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Narrating stories for a fairer “weaving of the world” in this era of crisis

People live on words. Words have a soul, and wings. Words announce, call to mind, define the world, create. They’re not such stuff as dreams are made of, yet have such a weight on history and on the destiny of people that they can move things forwards and, perhaps, even change what was previously said – they change those who write them, for sure. We’re made of words and, indeed, it’s precisely during the worst times of crisis, when feelings and emotions plunge us into confusion – as it’s happening, yet again, in these restless and sorrowful times – that we should re-read them, trying to understand where we’re coming from and then, with increased awareness, resume our journey towards the end of the night. And narrate this journey. Words, indeed, are our wings…

A journey connects places and people, weaves relationships. A story helps us experience them, confides them to memory and as such to the future. Weaving creates fabrics, or textiles, a word that shares its semantic roots with ‘text’. And Pope Francis proficiently illustrates the value of this word, when, in his message for the World Day of Social Communications, in January 2020, he talked about the “weaving of the world”, writing that “the world itself is a fabric and the stories told by people are the threads of this fabric, put under severe strain.”

Over time, that message has provoked various reactions, comments, in-depth contributions by learned women and men. The Osservatore Romano, the Vatican City State’s newspaper, gathered them, printed them and now collected them in a thick, valuable volume curated by Andrea Monda, director of the newspaper, and edited by Libreria Editrice Vaticana and Salani, with the title La tessitura del mondo (The weaving of the world), a “Multi-voiced dialogue with great cultural figures on narration as a way of salvation”. Among others, contributors include Roberto Andò, Eraldo Affinati, Piero Boitani, Mario Botta, Giancarlo De Cataldo, Francesco De Gregori, Nicola Lagioia, David Mamet, Colum McCann, Daniel Mendelsohn, Edna O’Brien, Renzo Piano, Annie Proux, Marilynne Robinson, Donna Tartt, Mariapia Veladiano, Sandro and Alessandro Zaccuri. Women and men shaped by different cultures, as well as different intellectual and religious experiences, yet all in agreement on the need to emphasise debate, dialogue, a dialectic of ideas and emotions that can “weave” a new, sturdier fabric of human relationships – a textual fabric, a narration.

We live in an era that’s heavy with risk and uncertainties, where words end up decaying amongst the chattering that constantly crowds social media, mostly driven by an ideological extremism exposing an impoverished public debate obsessed with ‘political correctness’ and ‘cancel culture’, by the growing supremacy of fake news and biased, derogatory opinionists, in a veritable “Endless Babel of the web” (Maurizio Ferraris, La Stampa, 23 May).

An admonition by TS Eliot comes to mind, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Nowadays, we could also add: where is information, in this background noise caused by an incessant flow of news providing neither a sense of priority nor context or some guidance on how they should be read and interpreted. “Media jam”, say the critics – not sweetened or flavoured by understanding.

The world, in its compelling and unsettling complexity, is crushed between a like and an unassailable game of abuse or praise, between a tweet and a sketchy story on Instagram. Critical judgement and grounds for understanding and responding are on the decline. Civil coexistence and the quality of a community’s social capital, the trust on which formative processes and trade – and, ultimately, the substance itself of liberal democracy – are built, are suffering serious harm.

We need to recover “the ethical rigour of words to fight this chattering merry-go-round” (as suggested by Massimo Recalcati, quoting Italian president Sergio Mattarella, la Repubblica, 31 January); to see literature and its many different stories as “a bridge” that can connect different worlds and sensibilities, values and interests; to promote the ability to “write about things”, which is not the same as to “write about words” (as Luigi Pirandello used to say, when arguing against Gabriele D’Annunzio’s rhetorical inclinations). And we need to insist on the good quality of writing, on a full and pertinent use of words themselves (instilled from the very beginning of compulsory education).

And on this path, we also need to return to the “weaving of the world” suggested by Pope Francis, in order to make some space for spiritual values and a “fairer” and more “sustainable” economic and social reconstruction.

As part of his message about Social communications that inspired this blog post, Pope Francis wrote that “We are not just the only beings who need clothing to cover our vulnerability; we are also the only ones who need to be ‘clothed’ with stories to protect our lives.” In essence, human beings “are storytellers because we are engaged in a process of constant growth, discovering ourselves and becoming enriched in the tapestry of the days of our life. Yet since the very beginning, our story has been threatened: evil snakes its way through history.”

The “Sacred Scripture,” reminds us Pope Francis, is a “story of stories,” with a God “who is both creator and narrator” but also the main character of a “narrative” through which we can learn to know him. In order to narrate, we need to remind, as “to ‘re-mind’ means to bring to mind, to ‘write’ on the heart”. And this is the key function of literature, as the works quoted by Pope Francis – such as Saint Augustine’s Confessions, but also Alessandro Manzoni’s The betrothed and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The brothers Karamazov – illustrate. Penetrating the inner side of human beings, in all its aspects, including the most controversial ones, looking for some kind of “redemption” through narration, requires intense efforts.

Indeed, “it is not a matter of simply telling stories as such, or of advertising ourselves, but rather of remembering who and what we are in God’s eyes, bearing witness to what the Spirit writes in our hearts and revealing to everyone that her or his story contains marvellous things.”

Pope Francis’s words gave rise to a long debate on the pages of The Osservatore Romano. And provided valuable advice: we need to build a profound narrative of the people, fight against what Andò terms “the dictatorship of the obvious”, take “moral responsibility when we communicate, acting as a counterpoint to social networks” (Alessandro Zaccuri), ensure that “evil is not perpetrated without a witness” and that “literature becomes illumination and embraces the whole world” (Edna O’Brien), “approaching mystery through myth” (David Mamet), “feeling compassion and understanding for the characters” (Annie Proux), seeking “a new and more conscious connection with oneself, to defeat the neurosis of contemporary individuals” (Daniele Mencarelli) and “build, adding some poetry” (Renzo Piano). In essence, we should live lives “interwoven and embroidered with words” (Marcelo Figueroa), knowing full well that “a true story is a good story” (Daniel Mendelsohn).

Donna Tartt provides an ideal summary, noting that the stories we tell, re-tell and pass on to one another are “tents under which to gather, banners to follow in battle, indestructible ropes to connect the living and the dead” and the intertwining of these vast plots across centuries and cultures “binds us strongly to one another and to history, guiding us across generations.” Once more, the bond between memory and future is reaffirmed, building new roots and drafting new maps in order to retrace perspectives and values for a better future.

All these different voices deserve acknowledgement, which is what Pope Francis did in his afterword, highlighting the unbreakable relationships between “telling” and “listening”, the significant weight of “silence” against the daily media racket and, above all, the “compassion”, not only within ourselves but also in the “public, social sphere” to ensure that “storytelling is not revealed as a force of memory, and thus, a guardian of the past, but also, precisely for this reason, a leaven of transformation for the future” – the future of memory, in fact.

(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

People live on words. Words have a soul, and wings. Words announce, call to mind, define the world, create. They’re not such stuff as dreams are made of, yet have such a weight on history and on the destiny of people that they can move things forwards and, perhaps, even change what was previously said – they change those who write them, for sure. We’re made of words and, indeed, it’s precisely during the worst times of crisis, when feelings and emotions plunge us into confusion – as it’s happening, yet again, in these restless and sorrowful times – that we should re-read them, trying to understand where we’re coming from and then, with increased awareness, resume our journey towards the end of the night. And narrate this journey. Words, indeed, are our wings…

A journey connects places and people, weaves relationships. A story helps us experience them, confides them to memory and as such to the future. Weaving creates fabrics, or textiles, a word that shares its semantic roots with ‘text’. And Pope Francis proficiently illustrates the value of this word, when, in his message for the World Day of Social Communications, in January 2020, he talked about the “weaving of the world”, writing that “the world itself is a fabric and the stories told by people are the threads of this fabric, put under severe strain.”

Over time, that message has provoked various reactions, comments, in-depth contributions by learned women and men. The Osservatore Romano, the Vatican City State’s newspaper, gathered them, printed them and now collected them in a thick, valuable volume curated by Andrea Monda, director of the newspaper, and edited by Libreria Editrice Vaticana and Salani, with the title La tessitura del mondo (The weaving of the world), a “Multi-voiced dialogue with great cultural figures on narration as a way of salvation”. Among others, contributors include Roberto Andò, Eraldo Affinati, Piero Boitani, Mario Botta, Giancarlo De Cataldo, Francesco De Gregori, Nicola Lagioia, David Mamet, Colum McCann, Daniel Mendelsohn, Edna O’Brien, Renzo Piano, Annie Proux, Marilynne Robinson, Donna Tartt, Mariapia Veladiano, Sandro and Alessandro Zaccuri. Women and men shaped by different cultures, as well as different intellectual and religious experiences, yet all in agreement on the need to emphasise debate, dialogue, a dialectic of ideas and emotions that can “weave” a new, sturdier fabric of human relationships – a textual fabric, a narration.

We live in an era that’s heavy with risk and uncertainties, where words end up decaying amongst the chattering that constantly crowds social media, mostly driven by an ideological extremism exposing an impoverished public debate obsessed with ‘political correctness’ and ‘cancel culture’, by the growing supremacy of fake news and biased, derogatory opinionists, in a veritable “Endless Babel of the web” (Maurizio Ferraris, La Stampa, 23 May).

An admonition by TS Eliot comes to mind, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Nowadays, we could also add: where is information, in this background noise caused by an incessant flow of news providing neither a sense of priority nor context or some guidance on how they should be read and interpreted. “Media jam”, say the critics – not sweetened or flavoured by understanding.

The world, in its compelling and unsettling complexity, is crushed between a like and an unassailable game of abuse or praise, between a tweet and a sketchy story on Instagram. Critical judgement and grounds for understanding and responding are on the decline. Civil coexistence and the quality of a community’s social capital, the trust on which formative processes and trade – and, ultimately, the substance itself of liberal democracy – are built, are suffering serious harm.

We need to recover “the ethical rigour of words to fight this chattering merry-go-round” (as suggested by Massimo Recalcati, quoting Italian president Sergio Mattarella, la Repubblica, 31 January); to see literature and its many different stories as “a bridge” that can connect different worlds and sensibilities, values and interests; to promote the ability to “write about things”, which is not the same as to “write about words” (as Luigi Pirandello used to say, when arguing against Gabriele D’Annunzio’s rhetorical inclinations). And we need to insist on the good quality of writing, on a full and pertinent use of words themselves (instilled from the very beginning of compulsory education).

And on this path, we also need to return to the “weaving of the world” suggested by Pope Francis, in order to make some space for spiritual values and a “fairer” and more “sustainable” economic and social reconstruction.

As part of his message about Social communications that inspired this blog post, Pope Francis wrote that “We are not just the only beings who need clothing to cover our vulnerability; we are also the only ones who need to be ‘clothed’ with stories to protect our lives.” In essence, human beings “are storytellers because we are engaged in a process of constant growth, discovering ourselves and becoming enriched in the tapestry of the days of our life. Yet since the very beginning, our story has been threatened: evil snakes its way through history.”

The “Sacred Scripture,” reminds us Pope Francis, is a “story of stories,” with a God “who is both creator and narrator” but also the main character of a “narrative” through which we can learn to know him. In order to narrate, we need to remind, as “to ‘re-mind’ means to bring to mind, to ‘write’ on the heart”. And this is the key function of literature, as the works quoted by Pope Francis – such as Saint Augustine’s Confessions, but also Alessandro Manzoni’s The betrothed and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The brothers Karamazov – illustrate. Penetrating the inner side of human beings, in all its aspects, including the most controversial ones, looking for some kind of “redemption” through narration, requires intense efforts.

Indeed, “it is not a matter of simply telling stories as such, or of advertising ourselves, but rather of remembering who and what we are in God’s eyes, bearing witness to what the Spirit writes in our hearts and revealing to everyone that her or his story contains marvellous things.”

Pope Francis’s words gave rise to a long debate on the pages of The Osservatore Romano. And provided valuable advice: we need to build a profound narrative of the people, fight against what Andò terms “the dictatorship of the obvious”, take “moral responsibility when we communicate, acting as a counterpoint to social networks” (Alessandro Zaccuri), ensure that “evil is not perpetrated without a witness” and that “literature becomes illumination and embraces the whole world” (Edna O’Brien), “approaching mystery through myth” (David Mamet), “feeling compassion and understanding for the characters” (Annie Proux), seeking “a new and more conscious connection with oneself, to defeat the neurosis of contemporary individuals” (Daniele Mencarelli) and “build, adding some poetry” (Renzo Piano). In essence, we should live lives “interwoven and embroidered with words” (Marcelo Figueroa), knowing full well that “a true story is a good story” (Daniel Mendelsohn).

Donna Tartt provides an ideal summary, noting that the stories we tell, re-tell and pass on to one another are “tents under which to gather, banners to follow in battle, indestructible ropes to connect the living and the dead” and the intertwining of these vast plots across centuries and cultures “binds us strongly to one another and to history, guiding us across generations.” Once more, the bond between memory and future is reaffirmed, building new roots and drafting new maps in order to retrace perspectives and values for a better future.

All these different voices deserve acknowledgement, which is what Pope Francis did in his afterword, highlighting the unbreakable relationships between “telling” and “listening”, the significant weight of “silence” against the daily media racket and, above all, the “compassion”, not only within ourselves but also in the “public, social sphere” to ensure that “storytelling is not revealed as a force of memory, and thus, a guardian of the past, but also, precisely for this reason, a leaven of transformation for the future” – the future of memory, in fact.

(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)