The One With Featuring Tremontaine

Joel Derfner and The Storyteller

What Buffy can teach us about writing and morality.

“What is your favorite episode?”

No question whatsoever. It’s “Storyteller,” episode 16 of season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Andrew, a nerd and failed-supervillain-turned-good-guy, is being kept sort-of hostage in Buffy’s house as she and the Scoobies and the Slayers-elect prepare for what may well be the apocalypse. Andrew decides he’s going to make a documentary so that future generations (if there are any future generations) will know of Buffy’s heroism in the face of horror. He spends the whole episode claiming to be an observer, part of which claim is motivated by the fact that he himself committed the murder that set the maybe-coming apocalypse in motion. The episode is punctuated by his retellings of various events from the season, but in his versions he plays the hero and absolves himself of all blame.

And finally there’s a come-to-Jesus moment in which Buffy lays into him and is like, look, you can’t pretend to yourself anymore that you’re not involved. You can’t sit back and watch. You’re part of this. And he gets it. The very last scene of the episode is Andrew doing commentary for the documentary, and he stops working on it because he realizes that telling Buffy’s story isn’t enough—that he has a responsibility to the world.

Okay, enough about Buffy; let’s talk about me.

My parents were civil rights workers in the 1960s and my father, in addition to continuing that work, has more recently also done a lot of work on behalf of labor unions (I assume that my mother, if she were still alive, would be doing the same). So I grew up in an atmosphere in which working to make the world a better place (in Hebrew, tikkun olam—”the healing of the world”) wasn’t just a virtue; it was an imperative.

For a long time, therefore, I was really ambivalent about becoming a storyteller (first in the realm of theater and only later in the realm of books); in a way, the fact that I wasn’t in a developing nation working to create food distribution systems made me feel like a moral failure.

Part of what eventually helped me get over that ambivalence was the realization that stories do in fact have the power to inspire listeners/readers/audiences to tikkun olam; actually, we seem to be getting closer to measurable evidence of this.

A few years ago I read an article on about “elevation,” one of a group of self-transcendent emotions behavioral scientists have recently identified and begun to study.

Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration… . Elevation is good at provoking a desire to make a difference but not so good at motivating real action. But … the elevation effect is powerful nonetheless… . It does appear to change people cognitively; it opens hearts and minds to new possibilities.

Juxtapose this with the article in the New York Times Magazine a few years before that about a scientific study showing that when people think about morals, religious or otherwise, they are more generous—4.33 times as generous, to be exact—than at other times.

People say all the time that art can make people better, makes the world more beautiful, blah, blah, blah, but we’re usually talking about an abstract idea, immeasurable and unproven. It turns out, though, that stories, if they elevate people, have the power to make them quantifiably more open-hearted.

Which to me means that storytellers have an absolute responsibility to use that power. When I come across stories that don’t seem to take this responsibility seriously, I find myself getting angry. The more brilliant the stories are, the more violently I fume by the minute or the page because, as I see it, though the storyteller could have invested them with immense power for tikkun olam without making them a jot less brilliant—very possibly making them more brilliant—he or she chose not to, which from my perspective makes the stories both a waste of the storyteller’s talent and a moral failure of their own.

I’m not saying that a story’s morality has to be Big and Serious and Important. Hilarious trifles can be deeply moral. And I don’t mean that a story has to Have a Message or Enlighten the audience. I’ve sat through or read any number of stories that hit me over the head with their insistence that Greed Is Bad (or Racism, or Intolerance of Others, or Whatever Bad Thing), and I’ve wanted to put my eyes out. These stories were turgid and sententious and ghastly, because they and their characters were subordinate to the Message.

I was never able to figure out how to express the difference between what makes a story elevating and what makes it ghastly in that here’s-a-Message way until I came across an essay by D.H. Lawrence, an analysis of Walt Whitman in Studies in Classic American Literature. He had this to say:

The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral. The essential function of art is moral. But a passionate, implicit morality, not didactic. A morality which changes the blood, rather than the mind. The mind follows later, in the wake. 

The morality in a story needs to be passionate and implicit—a morality which changes the blood. If you tell a story, or create any work of art, in which you’re trying to change people’s minds, you’re being a preacher first and a storyteller (a distant) second, and the story will ring false. But if the work’s morality is directed at the blood, if it communicates itself in how the characters treat each other and themselves, in how they move through the world, then its creators are simply storytellers, fulfilling the responsibility with which the power of art has invested them and, with luck, “provoking a desire,” as Slate puts it, “to make a difference.”

That’s the level on which “Storyteller” speaks to me. It’s an episode about a storyteller who realizes that he has a moral responsibility. The story he’s in the middle of telling does nothing to fulfill that responsibility—so he just stops telling it, literally. He doesn’t bring it to a hurried end, he doesn’t say “to be continued.” He stops in the middle of a sentence and just turns the video camera off.

Now, this is the response that fits with my doubts about becoming a storyteller. How can telling a story make a real difference in people’s lives? Better to stop in the middle of a sentence.

But that was before I read Lawrence, and since then I’ve come to think differently. So I like to think that, once Buffy and her friends are (spoiler alert) done saving humanity from the apocalypse, Andrew picks up his video camera again and starts over. That he reaches deeper into himself to give his work a morality that changes the blood. That he becomes a new storyteller, one who is determined to heal the world.

Check it out:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 7, Episode 16: “Storyteller”

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