In my last post I discussed the 4 levels of meaning in a story, as established (so I believe) by the grammarians of the ancient library of Alexandria. If you’re curious about how all this relates to astrology, stick with me—for this was more or less the path that I followed in arriving at my own theory about that.
The next topic I want to look at is how we respond to stories. I discovered, with great pleasure and interest, a couple of years ago that scientific research is being done on how people react to stories. (There has been at least one Scientific American article on the subject.) One of the researchers is Paul J. Zak, who has measured the activity in people’s brains while they were reading stories or watching movies. One of his discoveries was that stories cause the secretion of certain chemicals in the body, notably that of oxytocin, a hormone associated with feelings of interpersonal closeness and empathy. And the more involving the story, the more of this hormone is produced. Another discovery was that when we read certain words, that is, nouns and verbs, our brains become active in exactly the same places and in the same patterns as when we experience the real thing. That is, if we read, say, the word tree, the same parts of our brain become active as when we actually see a tree. This is another indicator of why we become so involved in stories: we experience them as being like life.
Not all stories are equally involving. One interesting aspect of Zak’s work is that he was able, on the basis of his empirical research, to come up with ingredients or rules that a storyteller should use if he wants to make his story as involving as possible. I haven’t looked at these in detail as yet, but I expect that they will be in harmony with a similar set of rules derived 2,300 years ago by Aristotle in his book Poetics. For Aristotle found the most powerful form of poetry to be tragedy—that is, dramatic poetry. And he found that the aspect of dramatic poetry that contributes most to its powerful effect is its plotting—that is, its storytelling.
In my own thinking and my own researches into storytelling, I have come up with a number of different definitions for the word storytelling. One of my favorites is: “the art of creating lifelike surprises.” For I had been persuaded by Aristotle, by which I mean that his arguments in the Poetics accorded with my own experience, that the compelling—that is, the involving—aspect of a story is exactly that it proceeds in a chain of events connected by either necessity or probability. For us to be fully involved in a story, the flow of action in it must happen with the same quality of inexorable necessity that guides events in our real-life experience. This is true even in the case of fantasy writing, but in this case the “rules” of the fictional world are stipulated by the author, who then is bound to respect them unswervingly. Because we experience our world, even though it is full of endless surprises, as a lawful place. We can always count on snow to be cold and on water to flow downhill.
What I’m saying is that stories have an effect on us to the extent that they resemble life. The dominant form of human communication, as far as I can tell, is storytelling. Think about it: we spend some time, certainly, stating facts and issuing commands, but the bulk of our communication, in terms of sheer word-count, is usually storytelling of one kind or another. Sitting in the lunchroom or in the bar, people swap stories; at the end of the day, we tell our housemates what happened to us at work. The balance of probabilities, to me, suggests that language itself was invented for the purpose of storytelling. But I’ll leave that thought with you.
But if stories resemble life, then life resembles stories—for the two propositions are what Aristotle would call “convertible”: they are logically equivalent. This in turn implies that elements that are present in stories are present in life. We respond to a good story because it is lifelike; that means that its form, its ingredients, are also present in life. Indeed it is because they are present in life that the story contains them, for we have created the art of story to imitate life.
Now let’s go back to the Alexandrian 4-level model of story analysis. If the best stories really can be read on those 4 levels—the literal, the moral, the allegorical, and the anagogic—then so can life itself be read on those same 4 levels. In exactly the same way that they are objectively present in the story, they are objectively present in life, in the world, in our experience. For the story mirrors life. Somehow, and we don’t need to know how in order for this to be true, life, the cosmos, is built this way. Events flow, driven by the law of cause and effect; but even as they flow, unfolding literally in our seemingly physical world, they at the same time have significance for a witnessing consciousness, if that consciousness takes the trouble to look for it.
This view holds that life, in the most basic, literal sense, is meaningful. Meanings are there to be read by the alert and educated mind.
We’re starting to close in on our quarry, but I’ll use another post to tie everything up. In the meantime, I invite you to join me in a thoroughly meaningful world—this very world we’ve been living in all along.