What is the age-old tradition of storytelling? Is it a legacy of historical events reaching so far back in time that the old traumas and glories live on today as ghosts wandering within the human psyche… finding form through the gifted fingers of artists? Does our DNA contain ancestral memory, and with it the fears and desires that manifest eons later through the myths and legends of man?
How much of legend is based on historical fact and how much on artistic license? Behind the exoteric narratives what hidden esoteric truths lie waiting to be unveiled? Just as fairy tales are works of fiction, the truth hidden within the symbols is deemed real… transcending both time and culture.
There might appear to be a dichotomy between the literal and the metaphor, between the historical and the allegoric. A story will fall into one category or the other… or both. If we take a story literally then we accept that the events happened, but how well does history even record what actually took place? How well are we equipped even to record the present moment? And is our interpretation not handicapped by the myopic lens of postmodern rationality? The literal can deceive as much as it can elucidate… to the point where it is just an approximation. As in the study of history, the literal requires analysis to build up the bigger picture, piece by piece. The allegory also requires analysis for its truth to be discovered and dissected… and it is analysis that allegory has in common with the literal viewpoint. Analysis uses time that is outside the ‘listening’ part of the story.
What if stories and myths are essentially neither literal nor allegorical? Traditional storytelling was an art in which the orator reconstructed a scene to make it as real as possible. The stories were entertaining and magical… the best stories delivered in a way that the audience are seduced and charmed into the ‘story-space’ – where they are integrated participants and not separate observers. This happens in the real time of the present moment… in which neither historical fact nor allegorical truth resides, since they are both analytical. What we are actually alluding to here is the RITUAL.
Rituals are re-enactments of traditional fables passed down from generation to generation. Neither fact (past) nor fiction (future) can relate to the ritual because the ritual integrates the audience in real time into the ‘story-space’, which is beyond thought and analysis. In the ritual one is as a child… absorbing the unfolding drama without interpretation. Only the educated man attempts to put a meaning on the stories that he hears.
A child listens to a tale as if it is real, unable or unwilling to discern reality from fantasy… as if he is present right there in the land of make believe. It is certainly more joyful, if not superior, to analyzing the metaphor as one’s attention and participation are undivided. When the child is taught how to think, how to analyze and interpret, does his natural enthusiasm not wane? That is what education does… it disconnects us. Nothing extinguishes the boundless enthusiasm and curiosity of a child more than the hours of tedious homework he is appointed day after day.
Who makes up the stories? How did they come about? Can anyone just make up a new story? Does a good artist have the skill to create a story… can he produce or perhaps channel something ‘new’? A writer might produce an original novel, or a musician might create a masterpiece that is ‘out of this world’. Whatever wonders they might achieve, they are nevertheless constrained by certain laws pertaining to the expression of their art… just as the scientific method must necessarily govern any field of research. Because people do not decide what constitutes a good story, they are hardwired to recognize its quality. Just as one needs no formal instruction to appreciate music. This in simple terms is what it means to be human. Storytelling (like any art) needs to follow a pre-ordained format in order to reach fellow hearts and minds.
“Even though Quality cannot be defined, you know what Quality is.”
“Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions.”
~ Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The story thereby invokes an alchemical ritual of self transformation. The hero of humble beginnings leaves home to seek his fortune, he fights monsters and very nearly perishes… but against all odds he prevails and emerges victorious. In the end we see him as a prince bedecked with riches and betrothed to the fairest maiden in the land. There are of course many variations to this theme. The story cannot go on too long, it must end and must end well. The ending must be managed to keep the listener enchanted, to fill him with awe… to make him satisfied. Very much like a ‘magic’ trick. In fact… exactly like a magic trick.
A stage magician will have a specific set of props and costumes particular to his show, but his routine will inevitably follow the same basic format as other magicians. Each will by necessity follow an optimal format required for ‘magic’ to occur. If he does not do this then he will quickly find himself out of business. The audience want to believe in the magic, or at least they want to be suitably challenged by it… and therefore the props and the timing all serve to deliver the punch line at the opportune moment; the moment when the audience ‘ascends’ to that sweet spot of wondrous rapture. The moment in which, even if just for a second, they believe. So in that respect all magicians are very much alike… the magic they demonstrate is all the same magic.
It is the same in storytelling. It is the story of the human soul… transformed from base lead into the finest gold. It is the alchemical ritual that turns sapiens into a cosmic being. If the story is able to lead the audience emotionally into its climax then it can deliver its punch line, the moral of the story, far more effectively. In its most basic form, the moral is that good will triumph over evil if one has courage and heart. When the audience is already emotionally involved, the message strikes home harder… replenishing their strength and hardening their resolve.
So it is reasonable to ask, did the basis of these stories come about because of the soul… meaning, is the story an inflection of the soul, ritually expressing itself over and over again? Or were both the soul and the story defined with the same brush of Creation, so to speak? Or….. is the soul just an idea or suggestion that became planted in the human psyche via the story… in which case, how was it planted? Who planted it and why? What appears to be clear is that the story doesn’t change… we have been telling the same story since time memorial. The story becomes more elaborate, there are more special effects… for that is what the artist has license to do, but it is still the same story. It may be impossible to actually create a new story… at least one that will have any longevity.
We might conclude then that rhetoric is the window through which truth can be perceived… and rhetoric is neither random nor subjective, it is the optimum focus of the energy of narration or storytelling. Words have power, the combination of words have power of persuasion. One of man’s greatest illusions is that he has a choice, free will, to do something different. He must participate in the ritual one way or another, to forever tell the same story… and the only freedom truly available to him is to know this, to be mindful. And to be mindful means to not interfere with ‘what is’.
“A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth. And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being reminded of the wisdom of your own life. I think ritual is terribly important.”
~ Joseph Campbell
Whether the storyteller or the audience understand the allegorical meaning of the symbols is irrelevant if they do not actually participate in the ritual. To have the intellect but not the heart is to be disconnected. Denial of the ritual – consigning it as allegorical fiction – is suicidal folly and self fraud. The actual victory of good over evil becomes void, it is attributed as fantasy… it is over there in the ‘story space’. From that point on, the individual doesn’t stand a chance.
So the peril that faces humanity now is that myths have been relegated to the bedtime stories of children and disregarded by adults as superstition that our ancestors entertained in the absence of suitably evolved rationality. While we have by and large given up on our ancestors, they apparently haven’t given up on us. The same rituals are still expressing themselves even while we remain unaware. We go through life hot on our ambitions and pursuits, not realizing they are symbols in the ever repeating ritual; we take what is real as false, and what is false as real.
In the hero’s story there is never any guarantee he will vanquish his enemies – and that is a vital point. For without this sense of impending (and very likely!) peril how else would the audience become so enthralled? It is clear that humanity is in this precarious position right now… still lacking courage and poor in heart.
Why is it that these stories have great endings but in real life the opposite plays out? How can a story fill the heart with courage and joy… only for us to then resume our pitiful lives? It is because we deny the ritual… when we walk out of the amphitheater we consign the ‘show’ as make believe… fantasy, entertainment. And we did not even fully participate, our minds were trying to make sense of it all, always a moment or two behind. We are blissfully unaware of the ritual in which good prevails and the performer is alchemically transformed. We say, well it is just a story.
Because of this persistent denial of the ritual, the story begins to change accordingly. There is a contradiction between the ending of the story (‘ascension’) and the observable reality of disconnect from nature and from ourselves (similar to the Christian vision of the ‘fall’). And the story must adapt to allow this contradiction to exist. Specifically the spontaneous ascension of the soul (to put it poetically) is gradually replaced with a future salvation of the soul as an act of providence, or external agency. Our reality becomes a projection of hopeful ideas. This theme gains traction and overtakes the human mythos. The Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all refer to salvation in the afterlife; their narratives differ principally on who the Messiah is exactly, but they are in agreement that there will come a day of judgment and reckoning. The original Pagan mythos that was usurped by this grotesque narrative certainly did not indulge in any such savior complex.