Thursday, October 29, 2009


Mo'olelo is the Hawaiian word for "story," but that doesn't really capture its meaning.

I am wary of endowing foreign words with a magic that English does not have for us, simply because we use English all the time, and so I won't claim that "mo'olelo" is more profound, necessarily, than the words we use. That is different, however, I won't deny. Our word "story" is a contraction of "history," with which it was used interchangeably until around the Renaissance. History comes from the Greek "historia," which means, basically, knowledge gained through narrative or record. Important, here, is knowledge. Indeed the theoretical roots of historia are "to know" and "to see" (which, to the Greeks, were closely related).

Mo'olelo, on the other hand, has simpler origins. "Mo'o" means succession, and "olelo" means words. A succession of words. A story.

And yet, that captures what Hawaiian history was. In an oral culture, preserved by story-telling, a succession of words is immensely powerful. It is a whole mode of expression, and, indeed, the only mode of expression for teaching the lessons that constitute the wisdom that each generation passes to the next.

I mention all this because I've been thinking very hard about where I am, where I'm going, what culture I belong to, and so on into deeper and deeper existential depths. Perhaps I do too much of this, because my beloved St. John's forces its students into such questions throughout their undergraduate lives (and makes it a hard habit to break). Yet, I believe that such questions are never truly answerable, but must be considered and reconsidered time and again. Where I stand now, those questions loom large, and something about Hawaii - what it means to be a Hawaiian - stands at the heart of these questions for me.

Am I a Hawaiian? In blood, certainly not. I'm about as European as it gets. In intellectual heritage? Certainly not, for I am a reader of Kant and Plato and Hume, Europeans all. What's more, I'm a member and, ultimately, supporter, of our modern scientific culture.

I don't see magical power in Hawaiian words, but I do see a language and a culture with profound lessons for the world. Perhaps that's a bit grandiose. Maybe I see a language and culture with stories to tell, and fewer and fewer people to tell them. Perhaps that's too tragic. Maybe I simply see those students I worked with in Kaneohe, pushing and being pushed to think a little differently, to learn a little more, and to speak each other's language. Perhaps that's too personal. Maybe all of these things - and so much more (to quote Eliot) - are true. Perhaps none truly captures the point (Eliot again, "it is impossible to say just what I mean").

No matter where you go, you will always find conversation. Sometimes the conversations we have are verbal, sometimes (these days) digital, sometimes merely implied in the way we gesture or avert our eyes or sigh. These conversations are not always successions of words, and are not always stories, but they can be. What's more, sometimes - more often than we usually realize - they should be. How many stories have never been told that should have been?

What is the point of a story? Must it have one? I don't know the European answers to those questions, let alone the Hawaiian answers. For my part, I suspect that many of the best stories have a point that cannot be communicated, because the point is not itself linguistic. That is where stories connect to music, and where symphonies and sonatas connect to poetry, and where a man comes to believe that he has a spirit that is undefinable, because his thoughts and feelings are inexpressible except through allegory, allusion, and song.

Is this a Hawaiian sentiment? Probably not. And yet the belief that these questions also imply a fundamental principle, the kokua of a shared journey, the malama for your fellow man, the aloha of a shared spirit... these things seem particularly - if not uniquely - Hawaiian, because they are about the way that stories are told, and the simple profundity of mo'olelo, a succession of words.

Sometimes the lessons of a story are blunt and practical, obvious to even a child. Sometimes they are complex and intractable. But lessons that come from stories always belie a belief about what education is, and why it is important. Education is a cultural event, not an economic one, or a political one, or even a personal one. It's about understanding your heritage and your identity and finding the place where your spirit belongs, and who your people are. The stories we tell and the stories we are told define us far more than the facts we can recite, or the equations we can solve. They tell us who we are, and what we know about ourselves.

Perhaps stories are not so powerful as all that, though. Perhaps they are just a succession of words.


  1. As hula dancers, my sister and I thoroughly enjoyed your mo'olelo. We found the very answer we were searching for through your perspective on these two words. Thank you from O'ahu.