Andrew Boden | November 21, 2022
When I finished Lolita by the Russian émigré, Vladimir Nabokov, I decided to quit writing fiction. I’d never be as good as Nabokov, I thought. I’d never be as sharp as him with a sentence, a character or a plot. For days, I couldn’t write. I was in my twenties and when I eventually got over myself and my harsh comparison to a genius novelist (to say, the least), I began to write again, to aim to be the best writer that I could with the talent that I’d been gifted. It felt like the least I could do for my grandfather’s and father’s calling and, later, mine.
Now, that’s a personal anecdote about writing fiction, writing what Robert Ornstein called stories and narrative focused on an “emotional resolution.” Around the same time, I came across stories and tales presented by Idries Shah. At first, I read them as entertaining stories—tales of djinn, young seekers on quests and travels to far flung places—sometimes historical, sometimes fantastical. Later, when I’d understood more of Shah’s work, I began to see these collections of tales as something else—something instrumental. A tool, like a key to one of our many inner doors.
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re wandering lost in the Sahara. You come across a magnetic compass lying on a stone. If you know what a compass is and how to use it, you could help yourself find your way again. If you don’t know what a compass is you might conclude that it’s a toy, something to spin around with in your hand and amuse yourself as you grow thirstier. Or you might think, “Well, there’s a bit of fluid in there, if I crack the case, I could drink it and maybe not be so parched.”
What might seem initially like an amusing toy (the compass) becomes a vital instrument in the hands of someone with the right kind of experience and information. That a certain kind of tale or story can function in the same way is generally not an idea that we’ve permitted ourselves to consider. That there might be a whole kind of story craftsmanship designed to function on ranges of human experience other than the emotional or intellectual is also an idea we haven’t explored.
An example. One of my favourites is the tale of The Mouse and the Elephant, which you can find in Idries Shah’s The Commanding Self:
Despite the opposition of their respective families, an
elephant and a mouse who were in love decided to get
On their wedding night, the elephant keeled over and died.
The mouse said: ‘O Fate! I have unknowingly bartered one
moment of pleasure and tons of imagination for a lifetime of
digging a grave!’
You could, as I did, read this as funny anecdote. Crazy mouse, right? You could also read it as a commentary on how romantic love can lead us down all sorts of troubling paths (think of the body count in Romeo and Juliet). Another, perhaps clearer-sighted part of us might transpose the mouse’s thinking into our own lives. Yes, I could choose seeking pleasure as my life’s compass, but it may be leading me away from wider contexts and other advantages that I haven’t considered.
Perhaps slightly more contemporarily, this seemingly simple tale could also reveal a very ancient understanding of how the brain works: that as you increase a pleasurable state, as you increase the brain’s dopamine response, the brain being a homeostatic organ, must find its natural set point again. Or, as the old song goes, “What goes up, must come down.”
There are almost certainly other layers to this tale, just waiting to be explored at the right time under the right circumstances. Key is not to try and demand meanings from these stories, no more than you would insist of a compass that it reveal its significance These tales and stories need to be, as Shah writes so eloquently, digested and integrated into our thinking. This can sometimes take months or years, which might be a difficult proposition for modern attention spans with modern demands for “real-time delivery.”
But there can be benefits to learning patience with these stories and tales. I’d first read The Mouse and Elephant in the early nineties and it wasn’t until the early morning when I sat down to write this piece that the idea that the story might be describing our neurophysiology blossomed in me. If I’d just flung the story aside because its instrumental function didn’t go to work on me on my schedule, I might never have made the connection I did. I might’ve not learned in which direction to take the next small step.
Andrew Boden is a writer and novelist based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He is the author of The Secret History of My Hometown and co-editor of Hidden Lives: True Stories from People Who Live with Mental Illness.