Where do stories come from?

God created man in order to tell stories.
(Hasidic saying)

The Reverend Edward Casaubon is the self-absorbed, pedantic, wrong-headed scholar who disastrously, with his shrivelled sexuality, marries the fresh and eager heroine of Middlemarch Dorothea Brooke. Casaubon spends his adult life working on an ultimate theory to explain where all stories come from. His aim is to prepare an encyclopaedic account of world myths which emphasises their similarities. He rewards the lucky Dorothea, during their courtship, with a recitation of his new view of the philistine god Dragon and other fish-deities. George Eliot satirises his scholarship thus: “Mr Casaubon’s theory …was…a plan for threading the stars together”. He toils on his masterwork in vain and fails to complete it before his death. Middlemarch is a story; Mr Casaubon is a warning.

I was recently reminded of the good Reverend when trying to read Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (Continuum, 2004). He too sets out to explain where all stories come from. He boils down hundreds of plots and claims that there is little variation in the stories used in fiction (he identifies seven basic archetypes). He systematically analyses them in a way that will make them, he says, scientifically comprehensible. Over seven hundred pages we enjoy a run through of Jungian theories, the passive and active ego, Palaeolithic paintings, Tao, the Age of Loki, Freud, Plato’s parable of the cave, the origins of hubris, and much much much more. When texts do not fit into his archetypes, Proust, Kafka, Joyce, Lawrence, Chekhov, they (rather than his theory) are jettisoned. He tells us that he took thirty five years to research and write this all (1969 to 2004). It is an all-consuming, gargantuan text of balmy monomania. Obsession seems too small a word for it. He writes ‘in the end, however inadequately I may have argued the case, the general approach to stories set out in this book will come to be widely accepted’. Not by me it won’t. The other explanation is that his is a brilliant modern-day parody of the text Casaubon never completed. I grant you that thirty five years is a long lead in time for a joke, but the comic muse works in mysterious ways. It is the only non-insane explanation for this folly.

If only Mr Booker had read and understood his Aristotle, he could have summarised it all in half a page. Here goes. Humans make up stories; but it is also stories that make up humans. Human existence is a life in search of a narrative. Lives are made up of a flux of chaotic, confusing events, one after another. A story organises, integrates and clarifies these events. Human existence is a fabric stitched from stories, and in this way human life is inherently storied. A story makes past haphazard things memorable over time and orientates events cumulatively towards the future. The question: who are you? can only be answered by telling a story. We are born a nascent plot in search of a midwife, pregnant with stories in anticipation of completion. Narrative tames chaos and creates what what we humans like to call ‘meaning’. Life is always on the way to narrative, and arrives when told in a story. Without the ability to tell or listen to stories we would no longer be human. Novelists thus capture a form that already exists in human life. They do not create as much as re-create. In Aristotelian terms mythos becomes poiesis through mimesis: plot becomes poetry through re-creation.

The other great temptation is to search for an ultimate author of all these plots. Hamlet calls it the ‘divinity that shapes our ends’ and others fate, fortune, destiny or God. Let us reverse the Hasidic saying: stories create man in order to invent God.


3 thoughts on “Where do stories come from?

  1. Sarah Greenan says:

    When I first started in practice I encountered a client who was trying to write a complete history of the Ukrainian postal service. He had already produced enough material to fill several volumes, and employed a researcher, who lived at this house, to assist him. I doubt it was ever finished.

  2. Pingback: Robotic morality tales | Edward Bindloss

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