Telling Tales

Carl Jung lamented the decline of myth in modern society. Earlier cultures lived securely in their cosmologies, with a ready understanding for the tribulations of life. Our own culture is unusual because it is pluralist. Different explanations live side by side. Atheism and the Eastern faiths, reinventions of older beliefs and modern cults now also form part of our erstwhile Christian European world.

The history of our culture is largely a history of Christianity - its rise under the Roman Empire, until Constantine ruled it the religion of the Empire at the beginning of the fourth century; the division into factions and the rivalry between those factions, which ended with the Photian Schism where the formerly dominant Orthodox Church sundered from the Roman, after the Papal ‘crusade’ against Orthodox Constantinople; and the marginalizing or destruction of other sects from Christendom's first taste of power onward: Gnostics, Arians, Nestorians, Copts, the Celtic Church, Bogomils and Albigensians; the influx of civilizing ideas from Islam, eventually sporning the Renaissance; the Roman Church's division with the Protestant Reformation; and the rise of Humanism on to the Enlightenment.

There was a proliferation of sects, and over a century of religious wars; then on to the great witch hunt; and eventually to the beginning of the modern period, where faith itself came under question. The Judeo-Christian story dominated throughout, although it has been interpreted very differently at different times. If Copernicus did not really deal a mighty blow to Christian belief, then the geologists and fossil hunters of the Victorian era certainly did. Darwin followed quickly on, well aware of the whirlwind he would create.

We live in the wake of that story. Even believers tend to temper the literal interpretation of the Bible. The six days of Creation readily became geologic epochs. The Earth did not stand still for Joshua. The Aramaic for ‘virgin’ and ‘young woman’ is the same, so maybe the Greek translators got it wrong about Mary. The Dead Sea Scrolls challenged the authenticity of Christian teaching — maybe Jesus was an Essene. In the midst of this torrent of speculation, some grab the rope of faith yet harder. Whatever seems nonsensical is part of God's mystery. It is wrong to question the Received Word of God. But whatever the position, we live in an age of heresy — or to return that word to its origins: free choice.

The new myth that supposedly stands in opposition to Christianity is Science. Schoolchildren are taught that Gallileo Gallilei challenged the authority of scripture by insisting that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Indeed, he gave us the modern sense of revolution — meaning a drastic change. The truth is that Gallileo was a pious man. He put both of his daughters into a nunnery, after all. His challenge was more an arrogant argument with the Pope than an attack upon theology. Newton similarly had no intention of challenging the Bible. He spent more time trying to decipher it than he spent on his scientific work. But we are taught a simple myth: the rationality of Science overthrew the superstition of Religion. And now we must live with the consequences.

A fundamentally Christian view - which places a value on human life not found in every culture - still dominates our Western world. We debate the morality of genetic engineering, nuclear proliferation and globalization. Yet we often fail to remember the Christian underpinnings of our thinking.

It is easy to underestimate the relevance of stories to the development of understanding and the resolution of problems. As a child I was tremendously impressed by the parables of the New Testament. These straightforward stories yielded rules about living. Practical advice - consider the tree by the fruit it gives. Don‘t feed pigs on pearls. Maybe I thought I had grown out of stories later on, but now I don't believe that we ever can. Storytelling is a fundamental aspect of human culture. We are entranced by stories, and we are deeply affected by them.

Each culture has its significant tales. Freud plundered Greek myth to construct a view of human psychology, but perhaps the stories were first told with that purpose in mind. We talk about moral stories, and the moral of a story. It is certainly easier to understand the meaning of a story than the bare bones of a theory. Romeo and Juliet shows us the potential consequences of prejudice and of the blood feud, and the potential catastrophes of miscommunication. Any study of cultural history demonstrates the immense significance of blood feuds to humanity. Cultures can only transform from tribal mafias into humane societies when they abandon the blood feud. I learned not to hold my tongue, not to be strong and silent, from a teenage reading of Shakespeare’s play.

Obviously stories can teach us about cultural prejudice. To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful example. It speaks not only about racial prejudice, but also about the prejudice against the simple minded; the Boo Radleys of this world. Through stories we can think through the potential consequences of our actions. Crime and Punishment is a ready example. Why shouldn’t Raskolnikov benefit from the murder of a friendless, compassionless miser, a person who gives nothing of value to the world? He who has so much to give. But Doestoevsky shows that twisted means will likely lead to twisted ends. It is a powerful lesson.

Aldous Huxley compared his own fine novel with his friend Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in Brave New World Revisited. Huxley’s original book, as he points out, describes a far more terrible world. Where Orwell describes the dark totalitarianism of Russian Communism, Huxley shows us a world in which the population embrace their slavery. It is a description of the world that we are still being ensnared in. Orwell, of course, gave incredible insight into the captivity that language often leads to — when we begin to think that concepts such as truth, love and beauty have actual form, and begin to defend ideas like nation, religion or politics rather than life itself. The appendix on language in his book is one of the most revealing statements about our brainwashing ever written. And his Animal Farm is one of the strongest parables of its time. Four legs good, two legs bad, but some animals are created more equal than others.

Even the simplest children’s stories contain advice about life. Anderson and the Grimms often told (or retold) unsettling stories, not really suitable for children, because they are filled with dire warnings, and build anxiety. But a story such as Cinderella surely speaks to the heart of every child at some point. And most of those frog and prince stories speak to the same longing. Robert Bly made excellent use of the Grimm’s Iron John to exemplify the difficulties of achieving true manhood in our post-feminist age.

Stories are a traditional form of counselling. By parallelling some aspect of a person’s life it is possible to offer them a metaphor that may inspire significant change. But this process is taking place all the time. Erich Fromm divided human activities into the life-affirming and the life-denying. Most stories fit neatly into these categories, especially those that teach moral ambiguity and the rejection of hidebound rules.

Much has been made of Hollywood’s use of the underlying script that Joseph Campbell found in the myths of the many cultures of the world: The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The Star Wars films have been deliberately based upon Campbell’s analysis. It is difficult to think of anything in Tinsel Town being genuinely life-affirming. The movies are a business. Luckily, insightful art sometimes makes money. For instance, Kesey’s brilliant One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestsomehow — with the help of Michael Douglas and Milos Forman — broke through the cynical system, and taught important lessons about self-fulfillment, as well as making a necessary critique of the bizarre treatment of the mentally ill in the richest society the world has ever seen.

Life-affirming stories give hope. Life-denying stories do the opposite. In the last century, at least since the First World War, it has been seen as intellectually proper to tell life-denying stories — the adage only man is vile has transposed somehow to man is only vile. This pessimistic view is of course as unrealistic as unbridled optimism. In reality, life can actually be pleasurable and meaningful, and great art is a human contribution well worth making. We are alive, and we should encourage life to be positive. It need not be nasty, brutish and short; and nature is not simply red in tooth and claw.

There is no need to sanitize or censor the unpleasant. To be life-affirming does not mean to be in constant denial of the horrors of life; it means forever doing something in an attempt to overcome those horrors. Which does not mean enforcing rules you find credible upon others, but doing your best to do your best. As William James put it, ‘I will act as if what I did made a difference’.

When life-affirming stories are told, they can be altered out of proportion, sweetened to perpetuate the myth of the ideal hero. The idea that Oskar Schindler was a hero is strange indeed, given his behaviour both before and after the rescue for which he is properly celebrated. But even when they are distorted, those stories which speak of human courage and the willingness to stand up for ideals are valuable. They give light in times of darkness.

So much of our understanding is based upon metaphor. We read about Relativity Theory and the Quantum universe, but even professors of astrophysics have difficulty comprehending concepts such as 11-dimensional space, P-membranes and superstrings. I don’t have a clue, because I don’t speak mathematics. Only the new priesthood do. People readily shift from belief in God to belief in the Big Bang, but when questioned soon reveal that their belief is based upon the uncomprehended statements of scientists. Or indeed, the statements of journalists who have spoken to scientists. This is not an argument to support belief in the supernatural, but to underline the humility necessary in this complicated universe. In the wonderful film Insignificance, Marilyn Monroe demonstrates Relativity to Einstein in a New York hotel room using a toy train and a flashlight. We are left with at least some idea of this epoch-making theory. It is often the case that complex ideas have to be simplified into accessible metaphors. Who cares that Newton was not actually inspired by an apple?

Often we are being taught without even realizing it. Each generation relegates some profound work to the children’s shelves. So Jonathan Swift’s astonishing critique of human behaviour, Gulliver’s Travels, is viewed by many as a kid’s book. In fact, it is a deep analysis of human wickedness that contains many positive ideas to change such behaviour. Lewis Carroll intended his Alice books be read by children, but Martin Gardner's elegant annotation makes it clear that the text has many layers (and probably at least 11 dimensions). It is a statement about the profundity of dream experience, and contains insights into mathematics — its author was a professor of that subject — as well making a few sideswipes at the pompous society of its time. The Wizard of Oz surely treats with some of the most important themes of literature, as does Peter Pan. Mark Twain managed to expose racism in his children’s books.

Delving deeper, we find that stories are constantly retold. Joseph Campbell happily examined the legend of Tristan and Isolde time and again. In his Creative Mythology, he tells it in enormous depth, analysing its retellings — from Thomas of Britain through Gottfried to Wagner, Joyce and Mann — and its origins, and the history it contains within it of earlier societies. He reveals the profundity of myths, legends and folk tales. We tend to think of our own time as a leading edge, dismissing those who went before as lesser in their knowledge, because we have inherited the pervers and arrogant Victorian notion of Progress. The truth is that human beings have had the same brain capacity for at least 40,000 years. There has been no significant evolution of our species in that time — save for cultural ideas, the memes. The brain has become no more capable of comprehension. Our ancestors were not grunting, loutish cavemen yearning for the invention of lager. Some of them were thinking about the same verities — both eternal and otherwise — as we do. I was first struck forcibly by this thought a couple of decades back, when I read a statement by Walter Mapp, who was a courtier of the Plantagenet kings in the 12th century. His insight into human character seemed thoroughly modern. Perceptive individuals have recorded their reflections thoughout time, and some of those individuals were alive before writing existed. The reflections were recorded by telling them to others.

It is an awe-inspiring thought that some stories have persisted from the Bronze Age, and probably one or two jokes. You only have to look at the rapid assimilation of folk tales - first demonstrated in the nineteenth century - to see how quickly a good story travels. Robert Graves and Raphael Patai show the movement of stories between the Hebrew and Greek cultures in Hebrew Myths: the Book of Genesis. We tend to think of the Bible as an ancient text dating back at least to Moses, but the version we have of it was only constructed a few centuries before Christ, even though it drew upon older sources (not all of them Hebrew). It is strange to realize that parts of it were to merge into Greek myth, simply because of the dissemination of a Greek translation (the Septuagint), and that other stories travelled to Israel and Judah with Alexander's conquering armies.

Joseph Campbell, of course, saw a great repository of teaching of tremendous value to any who see the metaphorical virtue of mythology. Here are lessons of life. Not something to be reduced to Disneyism, accepted as literal truth or rejected uninspected as supernatural nonsense. He spent a lifetime opening up the meaning of such stories as that of Adam and Eve, and connected them to the modern mythmakers and revelators - the artists.

So, reject stories at your peril. It is only intellectual snobbery to think that truth must come clothed in sleep-inducing prose, or that sleepers cannot be awakened by a kiss.

April 2004