literary theory, philosophy

What’s the Point of Telling Stories? Bad Fiction, Good Fiction, Lies Holy and Unholy

If you tell a story to convince people something is true then the point is to get people to believe whatever you are telling them.  If the story is not true and you know it, then you are lying.  If you don’t care about the truth of the story but are telling it anyway in order to get people to believe it you are engaging in what Harry Frankfort calls “bullsh***” — talk without caring about the truth value of what you are communicating.  If you think it’s true but it’s not you are spreading untruth.  Your moral culpability depends upon how hard you work in general to make sure that what you tell is true.  If you are equally likely to tell false stories that make your political or religious party look bad as ones that make it look good then you seem fine; if it turns out to slant in the direction of your political interests you have something to answer for.

Plato advocated the “pia fraus” or holy lie in order to keep his ideal republic going.  In his set-up, a few morally righteous people — The Guardians — know that their society’s castes are a human invention, but they tell a lie in order to get the lower classes to play along.  Lies that claimed to be pious ran rampant in the ancient world.  Every empire and indeed every city state had a fake tale about how it was founded by divine beings.  The pia fraus might be a good idea but impractical for several reasons.  One is that in our current pluralistic, wired globe people are more likely to be able to see through the noble lies.    This can have the opposite of the intended effect: once the sheep know the shepherd is willing to lie for their own good, they will be less likely to believe their shepherds.  Another problem is that in real life it places a huge temptation in the hands of the lying elite to misuse their power.  For an interesting discussion of a contemporary example of  the pia fraus see “Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History”.

This all applies to stories whose point is to convince people to believe things.   What about a story that is not intended to get people to believe things?  When we listen to a story (or watch a movie or play a video game) we engage some of the faculties of our soul that are engaged in real life, but our rational faculties know that they are engaged with something that is not true.  It is a bit like dreaming.  It is a rare person who eats the pillow while dreaming believing it is a marshmallow.  It is a rare person who actually falls in love with Sherlock Holmes and moves to London hoping to marry him.

When it’s working well this kind of dry run can help build up our capabilities.  We can see if we solve the puzzle before Sherlock Holmes does or if we recognize the self-deception of Emma before she does.  We can practice our wisdom or our cleverness or our courage without dealing with the consequences, or rather without feeling the full consequences.  We can actually feel shame if we sympathize with a character’s poor behavior or rationalization for example, but the shame doesn’t hurt as much as the shame we feel for misbehaving or rationalizing in real life.

At its best fiction can challenge our redoubtable capacity for self-deception.  The cunning writer can play to our hopes and fears, teach us how those hopes and fears lead us to selfish behavior, and trick us into identifying with a character who ultimately is flawed. This can teach us to watch ourselves more carefully, and to pay attention to life.  At its best fiction can also enlarge our perspective and teach us that everybody has his story, and that these stories fit together into an intricate web of cause and effect, self-justification and blame, narrowing and expanding of perspective that is beyond anybody’s ability to see in real life, unfolding as quickly as real life does.  At its worst of course it can encourage our wish to dwell in a world of egocentric fantasy, where the little guy always gets the girl, and the moral hero proves he has the right stuff by wasting those who dared disrespect him in a hail of bullets.

There is also a deeper sense in which collections of stories can be part of the founding of a certain mode of experience — call it a culture in the sense in which a code of laws may found a city..  In this sense certain archetypes, and patterns of significance may be set up within which human beings cultivate themselves.  This is rooted in a fundamental aspect of all talk which is that it makes a decision about what is worth paying attention to.  The storyteller in the deepest sense is making it that these sort of things are to be paid attention to and worth caring about.

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4 thoughts on “What’s the Point of Telling Stories? Bad Fiction, Good Fiction, Lies Holy and Unholy

  1. Mikey says:

    My favourite recent example of a recent bit of fiction challenging my redoubtable capacity for self-deception was Papers, Please. It’s an excellent game for the PC which forces you to empathise with border officials. I’d previously often talked about them as though they were on a par with if not animals then maybe robots. But Papers, Please taught me that they’re people too.

      • Mikey says:

        It’s an excellent game! They’re robots. But they’ve become robots by making very human decisions. And no one is human in all areas of their lives.

        Once when I was being detained in a border for longer than was totally necessary, I saw two border guards making a joke with each other and laughing. It reminded me of that puzzling feeling of seeing a teacher or a policeman laugh during an incident when they’re telling you off. They just switched off their humanity for a bit, then switched it on again when they needed it.

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