Mankind’s Need for Myth
Humanity has been telling stories since the caves. It is human to tell stories. It is probably the most human thing we can do. To create our reality, we need a good story—our need for meaning and purpose. Stories give us meaning and purpose like plain facts don't. Stories are a framework for understanding our world and our experiences.
Stories also give us something to believe in a way to structure our thinking and explain the complications of what is going on around us. Language and communication thrive in stories. It's how we learned to read and write. Stories around the campfires of early man were how primary language started to develop. The earliest words we spoke were to explain the world around us.
Stories can share information about culture, the past and trauma or explain why things are how they are. Stories are deeply cultural. Some of the best works of antiques, like The Tale of Genji (the first novel), The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Beowulf, are all marquee stories of their respective nations (Japan, Babylon, England).
One of the ways stories have an impact in every area of our lives is through religion and mythology. Stories help us fill our desire for myth and the spirit.
The first great stories spawned the world's great religions. Religion, faith and belief were a way for humanity to understand the natural forces we had yet to quantify in an evidence-based practice.
When we didn't understand the weather, the Greeks created the goddess Meteora; we get the word for meteorology or studying the weather. Even the story of this Grecian goddess who controlled the weather lives on in our language.
Stories can give us a sense of meaning in our lives. And that is most important for us. Humans need to feel like what they are doing has meaning and value. And that what they are doing has a greater purpose beyond themselves. Cultural myths and stories often grant us this meaning in a way that transcends the reality of our lives.
This is one of the reasons that religion is a comfort to people. The idea that a loved one who has died goes to Heaven is a comfort in a time of pain. Almost every culture has an afterlife story and gives us something to hang onto in our minds.
For Egyptians, you went to the afterlife with the boatman on the river under the Nile. In Greece, you travelled on the river Styx; in the Judeo-Christian tradition, you would go to Tartarus, Heaven or hell. In the Islamic culture, death is a transition period to the unseen world where Allah will determine the fate of the eternal soul. In a world of chaos and death, these stories help anchor our thinking and fight away the demon of nihilism and the abyss.
What's the power of the story, and why do we need a country?
In Western storytelling, we tend to follow the hero's journey.
- Main Character
- Creation of Normalcy
- A situation that is different from normal
- Overcoming that challenge(s)
- Finding a new normal
However, other story formats include sitcoms, radio/podcasts, drama, Hollywood movies, and Bollywood and Nollywood styles. They are all unique storytelling styles.
What makes good fiction? Compelling characters, experiences of those characters, and their progress and goals are usually what makes fiction of any reality work. Even in short format stories like Sitcoms or podcast dram, there is typically a cast, a setup of a problem, and then a resolution of that problem.
The power of story is our ability to relate to other humans and different experiences within ourselves and often outside ourselves. The characters of these books stand out to us in our memories because a well-done story will create a whole person in our minds that we seem like we know, even if they aren't real.
Sometimes, the story also reflects our own experiences. For example, in the 50s and 60s, there was a popular genre of film called the "surfer" or "beach party" films. They were always shot on a beach in California with young, beautiful people who would have drama all around hanging around at the beach. They were popular with young people who either were living or wanted to live that life.
Basics of telling a story
A story should have a primary arc much like the one defined above. Still, even in a sitcom, there is an arc to the level that includes some drama, a misunderstanding, or miscommunication resolved in 23 minutes. There must be a beginning, a middle, and an end, even if it's unsatisfying. People have to get up, do things, experience things, gain, lose, and reach for their goals and either fail or get what they want. These are the human experiences that we can live through character. A good story is relatable, and while fantastic, it is also intrinsically human. The power of the story lies in these basic principles. Because we live narratives, stories affect us in every part of our lives, most notably in politics.
Stories, Politics, and Narrative
Stories are compelling. This is why, before we had a cultural idea of freedom of speech and information, any regime worth it's salt would try to control information by burning books and locking up writers who are not telling stories that reinforce the ideas that please the government. History is littered with people who tell stories that do not satisfy those in authority. Copernicus and Galileo were famous for promoting heliocentric reality. During the Soviet era, the Soviet censors would edit Western films and movies that might promote ideas that went against the communist ideal.
In a piece I wrote for The Cameron Journal, "It's a Wonderful Life is communist propaganda?" I talk about how the state will use stories to reinforce a narrative.
I used to be into Ayn Randian. I've read all the books, and I used to read the Objectivist newsletter via email. I can see her appeal, especially for intelligent young men; the importance of being an individual, being rewarded for your efforts and being virtuously selfish can be a big ego trip. However, Rand's philosophy can also be dangerous because it promotes individuality at the expense of society and the individual's place in the community; I was not surprised when I read a story about her helping the FBI to identify communist messages within film. That sounds right up her alley of activities during the 1950s.
Who is Ayn Rand?
Ayn Rand made a name for herself as a Russian emigre by writing books extolling the wonders of the capitalist system and denigrating Soviet communism. She came from the Soviet Union and spent her life writing and talking about the horrors of the Soviet system. As you can imagine, this was a popular sentiment during the 1950s. She wrote a series of short books and essays on the subject, but her career took off with the publication of The Fountainhead and her follow-up, Atlas Shrugged. Her work triggered an organization dedicated to her philosophy called Objectivism.
In the zeitgeist of the 1950s and the McCarthy hearings, there was a fear, especially after the betrayal of the Rosenbergs regarding nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union, that there were communists in American society. This mainly focused on the government and the arts. Many Hollywood writers and others were blacklisted from working in the industry for being communists or not sufficiently favour capitalism.
In this piece from Open Culture, they analyze Ayn Rand's involvement with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) is explored. A central part of her philosophy concerns the elevation of those who achieve spectacular things for society and that they should be allowed to do whatever they want with as few restrictions as possible.
Ayn Rand held America in high regard, she did not want anything resembling communism or socialism to begin to take root in America. She did not wish workers or anyone else to be prioritized over those who could create themselves and do amazing things. If Ayn were alive today, she would be very proud of people like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and every Silicon Valley startup that made it big. Those are the people that she worshipped in her work.
In her mind, the particular people are what keep the world going. When too many expectations are placed upon them, like altruism or paying taxes, their incentive to create companies, jobs, and economic prosperity disappears. So how does this tie into It's a Wonderful Life? She identified the film's central message as elevating the regular man, promoting a working-class paradise, and most egregiously painting bankers in a bad light. Most people think of the film as uniquely American, enabling the best parts of the American way of life, exceedingly modest, small-town living, and participating in everyday society. However, the FBI (with or without Rand's help) identified the screenwriters as palling around with communists and that they must have communist sympathies. This report would begin an attack on American culture that would last until the early 1960s.
So It Is About Communism!
Ultimately, people saw the McCarthy hearings for what they were and the whole affair was eventually shut down, but the damage was already done. The McCarthy hearings are an example of corruption and scrutiny from government officials that is simply un-American based on the Constitution's fundamental civil rights. That said, the McCarthy hearings have been back in the news because President Trump calls for investigations into things that aren't criminal but simply disagree with him. That is a dangerous road to haul. When the power of the government is used for the personal power purposes of those who hold that power, everyone's rights are in danger. We would all do well to take McCarthyism to heart because we are in the same place once again. This time, it's not a communist-crazed house member test but the President with far-reaching powers other than calling hearings and pressuring Hollywood to blacklist writers and others.
If you haven't seen the film, Trumbo, it is a great way to understand what happened in Hollywood at the time. It is excellent to watch this topic further.
LGBT and Drag Queen Story Hour
Even today, one of the most significant social controversies is banning teachers from reading books about LGBT people to students from kindergarten through 4th grade or the "don't say gay bill" recently passed in Florida.
Stories can change our minds about things. Often, in the American experience, stories have empowered us to think about things differently than we did before. Some of the most significant social movements have been sparked because a story explained something in a way that made sense.
Books like Oil! by Upton Sinclair gave us an idea of how the early oil industry worked. Halso exposed the meat packing industry with The Jungle. Nabokov wrote about burgeoning sexuality in Loli, and Solzhenitsyn gave us a glimpse into the punishing world of the Soviet Gulag in the Gulag Archipelago. Ayn Rand was able to promote her theories against altruism and socialism through her books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. To Kill a Mockingbird exposed racism in its wholest form.
The reader can also help us relate to other cultural experiences. This was the power of James Baldwin or even Amy Tan with the Joy Luck Club, which brought us into the world of the Asian American immigrant experience. However, it is not just books that do the heavy lifting of our experience; it is often regular media that constantly change our perspective. Stories can change politics as, often, the perception of issues in the media can affect politics.
Think about what happened when the recordings of Richard Nixon in the White House came out and confirmed Watergate and ended his presidency. Or when Walter Cronkite reported that we had been lied to about Vietnam? In more recent developments, Donald Trump and Steve Bannon intimately understood how to keep the media running around chasing sensational story after sensational story while they undermined the government in the way they felt was best. Our society is often divided by 40% of the country living at a different level than the other 40%. No matter which side of the aisle you are on, you have an account of what is going right or wrong in the world. These stories can be close, or far from reality, but everyone has their own story, which is more potent than facts or policy.
We Need a New Story
Societies live and die by the stories they tell themselves. This lack of a story is one of the things troubling America today.
What's the problem with our society?
We don't have a good story anymore. The American story is changing, and not everyone is happy about that. The Right is trying to defend the traditional tale, while the Left is trying to write a new report that includes more people. There is much resistance to this change in the American story. This has happened before. The last time we tried to change the American state, it caused a war. Some would argue that the social wave of the 1960s was yet another time we changed the American story, and we all know how that went. As we enter this time of the Fourth Turning, we are faced again with the stark reality of what the story means to us and our world. As it is how we understand the world changing, the tale is changing our understanding. This can be as frightening as adopting a new state religion from another epoch. However, levels can and do change. Those willing and able to adapt will survive, while others who do not, eventually, won't survive either. You cannot hang onto the likely. You can't move forward in a book without turning the page.