Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Why the Basic Plots? (2) - Response

So, what do I think?

Well, as I've said already, this is a greatly enriching book - one I enjoyed immensely, and have already bought for other people. If nothing else, the analysis of the basic plots, and the discussion of Self/ego, make the book fully worth buying and reading. You may disagree with Booker's analysis - but he has made a substantive case, which can't be lightly dismissed.

However, whilst I accept large amounts of what Booker has said, and I have even been able to think about the significance of what he has written to me (!), there are certain areas in which I don't agree with him.

1) I'm not convinced that the Self/ego divide is characteristically human. I think you can see the same thing present to greater or lesser degrees in other animals. I think that dogs, cats and non-human primates, whilst generally behaving in a "Self" fashion, also have elements of ego-centric behaviour. This is important because narrative is supposed to be a response to this divide - but if the divide is present in other animals, and narrative is a biological or deep psychological response in humans, why isn't it present in them? Why do we have no indication at all that imagination or story telling can mean anything to them?

So if the Self/ego divide is not characteristically human, then narrative doesn't find its roots there. It isn't simply a biological feature of the system. That's not important in itself - imagination and the power to conceive of narrative may still be an emergent property of the human mind. But if so, at what stage? And how? And why? Was it that as the ego got stronger, it became more important to provide the human mind with a reference point reminding it of what it means to be a fully expressed human being. That is more of a point for discussion than anything else, but it does tie into the second, more significant point at which I disagree.

2) I don't think that Booker's analysis goes sufficiently deep. He asks the question: why do we have narrative? - the answer is roughly, to reinforce the values of the Self given our strong egos. But that leaves unanswered the question - why should there be a clash between the ego and the Self at all? Why should we as humans have developed in such a way that our own behaviours can be less than "wholly human"? Why should our egos conflict with what is desirable for the good of humanity? And then, why should these ideas be so embedded in a language with moral overtones - hubris, nemesis, hamartia?

And whilst narrative itself might have a role in encouraging humans to be Self-directed rather than ego-directed, why should history - both individual and corporate - actually follow these patterns? Let me try and give an example. Narrative tells us that where someone pursues ego-focussed aims, if they don't turn, it will lead to tragedy. Booker argues that this idea of narrative is built into us. It is possible to argue that it is so hard-coded into what we are as human beings as to make it inevitable on an individual level - although it's hard to see. But that doesn't explain why Nazi Germany's rise and fall should have followed that pattern. It doesn't explain why it characterises the nature of the rule of a political party, or the rule of a colonial power. The fact that certain narrative patterns are biologically encoded within humans wouldn't have prevented Napoleon establishing his empire.

And this is my big objection to Booker's thesis - he correctly identifies the patterns in narrative, and correctly identifies them as characteristic of humanity, but then fails to move from there to provide an answer as to WHY they should be characteristic of humanity. His answer seems to be that they are biologically encoded, and whilst it is possible to see the evolutionary benefit, he has not explained when it appeared, where it appeared from, or why it should have such a wide applicability.

And in the next post, I will offer my theory about this ....

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