How do we remember D-Day?

Posted in American, European, Storytelling by Alex L. on June 18, 2009

Amphibious assault on June 6, 1944Twelve days ago was the 65th anniversary of the American and British invasion of Nazi-occupied Normandy. The events of June 6, 1944, D-Day, are worthy subject matter for an epic poem by Homer himself. As the ancient Greeks landed on the beach of Asia Minor to lay siege on Troy thousands of years ago, so too the Allied soldiers of World War II disembarked from their landing craft, assaulted the German defense bunkers and machine-gun nests, and began the liberation of continental Europe. The Allies even prepared a Trojan horse of their own: deception programs named Operation Fortitude and Operation Bodyguard fooled the Germans into expecting an Allied amphibious assault in anywhere but Normandy.

How do we in the United States remember D-Day? As an expatriate of the former Soviet Union, I had observed in that country a reverence of its victories during World War II bordering on worship. The business of the Soviet people halted every year for Victory Day; parades, recollection, thanksgiving, military pageantry, and storytelling about the war permeated the land. This is not the way we remember D-Day in America. A few newspaper articles buried underneath other headlines and a visit by President Obama to the military cemetery in France sufficed as our annual memorial of this event. There definitely did not seem to be a national spirit of remembrance.

What story will we tell about this epic day in American history? Will it be a Homeric tale of heroes and timeless deeds? For Christians, do the Scriptures – which ascribe all glory to God – preclude us from remembering it in this way? To forget altogether, due to laziness or otherwise, would be a loss to culture. While recently reading Walt Whitman’s poem about the end of the American Civil War, “Spirit Whose Work is Done”, I thought that his invocation could well apply to the memory of this more recent war:

“[. . .] Spirit of hours I knew, all hectic red one day, but pale as
death next day,
Touch my mouth ere you depart, press my lips lose,
Leave me your pulses of rage – bequeath them to me – fill me
with currents convulsive,
Let them scorch and blister out of my chants when you are
Let them identify you to the future in these songs.”

Noah’s Ark in the Black Sea: an elegant, if flawed, theory

Posted in Ancient, Bible, Prehistory, Storytelling by Alex L. on June 13, 2009

Sometimes a theory about the past makes for such a good story that it is hard to let go of it, even when it proves to be false. When archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ancient Greek city of Mycenae, home of King Agamemnon from Homer’s Iliad, he found a beautiful gold funerary mask of a royal. Imagine, if the mask was of Agamemnon himself, to have a portrait – in gold! – of a hero from Homer’s epic story of the Trojan War, where previously only our imaginations colored those characters. Alas, when the mask was dated, it was pronounced a few generations off from Agamemnon, but how beautiful it would have been if it was his.

Another elegant theory of our past is the Black Sea deluge hypothesis. In 1996, geologists from Columbia University William Ryan and Walter Pitman postulated that a massive flood from the Mediterranean Ocean through the narrow Bosporus strait created the Black Sea as we know it today. Over seven thousand years ago, they said, water burst through the strait and rushed into the Black Sea with force 400 times that of Niagara Falls. Many communities living around the sea were wiped out and the stories told of this catastrophe later became the Great Flood myths in the Hebrew book of Genesis, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, and other ancient narratives. Finding an archaeological counterpart to the story of Noah’s ark is a tantalizing idea. The famous oceanographer Robert Ballard (who discovered the RMS Titanic on the ocean floor) even led an expedition to the Black Sea to test the Black Sea deluge hypothesis.

Unfortunately, the theory, in light of new evidence, seems to be false. In such a case, one would chuck it from memory, if the idea was not so artful. Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archeology Review comments (according to an uncited quote on Wikipedia) that “if you want to see the Black Sea flood in Noah’s flood, who’s to say no?” I disagree with Mr. Shanks: one should not believe in faulty scientific theories. But the debunking of the Black Sea deluge hypothesis is nevertheless a buzzkill to the imagination.

“Defiance” movie intermixes many stories

Posted in Film, Judaism, Russian, Storytelling by Alex L. on March 18, 2009

Defiance movie poster

A few days ago, I watched the movie “Defiance” with my parents. The plot was engaging, the acting was decent, and there were tasteful doses of action, romance, and philosophy throughout. What most captured my imagination about the movie, though, was a theme I mentioned a few days ago: storytelling. Defiance manages to tell, in one film, a Belarusian, Jewish, and American story. Those three happen to be my personal backgrounds (although I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian by faith, I am also ethnically Jewish) so I found myself drawn to all aspects of the film.

I think the overarching story is a retelling of the Exodus narrative: the Belarusian (technically, what is now western Belarus was eastern Poland at that time) Jews are in the wilderness, escaping from their pursuant enemies – the Germans rather than the Egyptians. Tuvia Bielski is a Moses figure and the film even has a modern rendition of the parting-of-the-Red-Sea tale. In addition to the Jewish theme, Defiance glorifies the heroes of the Great Patriotic War, a common Russian motif. Finally, these familiar narratives are packaged into a Hollywood product. I enjoyed this American take on a Russian story (although my friend Mike, also a Russian, loathed the movie for its American clichés). Russian movies are often tragic and lack the redemptive, life-affirming conclusions of American films. Defiance fits the latter mold and follows the Hollywood forumla in other ways too (such as the obligatory love story). All in all, the movie Defiance is an interesting study in how narratives from different cultures can be synthesized to tell a refreshing, if familiar, story.

Storytelling tricks: connotation

Posted in Reading, Storytelling by Alex L. on March 9, 2009

How does a good storyteller narrate a tale? One of a storyteller’s rhetorical tricks, I have noticed, is keeping in mind the connotation of what he is saying or writing. That is, he adds to his narrative phrases that stimulate the imagination and suggest another way of seeing things, though such phrases may not add any new information to the story. A good example I found in Stephen O’Shea’s Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World:

“The freed warrior was past thirty, already a ripening age for an ax-man with countries to cleave. Henceforth Karl Martiaux – Charles Martel – would forge a kingdom that covered much of present-day France, western Germany, and the Low Countries. Martel – the name comes from Martin, not marteau (hammer) – embarked on an unrelenting itinerary of violence, forcibly bringing the eastern and western Franks to heel” (62; emphasis added).

The artful passage speaks for itself, but I’ll dissect it anyway. O’Shea adds the parenthetical phrase about Martel’s name to slily suggest that Martel was indeed very hammer-like, even though the literal meaning of the excerpt looks as if O’Shea is trying to dispel this etymology. The reader gains nothing from the author’s tricky penmanship other than a more vivid and enticing portrait of Martel, his character.


Posted in Storytelling by Alex L. on March 8, 2009

I have been thinking a lot lately about stories and storytelling. Stories, loosely defined, are the way we understand everything about ourselves and the world, form morals to how an engine works, from theoretical physics to the origin of life. From this perspective, every act of communication is an instance of storytelling. Scientists are storytellers; historians are storytellers; marketers are storytellers; professors lecturing are storytellers; movie directors are storytellers.

But not all stories are equal in our eyes. We are choosy with what stories we take seriously and which ones we dismiss. A Christian fundamentalist may disregard the story of evolution, while the secular scientist will find little use in his life for reading the stories of the Bible. Why is that? How do we decide which stories we are going to hear and believe?