Why We Retell Hunting Stories: a Prehistory of Anecdotes

“I was barely a man when I bagged my first mammoth,” Grandpa began one night.

I once had a French teacher who would look at the class with utter, uncomprehending disdain, and say, “Maison! It is Maison! Why cannot you say Maison?! I, par example, I can say, ‘owwse!”

I always get a chuckle with that one. It may not be remarkable, but it is, nonetheless, an amusing anecdote, one which conveys an individual’s lack of awareness about the way he moves in the world; a blindness masked by an almost meglomaniacal self-assuredness.

It even has me chortling every time I tell it, which is usually when something in a conversation has cued up this particular cell in my long-term retrieval, often something tangential, even completely unrelated. But that is how anecdotes work, being stowed away in the “miscellaneous” files of the cerebral cortex, to be stumbled upon by chance. Sometimes it comes to me when I am walking along the street, or ironing a shirt, or even on the lavatory, and I have to tell it to myself, like this, when no one is around, practicing the French accent and exaggerating it horriblement.

But there is something else that I find satisfying about the response to this mini story, something beyond the evocation of laughter; listeners are also impressed that I, at such a young age, possessed a sufficiently advanced appreciation of the nuances of language, and of irony itself, to actually pack away that event in my memory, and to relate it in a critical capacity to others. I score on two counts, with this little gem, and people like me more for having heard it.

Ugly as it sounds, that’s the truth. There are at least two reasons for telling anecdotes then: the first involves what could well be an altruistic desire to share something. Anecdotes in this light are simply outbursts of an imaginative mind, which is programmed for story-telling, and story-telling has, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, a highly practical function: the conveying of information. Not that the Maison anecdote necessarily relates anything vital to the survival of the tribe. But then neither does Homo Erectus’ enhanced physique enable us to better cope with the daily drive to work, or to change channels more effectively with the remote, two things that can be done persuasively by monkeys. The point is that the urgency of these evolutionary developments has dulled over the millennia and become, by virtue of our own inventions, almost irrelevant.

But we are still doing vital things with stories, even if we’re not telling each other, “Jeezuz! There’s this big huge mammoth over that hill who is protecting her babies.” But our culture has become so mesmerizingly more complex. It certainly would be an easier job for publishers if there were only one or two categories of literature: Hunting tips (don’t mess with the mammoth), and Religion (how to draw a buffalo on the wall).

Sometimes a mammoth is not a mammoth. As in this case. Photo:GC

The second reason for remembering what our French teachers say in school is simpler, darker, and more narcissistic: It is to impress people. Maybe this is connected to the mating instinct, as such part of the sexual selection process. The anecdote I have just related is a good case in point, but all the more so because…it is not mine. More specifically, I should say, it did not happen to me. The teacher and the observation belong to my father, at least, that is what he says; who knows, maybe he heard it at a school reunion. But probably not. I shamelessly ripped it off from him; he was that prescient child with the ear for deceit and absurdity. I had French teachers of my own, sure, but none of them ever said anything quite as memorable as that, at least, not that I remember. But I have been relating this anecdote for years. Why? I ask myself this every time I receive the (tainted) applause for telling it. All the smiles and amusement that I elicit seem partly hollow because of this central lie. I reveal this bizarre truth because it seems suggestive of what we hope to gain in communicating certain things to others, and it points to the limited importance of “truth” in the act of narration, even in the narration of things from memory.

Okay, sounds suitably postmodern. But why do I say that it was my French teacher, you might ask? Why could I not have simply repeated the story and credited my father? Well, I think it makes for smoother telling to claim him as mine. Anecdotes are short and pithy things, to complicate them with unnecessary elements (“my father …once had a French teacher…who…”) would ruin them, make them unwieldy. An audience must have immediate access to the protagonist, otherwise the anecdote suffers the effects of distance, and the teller finds him or herself saying “I guess you had to be there.” It is much simpler to cut out all reference to my father and hope that the audience for this particular anecdote never spends more than a few hours in his presence, and chance to hear it from his own lips.

Actually I will have to dig a little deeper here. Sure, anecdotes should be succinct, economical, and not cumbersome. But I do not think this is the reason for my sin of appropriation. The point is that if I was to mention my father as the originator of the anecdote, then it would be clear that he was the one who noticed the French teacher’s foolish and misplaced disbelief, he was the one who recorded the linguistic event for the enjoyment of all of my friends and many passing acquaintances whose impression of me has been enhanced by the relating of it. All that credit would sail past me like a goods-laden river barge, and accrue to someone else (significantly, my father). No, involving my father would drain the anecdote of its power to make people love me more, and this, after all is the point.

Another example of this anecdote-borrowing I first heard from a friend who claimed the story had happened to a friend of his who was returning from India with a severe case of diarrhoea. This is a classic social horror story. This is how I heard it:

On the train from Heathrow Airport to his home town somewhere up North he was struck by a severe case of sphincter dysfunction, and soiled his pants. Maintaining his composure until the train reached the next station, he leapt from the car and sprinted (with nauseating discomfort) to the nearest men’s clothes store, where he ripped a new pair of trousers off a hanger, threw them on the counter and paid for them. Receiving his change, he grabbed the bag from the counter and ran back to the train, just catching it. A few moments later, he breathed a deep sigh of relief as he closed the lavatory door, smiled at the mirror, silently congratulating himself on rising to yet another obstacle (when you’ve travelled in India, nothing is a problem any more), while he wriggled out of his besmirched khakis and ceremoniously hurled them out of the window. Then he opened the bag. Lo and behold! His nightmare had only just begun; in the bag was a woman’s brassiere: he had snatched the wrong bag in his haste.

Well, this anecdote will be familiar to many of you. And not because that unfortunate friend of a friend became so famous for his misfortune, but because the story is a formula story that probably started its life as a joke. Since I first learned about this hapless traveller, I have heard his story repeated in numerous manifestations; India becomes Africa, Africa becomes Borneo; the train turns into a bus, the bus crosses the Atlantic and becomes a Greyhound, with all its counter culture, Simon-and-Garfunkle nostalgia; the woman’s brassiere turns into a pair of panties, and then into a pair of socks, and then a tie, all the inappropriate replacements for a pair of trousers that you can imagine.

The point here is to tell a story, and what remains with people is the look on our hero’s face when he opens the bag and his mind is instantly flooded with the depth of embarrassment that is about to engulf him on his emergence from the john. In this case it is not important, for the glory of the teller, whether it happened to someone he knew or not. But to say “a friend of mine…” is a convenient and satisfying frame for the story, and all stories need a frame, about as much as a traveller needs a pair of pants.

So anecdotes, complex and crude alike, all have multiple purposes. Even our cave-dwelling ancestors must have been up to something more complex when they pointed at the hill and grunted “MUMMTH!!” or whatever the Latin equivalent is. While they were performing a very useful function, that of alerting the tribe to danger, they were also expressing and claiming their belonging in a community of inter-dependent beings, one facet of which was a shared set of signs and system of meanings.

Now imagine if one particular Neanderthal, let’s call him Clive, for utilitarian purposes, (after all one of his ancestors was called Lucy, so I don’t think its that far fetched) was running home to the cave to tell his community about a mammoth attack. He stumbles and breaks his ankle. Luckily, his associate, (Archibald) bumps into him, and Clive tells Archibald the story (MUMMTH!!). Archibald hotfoots it back home where he gathers the tribe with a series of urgent guttural emissions — as far as we know Neanderthal conversation was limited — (MUMMTH!!). Well, in this admittedly invented scenario, Archibald has in a sense stolen Clive’s fire. The tribe take to the hills, or pick up their weapons, depending on each member’s character and possession of back bone, and a mammoth raid is averted. Archibald gets the credit. Especially if Clive, in the interim, has been trampled by the enraged leviathan. Archibald receives the golden Buffalo award, and gets his picture carved on the wall. Now while Archibald didn’t actually see the creature, he nonetheless reaped the benefits of telling about it, he conveyed the story to the others. Just so, the essence of my story is intact, the only thing missing is a correct historical lineage, or attribution. So I don’t feel particularly bad about having casually conveyed a falsity for my own coincidental benefit.

Thankfully, in today’s mammoth-free world, we rarely have to rely on tragic and unexpected death to be the guarantor of authorial propriety. For imagine if, just as he was basking in the glow of his recent achievement, sitting outside the cave surrounded by adoring young females, Archibald catches sight of something terrible. No, not a mammoth this time, something much worse. Clive! Staggering down the embankment, bloody and gored, perhaps, but decidedly alive and most probably with an anecdote or two of his own to tell.

The proximity between the mammoth story and my own Maison anecdote is growing. And the relationship appears to hang on the notion of competition within the tribe, and among males jostling for position, the particular goal coveted is the esteem of one’s peers, esteem given for whatever that particular community considers prestigious. Clearly, Archy would have made a tactical error if, having arrived sweaty and limp-limbed at the Cave’s mouth, he proceeded to yell a story about his French teacher’s unintended humour. Similarly, I would not receive those gratifying peels of laughter and those approving looks if, over diner with intellectual friends, I screamed “MUMMTH!!” through a mouthful of finely sliced of Prosciutto. So much for evolution.

Writer of fiction & non fiction. Author of “The Thinking Past: Questions and Problems in World History to 1750,” and the ebook Look Smart! www.adrianvcole.com