Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Discovery of Story

In the modern world we overuse invention as a metaphor. For example, we call even language an invention even though it seems to be built right into the structure of our brain. A few specific languages are inventions, sure, but language itself clearly isn't. We invented it no more than we invented our hands, or our DNA.

Lately I've begun to suspect that story itself is not an invention either, though almost all specific stories are. Story may be an innate property of our minds, something we discovered rather than invented, the discovery that our minds need to understand events in a certain kind of way or else we can't pay attention to or remember the truth no matter how important it is.

This builds off an earlier observation by Harold Bloom that Sigmund Freud's revolutionary invention of psychoanalysis may be completely dependent on Shakespeare (!), that it was Shakespeare who first began writing about characters who could speak aloud their feelings and plans, listen to their own words, react to them, and decide to change their minds about what they would do or who they wanted to be based upon overhearing themselves. Bloom noted that Freud had studied Shakespeare's revolutionary introspection and written about it early in his career, that Freud created a therapy out of Shakespeare's art.

Bloom's theory is worth investigating partly because it's so surprising, but partly because it holds water. The more you study Shakespeare, the more depth you find to his portrayal of human characters. After all, a great writer must first be a great observer of human nature.

Once we throw off our assumption that Shakespeare was mainly an artist in the modern sense of an entertainer and instead begin to consider him as an artist in the archaic sense of one who searches for profound insights into reality that can be captured and represented in ways that move us, his works surprise us again and again.

For example, his "All the world's a stage" quote seems more profound the more thought we give it, shedding the initial appearance of a metaphor and taking on increasingly the shape of one of the most important observations ever made about the core of human nature, that above all we are mimics, that almost everything we do or think or feel is some kind of monkey-see-monkey-do role playing, the memorization and imitation of other people's behavior. In this Shakespearean sense, the path to enlightenment has to begin with the realization that very little of our behavior is intrinsic to us, that we are the actor, not the role, and that we contain within us the potential to behave very differently than we now do if only we can break out of our roles long enough to remember who and what we really are. Much of human behavior and history only makes sense if this is true.

If Shakespeare is right, and I've come to think he is, then not only is the acting we do more than mere entertainment, so too are the roles we play and the stories we tell. That is, if we are essentially mimics then we can learn more about our species by studying how we imitate, the kinds of roles we adopt, the kinds of stories we try to create around ourselves, and what all of those stories have in common - the deep structure of story itself.

Story may be more than an arbitrary means of expression. It may be a universal, innate mental template that helps define what we can and cannot remember and learn, an essential characteristic of the human species.

If we are not essentially rational beings, if we are instead fundamentally mimetic creatures, it changes everything. The discovery of story might then help tell us who we are, which we need to find out to solve the greatest problem facing the human species.


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