What are Stories For? Visiting Professor Dr. Dara Horn Provides Some Answers

When people read novels, what is it that they expect to get from the experience?

This intriguing question was the subject matter of a talk given by Dr. Dara Horn to the honors students of the S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program at Stern College for Women on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. Dr. Horn, a much-admired and much-awarded novelist, is a visiting professor at Stern College courtesy of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought.

She began by quoting a piece of fan mail from a reader, who was upset by the brutality of a scene in one of her novels. “With all of the cruelty in the world ,” said the writer, “I find it more of a service to mankind to write a book for people to laugh, enjoy and be uplifted.” The writer’s suggestion prompted Dr. Horn to examine what it might be that readers are looking for when they spend the time and effort to read stories.

Dr. Horn suspected that many people, like her letter-writer, read novels “secretly expecting a redemptive ending.” This expectation comes from a Christian view of the Bible and Christian beliefs about salvation, where the “in the beginning” of Genesis ends with the establishment of the kingdom of God in Revelation. In this view, history is the story of the redemption of a life started in sin and ending in grace and judgment.

Dara Horn at the lectern
Dr. Dara Horn

If “normal literatures, like English or Russian or French” are drawing their inspiration from this Christian context both of being saved and of a narrative with a satisfying and coherent ending, then the Jewish literature she studied in Hebrew and Yiddish can be considered a kind of “anti-literature, one which should make us question what we want out of a work of art,” in part because Jewish people read a different bible than do Christians, one that does not “end in a bang.”

In what way does this “anti-literature” question this desire for orderly endings, a desire, Dr. Horn believes, that “is not universal at all but is Christian”? In the literature she was studying, “there are almost no people getting saved, there is never anyone who had an epiphany, there are no moments of grace, and what I quickly noticed in the stories and novels in Yiddish and Hebrew, often did not have endings at all.”

As one example among many to illustrate her point, she chose the stories about Tevye the Dairyman of Sholem Aleichem, the source for the musical Fiddler on the Roof. She described the stories as “sort of like a TV series where every daughter’s marriage is another episode, and each is more devastating than the last.”

But what amazed her most as a Western reader as she made her way through them is that “Tevye never changes, he never realizes anything, he never has an epiphany or a moment of grace. And he certainly is never rescued, and he’s certainly never saved.” Instead, as she pointed out, “he just keeps enduring, which feels painfully realistic.”

For Dr. Horn, the difference between literature and anti-literature, Western literature and Jewish literature, is that “there is a commitment in Western literature to the idea of human creativity being ultimately redemptive: art can become a substitute for religion.” On the other hand, Jewish literature presents, in her view, “an authentic realism that comes from an authentic humility about human limitation: the knowledge that you cannot be true to human experience while pretending to make sense of the world.”

Stories like Tevye’s are not about endings that makes sense of all that comes before the ending “but the beginning of a search for meaning, stories without conclusion animated by endurance and resilience.”

Through the rest of her talk, she expanded upon these core ideas of humility in the face of living in an unredeemed world, the passage and disappearance of time (at one point, she characterized Judaism as a “technology to capture time”), the obligations imposed upon us by the way the dead live through us into the future and the “archeology of the soul” that each of must plumb to find some satisfying degree of understanding and acceptance.

Dara Horn in conversation with Rabbi Dov Lerner

What are stories for? To help us ask, and perhaps answer, “our questions about the purpose of being alive.” Not through uplift, not through redemption, not by an artist shoehorning a string of events into a narrative arc, but by finding a resilience and endurance of our own where we can “give to the people younger than us a past to build a future with” and by trying to figure out “what will we take from the world that came before us, and what will we give to the world that comes after us.”

After a brief conversation about her talk with Rabbi Dov Lerner, a resident scholar at the Straus Center,  she answered questions from the students.

One student asked her how reverent she remains to the texts which she draws upon for her stories, and Dr. Horn emphasized that she maintains all the reverence that is required and would never do anything to sully them, such as having God appear as a character.

Another asked about writer’s block, which Dr. Horn admitted she does not experience it. She is committed to generating material every day, even if it’s not any good. She does this, she explained, because, even as mother with four children, she manages to use the bits and pieces of time available to her in each day, whether that is standing in line at checkout counter or writing in the shower on a waterproof pad that her husband bought for her. “Just generate as much material as you can,” she advised. “Cut later.”

Her final offering to a student’s request for some “life advice” were these notions: “Always leave the party while you’re still having fun” and “you don’t have to decide what you’re going to be when you grow up.”

(l-r): Dr. Cynthia Wachtell (director, S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program), Dara Horn, Rabbi Dov Lerner, Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern (senior adviser to the Provost and senior program officer at the Straus Center)