20 December 2008

Ur-story: Brian Boyd & Doing vs. Being

If you've been following WoW, you'll know we've been pursuing a theme-blog we've been calling Ur-story. As of this writing, we've put up twenty-six posts on this topic (not including this one). The point is to examine works of literature (mainly fiction) to see if we can discover something essential in/about/to them. We noted how James Wood in his How Fiction Works neglected to provide any coherent account of the notion of story in the working of fiction. He's not alone. Much of the 'theorizing' about literature we've seen ignores the centrality of 'story'. High-brow critics emphasize such elements as character, theme, voice, language, structure, etc. Social or cultural critics tend to focus on identity issues, social or historical context, ideological cues, power relations, etc. Popular criticism tends to highlight plot, pacing, familiarity, compliance with genre expectations, etc. None of this, It seemed to us, gets to the essence of why people go to movies and plays, watch sitcoms and police shows on television, read novels and short stories, are mesmerized by myths and legends. What gets people's attention and keeps them coming back for more is the stories. As William Gass says: "Stories are things that get told. They can exist outside of any particular medium or any particular method of narration."

We were struck by the lack of critical attention to this fundamental aspect of so many forms of literature. We were also struck by the lack of any clear, readily available discussion, definitions, parameters, outlines, etc. of what a story is. So, we decided to come up with one of our own, proceeding empirically through any number of texts.

One way of addressing the essence of story is to examine its origins (something we did with respect to the creation myth and the Gilgamesh epic). This is also the approach of Brian Boyd, Distinguished Professor of English at Auckland University, New Zealand, and Nabokov exegete, in his article "The Origin of Stories: Horton Hears a Who," in Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 197-214. The question is whether his analysis gets at the heart of things.

He locates the origin of story in evolutionary attention-seeking behaviors: "Not only do we like to command attention, we also enjoy simply sharing it with others, because this cements our place in a social group whose support we need." (198) These behaviors show up in crows, parrots, rats, chimps, cetaceans, and other species. But there is more to story-telling than there is to, say, birdsong or communal dances of chimpanzees. The jury is still out with respect to whale songs.

According to Boyd, the precursors to narrative, at a minimum, are an awareness of and an ability to comprehend things that happen to us, the mentality to replicate these things, the recognition of other minds and their intentions and actions, and language. But these proto-stories need be nothing other than gossip or a recounting of the day's events which carry with them certain attendant risks:
"it can be misleading and it can be boring. Fiction on the other hand removes the dangers of deceit or manipulation and offers the promise of interest. Since we develop the ability to detect and resist stories, like any other forms of communication, that we see as skewed toward tellers whose interests differ from ours, skilled storytellers secure our attention by appealing to our cognitive craving to comprehend the actions and intentions of others, while serving their own aims both through the attention they garner and through appealing to interests that we either share or can be made to think we share with them. Fiction therefore offers a win-win situation, a non-zero-sum game, an advantage for teller (benefit in attention and status, at a cost in imaginative effort), and for the listener (maximum cognitive interest at little cost except time).

An evolutionary model of fiction, therefore, should focus on ways storytellers, as active individual strategists, maximize the attention of their audience by appealing to features that have evolved to be of interest to all human minds, to our shared understandings of events, our shared predispositions to be interested in and engaged by what others do and our sheer readiness to share attention." (200)
Stories work, he says, because humans are essentially problem-solvers. We have goals we strive to attain. We encounter obstacles along the way. Sometimes those obstacles are other problem-solvers just like us whose goals conflict with our own or entail the stymieing of our own. Sometimes we mistake their intentions for hostility and sometimes we encounter genuine hostility. It is important to be able to tell the difference. Still, we are able recognize others in similar situations. We can identify individuals and link them with their projects. And we can, ultimately, sympathize with their plight.
"there are two essential forces behind the power of plot to command our continued attention to a story, and that these forces are best explained in evolutionary terms: first, our interest in whether or not agents achieve their goals, which arises from the natural sympathy creatures at a certain cognitive and social level can have for others of their kind; and, second, our unique human interest, because we have Theory of Mind, in knowing the full situation that will explain the whole story. For as soon as we appreciate false belief, we realise that mistakes can be made through not understanding the true situation" (208)
Boyd proceeds to analyze these aspects of storytelling in Horton Hears a Who, a story by that master storyteller Ted Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

He locates the origin of storytelling in the evolutionary psychology of attention-seeking. In our Ur-story series, we took a more empirical, or evidentiary approach—looking both at some of the earliest stories known (Gilgamesh, Job, Eden, Genesis) as well as at numerous examples. There are benefits to both approach. We wanted to know what lay at the heart of the stories themselves. Boyd was looking at their origins in the human mind: what human faculty produces stories and why. We are looking for essence (Go away, Emeril! BAM!). Origin and essence, one would think, should coincide or at least be reconcilable.

The inference we drew from our look at a number of texts was that the essence of story—and by this we mean great, profound, moving stories—lies in the ways in which the individual character attempts to come to grips with the inevitable sense of loss that accompanies his/her confronting his/her own mortality and ultimate death. This may, indeed, be explainable in Boyd's attention-seeking terms. There is a fundamental human truth at the heart of story (whether incorporated into myth, religion, fiction, drama, etc.) and those who have confronted that truth have found that the dramatic tension of a story is the best means of communicating this insight without seeming, for example, preachy or didactic. So, sure there is some crowing. We would be the last to deny we are evolutionarily conditioned in our thinking and artmaking, our storytelling.

(N.B. In fact, we would probably one of the last to deny that stories may have also, say, an imperialist or a paternalist bias, or be the product of unconscious Oedipal urges and instincts, or have hidden structural similarities. The more theories and analyses we bring to the text the merrier, as far as we are concerned, so long as the text will bear them.)

Boyd breaks his analysis down to agents and goals, on the one hand, and psychology, or what he calls Theory of Mind, on the other. Ego. These do not approach what we take to be the essence of story. Sure, it's great to have goals. And the story of how one goes about achieving them against all odds is important. But 'doing' is not the fundamental human truth—'being' is. How does the character react when she recognizes that "all flesh is grass" and her moral dilemmas, decisions, actions, triumphs, and ironies are truly inconsequential? How does the character cope with the hard, awesome reality that transcendence is a convenient fiction that we use to comfort ourselves in the face of indifferent reality? That is the hard task at the heart of stories that matter.

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