January 16, 2007

Dominion Over the World (II): Why the Stories We Tell Matter So Much

Stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories, we wouldn't be human beings at all. -- Philip Pullman
In November 2005, I wrote an essay titled, "The Power of Narrative, and the Myth that Justifies the Horrors." I discussed the immense importance of the stories we tell both ourselves and others, stories about our own lives, about our countries, and about the world we live in:
At a certain point [in reading and thinking about certain subjects], I became aware that there was a certain approach, a particular kind of issue, that seemed to be under the surface wherever I looked. It came up with regard to almost every political issue I considered, it arose with regard to personal relationships and in connection with the view we each hold of ourselves, and it came up repeatedly with regard to literature and the other arts. It was the same issue, but it took me quite a while to realize what it was: very simply, it centered around the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we tell others.

When I refer to "stories" or "narratives" in this sense, I intend a much broader meaning than the one typically employed. To use a different kind of example, but one which is also the focus of much controversy at the moment, consider creation myths. Every society we know of in history has had a story about how the world was created, where mankind came from, and how we fit into the universe. In our own time, we have two competing stories on this subject. One of those stories was most notably begun by Charles Darwin: a tale of the natural world, how it developed and changed, and how man finally emerged. The other story focuses on a supernatural being or force of some kind which is beyond our comprehension, and which created this world (or at least significant parts of it) in some manner we can't explain. (With regard to the latter story, it doesn't matter whether its proponents choose to call it creationism or intelligent design: the basic story is the same, and so are its meaning and purpose.)

The contrast between the evolution and creation stories illuminates a few key elements of the issues that concern me. We can arrive at a story about our world by first observing what is before us, analyzing its nature and causes to the best of our ability, and then carefully identifying those broader explanations and conclusions we consider justified and provable. Those explanations and conclusions then become the story we tell about what we've observed. Or we can begin with the story itself, a story we have chosen because it pleases us for some reason or fulfills some need, and then proceed to fit the facts we discover into the already existing story as best we can. When the facts won't fit, we may ignore or seek to dismiss them through a variety of strategems.

Contrasting creation myths underscore another crucial point: the stories we tell, and the method by which we arrived at them, affect how we think and how we act in countless ways. To put it another way: we tell stories to explain why the world and we exist as we do, a retrospective kind of telling -- and those stories then influence what we do in the future, as a prospective guide.
After mentioning the importance of the stories we tell about our own lives, I returned to politics, and how historical and contemporary events cannot be fully understood without grasping the nature of the underlying stories that inform them:
Just as every culture has a narrative to explain the origin of the universe, of our planet and of man, so every country has a narrative it embraces about its own origins. There is one sense, but only one sense, in which I enthusiastically embrace the generally accepted myth about the United States: in terms of its original founding principles, the United States represented a genuinely revolutionary and awe-inspiring leap forward for mankind. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights codified individual rights as the foundation and purpose of legitimate government: government's sole valid function was the protection of those rights. No country in history had ever stated this idea explicitly, and placed it at the very center of its founding document.


The tragedy which began barely a century after our country's founding, the same tragedy which threatens to engulf us today, similarly defies proper expression, so terrible is it in its meaning and consequences. As just one example, but one of the greatest significance: the right of habeas corpus was one of the major elements underlying the liberty we once enjoyed. For a long time, no one seriously considered questioning this right to any degree at all. In this case, recognition of the crucial nature of this right was entirely correct. As a consideration of the administration's stance in the Padilla case indicates, if the executive has the power to imprison any one of us, perhaps for the remainder of our lives, and never has to explain or justify its actions, we have accepted the basic principle of any dictatorship. (I discussed the Padilla case, and its relationship to Guantanamo as a symbol of omnipotent power, in this essay.)


Habeas corpus is only one example of the destruction of liberty that has been occurring in the United States for many years. The destruction began in the late nineteenth century, and became widespread throughout the entire twentieth century. Liberty was constantly diminished, while government power over our lives and government intrusion into all our activities grew exponentially. Today, government is our constant companion in almost everything we do.


But to return to the myth that still sustains many Americans, the same myth that now justifies even torture: for many Americans, once again most notably including our president, the America of today is fundamentally the same America that existed in the late eighteenth century. For them, essentially nothing has changed. America remains "the city on a hill," the unblemished, intact original vision to which the founders first gave life. But, in fact, that vision began dying well over a century ago. [I should underscore that even that original vision was hardly "unblemished"; it contained some genuinely terrible concessions to certain of man's very worst instincts.]

The belief that the original vision still exists today flows into the other parts of the enduring myth: America remains the final, best hope of mankind; America is essentially pure in purpose and motive; America has only liberty as its goal, for itself and for the rest of mankind; America eschews all forms of power over others. If events of the last few years have proved nothing else, they have proved that this myth is no longer true. We invaded a country that did not threaten us; we have established dominion over it; we will leave only when that country will do our bidding, in all the ways that concern our leaders. Such purposes may be described in many ways; liberty is not one of them. (A knowledge of history, and especially of the Spanish-American War and its aftermath in the Philippines, should have established these facts long ago.) [I have since discussed in more detail how this myth about America informs our foreign policy -- in Part III, and particularly in Part IV and Part VI, of my series about Iran.]

But to see and acknowledge this changed reality, one must be willing to face the facts squarely, and one must be able to appreciate their meaning. This is why I stress the power of narrative, and the power of myth. Once it is embedded deeply enough in the national psyche, the myth cannot be dislodged. No matter that a mountain of contradictory facts has arisen, the myth will prevail. And the full truth is worse: the new reality, a reality which contradicts and undercuts the actual founding principles at their root, is justified in the name of the myth. Even torture, we are told, is acceptable if we practice it -- precisely because we practice it on the myth's behalf. We may even torture, and the inhumane and barbaric become virtuous, because we act in the name of liberty -- the same liberty that is now vanishing into memory within our own shores.
As concisely stated by Philip Pullman at the beginning of this essay, we cannot live without stories. It is therefore of vital importance whether the stories we choose to tell are creative or destructive with regard to their deepest meanings and implications, whether they encourage a reverence for life in general and for the sanctity of each particular life, or lead to a casual dismissal of the value of others' lives if those others are "different" or obstruct our own desires, and -- if our stories purport to capture actual events, past or present -- whether they are accurate and solidly grounded in demonstrable fact, or misleading and distorted. As I have discussed in many essays and will analyze further, most of the stories that permeate our national discussion today are grossly wrong, and most often dangerously wrong.

In the near future, I plan to write much more about the work for which Pullman is best-known, his trilogy titled, His Dark Materials. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is enthralling, endlessly exciting and deliberately provocative, in the very best and highest sense. If your experience reading it is anything like mine, it may cause you more than one sleepless night. After I had reached the middle of the second volume, I didn't sleep for more than a day. Occasionally, at moments of unbearable suspense and when the characters for whom we cheer were gravely threatened, I found myself exclaiming -- out loud -- "Oh, no!" My cats were mightily puzzled during this period.

My reaction may strike you as almost childlike. That is entirely correct: Pullman's books are nominally written for "young adults," approximately ages 12 and up. But that is very misleading. As I hope you have already gathered, many adults find Pullman's trilogy wonderfully pleasurable and rewarding. To provide a fuller sense of the joys that Pullman's work provides, I offer some excerpts from a lengthy Boston Globe article from a few years ago. If you haven't yet read His Dark Materials, I caution you against reading the article in its entirety. It describes certain passages in the trilogy that are best experienced as complete surprises. I knew comparatively little about the work when I read it, and I would hope you would share the excitement and sense of discovery that I felt. From the article:
The First Parish Unitarian Church in Concord, where Ralph Waldo Emerson used to preach before his radical "Divinity School Address" of 1838 alienated the orthodoxy, is packed with 600 people, standing room only.

A writer comes out to read from his newest book. The book begins with quotations from three notoriously difficult poets: William Blake, Rainer Maria Rilke, and John Ashbery. In its course it will quote Aquinas, Milton, and Heinrich von Kleist as well. It retells the story of the rebel angels in Milton's "Paradise Lost" from Blake's and Emerson's gnostic point of view: The rebels are right and the powers that regulate and rule the universe are evil usurpers of the creative energy to be found in all of us, in matter itself, till organized religion corrupts and misuses it.

The work is thrilling -- in some ways perhaps the most electrifying piece of literature of the past 20 years. Many religious leaders have come out against it. Some, including the archbishop of Canterbury, will defend it.

And most of the audience on this Tuesday night is under 16.

Philip Pullman's trilogy, "His Dark Materials," is marketed for readers 12 and up, most of whom know nothing of the sources behind Pullman's gripping story about two children who join forces with an armored polar bear, a Texan hot-air balloonist, a pair of fallen angels, and a host of other fantastic characters to crisscross parallel universes in order to defeat a theocratic state bent on destroying human consciousness and thus the world itself.

But like the Harry Potter series (to which they are infinitely superior), Pullman's novels are a crossover hit. In 2001, the third volume, "The Amber Spyglass," became the first young-adult novel to win Britain's prestigious Whitbread Prize. The quality press in America has tuned in to their appeal: Louis Menand of The New Yorker recently assessed the hit London stage adaptation, and Michael Chabon, himself the author of a delightful young-adult novel about baseball in parallel universes, published a substantial appreciation of the trilogy in The New York Review of Books.

In fact, Pullman has at least as large a following among adults as among adolescents: In England the volumes (like the Harry Potter books) are published in "adult editions" as well, differing only in their covers -- and sometimes in their higher sales figures.


"His Dark Materials" addresses the deepest issues that literature can address: the nature of life and death, the world into which we find ourselves thrown by fate, the future of our souls, and the extent to which both our souls and their fates are connected to our most intense, most childlike selves.


In Pullman's case, the breathtaking intensity and power of his writing, together with the moral audacity of his vision, consistently make his work sublime: You feel an exalted pleasure in reading it, one that differs from the standard pleasure that narratives give. It's satisfying when lovers go off into the sunset together, or the hero strikes it rich, or becomes president, or grabs the snitch in a quidditch match. But the pleasures of the sublime are intense partly because we don't quite know what they are.

The exaltation we experience in sublime literature is hard to distinguish from longing. The power and pleasure of Pullman's work are archaic and elemental. He is asking us to love literature for its sheer imaginative power, for the inaccessible but necessary other worlds it describes and embodies.


The real-world stakes of Pullman's work turn out to be high. Some powerful religious voices -- including Britain's Association of Christian Teachers -- have been raised against Pullman, who has been excoriated for blasphemy. But no less a defender than the archbishop of Canterbury has called "His Dark Materials" a "reasoned criticism of Christianity," and in March he recommended at a meeting at 10 Downing Street that it become part of the religious-education curriculum in British schools.
If you weren't already aware of it, that last paragraph might alert you to the fact that Pullman is a committed atheist. In interviews, he sometimes remarks that he wrote His Dark Materials in part as a reply and a corrective to the very damaging messages contained in C.S. Lewis's famous children's work, The Chronicles of Narnia (which indeed does contain many dreadful notions, as I shall discuss sometime soon).

Too many people make the grievous error of equating atheism with a lack of spirituality (which term is most usually left unhelpfully undefined), and with a drab materialism. Nothing supports such a view and, in fact, Pullman's work conveys a profound sense of wonder at the miraculous fact of existence and this world as well as much other literature I have read, and far better than most. As noted at the very end of the Boston Globe piece:
In other words, what we must come to love is the world we live in. Pullman concurs with Robert Frost's summary of Milton: "Earth's the right place for love:/I don't know where it's likely to go better." Earth, unlike heaven, can be a place of childish things, a place where you can write for children, and where such writing will make a difference.
If you haven't read His Dark Materials, I hope you will.

To return to our narrower focus here, and the importance of narrative to our foreign policy: it is impossible to understand the large sweep of American history and the forces that have directed our foreign policy without understanding the stories we tell about America itself, and about ourselves as Americans. Because it is so central to my analysis of our foreign policy and why it has been and continues to be so dangerously destructive and misguided, I must set out here certain parts of one central myth as I have described it before. I emphasize that this is not the full explanation of our policy by any means. Other elements are also critically important -- in particular, the rise of corporate statism beginning in the late nineteenth century (by which, I refer to the growing alliances between government and purportedly "private" businesses and corporations). I will discuss those additional pieces of the puzzle in upcoming installments.

But this part of the commonly accepted story must always be kept in mind:
The West has the answer to successful human life. Since it does, and because certain elements in the rest of the world have now chosen to attack us on our own ground (and never mind that we have invaded and ruled over vast portions of the rest of the world since time immemorial), we must enlighten those benighted portions of the globe in our defense. Our chosen method of enlightenment is brute military force, to be deployed even against countries that did not threaten us. The lack of a genuine threat is no argument against spreading our version of "civilization," for our mission is grounded not only in self-defense: it is also a moral mission. Our success and our "peace" directly correlates to our virtue. Those countries and those civilizations that do not enjoy the same success and peace are without virtue. In the most extreme (and, one could argue, most consistent) version of this tale, non-Western parts of the world are less than human -- and they are subhuman by choice. They are immoral, and sometimes even evil. Since we represent the good and they represent the evil, we are surely entitled to improve them, by invasion and bombing if necessary. If they do not threaten us today, they might at some indeterminate time in the future. And while we might kill many innocent civilians in our campaign of civilization, those who survive will be infinitely better off than they would have been otherwise. Besides, how "innocent" can any of them be -- since they are members of inferior, less than fully human civilizations, and since they are so by choice?

This story may have the virtue of simplicity and the attractiveness of notions that support a faltering sense of righteousness -- but it is also grievously, terribly wrong. It ignores the long sweep of history and complex questions of philosophy, morality and politics. ... It should be noted that, besides being wrong for countless reasons, this story contains the seeds of immense destructiveness. The destruction we have seen in the last few years may only be the prelude to infinitely greater destruction still to come. ...

The fable peddled after 9/11 addressed questions dealing with the entire world. The wake of Hurricane Katrina unmasked a corollary to this tale. This time, the storyline was contained within our own borders -- but it was no less ugly for that. In fact, the domestic fable that has taken hold in large parts of our media and among many so-called "respectable" intellectuals has confirmed that ancient hatreds have never left us. Those hatreds reveal the most virulent form of racism -- and they ought to give pause to all those who champion the kind of "civilization" they contend we are morally justified in exporting by means of missiles, bombs and bullets.
I will be discussing how these stories and ideas have had countless effects on United States foreign policy in future parts of this series.

For now, I will leave the final word about the significance of the stories we tell to Philip Pullman. He was the 1996 winner of the Carnegie Medal, England's highest honor for children's literature, for the first volume of His Dark Materials. In his acceptance speech, Pullman offered the following remarks:
[S]tories are vital. Stories never fail us because, as Isaac Bashevis Singer says, "events never grow stale." There's more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy. And by a story I mean not only Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk but also the great novels of the nineteenth century, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Bleak House and many others: novels where the story is at the center of the writer's attention, where the plot actually matters. The present-day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They're embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do.


There's a hunger for stories in all of us, adults too. We need stories so much that we're even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won't supply them. We all need stories, but children are more frank about it; cultured adults, on the other hand, those limp and jaded creatures who think it more important to seem sophisticated than to admit to simplicity, find it harder both to write and to read novels that don't come with a prophylactic garnish of irony.

But those adults who truly enjoy story, and plot, and character, and who would like to find books in which the events matter and which at the same time are works of literary art where the writers have used all the resources of their craft, could hardly do better than to look among the children's books.

And there's a spin-off too, a social benefit. All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively than moral precepts and instructions. The current campaign for moral education being waged by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Secretary of State for Education and Training could achieve all it wants in the field of moral education (and we all want a more moral society) by simply making sure that the schools' library service didn't die out. Give the books to the teachers, and then leave them alone; give them time to read and think and talk about the books with one another and with their students, so that they can put the right book into the hands of the right child at the right time.

We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.
And now you know some of the general factors that led to the title for this blog, and its more particular inspiration.

Dominion Over the World, Part I