Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Thoughts About Stories, Myths, Narratives…and Ourselves

I haven't read Jordan Peterson sufficiently to know exactly how he uses the term "Narrative," and how it may differ from how I use it. But capitalized, I use "Narrative" quite expansively, to mean a fundamental "story" that explains for each individual the basic nature of reality, and of his or her own place in the world, and that provides a vision of "right and wrong" (hence, moral guidance) by which to navigate the world. Each of us experiences this worldview in the form of a usually implicit "story," in which the individual casts himself or herself as the main character.

What a "Narrative" is for the individual, a myth is for a culture. I believe they serve the same basic purposes.

Briefly, I believe that the initial source of Narratives (on the individual level) and myths (on the social level) lies in the nature of the human subconscious, and its interaction with lived experience.

Our subconscious automatically processes our lived experience in the form of concretes -- that is, in terms of perceptions and sensations, rather than abstractions. Our dreams are windows into that subconscious processing. We have no conscious control over dreams when we sleep, but our daily lived experiences become elements that our subconscious automatically, involuntarily sorts, associates, and integrates.

Also, during these associations, certain of our underlying emotions and past experiences -- often deeply buried in memory -- become fodder for psychological projections, in the form of symbols: images and "stories" that allude to what we have felt and experienced.

Again, we have no conscious control over any of this. That's just the way the human subconscious works. It is what makes we humans "the storytelling animal."

Unlike dreams -- which are subconscious, involuntary, automatic, and individual -- myths are consciously guided, symbolic projections that draw upon our subconscious reservoir of widely shared human experiences. But what "experiences" am I talking about?

I believe that the primary purpose of myth-making -- of storytelling in general -- is to help us grapple with causality in the world. Cause-and-effect is the universal "life experience" that stories are trying to sort out; and myths are accounts, in story form, of the most fundamental causal relationships in the world.

The relationship between abstract theory and story is important to understand. Both provide accounts of causal relationships in the world. You might say (crudely, and not entirely accurately) that a story is a populated theory, and a theory is a depopulated story. What an abstract theory does is generalize about causal relationships in the world. What a story (including a myth) does is personalize an abstract theory, showing the direct (or analogous) relationships and impacts of a causal process upon individuals, and its meaning for their lives.

For example, look at what may be the most popular or core myth: "the hero's journey" or "The Quest." It is a projection, in symbolic form, of the life experience of most individuals.

We are all born in a helpless state of sensory bombardment and confusion. As infants, we slowly begin to sort out sensations into perceptions, and then into very basic causal interactions. In myth, this primal chaos and early sorting-and-integration process is captured symbolically in the opening verses of "Genesis."

As infants and young children, we are utterly dependent upon our parents to meet our basic life needs. This is the comfort zone of our early lives, when we are taken care of and nurtured, and when we are not forced to take action -- hence, when we face no risks and exert no effort. In mythology, this is commonly symbolized as the "Golden Age," or "Garden of Eden": a past, primitive state of automatic wish-fulfillment that, in memory, seems like blissful "perfection." In the classic three-act storytelling structure, this is the "Ordinary World" at the start of every tale, in Act One -- the comfort zone of the protagonist.

But as we mature, we become more aware of the larger world outside of our little home-bound Eden. We become curious about it and wonder whether there are values out there to be obtained. So, we become more exploratory and active.

However, activity intrinsically entails effort and risk. To satisfy our curiosity and to achieve any of our individual goals, we must slowly venture forth from our comfort zone, from the automatic security of parental nurturing. We must begin a slow process of separation from them, and launch our independent life's adventure. In Greek mythology, this is the Iliad and the Odyssey; in Genesis, this is Adam and Eve; in the three-act storytelling structure, this is the Act One "inciting incident" or "Call to Adventure," followed by the protagonist's passage through a "Doorway of No Return," into the Act II "World of Adventure."

And on the story goes, along a course clarified by mythologists such as Joseph Campbell (drawing upon Jung's subconscious "archetypes"). Along the way, the life passages during our Hero's Quest lead us to encounter enemies, allies, mentors, shape-shifters, etc. We face mounting challenges and confrontations; encounter setbacks and betrayals; experience reversals of fortune, major turning points, and the darkest lows of failure. Yet in heroic stories and myths, the protagonist -- a projection of our own life journey -- presses on; faces the challenges and evil enemies; finds hidden resources and abilities within; and, in a climactic confrontation, overcomes all adversity to achieve his vital goals.

So this seminal myth, the Heroic Quest, is really a psychological projection of the basic course of our lives. Its source is the universal experience of all individuals in the world, from birth to maturity to death. We cling to this core myth because it speaks to our deepest experience and emotions as we navigate life -- which is why it is retold again and again, in novels, plays, songs, and films. In each telling, the story has its circumstantial variations, as does the protagonist: He is "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," as Campbell titled his seminal book. But it is a story we need to see and hear, again and again -- for encouragement, inspiration, and reminder of who we are and why we are here, and how we can create a life of meaning, purpose, and identity.

"The Hero's Journey" obviously is not the only myth. But if you examine the most popular, you'll find they are projections of common, widely shared human experiences. And most of them seek to grapple with the fundamental fact of causality. How does the world work? Why? What explains the natural processes we see around us? What are we going to do about it?

Seeing that humans and animals are causal agents in the world, it's only natural that primitives -- and children -- would personify natural processes, attributing to unseen spirits and demons control and causal power over them. That desire to understand the world has thus given birth to countless explanatory myths and fables.

But so too has the need for correct guidance in navigating the world: our need for a moral code. Through experience, societies realize that certain human traits are helpful and to be celebrated (virtues), while others are destructive and to be condemned (vices). These become symbolized in stories of heroes and villains, with their actions (and the consequences) becoming either sources of instruction and inspiration, or cautionary tales of evil and harm.

From our earliest childhood, we are exposed to these lessons in causality in the form of interesting stories: fairy tales, fables, myths, songs, cartoons, TV shows, films, novels, plays. Those that capture a common human experience and resonate most broadly with a vast number of people, become our cultural myths. Those that speak to us privately and intimately become our own personal "Narrative" -- our individualized "story" of how the world works, and our place in it.

This is why the most important battle of our time is the struggle to craft and establish a guiding myth for our society, and a Narrative for each of us as individuals. This battle is well-known to those whom historian Paul Johnson labeled the "Enemies of Society," in a book of that title. Their most consuming passion is "narrative control." They are telling an ugly tale about our civilization and its heroes, knowing that their success will deprive us of a unifying myth and tear our society apart.

Storytellers who understand what is at stake need to get busy. By providing a fresh, inspiring mythology for our time, they will become heroes of tales that will be told and retold to children in the future -- and the shapers of personal Narratives for generations to come.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Robert for this enlightening read! Again and again I just love to read your thoughts here and on FB. This essay about the importance of Narrative and the hero's journey in our own lives is so interesting and full of useful information! I wish you all the best

Robert Bidinotto said...

Thanks so much for that. I'm glad you find my commentaries thought-provoking.

Anonymous said...

Some interesting suggestions, and the post is well-written. But you are blurring categories. We have myths, philosophy, "narrative," dreams, causal explanation all jumbled together. You say first that you use the concept of narrative "quite expansively" to mean exactly what one would mean by the concept of a philosophy or world view as such. That's not story in the sense of fiction or myth. Is any analysis and integrated viewpoint, or connecting of A to B in thought and expression, or subconscious and conscious evaluation, per se "story" and "narrative"? What then distinguishes any process of thought and judgment from the kind of storytelling told in myth and fiction? As far as I can tell, you are shifting from a very broad conception of narrative or story to the more standard and narrower concept of narrative or story. A story--an artist's fiction--that is not hackwork relies on philosophy, causality, and subconscious integrations. But is not simply the same as these things. Everything is interrelated, but one must distinguish things.

Badwhan said...

I can see that every kind of critical assessment is impartially considered at this blog.

Marco said...

Provocative post.