A Winning Story
Updated on 07 August 2022
According to Joseph Nye, politics in an information age can be seen as a “contest of competitive credibility”, one in which success is measured by “whose story wins”. In this posting, I consider what makes a winning story by looking at three recently released films: Lincoln, Monsieur Lazhar and Life of Pi, and argue that Nye’s dictum, attractive though it sounds, fails to distinguish between a winning story and a story which “wins out.” A winning story in modern diplomacy, as in literature and cinema, might well be a compelling one, rather than a victorious or even a credible one. It is time to put aside policies based on “winning hearts and minds” and the “struggle for minds and wills,” and to draw lessons instead from the more subtle and multifaceted art of narrative.
In the film Lincoln, we are treated to several instances of President Lincoln recounting anecdotes to the amusement, bemusement or on occasion, exasperation, of his interlocutors. Lincoln’s many jokes and anecdotes were notorious in his own time and many were compiled in collections or noted in diaries. What, we might ask, was the purpose of the President’s story-telling?
Monsieur Lazhar tells several stories in parallel, that of a Montreal primary-school class after the suicide of their form teacher, that of the cross-cultural encounter between the Algerian Monsieur Lazhar and his host country, and finally the tragic fate of Lazhar’s wife and daughters and the circumstances of his own escape and current predicament. The last scene of the film focuses on a fable about a tree, a chrysalis and a bush-fire which manages to speak both for Lazhar’s personal tragedy and that endured by the schoolchildren, raising the question of the transcendent power of fables and parables in telling things obliquely.
Finally, in Life of Pi, we are regaled with a narrative Matryoshka: the parable of Pi’s journey with the tiger is the more fantastical of the two variant narratives Pi offers the Japanese loss adjustors as he recovers from his ordeal in hospital, this recollection itself contained within the story recounted to the young Canadian author interviewing the adult Pi many years later, and all three of these narratives in turn embedded within the encompassing question of the book and film, namely: how do we judge between stories, not least between the self-defining narratives of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam?
I shall consider the stories and story-telling at the heart of each of these films in turn before drawing some conclusions on the lessons they contain for diplomacy.
President Lincoln’s compulsion for story-telling served several distinct purposes. One was the function of jokes as a pressure-valve. As Lincoln’s secretary William O. Stoddard explained, “Mr. Lincoln says that he must laugh sometimes, or he would surely die.”
Story-telling may also serve as a problem-solving device through the power of analogy to structure and clarify thought. In the film, President Lincoln cites Euclid’s principle of mechanical law to two young clerks in the Telegraph Office: “It is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” (clip). Despite the huge leap from physical to metaphysical truths, the President convinces himself of the validity of his analogy in the telling, and resolves there and then to revise his instructions with regard to the three Confederate peace delegates, sending instructions that they be detained till further notice on the River Queen in order to give his anti-slavery amendment a better chance of success.
Another obvious advantage of story-telling is the way in which it combines the soft power of emotional and imaginative engagement with the force of an argument aptly demonstrated. Certainly, a lesson conveyed through an anecdote is likely to be more impactful and memorable than a list of bullet points or dictates and, moreover, the story-teller himself is likely to be more likeable for his choice of delivery. President Lincoln was not considered physically prepossessing, nor was his voice or accent deemed attractive, yet his humour and ready anecdotes endeared him to most while not detracting from his authority. On the contrary, as Peter Bradshaw suggests in his review of the film, Lincoln was “skilled in imposing authority with a genial anecdote”.
The disarming power of a story well-told could serve a further purpose, that of strategic manoeuvring. Once a lesson has been driven home, no matter how genial its delivery, a subsequent step in the argument can be made. Consider the hop, skip and jump from the distance between objects to the distance between men and God to the holding hostage of peace envoys, all thanks to a seemingly innocent musing about Euclid. Or consider, at a much more pragmatic level, the ability to get rid of somebody by either befuddling them with a story (the husband and wife petitioners in the film) or boring them to a quick exit (also portrayed).
Another way in which story-telling might advance one’s strategic purpose is in providing a platform to observe others during the narration. This may buy time for deliberation but may also provide an opportunity to unsettle and thereby expose the other party. There is an amusing moment in the film when Lincoln says “Time is a great thickener of things,” to which his Secretary of State replies, “I suppose it is,” then corrects himself and adds “Actually, I have no idea what you mean by that.” President Lincoln no doubt resorted to figurative and narrative asides not only to secure a better understanding of his own thoughts but to get a better measure of those he spoke to.
It would seem, therefore, that President Lincoln’s predilection for anecdotes benefited his sanity, his clarity, his popularity and his strategy. It should be noted, however, that he was judicious in choosing when to resort to anecdotes, and when to appeal to other means. The scene in the film when he bangs his fist on the table and asserts to his cabinet that “I am President of the United States, clothed in immense power. You will get me these votes!” shows him drawing on his authority in order to get his way, just as he is shown, elsewhere, resorting to fair means and foul in order to advance his cause. Stories were not his only resource.
Whereas the primary interest of story-telling in Lincoln is in the various uses his stories serve, the fascination of Monsieur Lazhar and Life of Pi is in the nature of the story-telling itself: the reflexive component involved in a narrator drawing attention not only to the core story, but to the manner of delivery.
In Monsieur Lazhar, a highly recommended film well worth seeing, obliqueness is the name of the game. Cultural differences concerning the responsibilities of a teacher (to teach or to educate), teaching methods (disciplinarian or ‘touchy-feely’), the place of physical contact (be it hugs or hits), attitudes towards death and bereavement (part of life or the exclusive remit of experts), and the precedence of prescriptive rules over creative compromises, are all themes which are handled with commendable delicacy.
The slowly unveiling story of Lazhar’s personal tragedy, told very much as an aside yet so very central to our understanding of the man and his attitudes, gives the film additional depth. Above all, it is the fable at the end of the film which makes us suddenly sit up and replay the story in our minds much as the envoi of a good poem makes us reread the poem with a new understanding.
So much has been destroyed in the lives of both the teacher and his students, yet despite the char-scarred world in the wake of the fable’s bushfire, the tree upon which the chrysalis and all its hopes hung nevertheless survives to tell the tale, to whomsoever should be interested. And immediately, we ask, what is the tale in this case, and who the teller? Our musings start by wondering in what way a child protagonist might be the tree rather than the chrysalis, and to what extent the act of telling a story, or ‘writing it’, as in Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art, has the healing power to right it.
And our musings extend, at a more general level, to the nature of narrative, the spread of its roots and branches across the cultures of the world, its pull on those who are willing to listen to the sloughing of its insights, which of course includes all those who have proven responsive to the film. It is significant that in a film where a teacher’s hug leads to suicide and self-recrimination, the concluding fable results in another teacher hugging a student, all p-c prescriptions thrown to the wind in favour of silent compassion. One and the same gesture may have such very different interpretations, depending on context, including cultural and personal dimensions.
And finally, from the power of allusion and stories told obliquely, to the challenge of choosing between stories, as presented in Life of Pi. “Which story do you like best”, Pi the survivor asks his two Japanese visitors when they protest that the story of his shipwreck involving a tiger, a number of other animals which get killed along the way, and a carnivorous island is too fantastical to be believed by the Insurance Agency they represent. Like them, we prefer the fantastical story to the more credible one in which the animals are ‘mere metaphors’ for various individuals, and the tiger a symbol of the inner daemon of defeatism and self-destruction, which must be conquered if one is to survive.
With the deftest of touches, the film asks us what makes a winning story, and extends the question beyond the shipwreck of Pi to the story of three of the world’s main religions. Significantly, the young Pi had adopted all three – Hinduism, Christianity and Islam – and when confronted by the leaders of each faith during a family walk along Pondicherry’s esplanade and pushed to choose between them, he had answered that he didn’t mean to do any harm in following all three faiths equally, all he wanted to do was to love God. Loving God is, presumably, the common denominator of all faiths.
Were Nye to ask me whose story wins with regard to these three films, I would not wish to choose between them, especially if this meant that I had to do without one or more of them. For I have gained invaluable insights from all three films, and those insights, now graphically stored in my memory, will rise and fall from focus depending on their relevance to the moment. The question of whose story wins, in the telic sense of “to win out” is less pertinent to the ever-evolving dynamics of life, and probably of diplomacy as well, than the question of which is a “winning story”, in the sense of an ongoing process, a meaningful engagement.
Nye is not wrong to alert us to the importance of stories in an age characterised by the ‘paradox of plenty’ (too much information; too little attention). But the competitive model presupposed by “whose story wins” is too reductive an approach. Unless we recognise the tremendous subtlety, complexity and ambiguity to be found across all cultures in the art of narrative, exemplified in this posting by three films which happen to be on current release, then Nye’s promise of “success” is likely to elude us.
(Public Affairs, 2004), p.106.