The History Of Literature II

September 29, 2020 Category: History


Misconstruing Parable As MORE THAN Parable

How is it, one might wonder, that an inquiry into literary traditions can encompass both novels (which are recognized by even the most ardent fans as fictional) and religions (which are often not recognized as such; at least, not by adherents)?  What I hope to have shown is that they are both kinds of STORIES.  As discussed, narratives–especially when compelling–can serve as vehicles.  This may be either didactic or propagandistic (that is: informative or manipulative).  The former may be anything from pithy allegories to epic sagas.  The latter may be sacred histories (e.g. national origin myths) or urban legends–that is: anything that can be used to justify an agenda.  

The “catch” is that metaphors don’t always announce themselves AS metaphors.  In other words, the metaphorical nature OF metaphors is not openly disclosed; so it is up to the audience to, as it were, figure things out for themselves.  (Allegories are essentially elaborate metaphors with tiny plot-arcs–as with, say, “the boy who cried wolf” and “the tortoise and the hare”.  Plato’s “allegory of the cave” is more a metaphor than an allegory.)  Here, I’ll explore how mere parable (i.e. parable that is taken AS parable) can bleed into sanctified folklore (parable that doesn’t admit that it is mere parable).

CNVs tend to proliferate not only because of their virality, but because of their highly mnemonic nature.  They are catchy AND sticky.  The human mind can better process and retain memes when they are presented in narrative form.  Moreover, the mind can more readily apprehend and remember material that is couched in terms that are already familiar to and/or more easily digested by the target audience.  (This is one of the most elementary principles of pedagogy.)  Therefore, a CNV can be either a didactic tool or a device for persuasion.  But here’s the thing: The two roles often become blurred.  Am I being edified or swindled?  When the CNV is well-crafted, it is difficult to discern the difference.

This is a common pitfall.  For when religiosity is involved, analogical (that is: allegorical) thinking can slip into literal thinking without the audience even noticing.  It’s a short leap from “I enjoy imagining this to be true” to “I want it to be true, so I’ll proceed AS IF it were true.”  To be spell-bound by a narrative is to put oneself at its mercy; and perspicacity is usually sacrificed on the altar of whimsy.

A well-crafted narrative captivates its target audience; sometimes so much that it ENTRANCES…and never quite lets go.  This is how effective propaganda works; it’s how savvy marketing works; and it’s how RELIGIONS work.  Insofar as a narrative is to be used as a vehicle (i.e. for inculcation), its efficacy depends on it being hypnotic.  Put another way: In order to influence people, it first casts a spell on them–capturing not only their attention, but their cognitive machinery.

Reality-denial is often involved in such a project.  As is often the case, foundation myths are fantasy-dependent (in that they require a leap of Faith…which, in turn, requires some combination of confabulation and obfuscation).  Reality can only get in the way when one is determined to promulgate a farcical etiology.  Bereft of illusion, a mythos evaporates; so the illusion must be sustained–if, that is, one wants to preserve the mythos through which one’s ideology subsists.

Again: This involves a slight-of-hand; hawking a captivating narrative, and then passing it off as a description of HOW THE WORLD REALLY IS.  It is easy to confuse an enthralling tall-tale for historical fact if doing so seems beneficial.  Such folly is not uncommon, as it is easy to get swept up in a well-woven yarn…especially if it is provocative.  The urge to construe fanciful tales as a description of Reality is especially strong if believing that the tale is true seems to offer something of value.

A CNV is effective in promulgating certain memes NOT because it has credence, but because it hits the right buttons.  It boils everything down to a STORY–a story that occludes any discrepancies that may have otherwise been apparent.  The CNV primes the audience for indoctrination; delusive thinking does the rest.  One might think of religiosity as a local anesthetic for any discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance.

Ergo the integral role that CNVs play in religion.

A Grand Narrative is a SOCIETY-WIDE narrative that confers on that society’s denizens a sense of purpose (viz. those who consider themselves to be participants in the narrative).  Grand Narratives are effective ways to promulgate dogmas on a large scale, ensure consistent messaging, and to manipulate people en masse.  Consequently, such narratives can be used to effect homogenous thinking; and even to CHOREOGRAPH that thinking.  The implications of this are plain to see.  Those who control a society’s Grand Narrative are positioned to control the polity; as they can dictate the manner in which the common-man perceives the world (how and why things are the way they are, and what might be done about it).

The key is to convince the rank and file that serving the incumbent power structures is in THEIR best interest.  After all, the best way to manipulate (exploit) people is to convince them that they’re NOT BEING manipulated (exploited).  A CNV is designed to do exactly that.*  It is no surprise, then, that every religion employs a CNV in one form or another.

The thing with hallowed folklore (effectively: glorified folktales like those in the Mikra and the Gospels) is that tellers–and listeners–tend to half-pretend that the events relayed really might have occurred.  In other words: They are stories that are sometimes treated as more than, well, just stories (as with many people with urban legends).

Many of us today are unfamiliar with this phenomenon, as fiction in the modern era is typically consumed to indulge in fleeting bouts of escapism.  Consequently, most entertainment is now designed for immediate gratification.  The key is that, UN-like sanctified lore, modern-day fiction openly admits that it is fiction.

The notion of confusing farce (on the one hand) with factual accounts (on the other hand) is anathema to many of us.  But to truly understand religion, it is necessary to put oneself in the shoes of those who conflate folklore with history–as was routinely done in the pre-Enlightenment world.  The role that sacred scripture plays in the life of a religionist is largely accounted for by thinking of it as a CNV.

A consecrated narrative can be difficult to jettison once one is “on board”.  Generally speaking, once committed to a narrative, we will tend to reject anything that fails to comport with it (or, at least, help move it along).  Insofar as the narrative serves as a VEHICLE for something important, this rejection can be especially adamant; as it is not merely a matter of NOT FITTING IN, it is a matter of potential SABOTAGE.  That is to say, when one is dealing with a CNV rather than just a cherished narrative, the introduction of something discordant is no mere perturbation; it threatens to make things to GO OFF THE RAILS.

Just as our language is suffused with metaphor, the Grand Narrative by which we make sense of the world (and our place in it) is typically a melange of useful schema that have been inherited from antecedent narratives; then incorporated into our own version in an ad hoc manner.  We are then obliged to esteem our own version as sui generis.  Why?  Because to admit the material’s derivative nature would be to (implicitly) concede its FICTIONAL nature.

We find this in the Hebrew Bible.  For instance, Psalm 29 was adapted from a Ugaritic hymn to the Canaanite deity, Baal.  The etiological myth found in the Book of Isaiah is an adaptation of the the etiology in the the Zoroastrian Gathas (i.e. the “Yasna”).  Yasna 44 tells us that the godhead dictated the routes followed by the sun, the moon, and the stars; keeping the Earth fixed bellow while keeping the dome of the sky above from falling–a trope that is repeated in the both the Bible and the Koran.  (I discuss the cribbing of antecedent lore in my essays on Mythemes”.  For instances where the Koran coopts material from extant lore, see my essay on “The Syriac Origins Of Islam’s Holy Book.)

Disrupting a quotidian narrative is simply a matter of discordance–that is: of simply not jiving with exigent sensibilities; and of not comporting with conventional wisdom.  However, disrupting a highly-coveted CNV is far more treacherous; as it is a matter of crashing a vehicle that is being used to deliver sanctified dogmas.  This becomes especially perilous once adherents are–as it were–already airborne, and soaring at high altitudes.  Those with their head in the clouds are incentivized to maintain the coveted farce…lest they be brought down to earth, which entails a long, long fall.

* * *

{*  The underlying theme of such a narrative is: “It’s all part of god’s plan; so who are YOU to question it?”  The trick, then, is to convince people of the plan.  The best way to do this is with a CNV.  By offering the illusion of control, those who claim to act on behalf of the Creator of the Universe can dupe the rabble into playing right into their hands.  (Those who claim to act with the imprimatur of god can get their flock to do their bidding, as it is equated with doing GOD’S bidding.)  Getting people to believe that one is doing them a favor by controlling them is the master-stroke of every charismatic leader.  (Get them to serve you; and then to thank you for the privilege of doing so.  I explore this phenomenon in my essay, “The Island”.  I survey the incidence of demagogy around the world in “The History Of Exalted Figures”.  And I explore its implications in “The Many Faces Of Fascism”.)  If one is thoroughly convinced that one is doing his deity’s will, then what could possibly be questionable about ANY deed?  I discuss the “Doing God’s Work” (DGW) Syndrome in the Postscript to my essay, “Nemesis”.}

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