Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Meaning of Human Existence

 by Jack McKeon  

illustration by Arthur Rackham
A couple of months ago, I read a book by biologist Edward O. Wilson modestly titled “The Meaning of Human Existence”.  In it, Wilson makes the case that we are a “eusocial” species – one that cooperatively raises its young across multiple generations and which divides labor so that members must sacrifice some personal reproductive success for the success of the group.  There are, he says, about 23 such species, primarily insects (bees, ants, termites), a couple of African mole rats, and us.  We’ve attained this status by the adaptation of our ancestors to meat eating, which favored a more stable form of life than our previous wandering.  The “nest” or campsite developed, becoming the focus of social life.  Work became divided and complex and the community cared for the children.
    Aiding this eusocial development was a genetic disposition to be insatiably curious about ourselves and each other. This developed our sensitivity to the non-verbal messages put out by others, enabling us to interpret situations and anticipate the future. This function was further aided by the development of spoken, then written, language and the creative arts in general.

… the creative arts… are… in an important way just the
same old story, with the same themes, the same archetypes, the same emotions.

The function of anthrocentricity – fascination about ourselves – is the sharpening of social intelligence, a skill in which human beings are the geniuses among all the earth’s species…a state of intense, even obsessive concentration on others has always enhanced survival of individuals and groups. We are devoted to stories because that is how the mind works –
a never ending wandering through past scenarios and through alternative scenarios of the future.

It struck me that what we do is at the center of this process, not only in the actual act of telling stories but in the content of what we tell.  One of the consequences of our eusocial standing is a conflict between the individual’s drive for personal genetic success and the opposing need of the success of the group.  This is a conflict that has plagued us throughout our history and is playing out now in our own politics.
    Our stories, more often than not, deal with just this conflict. Take the Grimms’
“The Golden Bird”, which I recently told at the Morris County Juvenile Facilities.  This is a story with the typical three brother conflict.  The older two brothers, faced with the task of first identifying and then locating the bird, indulge their desire for sleep when they should be watching, and then, trusting to their “cleverness”, ignore the good advice of the fox that would have deprived them of some personal satisfaction.  So they get stuck living for pleasure and abandoning all responsibility towards a greater good.  Eventually they end up on the gallows – an interesting response of group control over the excessive individual – and are rescued by the more other-oriented youngest brother, only to resume their selfish, disastrous, behavior.
    This youngest brother, on the other hand, as is usual in these cases, assumes the responsibility of watching through the night and heeds the advice of the fox to avoid the snares of the Inn of pleasure and assume the humility of the dark, quiet inn.  In this way he attains the invaluable assistance of the fox. He pays attention for the good of all, at some discomfort to himself, at least this time.  (Other third sons gain helpful assistance by engaging in generous, socially conscious sharing of food or information.)
    The youngest brother is not without flaws, however, mainly an inability, shared with his brothers, to accept the humble when the grand is available.  He is still trapped by a desire for “show” that each time arouses the community and lands him in prison.  Each time he is given a reprieve by the various kings – the social authority – if he can only bring something further that might be useful for the community.  Even his final task, accomplished by the fox, of removing a hill blocking the king’s window is to enable the king to see further, an increase in power rather than wealth.  By the end, the youngest brother has obtained the animal power and energy of the horse, the spirituality of the bird and the life asserting force of the anima/princess.  However, they are usurped for personal gain by the older brothers and ultimately do not function in a positive way.  Only by approaching them with humility, as the youngest does in the guise of a beggar, can they be persuaded to sing, eat and be joyful. The youngest son then becomes heir to the throne, the new social condition..  The individual has integrated in himself all that can make him whole in such a way that he blesses and unifies the kingdom at large.  The apparent conflict between individual and society is resolved and everybody wins.  Except the elder brothers who are put to death.  While this doesn’t actually address the biological imperative of the individual to reproduce personal DNA at all costs, one can imagine that prince and princess will have lots of children in a manner sanctioned by society.
    It’s nice to see us storytellers on the front lines of this eons old and ongoing battle for civilization.  I think of last year’s workshops with the 6th grade at Frelinghuysen in which we told stories and ran exercises about the benefits of community.  Our stories work towards a socialization that traditional societies accomplished more forcefully and sometimes brutally.
    What about the fox?

Our stories about animals require human like emotions and behavior understandable with well worn guidebooks of human nature.  We use endearing animal caricatures including those of even tigers and other ferocious predators to teach children about other people.

    I think there’s more to what we find in the animals in tales, particularly the helpful creatures like the fox.  Part of this fascination is our intuitive connection with animals which we lose as we become civilized.  Our houses are filled with animals, not, I think, just for companionship but because we need that connection, however domesticated.  It’s fascinating to watch my Aussie do her best to herd and control my two cats, or to listen to the guttural noises the cats make as they watch the birds out the window. We need to be close to them to be reminded of who and what we are.  The animals in story speak with that inner voice that resides deep in our brain.  They are us.  We are at our best when we can listen to these foxes, who, perhaps ironically, always put us onto the difficult and uncomfortable road towards civilization.  But if we listen we can experience, as at the end of “The Golden Bird”, the transformation of animal to civilized being.
illustration by Jamie Mitchell

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