Ard: Do you think story is an important part of finding our moral sense or moral compass?
BO: Profoundly, actually. How do we know the moral boundaries of life? How do we know? If you live in a place where no one has told you, ‘Don't do that, that's going to hurt somebody’, how would you know? We only know because people tell us. And even when they tell us, we don't really know. We only begin to know when we can start to feel how the other person might feel.
There are not that many ways of getting me to feel what you can feel; there are just not that many. One of the few truly great ways of doing that is story. It is one of the most miraculous things about it.
You write a story: ‘One day I went out into the street and I saw this girl,’ and I'm reading it… I'm not reading it from your point of view, I'm reading it from my point of view. I'm reading it from my consciousness. So the act of reading is an act of automatic empathy: it is literally wearing someone's skin. It is literally entering into someone's consciousness.
Forgive these absurd gestures, but it is an emersion into a slightly different order of reality – actually one quite different from yours. But suddenly you get to see it from someone else, and you think, oh my goodness, is that what that feels like? And that's one of the most powerful places for the birth of the moral, of the moral sense, because if we don't know what someone else feels like, why should I care, really, what I do to you?
You see the thing about a story that is very, very strange is that the minute you begin to tell a story, a whole universe comes into being, because every good story brings with it a complete world. Even if it's very short, the implication of a complete world is in there. And that's where the moral structure comes from, because it's giving the idea of a complete world. All our ideas about society are implied in the stories that we tell.
David: I think that's a very important word, though, when you say ‘implied’, because it's often the implicit which are the most powerful because they take root in you. It's different to the explicit. I mean, the difference between the two is a joke is implicit, the funny part is implicit, and when some nitwit comes along and makes it explicit, it's not funny.
BO: It's ruined it, exactly. It's the power of suggestion as well and the implicit. I love the word implicit because implicit implicates you. You're the one who gives it life, actually. You're the one who makes the joke. If you tell me a joke, you're not the one who's making the joke. It's me who gets it who makes the joke. That's why people love hearing jokes because they get to be funny. It's me who's laughing who's the one.
And it's an act of imagination. The implicit pulls the imagination in more. The imagination is one of the most extraordinary faculties that we have. It's not an objective faculty, even though it draws its material from the objective. But it's the faculty through which we are able to be slightly more than just ourselves.
David: I like that notion, because it's something that you [to Ard] have mentioned in terms of religious feeling. You've often said to me, ‘There have to be things which point beyond themselves.’ And what you've just said, about the imagination, you've said exactly that. It’s something we can do but which points beyond us.
BO: Yeah, the other thing that fascinates me about all of this is if we think of ourselves as separate individuals, and unconnected, in a way, why should I care about you? Why should you care about me? Why? How can we begin to have a society? Do you get what I'm saying?
BO: Regardless of whether you believe in the religionists or the metaphysicians who say there's an invisible link that connect us, imagination is one of the most powerful links that enables us to slowly manage the equation between our individuality and other people's necessity: the navigation of our different freedoms. The birth, the growth of civilisation itself is a constant act of imagination, and for me storytelling and imagination are very intrinsically bound.
David: Do you think that has an effect back on us? You could imagine: here I am and I tell a story, and there you are, and we're both exactly the same person we were at the end of the story as at the beginning – it's just we've heard a story – or the telling of a story changes us. Do ideas have the power to change the person who...?
BO: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely .The teller is changed by the telling; the hearer is changed by the hearing. If the story resonates with you, in any way, something has been, not given to you or added to you, but awoken in you. Something has been inwardly expanded in you that wasn't there before. I personally, I'm even going to go slightly further than this and say that I believe stories affect reality. I believe that the stories that we tell, themselves slowly actually change our realities.