trick.  The poet, and his Muse, are reminding us that despite our great constitutional promises of the freedoms that we cherish–in fact, because of them–none of us really ever tells a singular story.  My stories are embedded in the stories of others–even, maybe even especially–those whose stories I most do not want to hear, acknowledge or with which to be associated.  It matters not that I have forgotten how my story is connected to the story of the the other.  One day, that may be clear.

For now, it’s enough to ponder how the story I am telling and, say, our least favorite politician’s story, are embedded in a larger, older story.  I can disavow that and exercise some denial for a little longer, or I can try this.  When I find myself reacting to the story of another, I can allow that I am only able to react to something that, on some level, I recognize.  If I recognize it, then that story is somehow related to mine.  They are embedded in each other.  Once we own that, we may find our way forward, together.

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