In the middle ages, a moving metaphor of life was found in the flight of a bird through the great banquet hall of a castle: out of the dark, a momentary enjoyment of light and warmth and merriment, then into the dark again.
My candidate as substitute for this forceful image is the oases on the nation’s interstate highways. More particularly, those in northern Illinois, the Belvidere Oasis, say, or the Lake Forest Oasis. These span the lanes of the roadway; eastbound and westbound travelers enter by opposite doors and commingle for a time in the fast food restaurant overlooking the endless flow of traffic.
Far better than airport terminals, such oases bring strangers together in momentary proximity, there is a vaguely holiday air about the place, a tending to bodily needs but chiefly—and one is almost overwhelmed by this, sitting at a plastic table, sipping a tasteless milkshake from a plastic coated cup, eavesdropping—chiefly, talk.
The human person is the animal who talks.
Philosophers and theologians speak of speech as if the chief reason we talk is to utter truth or its opposite, and there may be some truth to that. But sitting in the Lake Forest Oasis the other day it came to me that the principal function of speech is to tell stories.
All around me, travelers I shall never see again were filling the air with words, building great castles of speech in which to live, not just there above the interstate, but as they drove off to their thousand destinations. The past was being reconstructed in the franchised air. A fat lady told her nodding husband of what she had said and then what someone else had said and then what she had replied, on and on. He seemed to know it all already, and perhaps in a sense he did.
It doesn’t matter. The event and its reconstruction in speech are not the same. As spoken of, the past takes on shape and meaning. The speaker is recast as hero or heroine of what occurred. The last word can easily be had when we are recounting the conversation.
How much of our lives is spent trying to make sense of what we do and say and of what happens to us as well. Without such retrospection, life would be mere chaos. It would also not be human life. We cannot not keep thinking of and talking of our lives.
Saints do it. I do not mean that the contemplative life is self-regarding, but that most forms of meditation, most versions of particular examinations of conscience, involve putting shape into the spiritual life.
Everybody does it. They did it before the telephone. A disparaging word for it is gossip. Men are as good at it as women. It is a need so deep in us it deserves to be called ontological.
Sagas and epics grow out of such narratives of the self. They seek a more generalized shape of human life. Fiction is a natural product of this metaphysical need. In his recent life of Thomas More, Richard Marius says that his subject was the greatest English storyteller between Chaucer and Shakespeare. “His delight in the particular and in the observation of human traits would have made him a fine novelist, when novels replaced theology in ordering the moral universe.”
Of course, we need both theology and fiction to accomplish that ordering. But if we do, it is only because they carry on at a different level the sort of activity you can eavesdrop on in the Lake Forest Oasis and other such places where terrestrial travelers, come from anywhere and bound for death, form fugitive assemblies to do what only humans do. Brood upon and reshape their trips in telling of them.