Are we humans Homo sapiens — or Homo narrans?
I’ve written elsewhere about the under-appreciated power of stories or “Narratives” in our lives — especially in political and social persuasion. Now, in a brief but provocative commentary, indie author Joel Friedlander argues:
No matter what realm we operate within, no matter what discipline we’ve learned or invented, storytelling has a central place.
For instance, it’s how we transmit the news of our discoveries, how we describe who we are and where we want to go, how we account for what we’ve become. In each case a personal narrative in involved. A collection of stories that taken together create a personal history all our own.
It’s a fascinating little blog post, worth reading in its entirety. However, I believe that there is a lot more to “narratives” than Friedlander suggests…and a lot more to “narratives” than we find when the term is bandied about promiscuously these days.
While it is true that all sorts of “narratives” are used to promote everything from products to politicians, I believe that there are much deeper Narratives — think of them as “meta-narratives” — that we’ve been taught since childhood. I’ve referred to them as “the Narratives that guide our lives” — the stories through which we fundamentally interpret and explain our place in the universe and society, and which objectify our values and sense of what are right and wrong actions. I believe that a canny communicator can tap into these almost universal Narratives to create messages that will resonate with millions.
The late mythologist Joseph Campbell (in his Hero with a Thousand Faces and other works) offered many profound insights about narratives in discussing the personal and cultural power of mythology. One of his most fertile insights: “Dreams are private myths. Myths are public dreams.” The link between myths (call them “basic cultural Narratives”) and dreams is vitally important to anyone who wishes to grasp how personal psychology manifests itself collectively, in society.
But I’ve always thought that Campbell’s views lacked systematic consistency and coherence. I also think that he was simply wrong about the source of our governing myths. He was enamored of Carl Jung, and like him thought that myths arose and were transmitted in the “collective unconscious” — some genetically shared legacy of tales and images imprinted in all our minds. That never made sense to me as an explanation.
I believe, instead, that the source of shared cultural myths lies in individual developmental psychology. The common, indeed unavoidable, experiences that each of us must undergo during our lives (call them life’s “passages”) constitute, I think, the basis of a shared human Quest. Seeking meaning and intelligibility, each of us casts himself as the hero in his own personal drama of growth and discovery, as he faces and overcomes challenges while seeking success and happiness. Over time, this often-tacit drama becomes deeply ingrained in our subconscious, as a private interpretive matrix and personal Morality Play that provides the context for our lives. And the most common, familiar elements of each of these private Quests serve as the shared basis for broad cultural myths. We each respond to stories about Quests because they tap into our own private experiences, affirming them and giving them broader meaning.
Whether this hypothesis is valid or not, I’m nonetheless fascinated by how Narratives affect us — and also how they might be better employed as communication tools in marketing, psychology, and politics (to name just a few obvious areas).
For writers of fiction, they are indispensable. Christopher Vogler, in The Writer’s Journey, explains how he utilizes Campbell’s theory of “the hero’s journey” in his work as a Hollywood “script doctor.” Vogler takes apart the plots of some of the most popular films of all time, showing how they fit a transcultural, ubiquitous “heroic quest” pattern — and he then shows how a writer of fiction can employ that same basic pattern to make his own work better resonate with readers.
All of which underscores Friedlander’s point about our being “Homo narrans.” Storytelling is truly fundamental to what we humans are: not just how we communicate, but more basically, how we interpret and understand the world and our places in it. This explains why readers become so passionate about certain stories and the authors who write them.
And viewed from this perspective, the social role of the artist, especially the writer of fiction, becomes far more important — and far more culturally potent — than most people ever appreciate.