Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Jonathan Gottschall, "The Storytelling Animal (How Stories Make Us Human)"

- Mariner Books, New York 2013, ISBN 978-0-544-00234-0 248 p.

Read from June 22nd to July 16th 2016

My rating:

Someone complained that Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal is overgrown – that is, that all the ideas it contains could have been easily synthetized in a long article. I wouldn’t go so far, although I also felt sometimes that one point or another was discussed to its outer limits. Anyway, it was an interesting enough reading, even if not very original.

The premise of the book, disclosed by the title (quoting Graham Swift’s inspiring definition of mankind given in Waterland: “Man – let me offer you a definition – is the storytelling animal”) is that the human being is a Homo fictus, who makes up stories all his life, whether he is an artist or not, and the author takes his time in revealing how and why the fiction influences the human life, to stress “the major function” of storytelling: to shape the very human mind that shaped it, in order to prepare it for the everyday problems.

One of the first arguments concerns the dreams, apparently an inexhaustible spring for tales the brain carefully concocts for our protection, since dreams are not, as Flanagan once believed, “brain waste”, that is, “a useless by-product of all the useful work the sleeping brain does”, but, as Michael Jouvet discovered in the 50s, after realizing that the animals experience REM sleep, rather a rehearsal to prepare both humans and other beings for the life challenges.
Recent research suggests that if geese dream – and it is possible that they do – they probably don’t dream of maize. They probably dream of foxes.

Stories have also the function to fill in the blanks of bizarre and/ or unexplained phenomena, behavior, actions. Another celebrated scientist, Michael Gazzaniga, the pioneer of the split-brain neuroscience school, discovered that the two sides of the brain have different functions: while the right brain specializes in identifying shapes, paying attention to details and generally controlling movement, images, sounds, the left one is responsible for speaking and thinking and imagining, and he observed that quite often, when a subject whose right brain is defective could not offer an explanation for his actions, he would rather fabricate a clever story instead of letting the “why” question unanswered:

The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness and coincidence. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t.

Here it is a possible explanation for the fact that not only the fool or the stupid but even the intelligent persons can firmly believe in the most fanciful conspiracy theory: the mind needs to be permanently reassured that all experience is meaningful, so it looks for plausible explanations that could counteract evilness:

Conspiracy theories offer ultimate answers to a great mystery of the human condition: why are things so bad in the world? (…) for this reason, conspiracy theories – no matter how many devils they invoke – are always consoling in their simplicity. Bad things do not happen because of a wildly complex swirls of abstract historical and social variables. They happen because bad men live to stalk our happiness. And you can fight, and possibly even defeat, bad men. If you can read the hidden story.

Furthermore, it was proved many times that the stories can inexorably shape our future (and sometimes indirectly the future of the others):  think of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Rienzi, which inspired Wagner’s opera, which influenced Hitler, and which thus changed the world; think of Uncle’s Tom Cabin, which made Abraham Lincoln meet Harriet Beecher-Stove and say to her the flattering but not without a grain of truth words that her novel provided all the right reasons for the Civil War; or think of Tolstoy who regarded his work as a noble disease that could “infect” people with his ideas and emotions.

Last but not least, stories (and dreams) apart from preparing us to live our lives and making us discern between good and evil, teach us to live comfortably with ourselves, by fogging the memory of our past actions in order to let us be the impeccable heroes of our lives, thus keeping us apart from the despair of the nothingness:

Depressed people have lost their positive illusions; they rate their personal qualities much more plausibly than average. They are able to see, with terrible clarity, that they are not all that special. According to the psychologist Shelley Taylor, a healthy mind tells itself flattering lies. And if it does not lie to itself, it is not healthy. Why? Because (…) positive illusions keep us from yielding to despair.

It was inevitable, of course, for such a book to argue about the future of literary fiction in a time where the decreasing of reading is a worldwide phenomenon. The author is once again optimistic: many a work a fiction is published every day so the reader species is still alive and kicking. I found it however a little naïve (and a bit insulting) his belief that songs are poems and anyone who can tell by heart lyrics is a connoisseur of poetry:

Ours is not the age when poetry died; it is the age when poetry triumphed in the form of song. It is the age of American Idol. It is the age when people carry around ten or twenty thousand of their favorite poems stored on little white rectangles tucked into their hip pockets. It is an age when most of us know hundred of these poems by heart.

Me too, I’d like to think that poetry is not dead. But I would prefer it to be dead than to be reduced to Taylor Swift’s lyrics, hearted as they are. 


  1. You should also check out The Good Story, by J.M Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz (translated into Romanian by yours truly), who talk about the role of storytelling from a psychological, literary, sociological, and historical point of view. ;)