The Despotism of “Story”

January 8, 2008

Crossposted from Story Games.

Milan Kundera is one of the most brilliant writers I know. I just picked up his most recent book, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts (2005), which is his take on the history, development, and value of the novel. Like his previous book of essays, Testaments Betrayed (1992), it has many insights that are relevant to roleplaying.

Like many folks, he begins with a discussion of Rabelais (Gargantua and Pantagruel, 1532) and Cervantes (Don Quixote, 1605), who didn’t really see themselves as doing anything new when they “invented” the novel, or, really, when they were the most prominent members of a bunch of early novel writers. Kundera then moves on to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and Fielding’s assertion that what distinguished the novel from other literary forms is its goal of exploring and discovering new things about human nature and life, things that are often far more banal than the concerns of other literary works. As Kundera says:

Homer never wondered whether, after their many hand-to-hand struggles, Achilles or Ajax still had all their teeth. But for Don Quixote and Sancho teeth are a perpetual concern — hurting teeth, missing teeth. “You must know, Sancho, that no diamond is so precious as a tooth.”

This discussion then leads into a passage titled The Despotism of “Story”, which is the main point I’m hoping to talk about.

Kundera first describes the basic plot of Tom Jones, in which the main character, much like Voltaire’s Candide (1759) ten years later or The Little Prince (1949), spends most of the middle of the book wandering from place to place meeting various characters, some of which join him on his journey. Then, finally, at the end, the book wraps up with a conclusion to the opening dilemma of the main character. This style is sometimes called a picarsque novel. Fielding also includes a great many digressions in the book, where he moves the focus from the main character to some other point of interest, as in Goldman’s The Princess Bride (the book, 1973). Kundera says:

When Fielding proclaims his complete freedom with the novel form, he is thinking primarily of his refusal to allow the novel to be reduced to a causal chain of actions, attitudes, gestures, words that the English call “story” and that is seen as constituting the meaning and the essence of the novel; against that absolutist power of story he particularly claims the right to interrupt the narration “as often as I see occasion,” with the interpolation of his own comments and thoughts — with, in a word, digressions. Nonetheless he too utilizes story as though it is the only possible means to assure unity in composition, to bind the start to the finish. Thus he closed Tom Jones (though possibly with a secret ironic smile) with the “happy ending” of wedding bells.

Kundera next hails Stern’s Tristram Shandy (1759)…

Whereas Fielding, so as not to suffocate in the long corridor of a causal chain of events, flung wide the windows of digressions and episodes throughout, Stern renounces story completely; his novel is just one big manifold digression, one long festival of episodes whose “unity” — deliberately fragile, comically fragile — is stiched together by only a few eccentric characters and their microscopic, laughably pointless actions.

Sounds almost like Paranoia or Toon. I think, too, that many modern novelists have been drawn back to this kind of storytelling-by-assemblage. I’m thinking, in particular, of David Mitchell’s brilliant books — Ghostwritten (1999), number9dream (2001), Cloud Atlas (2004), and Black Swan Green (2006) — which contain thematically connected episodes in which certain bits of descriptive imagery serve as reoccurring leitmotifs, connecting the disparate elements together. A. S. Byatt also talks about this tendency to look back to early novelists and collections of quazi-related stories (The Thousand Nights and A Night, Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm) in her brillant essay collection On Histories and Stories (2000).

Kundera, though, has a somewhat different point. He says…

Those who deplored that “insignificance” [of topics explored in early novels] were using the right term… Now, are great dramatic actions really the best clue to understanding human nature? Are they not, rather, a barrier that hides life as it truly is? Isn’t “insignificance” actually one of our greatest problems? Isn’t that our fate? And, if so, is that fate our good fortune or bad? Our humiliation or, on the contrary, our solace, our escape, our idyll, our refuge?

This, again, is the contrast with Homer, with epic stories. In Kundera’s opinion, the novel is founded on the exploration of simple reality of the human condition, on Don Quixote’s teeth, which escapes from this “despotism of story,” being overly focused on how one event leads to another or the grand actions of superhuman beings.

Things This Says To Me:

  1. The value of “immersion” in roleplaying seems like it may be connected, in part, to Quixote’s teeth, the desire to explore the fundamental banalities of human existence. That’s an aspect I had never really considered before.
  2. Many task or conflict resolution systems seem to put an emphasis on what Kundera criticizes as the “despotism of story,” moving the narrative forward in a causal manner. I don’t think I would cast a value judgement on them, as Kundera does, but it’s certainly worth noticing. However, I also think that some resolution systems, such as in Dogs in the Vineyard, mitigate this by allowing players to bring in or invent small details that place the emphasis back on Quixote’s teeth. That’s pretty cool.
  3. I think there has recently been a movement in indie game design towards games in which “story” is not the most important thing being constructed through play. I see many more episodic games where the various bits of play are not unified into a single narrative but only vaguely connected together. I think this is a trend in cinema as well, with films like Traffic, Crash, Babel, and Syriana getting a lot of attention for their ability to depict the complex, diverse-yet-interconnected world of human life. You can even see bits of this in the way they film shows like Heroes, with diverse characters in different locations somehow creating a broader picture of experiences. Most of the games that consistently produce or support this kind of play have not yet been formally published (they are drafts or Game Chef concepts or in playtest), but Meg’s 1001 Nights and Joshua’s Shock: do this kind of thing fairly regularly. I may be missing some others, due to less familiarity.
  4. There are still very few (no?) roleplaying games that play like novels in the sense Kundera means, that focus on the “insignificant” aspects of human life as the things that provide meaning, as opposed to an unfolding story of events or grander historical developments. That’s one of the things that excites me so much about Emily’s Sign in Stranger, I think, that is has the potential to really support that kind of play, focusing on the most basic and universal human experiences. From talking to Emily about it, I know that she doesn’t want to make that the default play style, that the characters in Stranger can be at the center of major issues that involve the fate of entire worlds if the players want that, but that seems, personally, much less exciting, since I already have a shelf full of games that can do that.
  5. I really want to write a game inspired by David Mitchell. Like, if it was a game modeled after Cloud Atlas, I’d recruit 5 other designers and we’d each write a completely different game on the same core themes. Then we’d figure out a way for some of the mechanics or other bits to be shared between the games, so there would be some overlap or interconnectedness. And then we’d structure play such that play groups would switch between various games between sessions. So you’d play the games in the following order: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. And there would probably be an endgame for each game that only kicked in during the second session of a given game. So you’d get 6 beginnings and then 6 endings. And there would be some method of record keeping that would keep track of things developed in the first session to keep everything from being forgotten. Sounds like a game anthology project for Push 3 or something.

What does this mean to you?

6 Responses to “The Despotism of “Story””

  1. Tommi Says:

    Sorry for fixating on the first point. I don’t want to start any immersion wars.

    A friend of mine, the only explicitly immersive tabletop player I have had the pleasure to game with, always played either a hero or an antihero, always larger-than-life to the point of it looking like excessive powergaming. He also wanted epic scale events and story (as story is usually used among roleplayers, with no correlation with railroading).

    To me, that is pretty far from the normal banality of human existence. Conclusion: Aforementioned banality may be a reason for immersion (at least for the few crazy turkuist larpers, where “crazy” is something of a joke), but it is not the sole reason or even a necessary reason.


  2. […] John was talking about The Despotism of “Story” and made many points. He references one kind of narrative that is currently underserved in […]

  3. Meserach Says:

    The fact this has gone thus far uncommented is criminal, as it just now / blew my fucking mind/.

    Thanks, Jonathan. I should read your blog more.


  4. Tommi, you have a good point. The sensual and emotional details that immersion lives on come in a much wider variety of forms than I implied here.

    Glad you dug it, Meserach. I can’t wait to read the rest of Kundera’s new book when I get the chance.

  5. Olli Kantola Says:

    The Finnish Turku / Post-Björneborgian / larp-theorists cirles have had many effects in the tabletop scene as well. That’s because unlike in other nordic countries, in Finland larpers play tabletop games too.

    Anyway, I see a lot of emphasis in the insignificant aspects of life in games such as Juhana Petterssons Joutomaa, in which you play in this Kaurismäki version of Finland and set your play in everyday enviroments. That’s one example of a multitude. Eläytyjists tend to focus on the insignificant in thei search for meaning.


  6. That’s really interesting Olli. I know the Jeepform folks in Sweden often seem to focus on really banal experiences as the basis for play. It’s cool that folks in Finland are doing it in a different way.

    Do you think Finnish and other Nordic roleplaying efforts are influenced by existentialists like Sartre and Camus? It seems like many Nordic events that I read about focus on the players finding meaning amidst events that are either really banal or just abstract and strange.


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