How stories made our world

January 18, 2009

In unsettled times like these, when world cultures, countries and religions are facing off in violent confrontations, we could benefit from the reminder that storytelling is common to all civilizations. Whether in the form of a sprawling epic or a pointed ballad, the story is our most ancient method of making sense out of experience and of preserving the past.  William Collins


Our species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories. Mary Catherine Bateson


Many people don’t realize the extent to which stories influence our behaviour and even shape our culture. Think about how Bible stories teach the fundamentals of religion and rules of conduct. Think of the fables and parables that moulded your values. Think of how stories about your national, cultural or family history have shaped your attitudes about yourself and others.  Lawrence Shapiro


The story was the bushman’s most sacred possession. These people knew what we do not; that without a story you have not got a nation, or culture, or civilization. Without a story of your own, you haven’t got a life of your own. Laurens Van der Post


We are constantly being bombarded with stories. Newspapers have their news stories. Cinema is based, almost exclusively, on dramatised fiction. Prime time TV is largely the same. Novels dominate the bestseller lists. Companies spend billions of dollars every year on advertising, trying to get their stories across to us, so as to influence us to purchase their products. Political leaders and states have also fostered stories about the past in order to construct a sense of community or nation. The founders of the world’s great religions understood the importance of stories, handing down our great myths and legends from generation to generation. Elaborate conspiracy theories intrigue us. Much of our conversation is taken up with anecdotes, jokes and of course gossip – all forms of story. Even when we go to bed at night, our dreams are stories produced by our sleeping brains. We are indeed storytelling apes.

            We may not feel comfortable with the idea of applying human evolution to the understanding of literature and narrative in general, but it can undoubtedly provide many valuable insights. We can say this for two reasons. Firstly, storytelling goes back a long way, pre-dating not only the invention of writing, but of agriculture and permanent settlement as well. We do not know exactly when humans developed language but a 100,000 years ago is as good a guess as any. Secondly, storytelling is ultimately a product of the human mind, which itself is the product of evolutionary pressures.

Storytelling has grown immensely in its scope and power from its origins – telling stories around the campfire. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories. Freudians have their three stages of psychosexual development, the oral, anal and phallic; in terms of narrative Walter Ong, a linguist and narratologist described the oral, print and media stages. It is a good idea to get an idea of the time scales involved. If we began using language 100,000 years ago, the print and media stages represent a mere blink of the eye.

What are the functions of storytelling? Within evolutionary science there is a debate as to whether it is an evolutionary adaptation or a by-product of the human mind I favour the latter but whoever is right stories serve an essential role in our society; they can teach morals, cultural expectations, and behavioural norms. The knowledge we acquire through storytelling vastly outweighs the firsthand knowledge we have about the world. Stories are indeed a wonderful teaching tool. It is clear that we respond far better to stories than we do to graphs and numbers. Thomas Sowell’s book Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy contains no graphs or mathematical formulae. It does however contain lots of stories that really bring the dismal science to life. Mathematician John Allen Paulos tries to do similar things with mathematics. We need to be given a context and stories are wonderful at doing that.

            However, stories have their dangers. Life is not a Hollywood narrative. It does not imitate art. Many events have no meaning and are purely arbitrary occurrences but humans need to try to impose order on all this chaos- we have a need to use the word because; we are a pattern-seeking species. This is why we’re all so riveted by stories of any kind – we can’t live without explanations so we make up all kinds of theories with insufficient information and a blatant disregard for empirical evidence. This has been called narrative fallacy and we are suckers for it. In at the beginning of a Hollywood film we see someone buying a gun we know that that he will use it very soon. If someone coughs, it is because they have a terminal illness. In real life many things occur but they have no particular connection to what comes after they are merely random, meaningless events. In economics we often hear stories about how individuals are affected by a particular factory closure but we don’t see the overall effects. We hear from the most vocal groups but we won’t hear from people whose future jobs will be destroyed by protective tariffs. Anecdotes are not necessarily the best way to carry out an economic policy. Anti-semitism is an example of a terrible story that has been handed down from generation to generation culminating in the horror of the Holocaust.

            So, stories are all around us. We cannot escape from them. They do many wonderful things but we should also be aware of the dangers.  I would like to claim the wisdom to be able to see beyond them but we will probably never be able to transcend all our biases and see things in an objective way. 

The seven basic plots

January 18, 2009

In 2005  a journalist called Christopher Booker published The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, a Jungian-influenced analysis of stories and their psychological meaning, a labour of love on which he had been working for over 30 years. Although he got very bad reviews in the press, he did receive praise from many novelists, playwrights and academics.  He attempts to answer the answer to the age-old riddle of whether there are only a small number of ‘basic stories’ in the world, using examples, from ancient myths, folk tales, plays, novels, movies and soap operas. Here are the seven archetypal themes, which according to Booker, recur throughout every kind of storytelling:


RAGS TO RICHES Story of an ordinary person who finds a second, more exceptional, self within. Examples include Cinderella, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre and Hollywood films such as The Gold Rush and My Fair Lady


THE QUEST A long, hazardous journey to reach a priceless goal far away. Examples of this include The Odyssey, Jason and the Golden Fleece, King Solomon’s Mines, Around The World in Eighty Days and Raiders of the Lost Ark


VOYAGE AND RETURN Story in which some event — a fall, crash, shipwreck — propels the hero or heroine out of their familiar surroundings into a disconcerting and abnormal world. Examples include Alice in Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe, The Ancient Mariner, The Time Machine


COMEDY Not just a general term, but an identifiable form of plot which follows its own rules. Examples include Tom Jones, the novels of Jane Austen, The Importance of Being Earnest, Fawlty Towers, Some Like It Hot


TRAGEDY Is an archetypal plot, with a five-stage structure culminating in destruction and death. The main character is overcome by a desire for power/passion, which destroys them or they become monstrous. Examples include Macbeth, Doctor Faustus, Lolita, and King Lear


REBIRTH Someone falls under a dark power or a spell that traps him or her in a state of living death. An miraculous act of redemption takes place and the victim is released and brought into the light. Examples include Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol, The Sound of Music


OVERCOMING THE MONSTER A hero or heroine confronts a monster, defeats it against all odds and wins treasure or a loved one’s hand. Examples include David and Goliath, Nicholas Nickleby, Jack and the Beanstalk, Dracula, James Bond stories, Jaws

Shakespeare’s influence on the English language

January 18, 2009

I discovered the other day that the phrase “the invisible hand” didn’t originate with the Scottish economist Adam Smith but with William Shakespeare in Macbeth.  Macbeth, having become king of Scotland by killing of Duncan, must cover his tracks by ordering the murder of Banquo.


Come, seeling night,

Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,

And, with thy bloody and invisible hand,

Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond,

Which keeps me pale.

This reminded me of a famous quote by Bernard Levin about the influence of Shakespeare on the English language:


If you cannot understand my argument, and declare ‘It’s Greek to me”, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that the truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut! tut! for goodness sake! what the dickens! but me no buts – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.

My media week 18/01/08

January 18, 2009

The Independent has an excellent puzzle section. I have only tried the crossword section. It’s very nice. You click on the clue you want to do and then type it into the crossword. If you don’t know a word or a letter, the program will do it for you. They also have some mathematical games.


The Cato Institute has a podcast by the American cryptographer, computer security specialist and author, Bruce Schneier about Security Theater and Balancing Risks


Robert Fisk, the veteran Middle East correspondent of The Independent has an article called When it comes to Gaza, leave the Second World War out of it. Here is a brief extract:

No, the real reason why “Gaza-Genocide” is a dangerous parallel is because it is not true. Gaza’s one and a half million refugees are treated outrageously enough, but they are not being herded into gas chambers or forced on death marches…… The issue, surely, is that war crimes do appear to have been committed in Gaza. Firing at UN schools is a criminal act. It breaks every International Red Cross protocol. There is no excuse for the killing of so many women and children.


The Onion has a video about a new Apple laptop with no keyboard and just one button – a big wheel . It takes 45 minutes to write an email, but hey, it’s shiny and made by Apple, so it must be worth having.