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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Self-conscious mythology of literature (The Strangeness of being human, cont'd)

by John MacBeath Watkins

There was an age of myth, when we explained the world to each other by telling stories about the gods. There was an age of fable, when we explained morality to each other by telling folk stories that belonged to the culture.

And there is the age of literature, when we know who wrote the story, and make it their property.

In the age of myth, we told each other stories that were supposed to be true, and didn't know where they came from. During the age of fable we understood them as parables. In our age of literature, we understand them as personal insight.

We regard all as contributing to our understanding of the nature of human nature, but by stages, they have become more tenuously connected with socially constructed truth, and more subject to our self-conscious understanding. We ask ourselves, is this a story we can accept as telling a truth about humanity, or do we reject it? Rejecting the myths was not optional during the time those religions were active. People lived in societies where the truth of the history of the gods was too socially accepted.

To reject the story of a fable, we would have to say that we disagree with the culture, not with the gods. To disagree with an author, we have only to disagree with one individual. The judgments of the author and the reader are those of individuals, with the social acceptance mediated by markets -- which books people talk about, and buy, or feel left out because they haven't read.

We have other ways of understanding human nature, such as the more rigorous storytelling of science, the unreliable narrators of our families and friends explaining themselves as best they understand themselves, or the frantic efforts of our news sources trying to attract our attention to fragments or figments of information or gossip they think we might like to know.

But it is literature which works the most like mythology, transporting us into stories and allowing us to experience things that have not happened in our own lives. It instructs us or subverts us in ways mere facts do not, influencing the emotional armature on which we hang our facts and shape them into our beliefs.

As our culture has changed, we've become more self-conscious of the process. We may choose to judge a book by its author. We might decide that if Ayn Rand could live off Social Security in her old age, perhaps the philosophy she pushed, which would claim only the morally inferior "takers" would need a safety net, was not even something she could live by.

Or we may say to ourselves, "J.D. Salinger seems so deep when I was so shallow, such a sallow youth, but now that I'm in the working world I have put aside that juvenile cynicism and taken up the more useful and manipulative cynicism of Dale Carnegie."

The ability to do this makes our emotional structure more malleable than we would be if the stories we based our lives on were eternal verities handed to us by the gods, as if the clay of our feet never hardens. This gives us an adaptability our ancestors never knew or needed, but what is the cost? Do we become chameleons, taking on the coloration of our social surroundings to better camouflage our true selves, or do we change our true selves at a pace never before seen in human history?

I suspect the latter. We are bombarded with stories, on television, in games, in books, even, for the dwindling few, in magazines. We grow by accepting them into ourselves, or set boundaries by rejecting them, and we are constantly reshaped, little by little, meme by meme.

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