Is the Narrative Impulse Dangerous (Review)?Historians in the News
tags: book reviews, humanities, narrative
Timothy Snyder is the Levin professor of history and public affairs at Yale University, and the author of Bloodlands and Black Earth. His On Tyranny has just been released in a graphic edition illustrated by Nora Krug.
THE STORY PARADOX
How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down
By Jonathan Gottschall
It is a “considerable bother,” says Jonathan Gottschall, to write a book; he lightens the task by writing about himself and excusing himself from extensive research. He sets a memorable scene of a morning spent in the lounge of a college psychology department flipping through the indexes of textbooks. He concludes from this that no one has ever undertaken his subject, the “science” of how stories work. Eureka.
Gottschall, a research fellow at Washington & Jefferson College, tells us that “for as long as there have been humans, we’ve been telling the same old stories, in the same old way, for the same old reasons.” We live in “unconscious obedience to the universal grammar” of stories. In other words: We don’t tell stories, they tell us. And everyone is the same kind of storyteller, Jesus and Socrates and all the rest. The universal story hard-wired into our brains is, says Gottschall, one in which everything gets worse until it gets better.
This “universal grammar” doesn’t seem to fit the Book of Genesis, Norse mythology, Greek mythology, the Analects, the Rigveda, “Hamlet,” “The Brothers Karamazov,” “Madame Bovary,” etc. But that is the least of Gottschall’s problems.
In “The Story Paradox,” he explains that stories filter what we should hear into what we want to hear. What might seem like innocent narrative tension can mean the rallying of one tribe against another. These are perfectly sensible points, made decades ago by Hannah Arendt. Yet in this book Gottschall tells just such a story about himself: a heroic scholar whose original insight challenges our preconceptions, leading a charge against an enemy tribe of terrifying left-wing academics. Defending this version, he ignores others who have made arguments very similar to his own, and dismisses whole disciplines and professions that offer counterarguments to his views. Gottschall demonstrates the power of stories by falling for his own.
Little is original in his analysis. His notion that stories tell us arose out of the structuralist anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1950s. Philosophers have been hard at work on story; that goes unacknowledged. Gottschall does mention history and journalism, but only to dismiss them as elements of our culture’s storytelling “machine.” In this bonfire of the humanities, Gottschall frees himself from knowing what novels say, disciplines demand or traditions offer. His portrayal of Jesus and Socrates as tellers of stories is exactly wrong. They spoke in questions, riddles and parables, meant to refresh minds and souls. That spirit of inquiry is absent here.
So is the principle of noncontradiction. When it suits him, Gottschall cites examples taken from the very disciplines that he has dismissed. Right after a pungent section characterizing history as the useless projection of the present upon the past, he cites a book of history, because it says what he wants it to say. Again and again he does what he thinks he is criticizing: treating as evidence what supports his story, and ignoring the rest.