Are stories symbols?

1. Here is one way of looking at what stories are. They are symbols. What are they symbols of? Well, they could symbolize acts; they could also be symbolically interpreted as justifications of such acts. Under this construal, a story requires an interpretation: one has to interpret the story as a symbol of either an act or as its symbolic justification. (The same applies to looking at stories as symbols of values. The stories, for instance, could be seen to symbolize virtues. Stories could also symbolize passions, feelings, natural forces…) Then, stories are mostly, if not always, symbols of something or another. When you look at the issue this way, it is almost akin to saying that stories are “evidences” of sorts: some story or another provides “evidence” about the presence of “something else”. (Let us leave aside the issue of what it means to talk of a symbol in all these contexts or what “evidence” means here. Both terms can be understood in a vague sense for our purposes.) In another language, we can say that all stories are signs. These signs must be turned into signifiers (this requires an act of interpretation) by showing or suggesting that they signify “something else” (called the signified). [If taken strictly, this stance suggests that one never tells a story but always interprets it: every act of telling a story is an act of interpretation. Writing or telling a story is always an act of interpretation and there is no such thing as an original story. However, one might or might not want to follow through these ideas strictly.]

If whenever talking about a story, or even telling one, involves an interpretation of the story, then there are always multiple interpretations of a story available at the marketplace. How does one decide which story is better or what happens when there are conflicts of interpretation? The listener chooses the interpretation s/he “likes”; the customer puts across another, different interpretation. One chooses whatever one likes and on whatever ground one prefers. What governs an interpretation? Obviously, no “rules” govern interpretations; if they do, it is almost impossible to say what they are. This is the only possible position because the story is a “symbol” (or the signifier) and what it symbolizes (the signified) is governed by the subjectivity of the interpreter. Consequently, it could be the background beliefs of the interpreter, his/her cultural beliefs, his/her prejudices, his/her pet theories…. Here, as must be obvious, “interpretation” literally means that one maps some object in one domain (the domain of stories) to another domain (the domain of objects, events, forces, acts…) This mapping is not done by a logical or a mathematical function but by the interpreter and his subjectivity. Thus, the disagreements between people is about the “acceptability” of the interpretation and this, acceptability is, as I said, left completely to the chance vagaries of the particular customer: one might disagree that some interpretation is “respectable” or whereas another finds it not “lurid enough”; one might find some interpretation “shocking” or the other might reject it as “too conservative”; one might find reject some interpretation as too “offensive” or whereas the other accepts the same because it is “flattering” and so on.

This is one of the dominant conceptions of “myth” in the western intellectual tradition, where “myth” is contrasted to “fact”: the one is false (myth), it is not history; the other is true, the building block of history. One can take this approach in multiple directions: rituals, for instance, are seen as symbols and enact myths; stories, for instance, symbolize mental or cultural phenomena and so on. Many, many Indians have absorbed this notion in multiple ways and, thus raise all kinds of questions: why perform the funerary rites? What is their “significance”? What is the meaning of rituals? What do mudras mean? And so on and so forth.

Many Indians appear to have accepted this set of ideas, either implicitly or explicitly. I am not sure whether they themselves are aware that they are working within the ambit of such a framework. However, all their objections emerge from this idea about myths. They think, for instance, I interpret the Bhima-Hidimba story as an expression of inter-species sex or as condoning it; that is why they ask whether Indians ever interpret it this way when they hear the stories or the author ever “intended” to convey this meaning. They see that my interpretation of this story (which, they think, interprets the story by mapping it to sexuality) is “unfair” to the Indians; they understand my critique of Kripal and Courtright as though I say that their “interpretations” of the story of Ganesha and Ramakrishna violates the experience of the Indians; because the interpretation of a story one gives is dependent upon the subjectivity of the interpreter, they see in my alleged interpretation of Bhima-Hidimbe interpretation, my own individual samskara (or background or psychology); that is why they appear to prefer an interpretation of apsaras as “phenomenon of the mind”, an interpretation that makes use of Vedas and Upanishads (according to them). They are probably not very well aware that they see stories as symbols because, when Jakob took objection to the notion of symbol, Vinayaka had no problem in withdrawing the technical term and replacing it with the notion of “evidence”: whether or not I use the story of Bhima and Hidimabe as an “evidence” for inter-species sex. Because of this stance that stories are symbols of (or evidences for) something else in the world, they want to know whether I base my “interpretation” of the word Apsara is based on any evidence or research. Because they apparently feel that one of the standards of accepting interpretation of stories in terms of their “fairness” of the description of Indian experiences or in the accuracy that such a description has, they feel I am doing exactly what (they think) I am criticizing a Wendy of doing.  And so on and so forth. In other words, everything they have been objecting to in my posts (and almost everything they say) makes sense if I attribute this notion of myth to them. I shall also do so.

2. In contrast and opposition to the above, stands my conceptualization of stories: they are learning units within a specific process of learning. As exemplars, they solve the problem of executing new actions in novel situations. They are not false; nor are they true (thus are not facts). Stories, as action heuristics, are neither true nor false. Because they are action heuristics, allowing one and the same story to function in multiple contexts, no ‘moral rule’ is attached to them (the way, say, the fables of Aesop). Stories are what they are because that is how practical or performative knowledge is transmitted in a culture, where performative or practical knowledge dominates. They are products of human imagination and, as such, are on par with poetry, literature, music and dance, philosophy, scientific theories… etc. (I have written on these issues, so I will not elaborate any further and make this long mail even longer.)

When you look at stories this way, you analyze a story to figure out what the limits of some particular period are. (That is why I say in one of my posts that I make the assumption that stories lay down the limits of human conduct because each author is limited by his time and culture.) Because of this, I started analyzing the story for the presuppositions it makes and the entailed consequences. I said that these stories tell us some kinds of actions are not forbidden: some are recommended, and so on and so forth. That is also why I kept insisting that these analyzes do not tell us how Indian society was nor was my discussion about the institution of prostitution in India. The Hidimba-Bhima story or the story that Sarika extracted, when analyzed in this fashion, provides us with interesting suggestions about the limits of human conduct allowed or disallowed by these stories. Such analyses, in so far as yield to such analyses, makes the thinkers who constructed such stories extra-ordinarily humane. (Please re-read my posts in this light and see whether they make sense.)

3. The noise was created by the clash between two different but implicit conceptions of what stories are, and how and why they matter to a culture. The clash about ‘apsaras’ was merely a further extension of the point I made about stories as myths. Calling Apsaras as “prostitutes in the court of Indra” amounts to an interpretation of what “apsaras are” according to the first conception of the story: “interpreting” them as apsaras, some found, violates their experience; and that no Indian “interprets” them in this fashion or that I do exactly what a Wendy does, etc. My conceptualization of stories, on the contrary, has nothing to say about this issue. I do not see it as an “interpretation” but a mere linguistic convention about using a common noun. While aware of the connotations of the English word “prostitute”, I still chose it. However, I have my reasons for following this convention and I enumerated a number of them in my posts. Of course, it is not a satisfactory answer at all, when one sees this act as an act of “interpretation”.

As I see it, this is the issue that is causing friction: are stories symbols or signs or evidences for something else in the world or are stories units in a learning process?