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Friday, February 28, 2014

What’s In a Story?  The True Value of Narrative

Preface: this post was inspired by Edwin, my classmate in PIPD 3230 and 3260.  We discussed the value of storytelling on a few occasions and two things he said to me have been the source of much reflection:

1. Many cultures have a story of a Great Flood.

2. Nature is talking to us all the time, we just have to take the time to listen.

Much of the way we learn is through literature and other sources of storytelling.  Narrative, or the telling of stories in entwined in every culture and age.  Moral dilemmas have been a feature of literature since Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex.  Throughout history, literature and dramatic works have been the source of ethical and moral debate.  Much of the allure of the cinema is how open to debate the conclusion of a film is (what is Rosebud in Citizen Kane or what is in the brief case in Pulp Fiction)
Alternative endings, unreliable narrators (The Good Soldier) have made many of us become deconstructive and structuralist viewers/readers.
We view scenes and read passages in movies/literature with a jaundiced eye.  We KNOW something is wrong.  We are always looking for the ‘angle’.  Nothing is at face value: even children’s animated features have a ‘twist’.  Personally, I enjoy ‘figuring’ out the twists of a plot or deciphering the truth out of the puzzle presented by unreliable narrators.

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”  Mark Twain

The downside to all this is that fiction or true fantasy is a lot less common in recent film and literature.  Of the top films nominated for Best Picture Oscars in the last ten years, only Toy Story 3 (2010) and has a purely fictional plot.  Although many of the films have some or many fictional elements, the majority of the films nominated for Best Picture are steeply based either on real events or events which are very realistic.
What does this mean?  It means that people often like to experience stories they can related to in some way or know something about, in other words people enjoy narratives (stories) that align with their own lives.
This is borne out by a recent article by Lee Siegel in the New York Times titled, “Is the News Replacing Literature?”
In this article, Siegel points to recent stories in the popular press, the accusations of sexual abuse by Woody Allen of his step daughter, Dylan Farrow specifically, and suggests that more people discuss news stories than they do literature, film or other sources of ethical dilemmas as they did in the past.
Siegel goes on to say:
“you could be forgiven for feeling that literary art…has been largely displaced by life—or, at least, by the pictures of life ceaselessly produced by the all-powerful media—as the realm in which we lose ourselves in a moral problem….This is not just ‘the news’. This is a piece of reality so dense that it goes beyond art in illuminating just how nebulous reality is. (But, then, the news stopped reporting reality and started to constitute a new layer of reality years ago.)
I believe that Siegel’s point is that traditionally literature (I would argue film as well) was the most common source of ethos and as such promoted a forum for the discussion of ethics and morality.  In the society we live in today, our most common source of ethos is the news, which on the surface seems like a good thing – after all, what can be a better teacher than reality?
The problem is that parables, allegories, myths, legends, etc. are carefully constructed in order to engage our minds and to teach important lessons.  Plato’s Allegory of the cave is not just a story of people imprisoned in a cave and not knowing the truth about the outside world – it is also a depiction of the illusion of self-limitation and for only accepting things we think we know (our reality) and the dangers of not enlightening ourselves to greater truths (new discovery and knowledge) by holding on to only what we believe and giving into fear when our reality is challenged.
In conclusion, my point is this; storytelling plays an important role in the development of our minds.  Storytelling and analogies are the most typical sources of discussions which facilitate the promotion of critical thinking skills.  If we draw all of our discussion from the news, the classic sources of debate and philosophical education are lost and we become lost intellectually as a result.
What is your view – have I perched myself too far over the edifice of a philosophical cliff?  What are your views?
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