The History Of Literature II

September 29, 2020 Category: History

Compelling Narrative Vehicles:

Certain narrative templates have universal appeal, as they tap into something that is endemic to human nature.  This explains why certain themes crop up time after time in sacred lore…across epochs…and around the world.  I explore the incidence of such templates in my essays on “Mythemes”.

Perhaps more than any other art-form, literature has been instrumental in making statements in provocative ways.  Stories take many forms:

  • Myths (as with The Iliad, Exodus, and the Ring Cycle)
  • Fables (as compiled by Aesop, or those in the Pancha-tantra) {11}
  • Folktales (about Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan; or those by Alexander Pushkin)
  • Morality tales (as with those by Chaucer, Voltaire, and Dahl)
  • Cautionary tales (as with Crime And Punishment, The Jungle, and Lord of the Flies) {3}
  • Epics / sagas (as with those about Utnapishtim, Odysseus, Beowulf, Rama, Sinbad, and King Arthur)

Another common narrative style is the fairytale–as with those compiled by:

  • Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll (English)
  • Giovanni Francesco Straparola (Italian)
  • Charles Perrault (French)
  • Hans Christian Andersen (Danish)
  • The brothers Grimm (German)
  • Alexander Afanasyev (Russian)
  • Isaac ben Solomon “Ibn Sahula” of Castile (Sephardic Jewish)
  • Muju Dokyo (Japanese)

These works are not merely engaging narratives.  They are often VEHICLES–in that they relay ideas.  Hence the present thesis: A compelling narrative vehicle (CNV) is the primary means by which a memeplex (e.g. an ideology) operates, and is promulgated.  The “C” means both “captivating” and “compelling”.  For a story needs to first catch–and keep–people’s attention before it can motivate them.  Put another way: In order to be effective, a narrative vehicle must be MOVING in the psychical sense–which is to say: the audience is “moved” / “touched” by it (in the emotive sense) and consequently influenced–nay, motivated–by it.  To be persuasive, a story must be compelling in the sense of impacting how / what the audience thinks.

Sartre made the distinction between poetic writing, which is merely expressive, intended to evoke or capture; whereas prose is meant to to make a point via what he called “committed writing”.  The former is purely artistic; the latter is didactic.  (Put anther way: The former is a matter of perceiving; the latter is a matter of conveying.)  It is the latter with which we are concerned here.  Compelling stories are the primary form of what Daniel C. Dennett calls “intuition pumps”.  As effective didactic tools, parables have historically been the primary means of conveying a vital message, making an important point, and teaching a valuable lesson.

The idiom of a “vehicle” is apt because a masterfully-embroidered narrative tapestry is said to “transport” us.  A CNV is a vehicle because it transports us to someplace we want to go.  CNVs generate their own momentum.  Once we get the ball rolling, so to speak, it is difficult to arrest its advance.  This is due to what could be dubbed “memetic inertia”.  The most robust of CNVs are effectively memetic perpetual motion machines.  But, then again, CNVs are fueled by a steady influx of hope and fear.  They barrel on, down a road paved by credulity.  (The more credulity, the smoother the road.)

We homo sapiens are suckers for a good story.  The universal inclination to become smitten with–and, subsequently, inclined to disseminate–provocative tales can be explained by this universal predisposition.  We ALL want to be enchanted–that is: beguiled and inspired.  A well-crafted yarn draws us in, and strikes a nerve.  If a yarn enthralls us, then we will be strongly inclined to embrace it; and do so irrespective of its connection to Reality.  In other words: If a tale is going to serve as a VEHICLE for something (e.g. the inculcation of an ideology), its factual accuracy is beside the point.  What matters is that it is tantalizing; and serves some sort of purpose.

We are story-telling creatures; and so our lives are shot through with myths.  The narratives we embrace are invariably festooned with leitmotifs that resonate with all humans.  (After all, we’re all operating with the brains of homo sapiens.)  As a consequence, these archetypes crop up again and again in history’s most successful mythologies.

Moreover, certain themes seem to jive with our human nature.  A mytheme can be anything from a simple narrative gimmick (as with a virgin birth) to any epic plot arc (as with Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”).  Once a mytheme proves effective in one milieu, it is often adopted by those in other milieus–and adapted to indigenous cultural exigencies (a phenomenon I dub “mytheme milking”).  For more on this, see my essays on “Mythemes”.

CNVs resonate with us because they move something deep inside us that is waiting to be moved.

An effective CNV helps us navigate what is often a beguiling cosmos.  We are all gripped by the pressing questions: Where did I come from?  (And how so?) Where am I going?  (And why?)  We seek explanations of both our origins and crave a worthwhile telos. {1}  A narrative is thus meaning-FUL and meaning-MAKING.  CNVs are useful for ameliorating the existential disorientation that afflicts every human.  Stories help us make sense of a vertiginous existence–ascribing meaning to events around us so that we may more readily determine what to care about (and see WHY we should care about it).  They give us a sense of purpose / direction; which enables us to get our bearings in a dismaying world (and to establish our place in it).

In any given memetic ecosystem, there are many memes vying for our attention.  The social psychology here is also relevant; as which narratives prevail is largely a function of hype.  Note the roster of memes that are famous simply for being (in)famous.  Oftentimes, the quality of the material is entirely beside the point.  CNVs work because they have appeal.  They catch on due to their utility, not their verity.  A narrative doesn’t need to have merit to propagate.  Testament to this is the fact that, in contemporary culture, the vast majority of blockbuster films (from amusing yet sophomoric comedies to titillating yet vacuous action movies) and best-selling books represent some of the most mindless–nay, idiotic–material.  In spite of its lowbrow nature, such fare sells like hotcakes. 

Here’s the thing: Their fatuity is not a handicap; it’s often an asset.  The key is that they captivate.  It is satisfaction, not erudition, that draws huge audiences.  Prospects of a cheap thrill will usually trump fare that–though more edifying–requires cognitive exertion.  A cursory survey of pop culture’s biggest hits–in the cinema and on bookshelves–illustrates this point.

Outside of the parables relayed by Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels, morality tales (narratives intended to convey a moral lesson) in Christian lore go back to the “Shepherd of Hermas”, a text from the 2nd century that was popular until the Roman magisterium ousted it from the acceptable canon.

Several works have been done on an allegorical treatment of the Bible.  While works like those of Albert Schweitzer, Reinhold Neibuhr, Paul Tillich, and Northrop Frye are mildly interesting, the most edifying is probably “You Shall Be As Gods” by Erich Fromm (who was, it might be noted, a Marxian and humanist).  Unsurprisingly, the best insights consistently come from those who are LEAST dogmatic, and treat the material-at-hand more as literature than as holy writ.  The more doctrinal (read: conservative) a religionist is, the more deluded he will be; and–as a direct consequence–the more any commentary will devolve into religious apologetics.

As might be expected, some parables are downright idiotic–from the tribulations of Job (Yahweh’s utterly pointless exercise in sadism) to the Akedah (Yahweh testing Abraham’s fealty by seeing if he’d be willing to murder his own son).  Spoiler alert: Both Job and Abraham passed their respective tests.

And how does the Koran fair in this department?  Dismally.  The book’s authors’ ham-fisted attempts at parable are more like half-baked vignettes–terse, hackneyed, prosaic, superficial–than they are instances of profound allegorical disquisition.

The point of parable / allegory is not to be “true” qua factual; it is to capture something important about the human experience; and elucidate our shared human nature.  Such an understanding can then be used to make sense of the (factual) world in which we find ourselves.  Parable / allegory is thus a heuristic–in that it uses patterns (esp. metaphor) to REVEAL things.  After all, art doesn’t so much “tell” us something (like a literal statement); it SHOWS us something.

A prime example of the didactic power of parable is the Buddhist “Jataka Tales” from Late Antiquity…which eventually inspired the Kashmiri “Katha Sarit Sagara” [Ocean Of Streams Of Stories] by Suma-deva in the 11th century.

Cultivating a thorough understanding of the role STORIES play in our lives entails recognizing how CNVs operate at the micro and macro levels.  This means being cognizant of the deep ideological structure that buoys the myths by which we live.  For a myth is only useful insofar as it DOES something to us.  The point is worth reiterating: It is how gratifying, not how edifying, a narrative is that makes it compelling; and so useful as a vehicle.  WHERE, exactly, it happens to take people is important.  This is what might be thought of as a matter of narrative telemetry.  But regardless of where it takes us, the point of a CNV is to take us SOMEWHERE.  And the destination tends to serve the incumbent power structures.  (Those in power tend to have a vested interest in perpetuating the narratives that justify their power; thus maintaining the conditions on which their continued power depends.)

When it comes to folklore, much of the most useful material is effectively an elaborate–often epic–“just so story” (JSS).  This narrative gimmick uses plot-points that are fabricated to fit the available facts (or at least the set of facts that have been acknowledged by the tellers).  It does this to arrive at the desired conclusion (i.e. to show that the coveted worldview is justified).  A JSS is crafted to fill in holes and smooth over “bumps” in any narrative account. {13}  Hearsay is often used to complete the narrative; and to get it to DO what one wants it to. {14}

Here’s the catch: After it is established, the JSS is then used to EXPLAIN the available facts.  In other words, the narrative is retro-fitted to salient exigencies; and is subsequently treated as an EXPLANATION FOR those exigencies.  The fact that the narrative was DESIGNED to fit the evidence is elided.  Such epistemic recursive-ness (a catch-22) has purchase in pliable minds because it serves a purpose.

One might think of this as the folkloric equivalent of artificially-inflated stock.  Those who exalt a narrative will tend to argue not from facts, but from the perspective of that narrative.  For every position will be thought of (and articulated) in terms of how it comports with said narrative; and consequently will be RATIONALIZED as such.

And so it goes: That the narrative fits the evidence is taken as validation of the narrative.  (It MUST be right, for it accounts for everything we now see!)

Take, for instance, the outlandish pontifications of Azeri writer, Zecharia Sitchin–who employed his knowledge of Sumerian culture to weave fantastical yarns about the Babylonians (and their mysterious forebears, the “Anunnaki”, who hailed from the planet Nibiru).  Sitchin’s books of tantalizing pseudo-science have sold millions of copies.  Such musings have inspired cults from Japan’s “Pana Wave” to America’s “Raëlism”.  His ideas have even spawned the spurious arena of “Xeno-archeology” (ref. Swiss author, Erich von Däniken’s 1968 “Chariots of the Gods?” and the speculations of Graham Hancock).  WHY is such material so popular?  Because it is FASCINATING. As a CNV, it plays upon the imagination in the same way that religion does.  (It is no coincidence that Scientology was concocted by a successful science fiction author.)

And so it goes: A JSS recognizes cherry-picked facts in order to offer solid grounds for the ideology-at-hand…which is, in turn, used to make sense of those facts.  As with any CNV, embellishment is used AS NEEDED in order to add narrative luster.  The “catch” is that embellishment is difficult to reverse (once flair is introduced, it is hard to extricate).  This creates a ratcheting effect for each link in the line of transmission.  This narrative calcification is only exposed when we have a record of antecedent versions; and so can use historical documentation to trace the (otherwise elided) changes.

It is difficult to temper creative license when it is the prerogative to embellish (as he sees fit) that animates the passion of any given amanuensis.  After all, it is in the interest of the story-teller–who’s sin qua non is to propound a tale in the most enticing way–to augment the propulsion of the CNV.  This is done by making it more captivating (catchy) and more memorable (sticky).  Why, then, would such enhancements (be they epidemiological or mnemonic) be rescinded by the next link in the line of transmission?  Why would a proponent of a narrative do anything to comprise the fitness of that narrative?  Insofar as CNVs are concerned, the incentives are clearly set in favor of narrative enhancement, not a commitment to Truth.  (So goes the adage: Don’t let Truth get in the way of a good story.)

CNVs proliferate by reverberating–in perpetuity–amongst those for whom they’ve been crafted.  As such, story-telling acumen involves a kind of panache–a willingness to add zest to what may otherwise be a mundane topic.  In order to enhance the poignancy of the CNV, emendations are incorporated into the re-telling to, as it were, spruce things us.  Once incorporated (seamlessly) into the narrative, such modifications are no longer seen AS modifications.  It is assumed they were integral to the story ALL ALONG.  After all, every version of a story will invariably present itself as AUTHENTIC (i.e. the original version).

We are not incentivized to notice such things; as we are all suckers for anything that inspires us (even when it is based on false hope; see my essay, “The Island”).  Give people hope, and they’ll eat out of the palm of your hand.  We are especially enticed by any narrative that notifies us that we are on the cusp of a pivotal juncture in history (teetering on the brink of something wonderful; see my essay: “Brink Porn”).

The most effective CNVs have verve; they have pizzazz.  They stimulate and provoke.    Any CNV that has stood the test of time has a good hook–both to get people’s attention and to keep their attention.  To invoke the six primary senses: a successful CNV is piquant (taste), gripping (tactile), flashy (visual), resonant (auditory), pungent (scent)…all while enabling us to get our bearings (balance).

In his “After Virtue”, Alasdair MacIntyre described our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world: “Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal.  He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to ‘truth’ [he might have said: useful plausibility].  But the key question for men is not about their own authorship.  I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’  We enter human society with one or more imputed characters–roles into which we have been drafted–and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed” (p. 216). {2}  Jurgen Habermas also developed a theory on meaningful (and meaning-generating) human interaction, which he referred to as “communicative action”.

We homo sapiens are, after all, meaning-making machines (as Max Weber astutely articulated); and meaning is typically posited according to some sort of narrative structure.  It can’t NOT be thought of in narrative terms, because our thought processes are INHERENTLY narrative in nature.  (And, as Daniel Dennett put it, the transcendental self is essentially the center of narrative gravity.)  Note that “narrative” in this profound sense is not just a story one tells oneself–and others–about one’s life (and about the world in which one finds oneself “thrown”).  It operates at the deepest existential level; and so it prefigured into one’s everyday life–dictating that way one conceptualizes one’s experiences, and even one’s identity.  As Paul Ricoeur noted, an existential narrative provides a comprehensive schema for positing the worldly dimension of our “moral selfhood” and the moral status of our actions.

Being meaning-making machines, we tend to ascribe significance where there is none.  We are predisposed to impute purpose to events in which there is only blind contingency.  More to the point, we are story-tellers; so we force-fit everything into a pre-determined narrative.  This is why we are tempted to call a coincidence “more than just a coincidence”.  We believe what we want to believe (a condition that might be called “epistemic pareidolia”). {4} 

A CNV, then, serves as a framing device.  For it is integral to one’s perception of the world, and one’s place IN that world.  Indeed, a CNV provides a sense-making schema for a universe that is otherwise intimidatingly bewildering; and even exasperatingly dismaying.  It does so by furnishing us with the terms by which we make sense of, well, anything and everything.  Consequently, the creation of meaning is invariably a narrative construction.

Life can be disorienting–nay: dizzying; and so often quite bewildering.  An efficacious narrative helps to stave off existential vertigo.  The “catch” is that, more than just as a vehicle for existential ballast, a potent CNV can serve as a vehicle for ideology–no matter how cockamamie that ideology might be.  In fact, the more outrageous the narrative is, the more entrancing–and addictive–the it might be; and so the more compelling a vehicle it can become.  After all, milquetoast narratives are not nearly as captivating as fantastical ones.  (Scott Atran made this point in his “In God’s We Trust”.)

It should be obvious, then, that RELIGIOUS CNVs are–among other things–coping mechanisms.  They facilitate the sublimation of primal yearnings into a socially acceptable scheme.  In order to understand how this works, we need to flesh out UNIVERSALS–that is: common threads that seem to exist in virtually ALL successful narratives.  (For more on this topic, see the Appendix.)

Bottom line: An effective CNV meets our existential demands.

CNVs not only serve as existential girders, they can serve as heuristics (that is: practical, ready-to-use schemes for making sense of any otherwise confounding / bewildering world).  Indeed, they are semiotic lenses in one of the most accessible and relatable forms: narrative form.  For it is, after all, STORIES that strike a nerve, that press our buttons, that enthrall and inspire us.  (It is hard to find a riveting semiotic lens.)  Regardless of their didactic value, a CNV is only a valuable as we make it; as we must bring our (innate) moral intuitions to bear on even the best narratives.  For obviously the standards we us to make judgements about how worthwhile a story is cannot THEMSELVES come from the story.  We evaluate it based on a wherewithal we possess independently of having made productive use of the story.  (The same goes for a text, a figurehead, or any other consecrated source.)

We humans are equipped with moral intuitions, yet sometimes we need something to help us to hone them.  A CNV, then, might be thought of as a prosthetic for cultivating wisdom; which is to say that it can never possibly be an ULTIMATE basis.  After all, didactic tools are only valuable insofar as they help us GET AT something; and that something is not the tool ITSELF.  (Tools are, by definition, a means to an end; not an end in themselves.)

Therefore, it is never ULTIMATELY ABOUT the narrative vehicle–whatever it might be; and however much we might be smitten with it.  We employ a sense-making mechanism to help us make sense of something beyond the mechanism.  The (potential) problem is that we often become transfixed by–and thus obsessed with–the mechanism.  So when we are dealing with an enthralling NARRATIVE, we sometimes fixate on the particulars of the narrative–as if it were a LITERAL ACCOUNT.  (I explore such folly in the Appendix.)

A heuristic–narrative or otherwise–serves as an mental prosthesis.  While we are all capable of grasping universal principles, we often need CNVs to help us to articulate them.  But CNVs are not ends-in-themselves.  The problem is that when a CNV entrances us, we sometimes treat it as far more than just a narrative vehicle.  We are always prone to confuse a well-crafted social construct for an objective description of the cosmos.  Suitability is often construed as veracity.  So whenever we become smitten with a narrative, we should always ask ourselves:  Is the narrative serving us or are we serving the narrative?

The becomes a moot point for those suffering from existential vertigo.  When one is stumbling around in the dark, searching for something–ANYTHING–solid to grasp onto, one will cling to whatever one finds.  Groping around in desperation, once one finds something, one will be reticent to let it go; as that would mean once more being–as it were–lost at sea.  So once found, one will hold onto a narrative like a child clinging to a security blanket.  

When people find meaning / purpose, or experience transcendence, or simply stumble into something that confers (apparent) benefits, one of two things happen.  They will either latch onto whatever narrative in which it is already couched (if that narrative is sufficiently compelling), or they will search out some narrative that seems plausible enough to explain it…and then latch onto THAT.  Important things need to be somehow accounted for, and we tend to gravitate toward explanations that have a narrative structure.  The most captivating narrative usually wins. {10}

Once one commits to a CNV, one comes to NEED it to be true.  Becoming dependent on a proposition’s verity entails a suspension of critical reflection.  People “sign on” to a particular CNV not because they have consciously decided: “Hey, I find THIS particular CNV most captivating / compelling for THESE reasons.”  Rather, they find a CNV to be captivating / compelling for reasons they do not fully understand…let alone acknowledge.  “It works for me; therefore I’m going to run with it” is what everyone IMPLICITLY says about a worldview they’ve adopted (nay, committed themselves to); but–pace post-hoc rationalizations–they usually can’t articulate WHY.

To reiterate: Ideas catch on not so much because they are CREDIBLE (for demonstrable reasons), but because they happen to RESONATE (for whatever reasons, no matter how specious).  That is, dogmas propagate more due to the idiosyncrasies of subjectivity than due to unassailable standards of objectivity.  If it strikes a chord, its credence (or lack thereof) is beside the point.  For PERCEIVED merit often trumps ACTUAL merit. {15}

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