Friday, 20 March 2009

877 - Coraline and The Point of Story

Another post trying out an answer to the question "What's the point of story? No, really?"

So we've got yer innate psychology, evolved to the point where we are pretty darn good at surviving. Involves stuff like the assignment of intention to other creatures. Allows for the development of a supernatural worldview when intention is assigned to natural forces like the weather, and death, and fertility, and creation.

Then we've got yer science, which can pretty much explain everything about everything by now, including the hardwiring of consciousness, and placebo effects, and the mass-movements of crowds, not to mention the emergence of complexity (including life) and the fact that most things don't need a source of intention for them to do what they do.

David Lewis-Williams writes: "the essence of being human is an uncomfortable duality of 'rational' technology and 'irrational' belief. We are still a species in transition." His implication, on the surface at least, is that we are moving from a belief-driven state to a scientific one. At the moment we are somehow stuck in the middle.

Then we have the beauty of a paragraph such as this one from Neil Gaiman's Coraline (Boomsbury, 2003):

Coraline went over to the window and watched the rain come down. it wasn't the kind of rain you could go out in, it was the other kind, the kind that threw itself down from the sky and splashed where it landed. It was rain that meant business, and currently its business was turning the garden into a muddy, wet soup. (p. 15)
Now, I am sure you could read this paragraph believing it to be literally true. So the rain would have business, which at other times might include forty days washing away the sins of the world, or providing a bountiful crop in response to a decent sacrifice, or some such.

Or you could read it through an engineer's lens, stripping it of belief. Perhaps the thought that rain had business would seem incomprehensible, and thus be ignored. Or, mechanically, you'd have to 'tag' the incomprehensible thought as a metaphor, once you'd established it was impossible, of course, meaning a double reading of the paragraph, rather than a single one. And you'd always have to allow that your hypothesis was just that - a falsifiable hypothesis.

Is it true that we are evolving from the first state to the second? Is either preferable to the other?

I picked up Coraline at Waterstone's, because it has been made into a new film, and also because I've not read it yet, despite it being on my reading-list since it was written, but most of all because I spent the morning reading theology, and intended to read science this afternoon, and at lunchtime I wanted something different.

The experience of entering a story world, of experiencing it taking shape before my eyes (behind them too), as the master storyteller selected first one word, then another, till his whole creation sang, gave me the space I was seeking. Space to do what? To settle into my humanity as neither a creature of blind belief nor pedantry. And somehow, as I read the story, I found myself with space not just to appreciate the tale, but the writer for creating it, and the people around me enjoying the sun as I read. In turn, this experience made my efforts of morning and afternoon relevant.

I dare say we may move to a society where everything is explainable materialistically, and we feel free to jettison all our religious beliefs. Or we might relapse into fundamentalist supernaturalism, shunning contact with the world, and each other (and, given that we know science can even explain emotional states, our own inner selves).

But I prefer to think that we're actually pretty sorted where we are at present. Periodically we can let science clear the religious slate, so that we're not beholden to superstition. Or let ourselves remember that science is, after all, only a belief system - probably the right one, though perhaps it's just a fickle god allowing us to believe that.

But with the religious slate clear, and the permission of hard science to invest our sugars and neurons and overall physicality in any world we create upon it, the field is open for us, storytellers all, to exercise our humanity in the creation of any story, or stories, we might wish.

Every story we encounter along the way reaffirms that truth. And that's the point of story.

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