Friday, 21 January 2011

Life, Narrative and Everything

Stories are imbedded into the fabric of human lives: stories explain things, communicate information, and entertain us. Even our lives seem to the follow the course of traditional stories with events often seen to fall into neat narrative structures. Is this a delusion – the mind imposing order where none exists – does the universe follow narrative convention? Do we impose narratives on existence or does existence impose narratives on us?

According to Christopher Booker, there are seven basic plots: all stories fall into one of these seven categories. In his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell goes further and examines the monomyth: the single narrative structure which forms the core of all myths, legends, and traditional stories (particularly children’s stories). In today’s post-postmodern society, we are familiar with traditional narratives and narrative conventions. We see/hear them hundreds of times a day in newspapers, books, movies, TV shows, the news, and in conversations.

Take for example, the following conventions: the underdog triumphing over insurmountable odds; the vain and greedy brought down; the son who surpasses the father; x goes to y and learns valuable lesson before returning enriched to z (the core of Campbell’s monomyth); the dramatic climax where all seems bleakest and suddenly the intractable knot is undone.

We see all these conventions in stories of various kinds. Do they also impose themselves on real life? Consider World War II. The underdog of the Allies triumphing over the seemingly unbeatable and indisputably in-the-wrong Axis war machine. The Allies suffering numerous defeats only to succeed with a ramshackle but heroic operation (D-Day) when things seemed bleakest. To give some examples from my own life, I’ve recently had to take over as acting manager for a while in my library. This feels like the ‘death of the mentor’ trope which can be seen in Dumbledore, Gandalf, Obi-Wan, Merlin, and others. As part of Voices for the Library, I’m currently campaigning against savage library cuts across the country. This feels like the underdog trope: the plucky band of Rebels against the might of the Empire where principle eventually triumphs over power.

The real question is whether real life determines narrative convention or whether narrative convention determines real life. On the one hand, our ancestors may have observed that events follow set patterns and then created narratives to match those patterns. On the other, it may be that our minds – and hopefully this is a wide-ranging phenomenon and not the sign of my own mental defectiveness – are suffused with pop culture and narrative from an early age and that the imposing of understandable narratives onto the chaotic flux of real life is an attempt to comprehend the universe.

This comes down to the age-old dichotomy ‘consequence vs. coincidence’. The universe can either be a meaningful story unfolding across unimaginable distances of space and time or the universe can be a meaningless void of base matter which once upon a time happened to coalesce into beings with the consciousness to contemplate themselves. The unfortunate consequence of the latter explanation is that we become people filled with enough manic self-interest to imagine the rest of the world as narrative swirling around us: the stars of our own private comedies/tragedies.

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