Ginzburg IV: The origins of narrative

A large part of Ginzburg’s essay concerns the nature and origin of narrative. Ginzburg’s hypothesis is as daring as it can be controversial. He writes:

“Perhaps indeed the idea of a narrative, as opposed to spell or exorcism or invocation (Seppilli 1962), originated in a hunting society, from the experience of interpreting tracks. […]The hunter could have been the first ‘to tell a story’ because only hunters knew how to read a coherent sequence of events from the silent (even imperceptible) signs left by their pray” (p 89)

This idea, that gatherers invoked, prayed and casts spells, whereas the real story tellers were hunters, opens a whole space for speculation about the role of narrative in our societies, and helps explain the rise and growth of the detective story to its prominence. The detective story is the hunt, in this case for human prey and predator, and remains a dominating narrative form.

The tracing of prey, the interpretation of tracks across the sands of time becomes the main form of narration. The appeal of this hypothesis is that it also seems to suggest an explanation of the communal nature of narrative. Why do we, as a species, prefer to share stories to the extent that our cultural consumption more or less describes a power law distribution? If we believe that it is because stories originated as hunters’ tales then we know that sharing these meant sharing a set of communal ideas, insights and histories that could be used to create social identities and individual narratives. The stories told by the fireside are the stories that make up an ‘us’ of the individuals attending the fire. And as such they provide and grant an evolutionary advantage.

It also says something about the role of the author. If the author is a hunter, “examining a quarry’s tracks” as Ginzburg suggests, we understand our fascination with the artist, the author, the story teller in a much clearer light. The story teller provided for the community, not only an identity, but the actual food that the tribe needed.

If our minds are neurologically prepared to understand the world only in narratives, as some neuro-scientists seem to have argued, then maybe the hunter’s prerogative is even deeper, biologically seated. The narratives we need to survive are indeed those of the hunter.

But perhaps also those of the hunted.

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