7 September 2020
It is still too hot to sit on the terrace during the day. The thermometer is rising relentlessly. When the evening comes and brings some shade, the temperature will fall and then we can venture out. Some years ago, we could count on cooler days in September but now it is another summer month. It is often as hot as July or August. Still, there it is. ‘Què hem de fer?’ they say here in resignation. ‘What can we do about it?’ Well, we can do nothing except wait to cool down in October!
The words ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ of the thermometer take me on to other things. They remind me of when I memorised intonation patterns in those far-off days when I studied phonetics. Everything we say can be classified into certain patterns of rises and falls in the pitch of our voice. These patterns are used at different moments according to what we say and how we want to say it. For example, if you ask a question which can be answered with ‘yes’ or no’, your voice rises at the end. If you ask a question beginning with ‘where’, ‘what’ or ‘when’, then your voice falls. But let’s leave it there. Intonation is a tricky subject and like clouds, it resists a convincing classification.
Now, apparently, stories have also been classified into patterns of rises and falls but these are the ups and downs in the fortunes of the hero and heroine. I have a feeling that stories, like clouds and intonation, will also prove to have a mind of their own and that attempting to classify them is like trying to pack blown-up balloons into a suitcase.
Many years ago, my English teacher said, ‘There are only five stories in the world and one of them is Cinderella’. This has stuck in my mind ever since. It is strange how certain moments stay with you. Out of the hours and hours of classes that we all have at school, some remark a teacher made off the cuff, and the image of a friend hitting a six in a cricket match, and a few other memories are all that remain. Some of these, though, guide you all your life. Later, as I have read stories over the years, I realised that my English teacher was right. There are only five stories. And Cinderella is one of them.
Now the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont has put 1700 novels through extensive computer analysis and has concluded that there are six (not five) stories in the world. These groups have various names, but I am pleased to see that one of them is still Cinderella. Others include ‘Icarus’. This is Rise then Fall. ‘What a fall was there my countrymen!’ Right out of the sky into the sea with the wax that was holding his feathered wings together melting fast. Read Auden’s poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ and see what he has to say about poor Icarus. Another type is the ‘Man in a hole’. This is Fall then Rise as the man digs himself out. What about women? Cinderella is labelled Rise, Fall, Rise. The last Rise is the moment the glass slipper is seen to fit her foot perfectly. I am not sure what the first Rise refers to.
I prefer my teacher’s brief comment. He made his point without fussing about rises and falls, and what he said has stayed with me ever since.
This work at Vermont has kept researchers and their computers busy for some time. But what really matters here? These people have spent hours on elaborating and supporting their theory, but have they really added to the sum of human happiness?
One butterfly that flutters past you is worth 1700 butterflies that are pinned to a board in a glass case.
We need fewer research results and more stories. We need another tale that ‘keeps children from play and old men from the chimney corner’, in the words of Sir Philip Sidney, and he knew what he was talking about.