A few weeks ago I began what I proposed to be a an exploartion of English academia, using genre studies to argue how the fractious nature of art in the modern world makes the boundaries between mediums somewhat irrelevant. It was a topic I was passionate in pursuing — and still am — but then last week before I could start the second installment, my house was broken in to and my laptop was stolen. Thus, no new column.
This week I would like to make up for that by making a broader argument and for now abandoning mere genre studies and broaching a bigger underlying theme: Why do we tell stories? Why is it necessary to share anything with anyone else?
Anyone who has ever taken Bill Larsen's screenwriting course knows that at the top of his assignment sheets there is always a list of quotes from many sources, all usually relevant to that assignment. The first, however, without fail, is one by Joan Didion — "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Now, Didion is a literary author, yet her words appear in a film studies class. Why? Because the same basic truths regarding human interaction transcend the barriers thrown up between artist of one particular mode of expression from another.
Humans, above all other known species on this planet, possess a level of social hierarchy, and therefore social conditioning, unlike any other animal, vegetable or mineral. We often say, "Oh yeah, we're a social species," and leave it at that. But that doesn't account for the antisocial, sociopathic, or downright insane among us. We share things in order to relate, true, but for a person with no other consideration for others this seems wholly unnecessary. However, that isn't to say that those people cannot appreciate art or feel some emotion when watching a powerful work of drama or comedy.
Society as it stands now is both more united and more divided than at any other point in our history. With the world economy and the unions of power established by wars and treaties in the last three centuries, we now have the opportunity to communicate with, and either love or hate, more people than any generation prior to ours'. But instead of embracing these capabilities and working towards something better for the species and perhaps even the planet, we squander the means of rapid communication that exist to bring us closer together.
I'm becoming sidetracked. Let's back up. Media's constant inundation with banal programming and Hollywood's proclivity towards shoddily contructed spectacles made to rake in money rather than build dreams, as was the original selling point of motion pictures, offer little incentive to rising generations to chase the wild visions and unbridled ambitions that for so long have moved and driven the world to push on through the slog of everyday life. Above filling some social obligation to interact with fellow members of society as per the social contract, art is the tool by which we reaffirm our wearwithal and through whose means we quell fears and anger to live another day and maintain some sense of sanity.
Perhaps my bias gets the best of me. There are other means of achieving the same ends — religion, competitive success in business, scientific inquiry — but art is the least abashed dealer in human emotions, the cogs which drive our ego and id and as a species, take over our biological imperative for survival and cause us to operate on whims. This blind subjectivity has been denounced by religion, by science, as a restraint on our potential, and perhaps this is true. But the utter callousness that exists on the opposite end of that spectrum is no better an alternative.
If you pick up a book of short stories from the middle of the last century and compare them to, say, Push by Sapphire, the contrast is extreme. A certain studiousness and deliberance exists in those older works, whereas in the newer book there is only innocence in the face of atrocity. We have thrown the reins under the hooves of the horses and no longer maintain the control of our emotions, As artists, we have that fault. That is not to say, though, that this is any reason to abandon the pursuit of telling human stories for that purest of reasons, not only to just live, but live well, to taste the bitterness and saccharine of life equally, to lament the pitfalls of living and laud the highs of being here at all, against all probable odds. We tell ourselves stories to remain human, when our most instincts would drive us to do otherwise.
- Jake Lane is a graduate in creative writing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.