Sunday, April 7, 2019

Gods, Heroes, and the Self: Our Life in Stories

What is the first genre of fiction? In other words, what purpose was served by the invention of the story, that is, of communication that departs in some respects from what’s really happening?

Strictly speaking, the very first verbal departure from reality would have included memories (confabulations) and prescriptions (statements meant to depict how things should be). Indeed, any statement that doesn’t capture exactly how events are playing out is to some extent counterfactual. This includes predictions of how events will probably unfold, since predictions are at least partly conjectural. Even commonsense generalizations, such as, “Tomorrow the sun will rise” don’t limit themselves to reporting how precisely certain sense data are received and processed, and so these, too, are fictional. For that matter, since all words in natural language are partly analogical and idealistic, there’s no such thing as nonfiction in ordinary discourse. Even artificial languages that are designed to be rigorously literal and precise aren’t purely adequate to the facts, since scientific languages are motivated by the desires to understand and to control, which add human spin and interpretation to proven theories and laws of nature.

But let’s put aside that hyper-skepticism, to inquire about fictions in the sense of stories that are intended to depart somehow from the facts, as opposed to statements that are meant to be factual but that nevertheless fail to be perfectly fact-based. Notice, though, that there’s no such thing as pure fiction in that sense, since no one would bother to tell a story that had nothing to do with reality. Even a lie that’s therefore known to be false is told as if it were true to protect some hidden interest. At most, a genuine fiction is a story that’s entertained as true as we suspend our disbelief because we ought to know the story is false in certain crucial respects.  

Fear and Arrogance, Gods and Superheroes

What, then, motivated the first tall tales? Two impulses seem likely influences on the invention of fiction: fear and arrogance. In so far as nature was frightening, we escaped into soothing fantasies. Also, pride in our accomplishments easily corrupts our character, leading to overconfidence, and some of us are victims of the Dunning-Kruger effect, meaning we’re often not smart enough to recognize our tendency to err, which frees us to exaggerate our cognitive skills. We likely expressed such ill-gotten pride by boasting in story form, identifying ourselves with our favourite heroic characters. The former mechanism (fear) amounts to ignoring or suppressing facts belonging especially to the external world that frightens us because of its alienness or indifference to our preferences, while the latter (arrogance) deviates from internal facts, from how we, too, fail to live up to our conceits. 

Prior to the rise of religious myths, shamans likely authored the first fictions, based on their psychedelic experience which they used to divine means of reassuring their clan or tribe. Divination in this respect makes for a peculiar hybrid, since the resulting narrative is fear-based in that the motive is to compensate for some setback caused by the natural environment which our prehistoric ancestors could only have presumed they fully controlled, out of carefree arrogance. But the shaman’s narrative also reports on the facts as he experiences them, these being, mind you, the facts of his altered states of consciousness. If in deciding how to handle some predicament, the shaman consults the spirits he sees while hallucinating, the shaman’s advice won’t have been speculative or extravagantly theological so much as protoscientific. He’ll have attempted to make sense of his immediate experience rather like how the empiricist applies reason to explain ordinary phenomena. The main difference, though, is that the altered states are private and subjective, and thus they invite the interpreter to adopt a hermeneutic stance of socialization rather than one of objectification. In short, the altered states will seem alive because they originate from parts of the drug-taker’s mind, and so the shaman will have personified and attempted to socialize with them rather than treating the bizarre spectacles produced by the entheogen as inherently insignificant rearrangements of matter.

Still, the shaman’s psychedelic advice would likely have been motivated by some combination of fear and arrogance: fear of “dying by astonishment,” as the psychedelic theorist Terrence McKenna spoke of the radical implications of these altered states; and overweening pride of being the lone individual in the group deemed mentally heroic (or socially isolated, artistic, and half-psychotic) enough to overcome that fear and to engage with “the spirits” to guide or heal the community. For example, suppose the Paleolithic clan endures drought and calls on the shaman for a prediction of when the rain will return. The shaman seeks, in turn, the wisdom of the spirits or of the ancestors via the altered states of consciousness, thus undergoing a trauma that ostracizes him, reinforcing whatever maladies he’d already exhibited for the clan to have assigned him such a fool’s errand. Terror serves as his artistic inspiration, overconfidence as the coping mechanism that allows him to believe that deforming his mind is healthy or that entheogens can be mastered. By socializing with the hallucinations, perhaps interpreting them as ancestral spirits, the shaman copes with their strangeness which hints at the narrow-mindedness of our sense of familiarity with the ordinary world.

The protoscientific secrets of divination and magic gave way to the myths of organized religion as clans gathered and settled into civilizations, and as the communal ethos of egalitarian pragmatism was replaced with the “modern” culture of hierarchical exploitation. Whereas in a nomadic tribe every member has to be relied on and thus deemed equally valuable, in a kingdom or an empire, vast top-down control over society is conferred on a minority of power elites who rationalize their undeserved status with self-serving propaganda. In any case, much Neolithic fiction is didactic. For example, Africans told fables about the trickster hero Anansi, an Odyssean spider who uses his wisdom to outwit authorities. Anansi thus served as a model for African slaves who looked to take advantage of their masters’ vices on the sly. Instructive myths of how this or that part of nature was created, and thus of how the animals or the seasons or a stage of life should be used to fulfill its purpose aren’t exactly fictional in the foregoing sense. To be sure, such folklores prove nothing and typically cater to prejudice, but for that reason they’re not merely entertained as true. In so far as ignorance reigned on some subject, the cautionary myth or legend filled the void and often transmitted sound advice.

The most egregious quasi-fiction that’s been mistaken for profound truth is monotheism. Here the fiction is that absolute power over others could be benevolently applied. The myth of an all-powerful creator God is inspired by the universal family experience, since parents are godlike to their children and yet don’t often abuse their dominant position. But that analogy is deeply flawed, since children grow up and eventually oversee the affairs of their elderly parents. This shift in status is reflected in the Garden of Eden myth, in which God fears his creatures will become both all-knowing and immortal, thus gaining the power to supplant him. Indeed, owing to their historical omega-folk status as perennial victims and scapegoated outsiders, Jews became too skeptical to be carried away with the theological hype surrounding their religious myths. The climax of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) is the Book of Job, in which the lie is given to the conceit of monotheism, to the notion that wisdom and morality should be expected of an absolute monarch. How many times did Jews have to suffer the brunt of imperial expansion by foreign empires for them to learn that almighty beings should be feared but not respected and least of all loved! The Book of Job shows the almighty Creator retreating to a nakedly amoral defense of his abuse of an innocent man. The story is written in such a way that the reader, but not Job himself, knows that the Creator was experimenting on Job with Satan, recalling the political realism of polytheistic portrayals of gods as squabbling aristocrats. As Jack Miles shows in God: A Biography, Jews themselves take center stage in the remaining scriptural narrative as God fades into the background in such books as Esther, Daniel, and Nehemiah. “As the Tanakh ends,” writes Miles, “the mind of God has been objectified in law, the action of God incarnated in leadership, and now, finally, the voice of God transferred to prayer.” Mature Judaism is functionally atheistic.

In any case, Christians and Muslims hyped the core idea of a single, all-powerful God so that by now most monotheists are absentminded in proclaiming their love for God while having no excuse for their failure to understand that monotheism is a work of fiction. Again, fear and arrogance are chiefly responsible for originating the myth that an almighty deity creates the natural order and seeks a special relationship with us as his favourite creatures. Fear of nature’s fundamental lifelessness provokes the defensive overreaction of socialization: we personify inhuman nature to avoid being inflicted with hints of the world’s terrifying alienness, since such hints call into question our security and contentment. And the arrogance of kings and emperors compelled them to overlook the grotesque unreality of such a myth or to deem themselves benevolent by definition, by identifying themselves with the kingdom so that as long as they personally fared well in their palaces, with their wealth and harems and sycophants, the peasants and slaves could have had no cause to complain.

Of course, real almighty individuals, as opposed to the fake ones worshipped in our organized religions, are too corrupted by their chance to dominate others, to be able to tell the difference between good and evil or to be interested in doing so. The notion that a tyrant should be loved for his wisdom and benevolence is an outrageous affront to good sense, but the monotheistic propagandists have a rejoinder to some such appeal to psychology or to history: don’t think too much and just have faith; trust in the unseen, not to mention in the heretofore dubious, and you’ll be rewarded in the world to come. The call for religious faith, however, should be equated precisely with the story-teller’s presumption that his or her readers ought to suspend their disbelief. Trusting in what would have to be a tyrant’s hidden morality, grace, or parental tenderness should be akin to withholding pesky doubts to enrich the reading experience. You want to enjoy a good story, so you don’t treat fiction like a science textbook or like a business report. You expect verisimilitude in fiction, but not exhaustive attention to realistic details; at least, you assume the story departs from reality in some substantial respects and you accept that inventiveness as long as the story is entertaining or indirectly edifying.

If interpreted as ironic or as telling subversive political truth in spite of itself, monotheism is vindicated as that sort of fiction, since by piling on the praises of God’s majestic greatness and various perfections, the Western myth refutes itself with the preposterousness of its central conceit. Needless to say, absolute power is bound to corrupt the monarch, so an all-powerful God would be like the infantile tyrants that have made hideous, embarrassing spectacles of themselves in human dictatorships. As Thomas Hobbes pointed out, that’s the whole point of centralized power: to create a monster to scare the masses into submission, by way of avoiding a return to animal life in the state of nature. Alas, the enjoyment of fiction isn’t meant to be a con. You purchase the story itself, not some promised reward bestowed only after you die, and you suspend disbelief in fiction for the fun of it, not to avoid being ostracized as in mainstream religion.

Secular society hardly abandons this pernicious crypto-fiction, as is presently clear from how pop cultural superheroes fulfill the role of almighty God. Instead of an invisible sky-god protecting his chosen people for the greater good, we have a plethora of Hollywood stories of how individuals with superpowers divide into opposing camps, some being selfless and morally responsible, others being malicious and predatory, as though some Daoist logic of dualism had to be at work. While the comic books and movies gesture towards pseudoscientific explanations of how the powers work, seldom do these narratives consider the extent to which the very notion of a superhero is an oxymoronic fantasy. Again, we have some dubious role models such as philanthropic billionaires (Bill Gates, George Soros, Richard Branson, and so on), heroes who might as well be super because of the staggering economic inequality, and who charitably dispose of their wealth. No such wealth, though, is ever ethically obtained in the first place, so an abundance of charity on the part of billionaires would only balance the scale to a standpoint of moral neutrality, not establish that the philanthropists (and erstwhile robber barons) should be praised as heroes. Moreover, as Anand Giridharadas shows in Winner Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, these real-life “superheroes” are one and all neoliberal, meaning that their selflessness goes only so far in that they see no need for radical, systemic solutions or revolutions to aid the powerless masses. These wealthy do-gooders defend not so much the helpless victims of capitalism (as they should if the comic book and cinematic tales of superheroes weren’t fantasies), but the economic and political system they exploited to dominate the marketplace. At Davos, for example, these philanthropists laugh at the call for raising taxes on the rich.

Plato’s Ring of Gyges thought experiment tells us practically all we need to know about the reality of superpower. Would you trust anyone, including yourself with the power of invisibility, and thus the chance to sin with impunity? Wouldn’t you inevitably abuse that power at some point, assuming you have the intelligence to pursue your interests and some understanding of how the real world works? At that point, wouldn’t all the good intentions of your slave morality crumble before your growing lust to gain the advantage over those who could no longer stand in your way? Perhaps the tens of millions of secularists around the world—from China to the United States—watch these Marvel movies only as escapist fantasies. We long for a world in which superpower weren’t a self-destructive devil’s bargain by way of being corrosive to character, even as we have a sterling example of the discouraging reality in the figure of President Trump. China, too, is supposed to be highly meritocratic but is instead rife with corruption, as is Russia, where the leaders entrench their power and lose sight of the greater good; more precisely, leaders like Putin and Xi Jinping come to believe that the notion of a greater good is the real fairytale, that a Nietzschean will to power is the only reality. Just as monotheism served as propaganda for theocracies, the spectacle of sci-fi superheroes who miraculously use their power only for good is plainly meant to justify the rise of nominally-secular, naturally self-destructive oligarchies and transnational corporations. To the extent that the comic book hero is an American invention, the hype is supposed to highlight especially miraculous America, with its “manifest destiny” to serve as a force for good, in contrast to all the evil regimes. Perhaps President Trump wouldn’t have even his minority base of working-class supporters if the myth of superheroes weren’t so widespread, since they do revere him as some glorious combo of Batman and the Incredible Hulk. 

The Self as Primal Story

There is, however, a fiction underlying these myths, and that’s the story of the self. We’re voracious consumers of fictional narratives, because we’re made of them. By consuming art, we add to the artwork of our selves. To be sure, we have a biological substrate. The cerebral cortex evolved and gave us executive control over some of our neural and bodily functions. We learned to crystallize that control with language, and that allowed us to see our way past given environments so that we wouldn’t have to adapt to them but could take the initiative and create artificial refuges. Instead of having to be instinctive and slavishly realistic, we could generalize and idealize on the basis of a creative vision of how the world should have been. Thus we have a tragic existential calling to be godlike.

But as I explain elsewhere, that evolved brainpower threatened to mire us in horror by compelling us to recognize our godlike autonomy. For some tens of thousands of years, we’ve been the dominant superheroes of the animal kingdom. Instead of respecting or saving lesser life forms, of course we’ve been ravaging the planet and perpetrating holocausts because superpower is a trap that turns fools into villains while true heroes withdraw, to some extent, as ascetics. Regardless, we cope with the knowledge that we’re godlike in being relatively free from nature, with the potential to create artificial worlds, and we do so by establishing our subjective boundaries or what the philosopher Marya Schachtman calls our “diachronic unity.” We unify ourselves across time by inventing the self in the first place, narrating it into being.

The brain generates our autonomy, technoscience, and other superpowers, but in so far as the mind is like a computer program running on that hardware, the mind writes itself, interpreting its conduct and situations according to a preferred outlook, one that typically presents in the best light the characters the mind plays. We continually tell the story of our life, adding to it as problems arise or presupposing the story in the back of our mind. As I’ve argued elsewhere, consciousness is just a series of higher-order thoughts (the ones with some executive control over our lower impulses or with which we’re most proud to identify), together with the frisson of delighting in such apparent autonomy. Thus, the personal self is bound by our overarching narratives, by those that best make sense of our most characteristic higher-order thoughts. In other words, our most persistent thoughts are meaningful in light of their coherence in a worldview that supplies their context. That worldview is the story that both explains how our character formed and why we act as we do, and judges that character, typically by glorifying it with much biased belittling of our faults and underestimation of the role of luck in our successes and failures.  

So the terror and hubris behind story-telling begin early indeed, with the story that creates the author of all our other tales. Who tells the tale of each self if the self doesn’t preexist its narration? The story and the author develop gradually together, helped along by the lessons provided by our parents and by the behaviour automated by our brain. As Ernest Becker explains in The Denial of Death, we fear our growing freedom as we’re forced out of childhood innocence, and so we construct our ego to interface with the world that doesn’t always respect our desire for sovereignty. Once we reach adulthood—both psychologically and historically (with the advent of behavioural modernity)—and have some established personal identity, we tell and consume stories that cohere with that identity, avoiding cognitive dissonance at all costs. We end up flattering ourselves, corrupted by the artistic freedom to write our preferred self-narrative. We thus project ourselves into the model characters we wish to play, including the gods and heroes from our society’s culture. Religions and corporate dream factories facilitate the catharsis with rituals to bond you to your chosen idol, as in the Eucharist ceremony or by presenting you with Disney merchandise to celebrate your favourite movie characters.

All of which raises the question whether there’s some superior, posthuman way of telling stories, some motive other than fear or arrogance out of which a noble self might be forged. Nietzsche called for authentic acceptance of reality as will to power, but that will hardly do, because the creative path is plainly anti-natural. Power games are for animals or for pseudo-gods that are really just animals, as in tyrants that pretend to be superheroes. Is there a sustainable anti-natural self, a type of person that transcends the world by seeing through it to create a better place, one less horrific than monstrous, amoral nature? Must creativity be based on some combination of fear or arrogance? A pure creator would have only aesthetic values, in which case the motives to create both the self and its world would include disgust for ugliness and for clichés, and a humble longing to fulfill and to be enraptured by a transcendent vision.  

No comments:

Post a Comment