Great Literature: the end of an era?

By Alex Leggatt

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates recounts Diotima’s bizarre assertion that ‘all men are pregnant’ and ‘yearn to beget’ upon the beautiful. This yearning stems from a primordial desire for immortality; men sacrifice themselves in battle to win ‘a deathless memory for valour’, parents acquire immortality through their children and the works of poets such as Homer and Hesiod procure them a ‘glory immortally renewed in the memory of men’. Indeed, in the latter case, it is chiefly in the epic narratives wherein the reputation and memory of the Ancients rest.   But in an era of post-modernity, characterised by Jean-François Lyotard’s rejection of grand narratives as a reinforcement of oppressive power structures (which by their nature exclude swathes of people and culture in favour of a prevailing narrative), can narratives still offer us a solution to the fundamental problem of existence?   I believe that stories, ranging from fairy tales to epic myths, are essential to our Being, and to disregard them as mere archaeological remnants of our primitive origins ignores their importance in binding social groups together and providing a shared sense of meaning and morality. To abandon stories, is, in some sense, to abandon a fundamental part of our human nature. We do so at our own cost.

Stories, ranging from fairy tales to epic myths, are fundamental to our Being

This rejection of myths and their corrupting influence is by no means new; Plato famously banished the poets from his ideal Republic for two reasons. Firstly, on a practical level, they poisoned the development of the youth by refusing to show the gods as ‘right and good’, instead portraying ‘immoral people as happy’, and ‘heroes’ as ‘no better than ordinary people’. In accordance with his philosophical ideals, wherein man should be constantly attempting to transcend oneself and contemplate the truth found in the intelligible realm of unchangeable forms, Plato argues that the poets draw the public further away from the truth since they represent things as they ‘appear’ not as they ‘are’, thus operate at ‘two removes’ from reality.   Conveniently for Plato and the other followers of his Academy, it is only the philosopher who can give an account of the truth. It is important to note that this is not a wholesale condemnation of narratives in general; Plato does allow some stories, but only those that will contribute to a cohesive society through didactic assertions of the infallibility of the gods and heroes, thus ‘engender[ing] people of good character’. Narratives held considerable social power in Plato’s day: Homer and other poets were considered the chief arbiters of morality, proving their importance as an ineradicable aspect of our human condition. Ironically, Plato concludes his own admonishment of the poet’s and their myths with a myth of his own (the “Myth of Er”), an account of the afterlife which would probably see his own book banned in his ideal republic.   All social movements fundamentally revolve around a central text, from the sacred texts of the great three Monotheisms, to The Communist Manifesto as the rallying cry for Marxist revolutionaries, to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty giving modern liberalism with its central tenets of individuality and aversion to inflicting harm. Texts seem to possess a unique rallying point for social groups, providing people with a shared moral understanding and a common end to orient themselves in the world.

All social movements fundamentally revolve around a central text

Despite this, imbuing texts and narratives with a sacred quality can and has given rise to dogmatic and illogical thinking: believing that one’s religious book is the perfect, unchanged (and unchangeable) word of an omniscient creator stifles creative interpretation and the ability for morality to evolve and adapt to ever-changing social mores.   At first, I was swayed by the arguments of the New Atheists, who reject religious texts and narratives as ‘parasites’ and a ‘virus’ which blinds the mind to reason and logical argumentation. It seemed reasonable to reject these texts as poor attempts to make sense of a fundamentally strange world; as science and Enlightenment thinking progresses, ‘God’ retreats into the gaps of the unknown.   Yet, this ideal of rationality as a viable alternative to religion and dogmatic thinking in all forms failed to convince me fully; Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind pointed me towards the work of David Sloane Wilson, who combined the two most influential thinkers in the social sciences: Charles Darwin and Émile Durkheim, to document the ways in which a shared morality can emerge from the ‘unified system of beliefs’ found in religion. The stories we tell ourselves are important because, according to Durkheim, we are homo duplex – creatures designed by natural selection to move from lower orders of individual existence to the higher existence of community, enabling those religious groups who could temporarily transcend their individual selves to form a collective to bind closer as a social unit.   This continuing desire to belong to something larger than ourselves speaks to our inescapable tribal origins: we still attach ourselves to grand narratives, even in a world of “post-truth”, be it the liberal narrative of an ongoing fight for equality and the destruction of oppressive and exploitative systems, or the conservative narrative which argues that modern individualism degrades traditional institutions (such as the family and marriage) leading to fundamental breakdown of cohesive society. Stories such as these, to take a concept from Haidt, ‘binds’ its followers together, yet also ‘blinds’ them to the other, opposing perspective, creating intolerance and an inability to find common ground.   Nietzsche is incorrectly characterised in modern society as a pessimistic nihilist, who fervently celebrated the ‘death’ of God along with the breakdown of the ‘master-slave’ morality as proof of the meaningless of existence, yet this caricature ignores his own fears that ‘some ancient and profound trust has been turned into doubt’. He believed that we, who have killed God, must take active responsibility for our actions. A liberation from one grand religious narrative lends itself to a commitment to a new story (associated now with the unsettling ideal of the Übermensch), since ‘all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again’.   This figure of the modern individual yearning to orientate oneself in the world towards a higher goal and purpose (embodied in a grand narrative) finds its roots at the heart of human nature, and notions of self-transcendence reliably manifest itself in philosophical systems throughout the history of all cultures, from Buddhism to Platonism.

Notions of self-transcendence reliably manifest itself in philosophical systems throughout the history of all cultures

Postmodernity’s rejection of grand narratives, not only as a means of explaining the world, but also of legitimating the world through a top-down imposition of an oppressive ideology ignores the communal origins of these stories, which reflect a collective human consciousness as it evolves. It cannot be denied that a great deal of these grand narratives, such as fairy tales and religious texts, contain social and moral norms greatly at odds with today’s increasingly secular and egalitarian world.   Yet, as Nietzsche (and later Sartre, in his concept of radical freedom) writes, us ‘free spirits’ can venture out onto an ‘open sea’ of meaning in potentia. There is still time for hundreds of revisions to our stories, allowing us to adapt them to reflect our contemporary mores. As Angela Carter has shown in her retellings of fairy tales, we should not disregard the power of ancient stories, but should strive to counter them with better stories, something for people to ally themselves to instead.

We should not disregard the power of ancient stories

It seems that stories and their subsequent retellings are is the only way we can imbue life with a meaning that sustains us and make sense of the fundamental problem of existence.

Photograph: Marcello Bacciarelli and Giovanni Battista Lusieri via Wikimedia Commons

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