One of the things that I often struggle with is explaining to people why literature is important.
It’s not for lack of faith in the topic, or any particular hesitancy to share, it’s just a complex matter.
However, I’ve been doing some reflecting recently and I think I’ve come up with a good explanation.
Stories teach us how to be a Hero. Not a little-h hero, but a capital-H hero; someone who engages with the universe.
The Hero and the hero
Jung writes about archetypes and the collective unconscious, and one of the most powerful archetypes is that of the Hero (often synonymous with the Self, but only if the Self is developed well).
The Hero is someone who finds truth–truth in a universal sense, which incorporates both mystical/experiential and rational/empirical discoveries–and strives toward it. While it is possible to define goodness in defiance of the truth that we can experience, it’s hard to find a philosophy that does that without leading to incredible destruction.
By contrast, philosophers and religions have for almost the whole of reality made a point that truth is a panacea for the sufferings in the human condition. Jordan Peterson describes the lie as a single individual trying to defy the reality that is incredibly larger than they are; Kant teaches that the very act of lying is destructive because it can have horrible consequences.
Compare this to the truth; while the truth may cause personal suffering, the end of deception will lead to better reality in an objective sense. To stray into the field of economics for an example that justifies this, Jeffrey Tucker summarizes Austrian economic ideals in A Beautiful Anarchy (affiliate link) as a interconnected system in which independent agents are able to make good decisions because of knowledge they have obtained.
While this philosophy may not necessarily apply to reality in the sense that there are definitely people who make better decisions than others and there could be a case for merit-based selection of those people, there is a key correlate:
Even in economics, it is generally accepted that deception is a source of evil. This is why we have consumer protection laws. There’s a moral outrage that we feel when we see people exploit each other–it can be suppressed, but not if we’re being fully honest.
Heroes in stories (true heroes, not tragic heroes or anti-heroes) share one common trait: they are honest, in the sense that they have integrity between their beliefs and actions. While they may be deceptive, this is almost always portrayed as a flaw (e.g. Pinocchio).
The Need for Integration
Indeed, the Hero (in the archetypal sense) who sacrifices for honesty may actually do so to achieve their own redemption or salvation. By choosing a path that integrates their experience and their reason, they are able to overcome their innate limitations.
In The Righteous Mind (affiliate link), Johnathan Haidt recounts a scenario where he has an argument with his wife because he didn’t clean up after himself and immediately makes up a story about how he was interrupted from doing so.
This action is reflexive, precisely because Haidt was failing to integrate the reality with his ideal self: he was a slob who hadn’t cleaned up, and while that may not have been a problem for him it was a problem for his wife, and due to his relationship with his wife he needed to clean up to maintain his image as a good husband (since, after all, any relationship requires work from both parties).
The lie that he chose, that he was interrupted, allowed that ideal to remain intact, but did nothing to drive him closer to an integration between reality and the ideal.
Stories provide a pathway to this integration. The protagonists show either a tragic failure or have an ultimate redemption (as Haidt does in this story when he confesses and reconciles to his wife and is able to gain useful information for his study of moral psychology).
In either case the right path (it is not for nothing that many religions focus on the right way to live–perhaps even an archetypal Way) is illustrated for the reader.
Reason and Emotion
Haidt also recounts stories of injuries suffered to a region of the brain responsible for decision-making. People who lacked emotion made terrible decisions, despite apparently being totally logical. In strictly logical challenges, they were able to function normally, but when values needed to be assigned they suffered from analysis paralysis and could not make good decisions.
For this reason, the Hero needs to blend reason and emotion, and stories provide a framework for this.
In our time, rationalism has become synonymous with empiricism: the ability to measure and understand things. Our ever-increasing knowledge of the functioning of the world has, however, left us only with the certainty that there are many things that we don’t know.
Further, even if we can theoretically come to a complete empirical theory of the world as a species, the chance that an individual human could ever contemplate such a thing seems impossible, or at least unlikely.
The real danger, however, is not that empiricism has used up the entirety of our reason, but rather that it has become our only means of approaching the world.
Recently I’ve been reading Jung (sort of a New Year’s resolution, you could say), and a lot of the things I’ve found there are quite interesting. If you look at medieval alchemy and mysticism, they’re every bit as “rational” as our modern empirical method, though they are obviously flawed in their ultimate interpretations of the world.
Nonetheless, it is possible that many of the great alchemists and mystics enjoyed an understanding of the universe as a whole that an empiricist may not, because while their efforts were often futile they placed them in the schema of a constructive worldview: that truth in the spiritual world would be found through the physical world. Does that not echo many of the philosophies that arose in tangent with modern empiricism?
The old Hermetic adage “As above, so below” may not longer ring true, but we have merely replaced the heavens full of the divine with mysteries full of the unknown. This has had a disastrous effect, however, because we have declared as uncultured all the wisdom and most of the knowledge of the past.
The Hero has to find a spiritual element of themselves; Jung would argue that this is drawn from the collective unconscious, a part of the mind that we don’t get to choose or change or alter and is a function of humanity.
There’s a really great scene in Marvel’s Black Panther movie where the protagonist finds himself cast into a dream world where he sees his ancestors and communicates with them.
This is not merely an element of mysticism that reinforces the Afro-futurist genre of the film. Rather, it is a statement of deep truth: we need to develop ourselves using the elements of the psyche that we often ignore.
One of the criticisms leveled against Millennials is that they typically use Harry Potter as a shallow metaphor for reality (e.g. the constant comparison of unpopular politicians to the dark lord Voldemort). While there is a certain danger to this, I think there’s also something to be said for it being an incredibly profound decision on their behalf.
The reason for this is simple: we live in a day and age in which our art has become hyper-mimetic, stuck to depictions of reality (in guiding motive, if not artistic styling) and severed from the emotional and mystical origins of our psyche. It’s generally accepted (though evidence doesn’t seem to be clear) that Millennials also tend not to be particularly well-read in terms of stories, and they tend to read a handful of popular texts and esoterically outside that (often sticking to “useful” non-fiction and short works).
In any case, their tastes are predominantly modern and post-modern, which provides a particular danger because these philosophies have a decreased appreciation for meaning and the sort of universal truth that the Hero strives for.
To become a Hero, one must confront their Shadow, the unknown elements of their own identity that keep them from seeing Truth. This has to be a process of confronting falsehood consciously and painfully because if one can only confront falsehood when doing so is comfortable it will become such a rarity that it would be impossible to find examples of.
The Hero aligns themselves with reality, and only then can they change it for the better. This is why stories are important, because even a conceptualization of this concept does not guarantee its execution. Stories provide examples of this system in process.