Dec 27, 2011

Non-Comfort Food

Econo-blogger Tyler Cowen is a truly odd duck, and as such he says some intriguing things almost as often as he says deeply strange things. His weirdly contrarian TED anti-talk about his suspicion of storytelling is a great example. (Transcript here.) A fair amount of it strikes me as rhetorical water-treading around a very basic idea with big implications—essentially, that narrative is a false comfort we can ill afford in a complex world—but this quote jumped out at me:
As a general rule, we're too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you're telling a good vs. evil story, you're basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it's, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don't have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you're lowering your IQ by ten points or more.
He's talking about Occupy Wall Street as much as he is, say, Tolkien. What's interesting to me is about the time I read this, I was making my way, at long last, through R. Crumb's amazing Book of Genesis comic (light holiday reading, you know). And though I don't want to put too fine a point on this realization or make any special claims about scripture, I was struck by how knotted and complicated the moral scheme of the Hebrew and Christian Bible really is, if you take it straight and take it (more or less) seriously. Sure, there's plenty of talk about good and evil, about faithful followers of God and covenants and those who are unlucky enough to be outside that favor, but these are outweighed by the sheer mass of story after story of complicated misalliances, misunderstandings, and half-measures.

The story of the Fall in Eden, in other words, feels much less like the Biblical template than the one that follows it immediately: that of Cain slaying Abel, then getting a more-or-less free pass to set up his family and lineage. Yes, I know, the writers take pains to show how Adam and Eve's next son, Seth, replaced Abel and sired the "good" line that would survive the Flood etc. But Cain, the repentant murderer, feels a lot more like the spiritual ancestor to the likes of Jacob, Joseph, Saul, David, and Solomon.

Reading this stuff with clear eyes, as David Plotz memorably did, might be many things—frustrating, maddening, sobering, revelatory, fascinating—but it seems to me very far from reductive or Manichean.

1 comment:

David Cote said...

I got a feeling this guy would love the average season at MTC or the Roundabout; most of those play are about, "Gee, my life is so messed up! It''s a journey! I have ambivalence about myself and my family!" Not some sort of simplistic battle of good versus evil in which we the audience are being manipulated emotionally and ideologically.

That's a really thoughtful and provocative talk--as is your response here-- but I would flip this guy's formulation. Life as we experience is it may be messy and confusing, but our responses, in the moment, aren't: We have binary reactions to stimuli - hunger/satiation, lust/disgust, fear/courage. But stories are where the organism's responses to the world are reproduced, reflected, given complexity and layers.

At least, that's what I think about when I think about narratives. I don't equate stories in the abstract with repression or self-delusion, any more than I equate a nicely built chair with physical weakness or laziness.