Interview: A Conversation With Stephen Jenkinson: On Stories & Spells

Tad Hargrave Interview with Stephen Jenkinson On Stories & Spells

Tad: My name is Tad Hargrave. I run, an online business dedicated to helping good people, from holistic practitioners to life coaches to farmers, crafters, and permaculture practitioners, find ways to market that feel good to them and the people to whom they’re marketing, ways that feel good but are also sustainable.

My guest today is Stephen Jenkinson. Stephen Jenkinson is an activist, teacher, author, and farmer. He’s the founder of the Orphan Wisdom School in Tramore, Canada, and the author of four books, including Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, the award-winning book about grief and dying and the great love of life. In 2018, he released Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble.

I asked to speak to Stephen today on the theme of stories and spells. It’s our fourth conversation together. Over the past decade, the marketing world has been full of the importance of telling your story in the marketplace.

Sometimes these stories come from an honest and good place, and sometimes they don’t. More often than not, marketing, advertising, and PR seems to practice a kind of what could only be called “spell-casting,” convincing us that we’re inadequate and need whatever products they happen to be selling at the time.

But I didn’t want to talk with Stephen about marketing. I wanted to go deeper into an understanding about these two old technologies that seem unique to humans: storytelling and spell-casting. So, Stephen, welcome.

Stephen: Thank you, Tad.

Tad: So where does today find you?

Stephen: Well, I’m at home, which up until this year was very rare. In fact, I haven’t seen an autumn at home probably for five or six years, so it’s very odd to watch the leaves come down. I’m wondering what’s happening. [Laughter] And of course, I’m really wondering what’s happening, given everything else that’s falling down.

I’m a very odd denizen of my own environs, because I spent so little time here over the years that the forced confinement, even though from the outside it would seem idyllic and a perfect place to go through a plague, I’m finding it just an odd, strange, and sometimes despairing place to be.

There’s nothing wrong with the place, I should say. This is all on me, as despair properly should be understood to be. It’s all on the despairing one. It’s, after all, my despair.

Tad: Yeah. Many of us find ourselves in the same place, or different places, but a similar despair.

First of all, I should say thank you for being willing to sit down once again in front of a computer or on the phone. I imagine there are things that could pull your attention on the farm where you are and work to be done, so thanks for taking the time to be here today.

Stephen: You’re very welcome. Thanks for asking.

Tad: My first questions, I suppose, are to help situate and come to at least some temporary understanding of these words, because I’ve heard you speak about both of them, story and spell, over the years in your writing and in the school and various environments. You have a different understanding of them than I’ve heard most places.

So maybe we could start with — I suppose it’s a big question —

– What is ‘story’ in your understanding? –

Stephen: This is a kind of question that should break down of its own accord, really. It’s too monolithic. It’s like asking you about God, but I’ll try. I’ll see if I can break it down and speak to it at the same time.

There’s nothing generalizable from what I’m about to say about it, I don’t think, nor particularly reliable. We’re wondering here. This is increasingly illegal activity, to be engaged in a wonderful pursuit, so I’ll see if I can stay on the side of the law, the way things are going.

A story is… I used to be very uncomfortable with the notion because it reminded me of Morris dancing, if you know that. Are you familiar with Morris dancing? [Laughter]

Tad: I am.

Stephen: Okay. I’m laughing as I say the phrase, which is a terrible thing to do, but there’s just something a little arch and a little, perhaps, stiffening about an engagement with Morris dancing. I say that purely as, it’s my problem. I used to hear storytelling or a storyteller or things of that kind basically in that way: it was a re-enactor’s kind of precinct.

As I got older, and particularly in the last, I don’t know, 15 or 20 years, where mysteriously some kind of platform has been established beneath me that I stand and occupy from time to time and people have been willing to entertain what I have to say, I’ve had to rethink, because I’ve stood there and I realized, basically — and I’ve said it many times — all I have is stories occasionally interrupted by an idea. That’s really all I have, and thank God it’s saved me from being a salesman.

So that’s one characteristic of stories, is if it’s a real story and it’s functioning faithfully that way, it can’t run for office and it can’t sell you anything. That’s probably a strange parentheses to begin with, but I find that the fact that a story can’t advocate for a particular position or concept or a grievance — and especially these days — to be enormously trustworthy.

There I’m saying that I find story to be a deeply trustworthy, compelling, and rooted proposition. It’s a kind of fingerprint rather than an artifact, it seems to me, by which I mean rather than imagining a story as something that the hand of life or the divine or the best of humans makes, you could imagine story is a way of those things doing their making, not an artifact, but a verb, really, a making way.

That’s fundamentally how I understand stories to work, is that, as wildlife would have it, they have their way of proceeding. As soon as they’re bent out of shape, they very quickly cease to be a story and very quickly turn into diatribe, harangue, a pitch, and the rest.

In that sense, I don’t think stories believe in anything at all. They’re not artifacts of belief. They don’t seem to be that interested in belief, nor are they strictly reportage: “He said,” “She said,” “Then,” “Then,” “Then,” “Then,” not really like that.

Stories, when they’re faithfully attended to, I think the best of us — or the part of us that’s engaged in good faith — recognizes a story’s emanation, recognizes it almost immediately, over and above what’s being said and who’s saying it.

You could say that maybe story is in fact the oldest profession, after all. Stories is a way by which something about our lives that is difficult, if not unbearable, to approach in a naked and unadorned fashion is somehow more doable when it comes to you via a story.

It’s no probably secret now: I was lucky enough to have an undeclared apprenticeship with a storyteller when I was in my early 20s in Boston. In fact, I just received a piece of film that’s — wow, is it 40 years old — probably 40 years of old, of him and I performing together. I haven’t seen any such thing for, wow, a long, long time. He’s well dead now.

I watched the first 20 seconds of it. It revived my willingness to lay aside my old re-enactor grievances about stories and storytelling and storytellers, and remember again how immaculately human this guy was. That’s all he ever called himself, was a storyteller, and I was lucky enough to accompany him for seven or eight years before circumstances had it otherwise.

So that’s a little bit about my first stab at what it is. I repent, I should say. I used to have, obviously now, a dim view of the thing. I’ve become corrected as I’ve begun to unwittingly occupy the position of being what I think is something of a storyteller now. Really, I’m not self-effacing when I say this.

I’m pleased that that’s all I have. Oh, I have my grievances like anybody else, but I never mistake them for a story and I never tell them in that fashion. I might relate my grievance. I might grieve aloud or be aggrieved aloud, but none of those things are stories. Stories are something you serve, not something that you press into service.

(Post interview note: In my August, 2018 interview with Stephen on Elderhood, Stephen said this. It feels relevant,

“What I was lucky enough to be in on from probably a very early age is stories, of all things, and stories are not just ‘one thing after another’. Stories have a very particular arc or you could say only stories have arc.

Arguments don’t. Diatribes don’t. They have intentions. They have sometimes diabolical strategies but there’s nothing strategic about a story. A story has a kind of arc that’s somewhat user friendly but absolutely world friendly. There’s something about the arc of a story that is as naturally occurring as snowfall or the rain that’s falling just outside the door as I’m talking to you now.

Naturally occurring doesn’t mean without consequence, by the way. It doesn’t mean benign but it certainly means that it’s in the order of things, that stories virtually seem to tell themselves although God knows they need a good teller, and they need a good hearer to appear as a story. I was exposed to the arc and the lilt of storyness or storydom, or something from a very early age.

Of this I’m fairly certain because I’ve never not heard that way. It’s in my ear, not a particular story, but storyness is in my ear and everything is available to me that way. I’ve found that people credit me with a certain capacity for memory but it’s not a factual memory.

The memory that I have is a kind of nuanced Geiger counter of ‘story movement’. That’s how I remember things, because the story suggests in almost a serpentine fashion what preceded the moment that you’re enquiring after right now, and with enough attention to that, the story begins to suggest to you something about the moment that you have not quite arrived at yet.”

And, in his Interview with the It’s Hot in Here Podcast (50 minutes in or so) Stephen said this,

“The beautiful thing about stories is… there’s no argument in them. There’s no ideology in them. Stories are an ideology free zone where you get to recognize the comings and goings of life that are apparent there regardless of how you feel about them which is a more important realization to have I think. By the same token, there are no stories in arguments which what the news is all about now. It’s all about arguments and no story. I think people are withering for lack of stories wherein their own lives become recognizable to them. I think there’s something in [stories] that can make their own people’s lives slightly more available to them than anything that they can hear in the popular media.

Tad: Thank you. That’s beautiful. It seems like a contrast, and not maybe an opposite, but there’s something that often has some kind of kinship to story that isn’t so familiar. It seems there’s a marked difference between spell and story.

I’m wondering. It’s a similar monolithic question, I suppose, but what is your understanding of spells or this in-spelling that can happen, because it seems that’s very different than story?

Photo by Heather Pollack

– What Is ‘Spell’? –

Stephen: I don’t know if it’s as different as you hope it is. Here’s what I mean by that. It would appear to me that spells and stories are easily mistaken, one for the other, largely because they get dressed in the same dark change room. They’re arrayed very similarly, not that easy to tell apart, nor should they be, frankly.

A spell is an enchantment. The beautiful verb that’s buried in the middle of that word is the verb to not quite sing and not quite say.

I’ve discovered, particularly over the last 18 months or so with Nights of Grief & Mystery, and then doing some records and all of that, composing and so on, that I’ve been chanting for some time now. As a good Anglo-Saxon, I’ve chanted with alliteration way more than I’ve done so with rhyme. It’s come quite readily to me.

So you could say, and I would go along with you if you did, “But you’ve engaged in enchantment consistently and probably made something of a living doing so.” That’s true. So how is that not spell-casting? Well, I didn’t say it wasn’t.

Let’s wonder for a minute what spell-casting is and go back to chant subsequently. A spell is a spoken thing. It’s not an intended thing. If it remains in the realm of your intention, it’s a stillborn, little piece of stone that resembles some intention you may have had.

If it’s romantic, it has a good PR campaign working for it, obviously. Who doesn’t want to be spellbound if it has a tremendous sexual and affectionate upside? I suppose a lot of people do.

It’s really hard for a spell to deliver on the upside consistently. I think anybody who’s walked the road knows that. It’s not an easy thing to admit aloud, but of course, it’s true. It doesn’t have a lot of staying power.

Spells of the darkened kind, which I think is partly where your question might’ve been headed, are very hard to contend with, largely because of their resemblance to things like affection and attention and stories.

So what gives them their darkening proposition? Well, my best guess on the subject is that the darkened aspect of spell is a consequence of the seductive inclination that the spell seems to participate in, to the exclusion of most other possibilities.

Seduction… Let me take a second with it. Seduction, as best as I’ve come to understand it as a meager practitioner, a failed practitioner of seduction… I wish I had been better at it. I used to wish I’d been better at it, until I’d come to an understanding of what it was.

Seduction is a way of seeming to give something, when in actual fact it’s mostly theft. You can, in a thieving way, give people attention and come away with more attention from them than they ever got from you, for example. A spell is seductive because it’s full of promise. In that sense, it probably requires, dwells upon, lingers in the future tense, or the allegation of a future tense.

I think that’s where you find the spell doing its fundamental work. The consequences are all in the present, but the staging area for a spell is actually the future, the “could’ve” and the “would’ve” and the “should’ve” and the promise as opposed to the vow, for example, and the allegation of “forever and ever,” “amen,” and “truly, truly,” all of these elements or aspects of spell-casting.

Spells, as I began to say earlier, are made with the tongue, aloud. Until they achieve that status, they’re something else — I can’t think of a word for it right now — but not to be held in particularly high esteem.

When a spell materializes, it’s spoken. It’s heard, and as such, it has an immediate, different kind of consequence than whatever the intent might’ve been. The amazing thing about spell-casting, unless you’re highly achieved at the business of it, is that the consequences that spin out from spell-casting and from seduction go way beyond the intent that marshalled them in the first place.

Spells employ language. This is what makes them so hard to contend with and even to recognize, because it’s the same language that a love song would employ, the same language an exhortation would employ. And so you begin to mistrust the language across the board when you’ve been on the receiving end of spellbinding and seductiveness and so on.

I’m not saying anything that you yourself haven’t heard, no doubt, many times, the idea that language is just inadequate to the deep “verities” of the inner life. That’s complete bullshit — excuse my language.

The language that we have available to us, the English language, is more than adept at giving you every valance, every degree, every inflection you need to make yourself known and understood, if that’s your purpose. It also gives you all of those things with which you could disappear and cease to be available and accessible and all the rest.

So it’s very tricky now. Spell-casting and spell-breaking are essentially achieved by the same mechanics. It’s very unnerving if you don’t get an unsentimental education in spells and in the power of language at some point in your relatively young life.

You’re likely to stumble into your middle age so extraordinarily vulnerable to them and at the same time fundamentally mistrusting their power, but you don’t say that. You say you mistrust their capacity, but it’s not really the truth. The truth is you mistrust their power, having been on the receiving end of a little bit of power unleashed. That’s a bit of a beginning to what I’d say about it.

Tad: Well, it’s interesting because I noticed when you started speaking about stories, you spoke about them… The word that came up a lot was “trustworthy.”

When you were speaking about spells, there was something about it that seemed to have a consequence of violating a trust, in which people might question language entirely or people’s intentions entirely. I’m wondering what it is about stories that has them be so trustworthy and spells that, at least of the darkening kind, can be so untrustworthy.

I heard you with the seduction piece. I’m wondering. There seems to be something about the consequence of the two. I’m wondering if, in your experience, when spells are spoken, they can spin out in their consequence far beyond what the intended impact was. Do you find the same is true with story?

Do stories have consequence like spells do?

Stephen: Yes. If you talk about impact in a neutral sort of way, then I guess the answer would be yes.

Let me double back on your question a little bit… let me speak to an early part of what you said.

You came back to me invoking the idea of stories being trustworthy and spells somehow not so much. You never heard me say that trustworthiness in and of itself is something to pine for or to give yourself over to. I didn’t say that. I didn’t say it. So I’m saying now that trustworthiness is not all it’s cracked up to be, if, by “trustworthy,” you mean somehow assured.

There was a moment in the last book I wrote called “Come of Age.” I think the chapter’s called “This Is An Important Safety Announcement,” where I called into fundamental disrepute the notion of safety.

Or let’s use a slightly different word, “readiness.” You know: “I’m not ready for da, da, da, da, da, da, da.” When you investigate what people mean by “not ready,” they usually mean not insured against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

It’s by the same token. When people talk about feeling assured, or feeling that such-and-such a person or a place or a time or an idea is trustworthy, they seem to mean that they can now unflex, uncoil, and bask in the glow of an assured outcome that only means them good. That’s very naïve, no? Your willingness to trust something is not the same thing as saying, “It’s going to be okay.”

Let’s use the example of dying, something I’ve been around and know a little bit about. I’ve called dying a “deity.” Death is a god. Here’s what I meant by it and here’s its relationship to what we’re talking about now.

I’ve got interviewed about this — I think it was yesterday morning — by an Australian outfit. I was up at 5:00 in the morning to do this thing, and they said, “You’d never know it,” which was hard to tell if that was a compliment or not.

They asked me about this very point, about the current plague being a god, which I had said at some point. In their question, they asked me, “So what does this god want, insist they foist upon us?” and so on and so on.

I came back and I said, “Wait. What makes you think that’s the repertoire of the divine, simply because we come to the divine with a list of expectations, demands, including infallibility, including the insistence that the divine at least must be trustworthy?”

In other words, what? The divine plays by our psychic rules, and our longing after safety and so on is the divine’s principle preoccupation and concern? And if the divine really wants to be recognizable to us as the divine, it will be benign instead of divine? Where is all this coming from?

My answer? This comes from a chronic lack of deep, unvarnished encounter with things divine, and so we turn it into an aspect of, “Wouldn’t it be great?” which, again, has that future problem.

So this is all a way of me taking part of your question and saying I never said that “trustworthy” means it’s going to work out okay in the end. “Trustworthy” means, at least as I meant it, that this is likely to be true to its nature. It’s not likely to be duplicitous.

Whether that will work out well for us, being exposed to it as human beings with peculiar needs, is an entirely different question, Tad, right?

Tad: Mm-hm.

Stephen: Okay. It’s a very big deal for what we’re going through now. Of course, I have long since forgotten the thrust of your question. Could you revive it for me?

Tad: Well, yeah. Thank you for that. One of the things that it made me think about was the etymology of the word “truth.”

Stephen: Oh, yeah.

“So far as I know, there is no word in any early Germanic language that means quite what we mean by ‘truth,’ least of all the words cognate to our word ‘truth.’ Old Saxon trûên, Old High German trôsten, Old English Truwian: these words convey meaning of loyalty, uprightness, and trustworthiness, not those of the Modern English ‘truth.’ Old English soð did not come to mean ‘truth’ (translating Latin veritas) but its earlier associations were with personal avowals and asservations.
These associations continued to be dominant, as shown by the frequent use of soð in contexts of speaking oaths, citing customs and proverbs, telling the future… and telling a story. Given the use of soð, it was perfectly possible to ‘tell a true story’ (soðgiedd wreccan) even though the story was completely made-up and less a story than a song built around an extended metaphor. What made it soð was that the lesson was true…
like Truwian, soð was less a veridical proposition about the world than a capacity adhering to the man deemed credible to speak it or a quality of the truth being spoken. Trustworthiness, wisdom, standing, cunning,: these are the qualities one would expect to be valued in societies where oath-helping was a common means of proof; where the worth of an oath was gauged by a man’s standing; where interpreting dreams and healing illnesses needed canniness and command of lore; where truths were expressed by maxims, similes, riddles, and tales. Within the field of such values, there might be good stories and bad stories, useful stories and not-so-useful ones, stories that confirmed to and supported tradition and ones that did not, and the criteria of judgment were probably highly specific to particular needs in particular situations (just as a particular god was good and useful in one situation but not another); but the idea that a story was simply ‘true’ as an abstract absolute – this is something we do not find…” – (excerpted from Chapter 4: Truth and Its Consequences: Why Carolingians Don’t Speak of Myth by Geoffrey Koziol of the University of California, Berkeley from the book Myth in Early Northwest Europe edited by Stephen O. Glosecki – emphasis mine). 

Photo by Heather Pollack

Tad: And how it seems to speak more to the person speaking and the qualities of them, just that the testimony could be relied upon, and… Let’s see if I can revive this.

When you were speaking about stories and you said there’s something about, they have a way of being themselves or they don’t vary from that way of being themselves, does it feel like spell is different than that?

“Does a spell vary from its way of being itself?”

Stephen: Probably. Probably, because spell is, I think, more in the manner of Mephistopheles than it is in the manner of Homer. That’s one of my rare classical allusions. What I mean is that there’s something about spells that can fit into a quiver of arrows quite readily. Spells can further the program, and the dark program more than any other kind.

Stories, they don’t do very well at hiding the chicanery that’s trying to mobilize them. Stories have a way of simply shrugging off the bad suit of clothes that the miscreants try to dress them up in.

Yet the remarkable thing about spells is how speech-reliant, speech-engaging, speech-determining they are. The good news about that… Okay, sorry, not the good news. The challenging news, first of all, about that is that every time speech is resorted to, this possibility about spellbinding, spell-casting, exists.

“There are, in every profound sense of the terms, neither good nor bad words. There is speech, and it is a powerful, conjuring thing, and on the skilled tongue it does not submit, crimped into domesticated, housebroken categories. For example, though you many never have said aloud what I am about to write, I think intuitively you may have known it to be so and may have lived some aspect of your life accordingly. Spells are not cast in the mind, in silence. They are cast by the tongue, in speech, aloud.” – Excerpted from Come of Age – Chapter 12, The Rock and The Hard Place

This is nowhere more prevalent than what we’re obliged to endure every time we make the fatal error of opening our “emails” or our YouTube thing or the stuff I don’t know anything about, the social… What’s it called?

Tad: Social media?

Stephen: Yes. You can see I’ve never done it, but I’m alert to how it’s being preyed upon and worse. These things, we’re in the midst of a degree of spell-casting that’s technology-reliant and technology-perverting so fundamentally now that it reminds me a little bit of what unnerved me when I was in the death trade, which came to this.

The advancement and the innovation in medical technology, including drug innovation, was so relentless that it was beyond the capability of any medical practitioner to keep pace with the scale and the rate of this innovation.

What this meant was, so as not to be left behind and so as to be able to deliver to their patients the “best possible care,” they were obliged to take it on faith from the drug reps and from the med tech salespeople.

If you let that observation in for a second, then something almost unbearable begins to dawn on you, which is that for all the right reasons, the medical practitioners, especially at the high end, are very vulnerable to doing the wrong thing, taking dictation from salesmen and saleswomen. Right?

Tad: Mm-hm.

Stephen: Okay. What’s happening — and it’s still happening, and it’s happening more so than it did when I was there — is that the innovation is so relentless that the practiced wisdom that should be there to guide its use, its application, to consult as to its advisability, and more often than not, to decide to not employ it at all, is lagging so far behind that at this point, there probably isn’t any practiced wisdom that’s in keeping with the innovation that sets itself upon us every time we’re in extreme medical circumstance.

That’s the deal. If it’s not the drug reps, it’s the business guys associated with the hospitals. That’s a very eerie thing.

What’s the parallel to what I was talking about a minute ago? Well, the very machine that you and I are going back and forth on is tracking. When it advises us about its privacy statutes and so on, what you have to realize is they’re throwing you a bone when they do that.

They know that in the vaguest, most uncommitted, and probably not-very-believable way, we’re concerned about our privacy. We’re only concerned about it to the point where we can get reassured by the people we should be concerned about, about what becomes of our “data.”

It’s not clear to me at all that people are concerned enough about it to refuse to part with the data — that is to say, to refuse to participate, and in so doing, be left on the dung heap of progress, which I’m perilously close to myself.

So all this is to say then that the parallel from dying to IT is a similar parallel from IT to language and spell-casting, that language can be employed for very dire purposes.

The exact same language can be employed to redeem that darkness.

“Upon this rickety branch of the English tongue, with its rogue prepositions and its vagrant, poetic, skaldic soul, I propose to drape my dread, my contrition, my pleas on behalf of elderhood among us. There’ll be etymologies to consider, prepositional subversions to administer, poetry to revel in. I hope you’ll find that employing a language to subvert its madnesses and emerging with a syntax of sanity in a troubled time is worth the considerable trouble and attention to detail and disciplined sorrow that it will take. It seems to me that much is now hanging in the balance.” – Excerpted from Come of Age – Chapter 2, Modern English

What distinguishes one from the other is the willingness of the buying public to assume fundamental responsibility for how they participate, how they receive it, how they send it along and so on, so that they stop leaving it to the pros.

If we were to do that in the circumstance of palliative care, end-of-life care for people, it would be a much different operation. If we were to do that and with respect to medical technology, it would be a much different operation. If we were to do that with respect to the technology that you and I are employing now to speak to each other, it would be a different deal.

If we were willing to educate ourselves about the consequences of language and the consequences of speaking and invoking or putting to speech something, then the… What are they calling it today? Not the “diatribe.” Not “discussion.” Help me out here, Tad.

Photo by Heather Pollack

Tad: Oh, “narrative”?

Stephen: Okay, “narrative.” There’s another word I can’t think of right now.

(Post Interview Note: I think the word we were both trying to find was ‘newsfeed’)

This would be a different order of engagement than it currently is.

In other words, language is neither trustworthy, nor untrustworthy. It’s the same way you would describe a wild animal. You only use the word “trustworthy” as to whether or not it makes you food. It makes food of you — that’s what I mean to say. That’s what makes it trustworthy or not.

Well, that’s not a calibration that the animal would even recognize or hold in any particular esteem. If the animal is hungry and you’re in its backyard, well, the chances are very good it would overcome the general disagreeability with which we present to the wild and sate its hunger. It’s no less trustworthy for doing that. Language is like that.

Tad: So that’s something about animals can be trusted to be themselves, and language can be trusted to have the consequence that it does, as well. Am I hearing right?

Stephen: Yes, provided that we don’t mistake a wild animal for a feral animal and we don’t mistake, let’s call it, the “God-given languageness” of the human mind with the half-assed half-speak.

“Given half a chance, these young people dangling from the thread of instant transformation could well go feral, their domesticity slipping, imagining themselves wild and free and dangerous. Dangerous: that much is true. That is the old adage—there’s nothing more dangerous than young people who are needy unawares, who are not gathered towards what needs them. All of this has come to pass in a time and place where elderhood is in eclipse, where wisdom is relegated to opinion, where age is endured and not radically learned from and employed, where seniority trumps sagacity. That is no coincidence.” – Excerpted from Come of Age – Chapter 9, The Fourth Temptation

I can’t even begin to marshal the adjectives to describe what we’re being subjected to now in terms of the political process, particularly south of the border right now. That’s not language, or if it is, it’s language unrecognizable to itself. So we have to work ferociously hard to redeem a spoiled language.

When language is seconded to the workplace, to the marketplace, and to the political process the way it has been done — including all the metrics that are being employed to sell people stuff, all the Amazon stuff, all of that — until we redeem the language, it’s understandable but deeply lamentable to me that people continue to diminish and disregard the power of language as being in and of itself untrustworthy and too slight to bear “the truth.”

It’s one of the ways by which we come to an understanding of what constitutes the truth, is by speaking our way towards what could that possibly mean.

– Four Spells Of The West – 

Tad: Yeah. To change gears a little bit, in your book, Come of Age, you speak about the four spells of the West. I remember the first time I heard them, I was so staggered by them because there was something about your speaking them that over the years has had me see them everywhere, hear it in people’s language, read it on the page.

I was curious how you came to that understanding that there were these spells of the West. I don’t know if you recall the moments where that happened or the thought process behind it, but it was such a potent thing. When I’ve shared them with other people, there’s been a similar response, a similar consequence.

Stephen: Well, it’s very difficult to remember the first time you thought a thought, because the first time you think a thought, it hasn’t taken on its language heredity yet. Because of that, I don’t think it’s accessible as a memory.

“So with that caveat in mind, I come to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who have carried the West to the world. Yes, flagrant language, indicting and accusing language, to be sure. For a few pages, I’d ask that you not decide prematurely as to the accuracy or fairness of the image, but only consider, and extend something of the host’s etiquette towards these unruly guests who may even now be tarnishing the furniture and bringing down the tone of the marketplace of ideas.

There are four markers, four cardinal points on the compass of recent history, a history during which we’ve seen the malignant breaking of the world into colour-coded spheres of influence, a calculation and conjuring by which the West and its ways and means, is recognizable. These four markers are probably more recognizable to whatever outsiders, pagans, and renegades are left than they are to civility’s beneficiaries, its crusaders, its pitchmen. Each has been offered up to the world as an achievement of civilized people, though it is probably better to say that each of these things was done to people in order to civilize them, by people to whom it had been done, and so on down the sad line. But and so on does not mean “that’s how it’s always been.” That notion, as may become clear, is one of the Four Horsemen.

Each of these markers is part meteor and part crater, part cause and part consequence. For all that, they are spells. By this I mean that what has come to pass for history, for the way it is, is likely a kind of veneer that has been laid over the armature of the verities and particulars of time and place so convincingly that our habits of understanding and preference and the eye are more persuasive than most learning we are subject to. By the four spells of the West, I mean four epistemological and phenomenological habits, four bewildered habits of the mind that have come to “hold space” for the West. These spells—universality, eternality, inevitability, potentiality—are carried on through the generations principally in the habits of our speech.” – Excerpted from Come of Age – Chapter 12, The Rock and The Hard Place

Stephen: That’s a rather elegant way of saying I don’t recall how these things came to me. I do recall that they did, and I recall a gratitude bordering on giddiness. They shimmered forward, all four of them at the same time.

If you were to ask me what they are right now, I would labor tremendously to try to remember them, largely because I haven’t read the book in some years now. I think potential was one. What are the other three?

Tad: The eternal, the universal, and the… Eternal, universal, potential, and inevitable.

Stephen: There we go. That’s good. I like the sound of it still. I think these things, things like this, they’re entrusted to you for a very brief time and not to be mistaken as your own kith and kin, which is why I can’t remember them as articles of faith, because that’s not what they are to me.

They were a kind of realization that it was all language-driven, language-bound. Each one of those things is syntax and grammar. That’s how it appears. One of them, not the inevitable, but… Sorry, can you do it again? Inevitable…

Tad: Inevitable, potential, universal, and eternal.

Stephen: Right, so at least two of those need the future to happen. The future remains, as best as I can understand it, an allegation. Nobody’s experienced it yet, so it’s not clear that there is such a thing, but it’s a useful conceit to get to take the pressure off the current situation, I guess.

I’ve never taken a lot of comfort, certainly not in my adult life, in the notion that there’s a future. I’ve got my hands full with having been lucky enough to have a present that I’m trying to be faithful to. No, again, that’s not the right word — to try to be an authentic citizen within. That’s what I mean.

I’m glad you find them useful or disarming or disheveling or disconcerting. Certainly, by the time they occurred to me, there was something about how I was built that could accommodate their corrosive consequences.

In other words, I guess I’d already seen the consequences, particularly in the death trade, such that when the formulation occurred to me, a good part of me said, “Oh, yeah, that. Sure. That’s what I’ve been seeing,” without being lucky enough in the early days with the language to make it discernible to me. When the language was finally granted to me, my days in the trade were numbered.

Again, same deal. They were all spell-breaks, spell-rupturing things. None of them were easy to take. It’s certainly undermined and finally limited my employability, not only in that field, but I’ve never had a job since I saw those things.

So you see I can’t possibly recommend them to people who have mortgages to pay and things of that kind. I don’t. I put them in a book and I might as well have said, “Caveat emptor,” about those things, because they will diminish your capacity to take seriously what the system asks of you, the regime asks of you.

In that sense, it’s very much like the story I’ve told many times in Nights of Grief & Mystery about the dying nurse, where she was dying and then she wasn’t as a consequence of getting some test results. This is right towards the end of the story. I have to say to her something like,

“You know, you have to go to work this morning with this realization about what being a dying person and then suddenly not being a dying person has done to you, about what’s asked of you every day. And it’s not clear to me that you’ll be able to join the walking wounded, those of us for whom endings are all matters of lifestyle choice or failure of the will.”

– On The Perils of Spell Breaking – 

Tad: Well, it’s interesting. Speaking of the caveat emptor, I’ve seen how people have come for you when you start speaking to these spells or dropping the dye in the swirling water of this culture to help illuminate and bring these spells into some sort of appearance. People don’t seem to react too friendly to having these spells pointed out.

I’ve seen this consistently. When people have spells of this culture pointed out to them, often people get very tired, people get very foggy, or people can get very angry. I’m curious if you have any understanding of what’s going on. Why is that? Wouldn’t we want to be liberated from a spell that was keeping us maybe from seeing clearly?

Stephen: Or would we? Would we? How much evidence can you marshal that that’s what we want?

Tad: Right.

Stephen: Okay, so there’s the dilemma. There’s a “should” implied in what you said, but it’s not something that you can actually observe very much.

The parallel I draw for you is this, often referred to by me, “idea” of being in a room full of people. I’m at the front of the room. I’ve proposed nothing in particular. I ask them, “How many in this room know that they’re going to die?”

If they’ve come to see me, they know what the right answer is. They know the right answer is, “I know,” and so eventually everybody’s hand goes up. So I thank them for answering the question and then proceed to demonstrate to them beyond any reasonable doubt that they don’t know that.

The thing I point to is the role of knowledge. The assumed role of knowledge is that it informs how you proceed. That’s what a known thing is supposed to do, apparently, especially something as vital to the proceedings as the fact that they’re not going to last.

You would think that would be highly sought-after information. But I was in the trade, Tad, and I’ve got no reason to lie to you: it was not heavily sought-after information. You could demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that most people didn’t know they were going to die.

They suspected. They feared it. They may have on occasion been curious about it as long as it didn’t get too close. But the knowledge was nowhere to be found because it didn’t inform the way they proceeded in the months and years and decades prior to that moment. You couldn’t trace the knowledge in how they were proceeding, you see?

I’m using the same idea about, I’m going to use the word “disillusionment,” because that’s probably what I’m a purveyor of. More than any other single thing, I’m a merchant of disillusionment. That’s what I’m hawking.

I don’t promise it’s going to release you from bondage or soothe your aches and pains. I’ve never promised, to the best of my knowledge, anything about the consequences of disillusionment, except that even though it would appear that this should be the very thing that you would seek — to not be laboring under illusion — you discover much to your chagrin that illusion works, baby.

It really works. It works the same way addiction works. It’s indisputable in its efficacy. That’s the problem, if illusion wasn’t so powerful, wasn’t so compellingly a one-size-fits-all solution, temporarily and erringly and not very satisfyingly.

But for a time, man, it’s as good as anything can be to labor under an illusion. To have it pointed out that that’s what you’re doing is as unwelcome as discovering that you’re being cheated on. You might still love the person, but what are you going to do with the love now that it’s not as clear that it was reciprocated as what you thought?

So you should pray for disillusionment, but only if you intend to live a life that’s a story, a story that could be told and could be entrusted to a generation to come. That’s the big “if.”

– On Story and Culture –

Tad: When people ask me and say, “Who is this Stephen fellow? What does he do?” one of the things I’ll often say is I just see you as an advocate for real, achieved, human culture.

You make this beautiful distinction, a series of distinctions, one of them relating to culture and civilization. I’m wondering if there’s a connection you see between story and culture? When I think about civilization, I suppose I don’t see story in the same way, but I see it as kinship between story and culture. I’m wondering if you see anything there yourself.

Stephen: I do, and this is what it would be. It’s hard to argue if you’re telling a story. It’s hard to choose sides when you’re telling a story.

You could bend yourself in the direction of trying to identify with a character or a circumstance in the story, but that’s not the story. That’s you. The story itself is remarkably adept at not being in the least concerned about the buy and sell of the marketplace, or ultimately of civilization.

The beautiful thing about a story’s relationship with culture is that you can remember a story for much longer and in much more compelling and necessary and mandatory circumstance than you can remember an argument, an idea, a concept, a metaphor, a simile.

It’s quite marvelous to observe this very simple, almost epistemological fact, that it’s very hard to remember an idea: “How does it go again? How does that go?”

The amazing thing about telling a story that you’re trying to recall is that no matter where you begin, the story begins to tell itself in almost some kind of mycelium-on-the-forest-floor fashion; that your willingness to tell it somehow moistens the ground enough that whatever was waiting and somehow incipient in the ground bursts into remarkable flower as a consequence of you beginning to tell it.

Then you can barely keep up with the story as you’re beginning to remember it. It casts cadence over your cadence. Have you had the experience I’m describing?

Tad: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

(Note after interview: I find this to be even more true when a group of people are trying to remember something together. In his book Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong gives a fine illustration of this:

“In the period he studies, Clanchy finds that ‘documents did not immediately inspire trust’ (Clanchy 1979, p. 230). People had to be persuaded that writing improved the old oral methods sufficiently to warrant all the expense and troublesome techniques it involved. Before the use of documents, collective oral testimony was commonly used to establish, for example, the age of feudal heirs. To settle a dispute in 1127 as to whether the customs dues at the port of Sandwich went to St Augustine’s Abbey at Canterbury or to Christ Church, a jury was chosen consisting of twelve men from Dover and twelve from Sandwich, ‘mature, wise seniors of many years, having good testimony’. Each juror then swore that, as ‘I have received from my ancestors, and I have seen and heard from my youth’, the tolls belong to Christ Church (Clanchy 1979, pp. 232-3). They were publicly remembering what others before them had remembered. Witnesses were prima facie more credible than texts because they could be challenged and made to defend their statements, whereas texts could not (this, it will be recalled, was exactly one of Plato’s objections to writing).”

Stephen: It’s amazing, no? You’ve never done that with an idea. Even if you do, like one of my ideas that you might’ve been trying to explain to people, and even after you get it right, there’s very little satisfaction. Why? Well, because ideas are a dime a dozen and they just… It’s okay, but they’re seasonal.

Stories are epochal by comparison. That’s what makes them both children of culture and godparents of culture simultaneously, is that a culture can recognize itself in this telling beyond argument or dispute. They’re still left with the remarkably onerous job of translating the story that they know about themselves into a political process and a social justice process. The work is still there. It doesn’t make it any easier.

I suppose you’ve got to turn to Leonard Cohen at least once in an interview. You have to. At least as a Canadian, you have to, and so maybe this is what I mean. He said it better. He said,

“I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean. I love the country, but I can’t stand the scene. And I’m neither left nor right. I’m just staying home tonight, getting lost in that hopeless, little screen. But I’m stubborn like those garbage bags that time cannot decay. I’m junk, but I’m still holding up this little, wild bouquet.”

That’s story talking. In the rare times when it stops telling a story and is willing to submit itself very briefly to an autobiographical interview, that’s what it sounds like.

“I’m neither left nor right. I’m just staying home tonight, getting lost in that hopeless, little screen. But I’m stubborn, and I’m not going away.” Time cannot decay this thing that’s been entrusted to you. What you will do with it constitutes the fate that you wrangle. That’s the deal.

I took an entire story on the new record called… Which one is it? Rough Gods. It’s a story called “Fate” and it has four movements to it, almost symphonic, some symphonic movements, if you will. In each one of them, there’s a refrain: “Hey, what time is it?” Towards the end of the observation, that’s what time it is.

So I do my best to answer the question, which is another way of saying, “What’s going on? Where are we? And why do I call it ‘Fate,’ of all things?” Well, of course, the way “fate” is used today, both of us know, is it’s used to foreclose upon possibility and to say, “Well, it’s the inherited way that it will be.” In that sense, here’s that future tense again.

“Fate” actually, etymologically, meant something very close to this: right now, the gods have spoken. That’s what the world is. That’s what gravity and photosynthesis and everything in between. That’s the gods having spoken. That’s what the world is. It’s made up of what they declared.

That’s not fate. Fate’s the other half. The other half of that is, now that the gods have spoken, what will you do?

That’s why it took me a 12-minute story to wonder in four parts about that and about the consequence for young people who are inheriting a derelict understanding of social responsibility and a broken-down marriage to the real world. I know that’s what they’re inheriting.

The notion that this legitimizes grievance as a proper orientation to everything that has preceded you, becomes the fate you thought was visited upon you by those who became before you. See?


– The Labour Of Spell Breaking –

Tad: I’m struck by how it seems a couple times in this conversation there’s been an implied labor around stories, that when we hear a story, there’s something entrusted. I’ve heard people say, “This story can work on you.” I think that’s true, but there’s also a kind of labor of sitting with a story, reflecting on it, listening to it, listening to it again.

Stephen: Being disillusioned by it.

Tad: Trying to remember it, all of these things. It seems perhaps there’s something with spells, where the same level of labor isn’t asked of us. I think about your…

Stephen: Only if you’re trying to break them.

Tad: Aha.

Stephen: That’s where the labor is, with respect to spells, is trying to undo them. But no, this is a point very well taken. I’d never really thought of this before, but I’m very compelled with your idea now that there’s something about spells that absolves us from any further labor or involvement or sheer recipience or celebrance or endurance.

Story, on the other hand, just doesn’t give itself away in the backseat in 20 minutes. It just doesn’t do it. It’s not coy. It’s just not getting in the backseat with you. It stays in the front seat and looks at you in the rear view mirror and asks you if you’re finished yet, because it’s waiting for you to proceed. It’s quite remarkable.

I know I make it sound like it has a sort of personality type. Story does, but these are my limitations, trying to find a way to make what story has been to me and done to me and meant to me accessible to people for whom this might not just be an idle word.

Tad: It has me think about your distinction between prejudice and wisdom.

(Note after interview: I’ve heard Stephen speak many times about the difference between prejudice and wisdom; that prejudice seems to come in the breast milk. It can be osmoted, inherited, absorbed and passed on with so little effort. Wisdom, on the other hand, seems to need to be laboured over by each generation as they take the seeds of wisdom, the proverbs and stories passed down to them and try to see how, and if, they fit the times and places they find themselves in. Prejudice asks nothing of us. Wisdom asks a great deal of us.)

There seems to be a kinship between story and wisdom, and perhaps prejudice and spell. There’s something in a spell that stops us from wondering, stops us, or can, anyway, stop us from, as you said, thinking any further, wondering about it any further.

Stephen, thank you so much for taking the time.

– Farewells –

Stephen: Well, Tad, you’re very welcome. I don’t have a lot else, actually, like most of us. I’m getting lost in this hopeless, little screen more often than I wish I was. I’ll tell you this by way of signing off. I’m not aware that in the brief but intense sojourn known as my little life, I’ve really made a bedfellow of despair, but I’ll tell you this.

Starting in somewhere around July, I encountered a degree of despair so profound, so impersonal, so compelling that it was unnerving in a fundamental way. I was really wondering whether something anatomical hadn’t occurred, whereby for the duration, this would be my demeanor. I was that concerned about it. It was so pervasive.

I’ve thought about it since and thank everything that bears me in mind that it’s lifted and hasn’t recurred in that way, but I don’t see myself as past it. I see myself as being called to attention by it. I know I said it was impersonal before. I’m perhaps recognizing it as something that is afoot, that doesn’t actually have much to do with me at all.

If I have any particular function in this world here in the last decade, or whatever it is I’ve got left, to have the seismic consequences of despair register upon me so profoundly that I mistook them for my own character or my own life was hugely valuable.

I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. But I seem to have been tuned or tempered again by the particular poverties of this time to be those poverties’ true child, which is why, when you ask me to talk about these things, I say, “Yes,” because they seem to be my lineage, or at least my parents for the time being.

We have work to do, ladies and gentlemen. We, honest to God, have work to do. Let’s close out by remembering this. I’m going to tell this story imperfectly, not by intent, but as a consequence of my faulty memory on the matter.

I heard that there was a place in Iceland very recently, where the civic authorities or someone else took it upon themselves to put a sign at the foot of a rapidly receding glacier. As best as I can recall, the sign said something like, “We know now what’s happening. We know what we should do, but only you will know if we did it or not.”

So here’s the question, folks. Who was the third sentence aimed at? Who was that spoken to? Who’s the “you” that’s being referred to? You could say, “The future generation,” and you probably wouldn’t be wrong, but I’m thinking it was the glacier. “Only you, the glacier, will know if it we did it or not.” That’s how deep-running the intelligence of the world is.

– Rough Gods / Dark Roads –

Tad: Thank you. Well, as we close here, I want to make sure people know a couple of things that you’ve just launched into the world.

For everyone listening, in 2015, Stephen created Nights of Grief & Mystery with Canadian singer-songwriter, Gregory Hoskins. I had the pleasure to attend many of these evenings in 2018-19. With a five-piece band, they’ve mounted international tours, released three albums, most recently — I hope you’ll all go and get your copies — Rough Gods and Dark Roads.

These albums and all of his other books, video products, and work can be found on the “Work” tab at I can say I haven’t had a chance to listen to much of the new albums, but the Nights of Grief & Mystery album is an extraordinary achievement, incredibly well put together.

– Stone Fence Sagas –

And then this month, in October 2020, Stephen is offering a four-part livestream speaking series entitled Stone Fence Sagas, which is a four-part livestream speaking series.

Each one will be organized around a different theme, so

October 29th, it’ll be “Truth/Reality/Personal Experience”;

November 5th, “Radical Citizenship in a Time of Plague”;

November 19th, “Patrimony, Matrimony, Ceremony”;

December 3rd, “They Eat Teachers Here.”

Prompted by these themes, ticket holders will be invited to submit questions in advance through an online form. These questions will be read, considered, and a selection of them will be asked of Stephen by a small, in-house audience during the evening.

So those are coming up. Tickets are available, and of course, if you go to the website under the “Events” tab, I believe you’ll find that. I’ll put all of the links in the transcript with this, of course.

Stephen, is there anything I’ve missed that you have coming up, that you’d like people to know about?

Stephen: Well, only this: that all of this that you’ve kindly mentioned is a preamble to the dream that Hoskins and I have of reconstituting our tour of this year, next year. If there’s any way at all, we’ll perform all of that work really for the first time live as soon as we can. That’s our intent, and that’s what I’m living for.

Tad: Well, that’s what I’m looking forward to. Thank you, again. Thank you, everyone, for listening, and signing off until next time. Take care, everyone.

Stephen: All right. It’s in the can.

Tad: In the can. Well, thank you so much, Stephen, and blessings to everyone on the farm.

Stephen: Thank you, sir.

Tad: We’ll be in touch.

Stephen: Beautiful. Take care of yourself.

Tad: You too.