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Telling the Story

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For hours after I wrote that last post,  I was unhappy with it.  I was especially unhappy with the word “goddesses,” which does not mean, any more, what I wanted it to mean.  We call any really impressive woman a “goddess” these days, and a lot of not very impressive ones, too.  We mean that they’re good looking or that they carry themselves well.  I was thinking of “goddess” in the classical sense, of a deity who controls faite, or even one who demands destruction.  There’s a lot of demanding destruction going on in the situation we’re in.

That said, I think the other problem with that last post is in its concentration on good and evil, when we don’t even have definitions for the terms.  At least, we don’t in the context of this blog.   I’m sure most of you at least think you know what good and evil are.  You know it instinctively even if you haven’t thought it through.

That instinctive thing–that underlying conviction that we just know right from wrong and good from evil–is a bad guide for behavior, but it’s also a universal human experience.  Both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas had it wrong, I think.  The human being is not born with an inner compass, what Aquinas would have and we do call a conscience, that is somehow in touch with a cosmic and univeral moral code that lies at the basis of all the working moral codes that human beings attempt to construct.

What we do have,  I think, is an inborn and innate conviction that there is such a distinction, that good and evil are real and that we need to know what they are.  We’re born, I think, with a conscience, but that conscience has very little in the way of content.  That’s why there are so many different and conflicting moral codes.  We know that good and evil are out there.  It just takes us both experience and the application of right reason to figure out exactly what they are.

This is not to say that I agree with those people who declare that morality is entirely subjective, just something we make up with no more validity than our taste for chocolate.  I think morality is objective and something we discover, not something we invent–but we do have to discover it.  The hope of centuries of Western civilization, that we are all born just knowing and have only to consult our own best instincts, is just not going to cut it.

All of the brings us back not only to the goddesses, classically defined, but to Cheating at Solitaire, and why I wrote it.

Before I get there, I want to look at the entire idea of Literature, and the place of Genre Literature in it, and the place of stories, period in our lives.

Back when  I was in graduate school, we learned this:  man is a narrative animal.  We think in narrative.  We  perceive in narrative.  And we have the terribly tendency to judge the truth or falsity of what we experience by whether not it fits a narrative.  

And the contents of morality may not be innate, but the contents of narrative certainly seem to be.  I suppose there’s no way to test for that, no way to find out by disection or chemical trial whether the story of Forbidden Knowledge or of Patient Griselda is hardwired into us, but it certainly seems to be.  There are basic narratives that occur in every culture we have been able to investigate.

In fact, I’m willing to guess that there hasn’t been a new narrative invented in a thousand years, if not more.  What look to us like “new” stories are really reconfigurations of old ones.  Think of what was called in my youth the Faust narrative–the story of the man (or woman, or man and woman) who wants knowledge so badly that he doesn’t care who or what he has to destroy to get it.  In Western Civ, the granddaddy of all Faust narratives is, of course, the story of Adam and Eve, with the serpent holding out the old promise that, if they only acquire this knowledge, they will be “as God.”

These days, the Faust narrative tends to come in its apocalyptic mode–the Faust character, the man or woman who wants knowledge he or she shouldn’t have, is in danger not of losing his own soul and thereby destroying himself, but of blowing up the world and destroying the rest of us.   Think of the giant ants in Them, punishment for our fiddling with the structure of atoms, or the new ice age of The Day After Tomorrow, brought on because we just couldn’t stop inventing things and messing with global warming.

It would be nice to be able to say that narratives exist and survive because they express something true about the human experience, but that isn’t exactly the case.  Certainly some narratives do this, and some versions of some narratives do it even better.  

In general, though, narratives seems to have two uses.  First, they are a way of responding to our hopes and fears about the world.  Second, they are a way of organizing the data that go into those hopes and fears.  Human beings have a desperate need to organize everything.   We take in an enormous amount of information.  We need to put it into categories so we can decide what it means.

While we’re doing that, we need to do something else:  we need to organize the data we take in about people.   There are a lot of people in the world, and they’re likely to move around.  we can’t trust in being able to deal only with those we already know well.  We need some way to predict behavior.

The name for the cast of characters that resulted from that need used to be “mythic archetype,” and I suppose it still is.   Not all narratives make use of mythic archetypes–Adam and Eve, for isntance, and pretty much blanks in terms of personality–but every mythic archetype is embedded in a type of narrative,  and neither the archetypes or the narratives ever really change.  Adam and Eve may be ciphers, but Faust himself is not, and neither is Frankenstein, his spirutal great-grandson.   It’s the same story and the same person, and he appears again as the snotty celebrity scientist who nearly destroys the world in The Core.  He’ll appear again next week.  We like Faust narratives.

Right now,  I’d like you to consider another narrative, maybe the most artistically fruitfall of them all.  For want of a better term, we’ll call it the Messiah narrative, the story of how mankind is choking itself into oblivion on its own sins, and one man–and it’s almost always been a man–comes to redeem them.

The story of Christ is, obviously, a Messiah narrative, but it’s hardly the only one.  Almost every Western ever filmed, or written, is a Messiah narrative too, especially Shane.  So is every superhero story, in the movies or out. 

But here’s the thing–so is every detective story.  Whether you’re talking about Hercule Poirot or  Philip Marlowe or the latest gore-obsessed hunter of serial killers, the detective story, the murder mystery, the crime novel is almost always a Messiah narrative.   We are all drowning in a sea of crime, our world is out of joint because the forces of chaos and of evil are walking among us unrestrained, and into this mess comes The Detective who alone can put the world right again.

All detective stories are Messiah narratives, and the only real, fundamental difference among them is the nature of the mythic archetype that forms their core.

I told you this was going to be a blog about reading things.

Written by janeh

October 4th, 2008 at 6:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Telling the Story'

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  1. OK, MAYBE all narratives correspond to a limited number of mythic archetypes. Until someone points me toward an ostensibly complete list of mythic archetypes, I have no way to judge. But I draw the line at detective stories “almost all” being Messiah narratives. Even putting aside “crime” stories, there are far too many legitimate detective stories in which the detective unravels the mystery but has certainly not “put the world right again.” Marlowe (or perhaps Orfamay Quest) and Chandler exemplify this.
    Which is why Hammett is on my shelves instead.


    4 Oct 08 at 4:07 pm

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