But is not the secret of the face the other side of the different way of thinking—one more ambitious, and presenting a different configuration than that of knowledge/thinking?
—Emmanuel Levinas, “The Meaning of Meaning”
A friend of mine, a young anthropologist, once told me, Zoloth, about her work. She had done field research on a tribe who had left the wars of Central America, and, for several generations, had lived in a remote jungle in the Northeastern corner of South America. I was struck by her account that the tribe had no word and no concept for narrative fiction. Stories were either “true” or they were “a lie.” After a few years of watching the tribe and answering questions about her American life for them, she brought a VCR and videotapes of popular films to the village as a little present. The villagers watched politely, and then inquired about the subsequent health of the people in the story; perhaps they were her friends? And when she told them that the whole thing, the drama, the emotions, the courageous actions, the love, had all been, well, made up to tell a story, they were appalled. They tried to teach their children not to lie—what was this? It was not that they lacked narrative forms: they were a complex sort of Christian and had what we would call mythic origin stories—how the rocks and rivers had come to be, who the ancestors were, and the story of the Resurrection in a slightly altered South American version. But these narratives were considered true, of course—the gospel truth.
What they did not have, or hold as valuable, were Shakespeare, Dickens, and Faulkner, or oral fictions of pretend persons. The company of the fictive, by which we in Western culture come to know and to assess the morality and courage of our own stories, collectively and personally, was entirely absent. But in all other ways, she told me, life was the same. Food was gathered and cooked, celebration was made, love, children, death, choice, all the same, only without the lies we love to whisper to one another, or to read aloud. Or to live by.