The Auto-Pygmalion and the limits of story
The problem with stories is that the more you ingest them, the more bloated you get. And finally, when those stories have twisted your gut into an enormous, clingy rat tails nest of youngest sons, magic mirrors and riddle contests you realise that this scaly Gordian knot, this bleeding, wrenching source that’s hidden in your belly like a heart in a duck’s egg in a chest at the bottom of the ocean is just too boringly familiar. You know every twitching, greasy strand of it.
And that’s when stories themselves go past boring and into irritating.
Read enough, hear enough, watch enough, and you begin to know the ending before the story-tellers do. It’s why so many people put their faith in stories – especially old stories, that are known and loved and easy to repeat. But when you know the ending, the only thing left to focus on is the journey – the scattered, badly plotted, poorly characterised mess that typifies most of what is on offer these days… But after a while, even that journey loses interest. How many times can one eat the poisoned apple, cut off a heel, walk on water? How can it continue to be the story that defines you, if you can’t enter the story, can’t believe in it yourself? How can you trust it if you know that it’s wrong?
For the Auto-Pygmalion, the answer comes not from the mirror, but from the knowledge that they are looking into the wrong one. The magic glass that tells us what we want to hear – and what we don’t – doesn’t lie in the bedchamber of Snow White’s stepmother, and we all know that she had the real power in that story. At least ours doesn’t. It worked for the stepmother, if not her husband. Her mirror was enough to entrance Snow White’s dad, that’s for sure, to get him lost in a maze of what he was supposed to see, caught in another’s image, another’s story.
And that’s the real problem with stories. The ones out there, the ones you take in – they’re not really yours. They’re made by people like you; which is why it’s so easy to recognise what’s going to happen… the similarity of culture and history and psychology is enough to make sure that none but the very best story-teller is able to unshackle themselves from what is expected of them, what they expect from themselves. It’s also why there’s a disconnect, why that author thinks it’s a really good idea to make that character do something you know they would never do; why that director doesn’t seem to see that there’s no suspense in how the bad guy gets his due, because anyone watching who really knows stories knows how it’s going to happen within ten minutes of seeing him… And it’s why sometimes there are moments that are perfect.
These perfect moments make us want to believe in stories – they help us to make sense of the world around us, by explaining events within a believable structure. The best stories spread like viruses; they burrow so deep into the collective consciousness of a society that they become archetypal stories themselves, capable of influencing the stories that come after them. Sometimes these stories are so powerful that they become established truth, where one mirror is supposed to be enough for all. And for some, it works, because the face they see in the mirror is enough like theirs for them to squint and believe they see themselves, and the story that face tells is the one they really want to believe.
When the Auto-Pygmalion decides not to squint, they don’t stop feeling the perfect moments – but they start to realise that those moments don’t last – simply because they are not our own creations. We create in our own image, and like the king in the fairy story, we’re ineffectual in stories that aren’t our own, images that aren’t ours. When the king looks in his wife’s mirror, he doesn’t see himself, he sees her in his image. It’s a little fuzzy around the outlines, like there’s a flaw in the glass, but it’s nonetheless an image of the other. As much as the king believes that he controls the image in the mirror, he doesn’t – and when that image is of someone or something else, a reflection not of our own making, the story comes from another, belongs to another. In the king’s story, he’s probably a better father – but it doesn’t work out that way, because no matter how much he pours his beliefs into that mirror, they still slide right off. And no matter how much you try to be the person who owns the mirror, you can’t disentangle yourself from their reflection – as long as you keep using the mirror, they’re sneaking in there with you, nibbling at the edges of your story like rats, forcing it into the shape of their own mind… If you can’t distinguish yourself from the image, you’re stuck in someone else’s story, and that’s when you stop watching the rats and start being one of them, too lost in another’s story to ever disentangle yourself from the truth of their experiences.
Stories are a trap. Whether their purpose is to soothe or inflame, to explain the heavens or to assure you of your place there, or to offer you the poisoned apple, they’re the interpretations of another. Internalise that interpretation, and the face you see in the mirror will no longer be your own, and you will become the reflection and not the source, the created rather than the creator.
In the end, the only stories you can trust are your own.
Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.