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Africa Today 47.2 (2000) 214-216



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Scheub, Harold. 1998. Story. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press. 351 pp.

"The trickster character," says Scheub, "is the personification of the storytelling process . . . not easily defined, not readily categorized, forever untamed, not given to capture in charts and diagrams. As he has throughout history, he deludes scholarship and eludes those who would examine and thereby seize him" (p. 271). Scheub is a distinguished scholar of African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; the storytelling tradition is at the heart of his work.

Scheub recorded traditional stories during his 1968-1969, 1972-1973, and 1975-1976, six-thousand-mile walk through southern Africa. This impassioned and lucid study of that material is presented in two parts. In the first part, Scheub outlines "Emotions: First Principles," as "image," "narrative," "rhythm," and "trope" (in my understanding, his use of "trope" is as "metaphor" in its most complete sense). In the second section, "Palimpsest: Three Storytellers," he uses specific examples of storytelling to demonstrate "story's" complex layering of time, form, content, storyteller, and audience.

The book's introduction begins:

Stories provide us with truth: they take the flotsam and jetsam of our lives, and give those shards a sense of narrative, of form, and therefore of verity. But that truth is slippery, and a crucial characteristic of stories is that they can be revised, are in fact constantly in the process of being modified. So if story is truth, then truth is never absolute, is never wholly one thing, not another. And so it is that historians routinely take the events of the past and give them a new gloss, recasting the stories again and again. So it is that heroic stories are revised, retold, and yesterday's heroism becomes a distinctly unheroic kind of villainy today. History is a story that is never wholly told, never entirely true, but always at least partially true, always true at least in its parts: the events keep sliding around, as each storyteller, each historian, rearranges the incidents, reinterprets, retells, and meaning alters--often slightly, sometimes more dramatically, with audiences providing a necessary set of contemporary emotional reactions. The events of the past are never sealed. Story provides insight but never closure. These traditions are [End Page 214] in the care of the storytellers. The substance of history depends on "my feelings," argues the historian. (p. 3)

In his concluding chapter, Scheub reinforces the emphasis he has established upon emotion as the driving force of storytelling:

The [San] pictures painted on rocks ten thousand years ago are silent testimony to the essence of story: the layered image, the essential trope. Images are the materials of story, narrative plotting and pattern are the devices that organize these images into layers, and tropes are the result. But something even more dynamic is occurring: story is indeed narrative, it is pattern, it is trope, but most important it is the manipulation of the emotions of members of the audience into form. That is the end, the final message of storytelling. All else, including homilies, biographies, histories, is secondary, floating on the surfaces of stories, seeking to take advantage of the enormous, potent undercurrent of feeling, a diversity of emotions that moves from the ancient images to the contemporary experiences of the storyteller and her audience. (p. 269)

In the end, Scheub says:

. . . story is narrative plotting, but more than that it is the organization of the audience's emotions, a reinvention of the real by a discovery of metaphorical connections, linkages discerned not simply between verbalized images but among a host of human emotions--elicited, channeled, ordered. It is when narrative plotting and the rhythmic organization of images come into sublime conjunction that story achieves its most profound meaning, but at that stage meaning has gone far beyond verbal message and into the realm of pure feeling. (p. 275-6)

He says that doppelgängers--the shadows of past stories and the hints of stories that are yet to come--provide the "pretext and context for the unique performance," and adds that:

. . . as a performer...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1978
Print ISSN
0001-9887
Pages
pp. 214-216
Launched on MUSE
2000-05-01
Open Access
No
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