Seeking the Slant

By Warner, Marina | History Today, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Seeking the Slant


Warner, Marina, History Today


Marina Warner traces the origins of a lifetime's curiosity in the power of stories

The writer Heinrich Boll, recalling his childhood in Nazi Germany, described a schoolteacher who taught Mein Kampf, as he was obliged to do, but had the idea of setting his pupils passages from the book to precis. To some extent, this wasn't a hard task, since so much of the writing was guff; but it was very difficult for the schoolchildren to produce a summary that was cogent, convincing, or in any way thoughtful, let alone appealing. In this way, Herr Boll helped them see the fascist text for what it was -- not by means of heroic resistance, but through covert enlightenment. As Emily Dickinson wrote, `Tell all the Truth but tell it slant -- /Success in circuit lies.'

In China, the Confucian emphasis on teaching by example inspired many sequences of stories that relate edifying acts: these include the famous `Twenty-Four Acts of Filial Piety', in which heroes perform acts of self-sacrifice and self-abasement to bring happiness and dignity to their parents in their old age: Lao Lai-zi, for example, well into his own dotage, still capered and frolicked like a toddler to rejoice his venerable progenitors and make them laugh at his antics. (In illustrations, they're depicted gnarled as pickled walnuts but grinning widely as their ancient son gambols before them.)

The idea of the elevating anecdote in turn inspired the contrary notion of `teaching by negative example': under Mao, some forbidden texts from the past or from the West could be analysed in class for their wickedness and corruption and deviation from the true way of Communism. By this means, which was admittedly highly circumscribed and remained perilous, some Chinese were able to smuggle knowledge past the censors and quietly absorb proscribed ideas, fiction and poetry. Scepticism can cut both ways, and the idea of error can refine the idea of truth beyond the control of demagogues or propagandists or simply lazy minds.

`Curiosity is the purest form of insubordination,' Nabokov once proposed. It's exhilarating to count on people's resistance to intellectual coercion; equally, it's dispiriting to lose faith in `this human capacity, and so many contemporary horrors, dictatorships, national, tribal and religious conflicts, lead one inevitably to falter (the current, fearful craze for alien abduction stories may reflect this anxiety). But I have always thought that readers' -- or viewers' -- ability to disagree with a point of view or an argument and diverge from the prevailing tide of opinion is constantly being underestimated.

Historians and critics research and write under the sign of Doubting Thomas, probing the wounds of the past, but not content until the evidence has been uncovered, verified and analysed, and even then, still subject to challenge. I have always tried to question received ideas, customary arrangements, notions of natural order, as embodied in ideal and heroic figures like the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc or, more recently in my work, the comical and despised old beldame storytellers like Mother Goose or the cannibal cradle-snatcher preying on babies as she -- or he -- roams the night.

Yet a convent schooling trains its pupils to believe more widely than in matters religious; nevertheless, it was through belief that I arrived, after many detours, at scepticism. In the convent where I boarded from the age of nine until A Levels, the New Testament wasn't the only book we were taught as gospel. Permitted reading included the pamphlets of the Catholic Truth Society on sale in the weekly `Holy Shop' where we were allowed to spend our pocket money on rosaries from the Holy Land, holy water stoups, holy pictures -- and booklets about figures in the Catholic pantheon. The heroes and heroines of the stories, like Confucian model children, conveyed thrilling lessons, but in lives of adventure, rebellion and violence. From the dull security of the begonia flowerbeds and murky rhododendron groves of suburban Ascot, the ingenious torments that afflicted martyrs far and wide opened vistas on unknown worlds: the remarkable heroism of a Saint Francis, stripping in the public square of Assisi before his father, rather than be minted by his family's material goods; the brilliant stand of Saint Catherine when she confounded the emperor and all his scholars in a public battle of wits in Alexandria; the dream oracle of the black dogs who appeared to Saint Dominic to call him to found the order that then inaugurated the Inquisition. …

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