Today I’ll expand upon an assertion and answer a question from my first post.
“Humans are storytellers.”
For whatever reason, we try to make sense of events. It’s entirely possible that we live in an empty and godless universe full of causal chaos and background noise (hats off to Neil Gaiman for that delicious phrase), but most of us don’t live as though we believe that. Each of us has a basic framework of beliefs, and we organize our perceptions within those frameworks. In sociology, much is made of the way that different cohorts (or age groups) have different experiences based on the times in which they grew up, and those experiences shape their beliefs and their personal and political narratives. But there are other aspects of life that shape beliefs: upbringing is an important one, with religion tucked inside it; socioeconomic status is another; education is another. Personality also matters, though perhaps not as much as one might imagine (as personality is also shaped by the aforementioned forces).
The combination of your experiences and beliefs is what drives your story. We all seek meaning in our lives, and those who find it are more fulfilled, at least according to Victor Frankl (and he does make a compelling case). An example of this would be an atheist and an evangelical Christian examining the same archaeological findings, fossils of some sort. The atheist may conclude that several million years ago, completely different creatures walked the Earth. The evangelical Christian, who believes that the Earth is only 5,000 years old, may conclude that the Devil has placed false evidence to try and lead her soul astray. I think it’s important to realize that, regardless of what you actually believe/accept, both conclusions are stories about what happened on this Earth. The first story is well-accepted scientifically — it’s part of the dominant paradigm — so we don’t think of it as a story. But it was created the same way as the Devil story: the atheist looked at the evidence before her and used her beliefs and world-view to fill in “what must have happened.”
“Why would you study literature when you could be doing something practical, like communications or finance?”
A common defense of the humanities is that they somehow contribute to the moral betterment of society. This is both vague and highly debatable: did Rudyard Kipling’s work make England more morally upright, or did it justify brutal conquest and horrific injustices against the Indian people? I posit the latter.
However, one thing that literature does allow us to do is shift perspectives, which is an immensely valuable tool. A well-written novel (or poem, or story) brings you into the head of someone you could never be. Native Son by Richard Wright is such a novel: it tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a black man living in America before the civil rights movement. He is clearly underserved, clearly oppressed (liberal college students love this stuff), and yet he is also a rapist and a murderer. It’s impossible to truly sympathize with this character, which is of course what Wright intended — but it’s also impossible not to see how brutality begets brutality, or to completely write off Bigger Thomas as an “evil” character, inherently malignant. Where does social responsibility end and personal responsibility begin?
It would be difficult to create a discourse around such events, were they presented as truth rather than fiction. Since Bigger Thomas isn’t real, and therefore never actually killed anyone, we are more at ease contemplating the questions of whether rage and violence is inevitable in an oppressed population; whether we can possibly be responsible for the violence of others. Listening to someone else’s story throws a wrench into our moral absolutes and presents information in ways we could never come up with on our own.
It may not be practical, but I hope you see why it’s important.
Please read Native Son, by the way. I am greatly beseeching you.