‘All generations have left behind traces or representations of the world they encountered and the stories they told to make sense of it.’

Richard Holloway’s books are always thoughtful, fascinating explorations on finding meaning in our lives and in the world around us. In his new book, he turns his attention to literature, myth and storytelling, with an emphasis on the Bible, and encourages us to embrace uncertainty. In this extract, he muses on the artistic impulse.


Extract taken from Stories We Tell Ourselves: Making Meaning in a Meaningless Universe
By Richard Holloway
Published by Canongate


The American philosopher Arthur Danto developed a closely related idea to capture another human compulsion. He described the human animal, in a Latin phrase, as an ‘ens representans’, a being that represents or repeats its experience of life back to itself, picturing it, telling its story, sym-bolising it, re-presenting it. Give children crayons and paper, and they’ll draw their mummy and daddy and the cat on the mat before the fire. Listen to people in the pub after work and they’ll be telling their day over again to their friends. Artists possess this urge for re-presentation to an obsessional degree. Novelists rehearse the complexities of the human condition in a form many of us constantly return to. The best of them don’t tell us about whatever they are describing; they make it present to us. Here’s an example. This is a poet writing about the experience of reading Tolstoy.


If I Could Write Like Tolstoy


you’d see a man
dying in a field with a flagstaff still in his hands.

I’d take you close until you saw the grass
blowing around his head, and his eyes

looking up at the white sky. I’d show you
a pale-faced Tsar on a horse under a tree,

breath from its nostrils, creases in gloved fingers
pulling at the reins, perhaps hoof marks in the mud

as he jumps the ditch at the end of the field.
I’d show you men walking down a road,

one of them shouting to the others to get off it.
You’d hear the ice crack as they slipped down the

to join him, bringing their horses with them. You’d

the blood coming out of the back of someone’s

warm for a moment, before it touched the snow.
I’d show you a dead man come back to life.

Then I’d make you wait – for pages and pages –
before you saw him go to his window

and look at how the moon turns half a row
of trees silver, leaves the other half black.


Painters are also compulsive reflectors of what is presented to them in life. Cézanne said the landscape thought itself in him. And some of us can’t stop wondering if the universe might not be thinking itself in us.

But art does more than record and reflect the tumultuous realities that present themselves to our senses, or to wonder at them and impose patterns of meaning upon them. It is also a way of marking our brief moment on earth before we hurtle into the past, like the famous graffiti ‘Kilroy Was Here’ that American GIs etched onto innumerable sites in Europe during Second World War. There’s a Scottish painting by David Allan that captures this poignant aspect of art. Done in 1775, and called The Origin of Painting, it is based on a story by the Roman historian Pliny about a young Corinthian woman who sketched the outline of the shadow of her lover on a wall before he went off to war, so that she would have something to remind her of how he looked when he went away, possibly never to return. That’s the impulse that prompts lovers to carve their entwined names onto the trunk of a tree to prove that once they were here. And it’s the impulse behind the journals kept by writers that enable us to go back into their lives and be moved by how they managed their journey through this fleeting world. They remind us that we are all flitting through a lighted hall towards the great unknown, and some of us try to leave a print or mark of our presence before returning to the dark.

All generations have left behind traces or representations of the world they encountered and the stories they told to make sense of it. Centuries later we examine what they have left behind and try to figure out what they made of their time on earth and what they thought came after. A possible reading of the clues our ancestors left at Qafzeh in Israel 100,000 years ago or at Lake Mungo in Australia 42,000 years ago, is that they saw death as the entrance to another phase of existence, imagined as a version of this one. The red ochre they painted on their dead may be a symbol or representation of that belief. It may be a glimpse of what we call a ‘religious’ belief, ‘religion’ being the slippery term we use to suggest the presence or existence of a world or reality beyond this one, with death as the connecting door between them.


Stories We Tell Ourselves: Making Meaning in a Meaningless Universe by Richard Holloway is published by Canongate, priced £16.99.

You can catch Richard Holloway talking with Ruth Wishart at this year’s online Edinburgh International Book Festival. Book your free spot here.

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