Thursday, August 30, 2012

Let's Pretend

As a toddler I sat with my mother while she listened to soap operas on the large console radio in our living room.  Television was in its early stages of development as I grew up, and it wasn't until I was 10 that our family bought a 12-inch Admiral TV set for our home in Greensboro, North Carolina.  So my early imagination was fed by radio, the soaps like "Guiding Light" or "Just Plain Bill" (for which I owe my first name), and such shows as "Sky King," "The Great Gildersleeve," "Amos and Andy," "Terry & the Pirates," "Let's Pretend," "Our Miss Brooks," "Lights Out," "Grand Central Theater,"  and my favorite, "Lux Radio Theater,"which adapted popular movies for the radio format.

I'm told the first movie I saw was "Bambi" which came out when I was 3.  While still living in Toledo, Ohio, before moving south after the end of the war, I saw cartoons at the city's art museum which offered children's programs on the weekend.  About the same time as I started watching TV -- my favorite show was "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" -- I also went to the Greensboro YMCA on Saturday mornings when they showed chapters of serial cliffhangers like "The Lone Ranger,""Zorro," "King of the Mounties," and "Batman."  I loved westerns, particular those starring Roy Rogers, but I also was a fan of Gene Autry.  When we moved to Lenoir in the foothills of the Carolinas, I could walk from our house to the one movie theater in town.  After watching westerns or war movies, I would return home to act out the plot with my friends or my toys.

I've been immersed in stories all my life.  They came from the radio, then cartoons and films, and soon after, television.  I also got them from words.  My father read me Kipling's "Just So Stories" and novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs about Tarzan, Jane and Cheetah.  When I was able to check books out of the library, they were non-fiction stories about heroes, from Thomas Edison to Daniel Boone.  I've been reading stories in books and watching movies on the screen, on television, and now through the medium of the internet, all of my life.

Some time ago I read a very interesting paper by psychologist Jerome Bruner on "The Narrative Construction of Reality" which I'm about to study again, and I'm currently reading Jonathan Gottschall's The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.  Questions of identity have long puzzled me, whether of the individual or of a group or a nation.  I strongly reject theories based on metaphysical connection or identity based on blood types. Proponents of "narrative psychological" speak of the "storied self."  We see the world through the lens of stories we hear and the stories we tell ourselves.  We organize the blooming, buzzing confusion of our consciousness with a story that has a point to it, a meaning and usually a moral.  Like me as a child, when I reenacted the plots of films I'd seen, most of us are living the stories we've heard or written.

There is an apocryphal story about the universe, that it is "turtles all the way down," with no first turtle, or prime mover.  From where I sit today, I would argue that it's stories all the way down.  Once I thought my life's goal was to discover the answers to two questions: who am I and what am I to do?  Now I believe that the answers to both can only be given in a story.

There are many arguments against this view.  Stories, some would say, have the sole purpose of entertaining and amusing us.  The real business of living is handled by reports and descriptions of facts. Science, through it's testing of hypotheses about reality, gives us facts about reality.  These facts are cumulative and progressive, and the process helps us to control our experience, to get what we want.  Facts, however, must be interpreted in a language understandable to those unable to read instrument dials.  They must be delivered in a narrative with a point.  In other words, a story.

We are surrounded by stories, our own and others, all the hours of our life, from daydreams to nightmares, from the news and entertainment that reaches us via the mass media, to the memories we have of the past and the fantasies we create about the future.  It's all stories, all the way down.  Scientific theories and advertisements for deodorant and cleaning powders are composed of stories.  Our identities are constructed through the stories we've been told and others we choose to tell ourselves.  And the context in which we live is built by shared stories about the community, the nation and the globe.  Partisans of the left and right persuasion both tell stories, albeit different ones, about how we got here and what we can do about it.  Linguist George Lakoff believes that liberals tell stories about nurturing mothers while conservatives favor stories about autocratic fathers.

Gottschall in The Storytelling Animal (which I have not yet finished) thinks the brain is hardwired for telling stories.  We imagine stories about the future, both while awake and sleeping, in order to simulate different scenarios without the possibility of real failure.  This can have evolutionary advantages for social groups.  In addition, only exciting stories about avoiding trouble and solving problems can mesmerize the brain enough to make the necessary neural changes.  Ordinary life will not get the juices flowing.

Some may think that the storied nature of our perception of reality is a trivial insight.  It's built into language with its need for a syntax that makes experience shareable.  Others believe that our obsession with stories, with the everlasting din of drama produced mostly for profit by a media that constantly demands our attention, is a distraction from the real work of salvation or enlightenment.  This ignores the obvious fact that all religious texts and teaching are conveyed through stories.  What the latter nay-sayers are arguing is that some stories are more valid than others, that the parables of Jesus are more valuable than gossip about Lindsey Lohan's troubles with the law.  To settle this we will need an arbiter, a cultural judge or a divine intervention.  What a great story that will make!

This blog post, my 501st, isn't much of an argument.  I've only begun doing research into the narrative construction of reality and the importance of stories.  I suspect we all have stories about ourself and our experience, and perhaps collectively they might resemble some of the categories of myth imagined by the late Joseph Campbell.  I'm planning to look again at the series of interviews he gave to Bill Moyers many years ago.  I'll never forget Campbell's injunction to "follow your bliss."  I wonder often about how to categorize my own story.  Gottschall thinks that all stories have trouble at their root, and the need to overcome it, which is why we love mysteries and adventure stories so much (the Thais are crazy about ghost stories).

I use to conceive of my life as a journey.  Then, after religion became important, a pilgrimage.  This doesn't seem to me to involve trouble, but is rather a quest for knowledge and wisdom. Ignorance is the enemy and the spur.  It also doesn't feel like a hero's journey which was the ground for Campbell's work on mythology.  But later, after I'd undergone a few negative experiences, I began to think of my story as the triumph over adversity.  Rather than let life get me down, I persevered and survived.  Again, not very heroic.

Now, at the close of my life, there is nowhere left to go but here.  The story is almost over.  We all hope that our stories will continue to be retold by family and friends after we're gone from the scene.  And this hope, too, is a story.

No comments: