This essay on storytelling and fiction makes the following points: 

Fiction evokes feelings of wholeness by depicting characters overcoming internal and external states of exile
Fiction draws us in to these depictions through our acts of identification, interaction, observation
Fiction evokes feelings of wholeness by evoking our sadistic desires
Fiction evokes feelings of wholeness through unhappy endings
The purpose of fiction is to turn bad into good
Fiction plays to both our regressive and moral impulses
Fiction plays to primitive psychodynamic fantasies
Sublimation occurs when fiction uses these primitive fantasies to play to our moral impulses
Part of the role of criticism is to reveal how fiction does these things
Criticism is the study of "representation-work" and of "simulation-work", through which lifelike fictions come to express our inner life
Frye, Marcuse, Maslow and Ricoeur embody the kind of criticism and social science referred to here
Fiction is about the master plot of human existence and it is a part of that story

 

Contemporary Storytelling:
Tales of Life Way After the Fall

by Ken Sanes

Most works of fiction, from movies to stories told around the dying embers of a campfire, work their magic on us by employing a single set of elements. They start by showing us characters who are in a state of exile from what they desire and who seek a kind of paradise in which their desires will be fulfilled. In some instances, this state of exile is quite literal and the characters are trapped in alien landscapes, dungeons, desert islands, and assorted other uninviting locales. In others, they are imprisoned in evil societies -- in exile from the decent society they know can exist -- or from the object of their love. But, whatever the more obvious form of exile they suffer from, they are often in a state of internal exile, as well, in which they are separated from their own courage or compassion or other desired traits, until they find the qualities in themselves that will allow them to change their circumstances.

In many stories, the work of fiction takes these two states of exile -- internal and external -- and it ends them by transporting the main characters to the paradise of a happy ending. Both we and the characters go from a state of anger, fear, suffering, and unfulfilled desire, to a sense of confidence, satisfaction, safety and power; and from an unjust situation to a just one, at the same time. In other words, the happy ending does something we wish life could be counted on to do: it transforms anxiety into hope and gives us a corrective emotional experience that temporarily undoes the trauma of life.

This transformation from a bad situation to a good one can broadly be said to have two aspects. On the one hand, it evokes regressive states and primitive emotions in us. By showing us all those final scenes in which the characters get everything their hearts desire and fall into the safety and comfort of each other's arms, happy endings inevitably evoke feelings we all have that are associated with the idea of being protected by a parent's loving embrace or returning to the womb or enjoying the bliss of being orally satiated at the mother's breast. But these emotions are almost always (at least in the West) attached to the idea that the characters will now be free to build something, whether it is a relationship or a world. In effect, what many happy endings do is take us back to lost pleasures and forward to the kind of future we would like to create, at the same time. They depict characters who manage to find a paradise, in small and large ways, but it is an adult paradise that is intended to depict the kind of world the audience would like to live in.

When we examine why these endings have such a powerful effect on us, we discover that it is because stories have a way of  drawing us into the events they depict, which means that we too take the journey from anxiety to safety and hope. They draw us in by encouraging us to identify with the main characters so that, vicariously, we suffer as they suffer, and we experience the joy of being liberated from danger and achieving a better life. In this mode, the happy ending allows us to experience a sense of hope about ourselves and own lives, along with an enhanced sense of self-esteem that comes from accomplishing something and being on the side of right.

They draw us into their invented worlds in a second way by inviting us to imaginatively interact with the characters, partly through other characters we identify with. Here, we react to the characters as if they are people who occupy the same space as we do, and who can perceive us and respond to us. This heightens our psychological immersion in the story so the events and the ending seem to happen both to us and other people, simultaneously.

The storytelling of fiction also draws us into its invented worlds in a third way by letting us see the characters from a greater distance so that we relate to them as people whose life situation is laid out before us. In this mode, we are able to sympathize with the characters as if they are people we care about -- almost as if they are our children. Here, we often experience altruistic emotions in which we hope they will escape suffering and achieve their goals, and we enjoy a sense of benevolent satisfaction when they succeed, so that we are carried away by deep emotions that probably deserve to be described as a kind of love. We thus not only see morality fought over and restored in the story, but, in the process, we get in touch with a deeply moral and altruistic part of ourselves.

These emotions are particularly resonant because the work of fiction encourages us to meld our identification with the characters with the sense that we are observing them from the outside, as we experience compassionate concern for their fate. It thus induces in us an  emotion of altruistic self-love that is simultaneously for ourselves and others. When you add these emotions to the feeling of joy and release evoked by the happy ending, it evokes a state of mind that may be a variation on what the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to as a peak experience, but very temporarily induced by a kind of experience-altering machine.

The description of these elements -- identification, imagined interaction, and observation from outside the field of action -- has focused on how our connection to the main characters allows the happy ending to have an effect on us. A more complete description of our relation to the story would show that we identify with, imaginatively interact with, and observe all the characters in a work of fiction. Every scene in the story draws us into a different combination of these psychological actions. Through acts of identification that shift between the villain, the victim, and the hero, for example, we take pleasure in committing the crime and revel in our belief that we have gotten away with it; we also suffer the attack; and we play the altruistic rescuer, all through the same story.

Authors (including directors, scriptwriters, actors, animators, et al) are constantly giving us signals about how to carry out these psychological actions. One way movies and television do this is by focusing on a character's emotional expressions, which induces us to identify with that character. By switching back and forth between the emotional reactions of two or more characters as they encounter each other, a movie or television program will encourage us to shift our identification from one to the other, seeing each through the other's eyes, even if our primary identification is with one and not the other. That means we are constantly dipping in and out of the action, experiencing the fictional situation -- and ourselves -- through one character and then another.

We can expand on these ideas further by noting that, just as storytelling in fiction uses these techniques to evoke feelings of love and benevolence in us, so it also uses them to evoke our sadism and our urges to symbolic and physical violence. It does so in part by provoking our anger at the outrageous misdeeds of the villains (even while letting us secretly and not-so-secretly take pleasure in their malevolence). Then it invites us to enjoy the pleasure of identifying with the heroes as they engage in the legitimate symbolic and physical violence that will stop the villains and give the villains their just deserts.

Storytelling in fiction also mobilizes our sadism in another way, by inviting us to take pleasure in the ridicule or mockery that it directs at its characters. It will depict them as ridiculous and flawed, and have other characters mock and ridicule them, for our pleasure, although, in many instances, our sadism is tempered by our identification with, and love of, the characters, and by the good feeling induced by laughter.

In doing all of this, fiction is offering us defenses we can use to escape negative emotions, including feelings of vulnerability and victimization. Since we have been degraded and attacked (symbolically, if not physically), ourselves, the work of fiction lets us turn our own victimization into mastery by letting us degrade others and gloat over our victory, if only in an invented world.

But these forms of sadism are more than defenses. They are also essential to fiction's ability to free us up and give us a sense of wholeness. In the symbolic violence of mockery, fiction lets us see through the defenses and rationalizations and pretensions of other people and society and ourselves, and it lets us symbolically reduce evil and persecutory authority to a more manageable size. It temporarily lifts us out of the reality of life in which all of us are busy weaving a spell of illusion, and puts us in an illusion in which things are called by their right name. At the same time, in evoking and sating our desire to defeat the villains, it is able to vicariously give us the satisfaction of overcoming evil and bringing about the happy ending, along with giving us a sense that we have achieved something important. This reliance on sadism may be an escape but it is also a way of putting us in touch with basic desires we have to deal with adversity by mastering it and to deal with evil by replacing it with good.

Sadism, however, is like explosives -- authors have to manipulate it very carefully. If they fail to include it in the story, we will sit bored in the theater, watching something that is as bland as our dry popcorn, or we will turn off the television and go to sleep. If they offer too much sadism or fail to adequately disguise and integrate it into a larger story, with a moral framework, it ends up producing the kind of soulless invitations to recreational evil that are now sold in some computer games and movies, which depict invented worlds of explicit regression, violence, sexual violence and degradation, modeled after our inhumanity. Unless an audience has come looking for such a blatant expression of sadism and regression (and most won't), it will likely turn against a work like this and fail to be drawn in to its invented world.

Just as storytelling in fiction uses sadism, benevolent emotions and happy endings to overcome our sense of exile, and give us a sense of hope and a heightened sense of wholeness and freedom, so it also uses unhappy endings for the same ends. In the tragic or sad ending, it gives audiences the pleasure of indulging in purely symbolic suffering, of releasing and indulging in sadness, while enjoying the security of knowing they haven't experienced a genuine tragedy. It allows them to enact feelings we all have about life and its traumas -- life as a constant state of loss -- while mastering these feelings, to some degree, in the genuine happy ending of knowing that the loss is a fiction, for now, anyway. In addition, an unhappy ending that evokes our sympathy will also put us in touch with an altruistic and benevolent part of ourselves, since we feel sadness (and compassion) for ourselves, through our identification with the suffering characters, as well as for the characters as other people. Here, once again, we are able to stand outside ourselves in a way that takes us beyond our narcissistic immersion in our own problems.

Sadness and tears over genuine events can culminate in the same sense of release and the same benevolent emotions. But these are accompanied by the trauma of knowing that something has genuinely been lost.

This doesn't exhaust the ways that the unhappy ending gives us a good experience. Like humor, it can also give us the exhilaration of showing us life as it is. And it can evoke in us a resolve to never allow the kind of evil that is depicted to happen again in actuality.

To state all this a little more systematically, fiction draws us into invented worlds through constant shifts in which we identify with characters; relate to them directly as other people who can perceive our responses and respond to us; and observe them from a perspective outside the action. As we engage in these psychological actions, our emotions and fears and desires also shift and intermingle, involving all the permutations of love, hate, safety and power, giving us such experiences as a desire for revenge or a sense of benevolence or the feeling of joyous relief in being saved. We do all this while we react, to some degree, emotionally, as if the events depicted are real, while we know they are not.

Fiction manipulates all of these psychological actions and emotions, and creates a kind of symphony in which the different parts play in unison, interact, and seem to work against each other, to create its aesthetic effects. It does so in order to fulfill its basic function, which is to turn bad into good or, at least, into what audiences believe is good. In the transformation of adversity into joy that takes place in the happy ending, bad is forever being converted into good. In the use of humor to free us up by calling the negative things of life by their right name, and then turning that into the good feeling of the joke, bad is turned into good. In the way the depiction of suffering lets us experience feelings we have about life, evoking a sense of benevolence and/or a determination to never let this happen in reality, bad is turned into good.

But since fiction only need give us what we think is good, not what is actually good, it can also offer us distorted depictions of morality and life, and still find an audience. At one extreme, it can offer us opportunities to act out regressive and malevolent desires that are defenses against disturbing truths. The audience member who felt castrated, demeaned, manipulated and symbolically annihilated as a child, can enjoy a story whose prime purpose is to allow him (or her) to pretend to castrate, demean, manipulate and annihilate others, in covert and overt ways. The story he vicariously participates in will be an act of revenge and an escape from the truth, including the truth of emotional pain, all contained in a disguised form. It will depict something that he knows is wrong, as something that is good, sending the message that taking pleasure in doing harm isn't a reason for shame, but is something positive and a source of entertainment.

Similarly, storytelling in fiction that is based on prejudice can make people feel good about hate. It can satisfy their desire to hate -- end their exile from the joy of hating, while it gives them permission to hate by portraying their victims as worthy targets.

At the other extreme, are the best works of moral fiction -- stories that do a particularly good job drawing us into invented worlds that end our exile from our true and better selves, and symbolically satisfy our desire to live fully and honestly, see other people treated fairly, and participate in a good society. These stories make use of the essential ethical images -- of being free from or destroying, or failing to be free from or to destroy -- something evil, and of finding or creating, or failing to find or create, something good. They offer us story lines of escape and liberation versus imprisonment; and of learning, love, maturity and building versus ignorance, hate, regression and destroying what is good. Most essentially, they show us characters like ourselves who, in the course of the story, evolve into more complete human beings.

In an apparently minor comedy, such as the movie Groundhog Day, we see an example of moral fiction, which depicts a character who escapes his defensive wall and finds his true self. In another comedy, Uncle Buck, we see the image of someone achieving adulthood, if a bit late in life, by recognizing that his desire for the freedom of bachelorhood really masks a fear of commitment and growing up. Along the way, he teaches a young relation that not all authority is persecutory in intention. In the more ironic movie, The Four Seasons, we see a portrait of middle-aged characters who are trying to get beyond the wall of themselves in an effort to reach others and enjoy the abundance of riches around them. We follow them as they go on assorted vacations through the four seasons which are, symbolically, the seasons of life that the characters are very aware of passing through, and we can't help but be moved by the contrast between the beauty of the landscapes they find themselves in, and their petty bickering and neurotic concerns. At the end, the characters continue to try to get beyond the wall of themselves, having had a few successes along the way.

In the ironic television comedy MASH, we see a different image of humanity exiled, not merely inside the madness or immaturity of itself, but in mad circumstances, committed to a society whose institutions need to be institutionalized. They counter it not merely by acting crazy to stay sane, but by making people, not rules or rank, the highest value.

As these descriptions make clear, moral fiction doesn't succeed merely by depicting what is moral. It is its ability to call things by their right name, to show us a version of ourselves as flawed, pathetic, rationalizing creatures who are swept up by events, that gives it so much of its power and makes the story interesting. Through identification, we are these people (which we are in life, of course) and through benevolent observation, we love them, sending us the message that it is okay to be full of imperfection ourselves and it is possible to strive for something more.

Most popular fiction, today, gives us some variation on stories and themes like this, with imperfect characters who grow and struggle with themselves, escaping defenses and finding ways to stand up to crazy social systems and malevolent persecutors. That means most of these are, to one degree or another, works of moral fiction, mixed in with all the other stuff. All play to the inherent moral sentiments that are part of our minds and to the need we have to believe that we, and any characters we are going to root for, are on the side of right.*

But all of these stories, no matter how evolved they are as works of moral fiction, are also made up of primitive fantasies. And all evoke in us primitive and simple emotions. Even the most sublime fictions are riddled with this psychodynamic material, as is every human communication. They are laboratory cultures teeming with fantasies of orality, anality and oedipality; castration anxiety, sadism and revenge. They play to our desire to peep and display ourselves; to deceive and gossip and create havoc, Iago-like, while denying we have a role in the chaos of events.

The characters they give us are fantasized images from childhood, of ourselves and parents and siblings, as good and evil, competent and inadequate, desirable and repugnant. And the stories they tell are endless re-creations of childhood fantasy scenarios, which are spun out of the minds of the authors and covertly communicated to audiences, so that audiences can vicariously act out some variation of these same fantasies.

Not surprisingly, the most common stories they tell are disguised versions of the family drama that exists in everyone to some degree, with villains who represent (a fantasized version of) evil parents, exploiting and trying to injure innocent victims and heroes out of corrupt motives. Not infrequently, these villains are depicted as keeping the main characters from the object of their love, which can represent an oedipal parent and/or a peer and life mate. But in the end, the hero-child musters up his (or her) courage, overthrows the villains and creates something better, as we feel a sense of relief that he wasn't done-in (castrated, annihilated, etc.) for his actions. He thus wins his independence and the ability to create a world based on his own, more humane, values. He may also win the object of his love although, if it was a disguised depiction of a parent earlier in the story, by the end, it will have been transformed into a peer and a life mate. As in life (for many), so in fiction, our first and inappropriate choice of love-object is transformed into the socially acceptable and mature loves of adulthood.

Much of storytelling in fiction is, in very obvious ways, a transformation of these fantasies. It offers us characters who fight to free nations and groups of people from malevolent dictator-parents, and who often have to carry out their fight in environments controlled by the villains. It offers stories full of intrigue, with secret surveillance and diabolical plots that are uncomfortably similar to the paranoid fantasies of those who fear they will suffer parental retaliation for oedipal and other crimes. And it gives us heroes who always seem to be standing up to stronger and larger villains, until the villains are undone by the fact that they don't possess the wile, the ability and the righteousness of the hero. In the end, we symbolically win the fantasized battle with parents that is forever going on in the recesses of the mind.

Fiction offers us all kinds of disguises and justifications that allow us to enjoy these symbolic victories, without experiencing the anxiety that would otherwise attend to them. There is the ultimate defense, which is our awareness that it is all a form of fiction and the defense in which we are told this is a story about other people, not about ourselves or those we know. There is the defense in which fiction says it is okay for the hero-self to win and engage in legitimate violence because he or she is worthy, and because the villains are moral worms and despicable creatures, or because it is necessary to engage in legitimate violence to stop the villains. The socially acceptable happy ending, in which a better world will now be created and in which the male and female characters will settle down together, helps us ward off anxiety over the victory, as well.

Another psychodynamic element can be seen in happy endings. As partially alluded to at the beginning, they give us the relief and the gloating that come with victory. This will shade into a sense of bliss that seems a lot like oral satiation, as our hearts are filled and the sympathetic characters get what their hearts desire. Images of the male and female characters falling into each other's arms will evoke feelings of parental protection, comfort, melting and symbiosis.

Is all fiction a disguised retelling of these fantasies. The best answer I can provide is that, at the very least, all will evoke these associations to one degree or another since our perceptions of good and evil, fear and desire, power and powerlessness, progress and regress, freedom and unfreedom, satisfaction and deprivation, are linked up with these early experiences. But some works of fiction show this underlying fantasy material more clearly than others.

In any case, fiction is never only a disguised story taken from childhood fantasies. It also depicts nature, society and culture; politics and personal development; and, as in science fiction, it can depict ideas from mythology and religion. But all of this is imbued with childhood fantasy, as it is in life, so that fiction ends up telling more than one (closely related) story, allowing us to symbolically solve personal and societal conflicts at the same time.

Since, as we have seen, all fiction draws from these same elements, and all fiction turns bad into good, it is clear that none of these elements can distinguish what is moral in fiction. We certainly can't distinguish moral and immoral fiction according to which ones make moral claims, since even works of hate depict the hero as defending the moral order of society. And we can't distinguish moral and immoral fiction according to which stories embody primitive and sadistic fantasies, since even the finest works of moral fiction give us opportunities to vicariously enjoy malevolence and act out our primitive psychodynamics. What does distinguish moral fiction is some variation on the definition given earlier, namely that it does a particularly good job putting us in touch with our desire to live a full and honest life, see people treated fairly, and participate in a good society. Moral fiction achieves this, to a significant degree, through sublimation, which is to say it turns, not merely bad into good (including the transformation of weakness into strength) but it also turns the low into the high. It does so by employing clarity of vision and artistic excellence to draw us into invented worlds in which our psychodynamics, including our primitive emotions and sadistic desires, will be used to put us in touch with the deeply moral part of our selves.

To the extent something is a form of moral fiction, then, it will use the kind of  psychodynamic subtexts referred to above to tell stories about the creation of better selves and a better society. The kind of family drama referred to earlier, seems to be particularly conducive to this kind of sublimation. What it depicts, usually in disguise, is a child or adult in the process of growing out of his or her family and becoming a mature adult. And it depicts parents who use their power to corrupt, manipulate and exploit, or good parents to turn their children toward the correct path. The ending these stories so often give us, of a male and female who are now prepared to settle down and raise a family, after evil has been vanquished, may depict children growing up and overthrowing or escaping the regressive control of parents, but it also depicts people creating a world imbued with practical reason and ethics.

And if these stories take us even farther back still in our personal development, and evoke oral bliss in the happy ending, they do so while letting us experience the joy of creating a better world. They take us back to ancient and lost pleasures, and forward to moral pleasures that represent much of the essence of who we are.

Unfortunately, despite all the strengths that have been described, here, even the best works of moral fiction turn out to be palliatives: temporary escapes and defenses against anxiety and despair. Much as they are able to let us live out all of these issues, vicariously, they can't offer their insights directly in ways we might use to expand our understanding. They can't offer their insights directly because the authors may not know how to do so, or may believe (rightly or wrongly) that they aren't allowed to do so. And the authors are usually not even conscious of much of what they are saying. In addition, if authors say it directly, that may interfere with our immersion in the story by inviting us to stand outside the story and look at its meaning, (although authors still manage to work all kinds of direct statements about the meaning of the story into the mouths of characters and narrators). Authors also can't show us how to take the vicarious and temporary experience of the story, and make it a part of our own lives.

This is not to say that stories are only palliatives, without an ability to affect the world. They do change us, as individuals and societies, partly by letting us experience other possibilities in life and by depicting some things as good and bad, and safe and dangerous, in ways that modify our perceptions. The most obvious example is the way movies and television have helped create a more liberal culture in America, by depicting certain kinds of characters and lifestyles and goals as good, and by drawing audiences into invented worlds in which possibilities of life that lay beyond the taboos of traditional culture are explored and made to look positive. And stories also expand us as people in ways that aren't tangible, for example, by letting us experience the issues of life as these are transformed into a rich aesthetic experiences, and by giving us a breadth of vicarious experiences.

But, despite these considerable strengths, so far, fiction has mostly provided us with a window into what we can become and what the world can be, rather than with a door we can walk through. It takes our tendency to react to realistic appearances as if they are real, and uses it to give us the same stories and endings over and over, so as to play to needs that are biological and psychodynamic, for safety, meaning, love, morality, admiration, and so on. We are enriched by the experience but the world we go back to is, for practical purposes, the one we temporarily left behind, which suggests that fiction often functions like a benign neurotic symptom: it makes us feel better, but the effect is temporary. It is also a form of learning that can help us grow emotionally as people, but apparently it can only accomplish this in limited ways.

Criticism of the Storytelling in Fiction and Nonfiction Has an Essential Role

This is one of the places criticism (and social science) comes in: it can unlock the truths about what we experience when we are drawn into these invented worlds. It can take what is implicit and disguised in all works of fiction and make it explicit, freeing us up by calling things by their right name. Since much of what we express in these works is our moral yearnings, what criticism will end up revealing is our desire to create the better selves and the better world we know should exist.

Criticism can offer us many of these same insights when it examines nonfiction, so long as the nonfiction has some kind of a story that represents characters in situations. This means that news and history can be analyzed with the same ideas, but with an eye on questions of how the stories they tell represent events, and how they correspond to other stories told about the same events. Most importantly, when criticism examines nonfiction, it once again finds the moral dimension. News stories, for example, describe the competing moral claims of leaders and nations, and, these same stories also make, often unacknowledged, moral claims about the kind of people and nations we should be.

Criticism will also find many of the same elements in forms of fiction that are immersive or participatory, such as video games, virtual realities, and theme park rides that take passengers through fabricated environments and offer rudimentary story lines. One of criticism's roles, here, is to delineate how these forms of fiction differ from other forms. What happens when we play the characters in place of merely identifying with them; when we interact directly with characters instead of merely doing so in imagination; and when we go inside a lifelike setting?

We expand our appreciation of the role of criticism further still when we recognize that it can enlighten us on all the fictions that masquerade as something authentic -- politicians who give scripted and staged speeches, and so on. Criticism will find the same psychological actions and meanings at work in all of these because all are based on elements of mind that are operative throughout human life.

By directing its gaze at all of these domains, criticism can help make contemporary culture transparent. It can tell us what happens when the techniques described above get turned into the science of advertising, politics, and rhetoric, so that bad is turned into good, and low is turned into high, as a result of precise calculations made with the aid of marketing studies and computers. What happens when commercials (or erotic movies) get rid of the obstacles that allow the plot to "thicken" and engage in a form of storytelling in which they give us one invented paradise of happy endings after another? How does it change us and change other domains of fiction?

Ultimately,  criticism turns out to be one of a number of fields that focus on questions of communication and representation. The role of these fields of study is to understand the process of "representation-work", in which representations get created, communicated and made to serve various functions, and in which they end up revealing and disguising what is on the minds of communication senders and receivers. Since much of what we communicate has to do with our sense of exile from ourselves and from the world we know can and should exist, as well as with all the attendant issues of right and wrong; and with identity; our relationships; our fear of death and our questions about the meaning of things, the study of representation-work will have to involve these moral issues.

In terms of the subject at hand, criticism focuses the larger share of its attention on a particular kind of representation-work in which lifelike characters, situations, and "worlds" are invented that tell us a more satisfying (and often more exciting) version of our own stories, giving us landscapes that embody the landscape of the mind. To a significant degree, this process is made possible by a form of representation-work that can be referred to as simulation-work. Authors engage in simulation-work when they construct believable worlds that express and disguise what is on their -- and our -- minds, usually with the intention of turning bad into good. These acts of construction involve two kinds of trickery -- the creation of something that seems real, which is intended to evoke our suspension of disbelief, and the disguise of psychologically and socially taboo messages, which allows us to ward off the true meaning of the story, even as we subliminally take it all in. Audiences complete the process in their response, suspending disbelief and simultaneously warding off and perceiving the taboo content.  

Ricoeur, Frye and Marcuse on Art, Symbolism and Storytelling

Examples of theorists who practice or have practiced the kind of psychologically- informed and ethically-based criticism described above, are Paul Ricoeur, and the late Northrop Frye and Herbert Marcuse. Frye said that fiction shows us the world as we want it to be and fear it might be, full of heavens and hells that represent the possibilities of life. Frye read the history of literature the way a psychoanalyst, with an appreciation for each person's yearning for truth and fulfillment, might read a client's associations -- as fragmented expressions of an unconscious vision that is already a complete system of ideas, waiting to be put back together. But the client that Frye put on the couch was humanity, and the associations he listened to were those of literature, in an effort to reveal the vision of life that underlies all human life. What he found was a system of ideas that expressed our desire to undo our fallen state and reestablish our identity with nature and the world.

In tragedy, he saw a compelling expression of our awareness of our fallen state in which we are trapped in nature and history. He saw comedies as oedipal stories about lovers blocked by a father or father surrogate and as conflicts that pit a corrupt and dominant society against the freer society of the hero and his love. In irony, he saw an unidealized depiction of human existence.

Like Frye, Marcuse believed that fiction expresses our yearning for liberation. It does so, in part, he believed, by offering us a world of illusion that speaks a higher truth and calls things by their right name. It does so, as well, by expressing our yearning for freedom, and by embodying all this in a sensual-aesthetic-erotic object which is, itself, a form of freedom from a world in which Eros is denied and suppressed. Not unlike Frye, who talked about our desire to be in a state of identity with nature, Marcuse talked about the necessity of a transformation in our relationship to nature, which, for him, meant a change from exploitation to an attitude imbued with Eros and its humane values.

Marcuse also believed that fiction contains the possibility of freedom. It contains it both in the sense that it includes it and in the sense that it keeps it safely locked away in a world of illusion. It is an alienated expression of our true nature and our desire for an aesthetic and sensual life, which is constantly suppressed by society.

Although he wasn't a critic, the work of the humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow, provides another key to the role of criticism. It was Maslow who saw that we have a real self that is able to robustly embrace life and function far beyond neurotic normalcy. The more we become this self, he believed, the more we see values as an objective part of the world. He believed that we are all capable of becoming this self in daily practice, when we get beyond our defenses and neurotic desires.

Although these theorists developed apparently different systems and had different ideas, they were all working off the same myth, describing how we might end our exile from ourselves. All three were trying to understand the unfallen person we really are, who is able to seek and hear and tell the truth, about him or herself, and others and life. To the degree we become this true self, we live fully, we turn spontaneously toward good and, to adapt an idea from Marcuse, we have an aesthetic revulsion toward evil. To the extent we are fallen -- and we are all fallen -- we lose our selves in the maze of defense and false desires that are a product of our psychodynamics and primitive narcissism, and of the dynamics of alienated culture and of society, drenched in power and manipulation.

The most important role of the fields that study and try to interpret representations is to discover how all of this is expressed in our creations, and toward what end. As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur describes, interpretation seeks to make us transparent to ourselves by helping us see the meaning of the symbols and narratives we create. It is a form of archeology that uncovers the layers of the subject or the self, but one that must, ultimately, have to do with self-transformation. Inevitably, as Ricoeur also showed, in a different context, a part of its focus must be on the relationship between regressive and progressive meanings, those that look back and those that look forward.

The Storytelling in Fiction is About the Master Plot of Existence

This essay has tried to offer this kind of criticism by describing some of the ways fiction draws us into the story and by describing the role of fiction as seen from a very encompassing perspective. Its basic contention is that the storytelling of fiction turns bad into good, to give us a temporary sense that we are ending our exile from what we desire. It gives us the sense that we are attaining our desires by depicting us overcoming the limits of the physical world and the limitations of our own character, as well as the limits that other people impose on us because of flaws in their own character. And it shows us failing to overcome these limits, which often gives us more nuanced ways of turning bad to good.

It is at its most resonant when it depicts our quest to find happiness and create a world fashioned after our better selves, despite our weaknesses and the inevitable traumas of life. In essence, it is a symbolic effort to undo the fall.

By no coincidence, what it describes turns out to be the master plot of our existence, since we are all stranded in nature and society, and in ourselves, yearning for things to be made whole. Everything else is subplot.

Once we appreciate this, we can begin to see history as a story of millions of selves, stranded in nature, society and their own psychodynamics, all of which are both the vehicle of life and a prison. These millions of selves are similarly stranded in meaning and meaningless. All are born into a world whose nature and purpose are a mystery and though they can fill the world and themselves with meaning, nothing they do in between can finally solve the puzzle.

But the self isn't merely stranded in history. It is also moving through history in a manner Hegel would probably appreciate, in an effort to make itself, society, and nature transparent to itself. In the period we now live in, it has begun to seem possible that it is on the way toward some very impressive victories. Inevitably, that has us reinterpreting the stories of the past and incorporating them into new stories about the future.

Criticism can and must align itself with this movement, and study it, by examining the way it is refracted through storytelling and fiction. As for fiction, it depicts all of this, and it is this. It shows us overcoming the limits of nature, society and mind, and it tries to move beyond those limits by taking the elements of nature, society, and mind, and using them as its raw material, to craft a work of freedom. It is an expression of our drive to meaning, in which authors temporarily lift themselves out of the mysterious world and create their own mysterious worlds, in an effort to make manifest what is hidden in the original. As Frye put it, fiction is a part of our effort to create a human world that reflects our values and has the look of home. Like culture, it is an effort to turn bad into good and unfreedom into a form of freedom. But it is a form of freedom that is, by necessity, limited in its effects.

It is the job of criticism to help us understand the experiences offered by fiction's invented worlds, so we can move closer to creating selves and societies that are more like the ones we imagine in our happy endings. Trying to make use of these tools to achieve this end is something that is worthy of us, and it is a goal that is worth passing on to succeeding generations.


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* Note to section on moral fiction: None of this is to say that fiction is only of value if it embodies strong qualities of morality. On the contrary, fiction offers various things of value, from visual spectacle and beauty to excitement. But most fiction couldn't exist without the moral element, and a people without moral fiction would be lost.


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