Howard Nemerov’s short story “The Outage” is based upon a simple premise: one day electricity just stops working. A monumental outage ensues, although it takes quite a bit of time for people to establish even this fact. The experts aren’t able to figure out why the laws of nature appear to have stopped working, and their failure reveals a deep deficiency in their supposed understanding of these laws; in the end all of our trust in a rational/mechanical basis for society is left seeming not much different than belief in magic.
Last week Northern Virginia experienced a fairly significant power outage, and while power was indeed restored I found myself surprisingly on edge during the event, more so than I expected. Although I do love roughing it away from modern conveniences on occasion, it occurred to me that perhaps modern humans do so precisely because we’re in control of the experience, if only by choice. Now with the power suddenly off and a long night ahead, I could tell I was getting more irritated by the experience than not; my wife and I had already gone outside for a spell, and now inside it was starting to get hot without the air conditioning even at this late hour; the cat litter was starting to smell and the groceries we had just bought that morning were beginning to get warm.
Worst of all, our handful of candles and cheap flashlights provided only enough light to shamble around with some hesitation; not enough to work on my current composition. Without access to any of my homes screens and audio equipment, I realized that there was suddenly very little to do, save to sit back and idly screw around on the guitar (my only keyboard being electric). To think that so much of human history was spent like this—lived in the precious available daylight, with activities after nightfall severely limited—is staggering to a modern human, accustomed to working, traveling, and recreating at anytime of the day we please. That’s why the discovery of electricity and subsequent electrification of rural areas in particular must have been such a huge event in human history; after a day of labor, a pre-modern human would likely have a much more difficult time devoting him or herself to “higher” artistic and/or intellectual pursuits such as reading, writing, or creating art after the day’s labor.
Sitting in the near-dark playing guitar, I began to realize that music must have been one of the only forms of creative expression available to humans after nightfall. Looking at the shadows on the wall, I began to imagine making up little songs about them; is this anything like what the first storytellers experienced? Did music play a part, and did the improvised rhythms of a gourd shaker or drum first arise out of an attempt to quote the sounds of the natural world in stories? Later this year I’m hoping to work on a dramatic piece for singer/percussionist/narrator that explores this idea of storytelling as primal, communal event, as something of a ritual. Any leads on writings that explore the roots of storytelling (especially as storytelling and language relate to music) in early human society would be extremely appreciated; it’s something I’d like to know a lot more about.