The Story with Story


From Final Fantasy VI, Square, 1994

by M. Munro

Since a theoretical argument in literary studies is most often the lengthened
shadow of an example, it is important to have good examples, be prepared
to argue for their usefulness, and work out what exactly they exemplify. [1]

For example, truth. But is truth an example? What happens—and what
is dispensed with—when a text, for example a so-called literary fiction—but
is this still an example?—stages truth? [2]

We seek here to launch a reformulation, indeed, a first formulation, if not a
first principle, of the issue of exemplarity itself insofar as its structures exceed
all hitherto formulated paradigms of analysis, explanation, and assumption. [3]

It would seem that we must do away with explanation. Perhaps, though,
the injunction is too strong. We must do away with explanation in the sense
that nothing which could be explained could possibly count as that into
which we are trying to gain insight. [4]

Isn’t this really explanation enough? – But isn’t it too much? [5]

The story at first seems to make the answer clear. [6]

So what’s the story with story? What makes story so fascinating, and how—by virtue of what—does story so exceed statement? Or, as “the great scholar known as the Vilna Gaon once asked the Preacher of Dubno, ‘Help me to understand. What makes a parable so influential? If I recite Torah, there’s a small audience, but let me tell a parable

and the synagogue is full. Why is that?’

The dubner maged replied, ‘I’ll explain it to you by means of a parable.

‘Once upon a time Truth went about the streets as naked as the day he was born. As a result, no one would let him into their homes. Whenever people caught sight of him, they turned away or fled. One day when Truth was sadly wandering about, he came upon Parable. Now, Parable was dressed in splendid clothes of beautiful colors. And Parable, seeing Truth said, “Tell me, neighbor, what makes you look so sad?” Truth replied bitterly, “Ah, brother, things are bad. Very bad. I’m old, very old, and no one wants to acknowledge me. No one wants anything to do with me.”

‘Hearing that, Parable said, “People don’t run away from you because you’re old. I too am old. Very old. But the older I get, the better people like me. I’ll tell you a secret: Everyone likes things to be disguised and prettied up a bit. Let me lend you some splendid clothes like mine, and you’ll see that the very people who pushed you aside will invite you into their homes and be glad of your company.”

‘Truth took Parable’s advice and put on the borrowed clothes. And from that time on, Truth and Parable have gone hand in hand together and everyone loves them. They make a happy pair.’ [7]

In truth, the parable makes for a curious “explanation.” Despite appearances, it signally fails to settle the single question its presentation purports to answer: “What makes a parable so influential?” Instead, once Truth dons Parable’s “splendid clothes,” an unforeseen question comes into view, one which, once glimpsed, no resplendence can obscure: If Parable “clothes” Truth, if Parable is at one and the same time s/he who clothes Truth and the clothing itself, how do you picture Parable? Amid a flourish of “beautiful colors,” what figure does Parable cut?

Let me recount here—let me borrow—what else?—a story. “The most diverse legends circulate about the inexplicable. The most ingenious—which was found by the present guardians of the Temple while rifling through the ancient traditions—claims that, being inexplicable, it remains so in all the explanations which have been given and that will continue to be given through the centuries. Indeed, precisely these explanations constitute the best guarantee of its inexplicability.”[8] “But at the point where explanations, by showing their emptiness, leave it be,” so our fable concludes, “the inexplicable itself is in jeopardy. Only the explanations were, in truth, inexplicable, and the legend was invented to explain them. What was not to be explained is perfectly contained”—ravishingly—“in what no longer explains anything.”[9]


[1] Haun Saussy, Translation as Citation: Zhuangzi Inside Out (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 5.

[2] Jacques Derrida, “Le facteur de la vérité,” in The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 414 [411-496]. Trans. modified.

[3] Irene E. Harvey, Labyrinths of Exemplarity: At the Limits of Deconstruction (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), x.

[4] Jonathan Lear, Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), 275.

[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, eds. P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, rev. 4th ed. (West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2009), 222.

[6] Michael Wood, The Road to Delphi: The Life and Afterlife of Oracles (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), 138-9.

[7] “Naked Truth and Resplendent Parable,” in Yiddish Folktales, ed. Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, trans. Leonard Wolf (New York: Shocken Books Inc., 1988), 7 [7].

[8] Giorgio Agamben, “Kafka Defended Against His Interpreters,” in Idea of Prose, trans. Michael Sullivan and Sam Whitsitt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 137 [137-138].

[9] Agamben, “Kafka Defended Against His Interpreters,” 138.

About the Author:

M. Munro is author of the open access chapbook, Philosophy for Militants (punctum books, 2017).