Humans need stories. Stories inform, educate, celebrate, and bring about change. We define and redefine ourselves through the telling of stories. Without our story we would cease to exist. Stories give meaning to our name, who we are individually and collectively in society.
Human memory is not fact processed, but story processed. One part of our memory
draws facts out of events, while the other part places them in their episodic
sequence. It is the sequence, not the facts, per se, that allows our memory to
establish purpose. Roger C. Schank, a pioneer in artificial intelligence, states, "We
know them [stories], find them, reconsider them, manipulate them, use them to
understand the world and to operate in the world, adapt them to new purposes, tell
them in new ways. Our ability," Schank says, "to utilize these stories in a novel way
is the hallmark of what we consider to be intelligence." Human memory, then, is
subjective and needs stories to make sense of both who we are and of our world.
Stories can only be realized through storytelling, when they engage the audience.
This is as much true if we are the sole audience to a story playing in our mind, or
part of a larger audience, collectively listening to the storyteller. The form of the
storytelling – narrative, film, music, etc. – makes no difference.
Good storytelling draws the audience into the story to collaborate, amplify, interrupt,
even change it. Good storytelling moves us, changes us, and often brings about
Just as humans need stories, stories need humans. Walter Isaacson, the CEO of
Aspen Institute, reminds us that the great narratives of history were not narratives
set in stone, but collective experiences transmitted orally; reinterpreted and
embellished with each retelling. During the Elizabethan era, theater-goers didn't
passively observe plays, they rowdily engaged with the actors. Through the
continuous retelling and embellishing these narratives became memes, forming
culture, values, and life lessons.
The printing press changed all of this by, as Isaacson says, "freezing words." When
books became the vessel to carry the story, the story became static and lifeless.
From the book, the lifeless story has carried over into almost all mediums of
storytelling.. What would happen today if playgoers rowdily engaged the actors as
they did during Shakespeare's day? They would be quickly evicted from the theater,
maybe even arrested. Today, according to Isaacson, the story can either deliver a
clear and fixed message or contextually engage, but not do both.
The rise of interactive technologies has reopened the possibilities of storytelling. How
these possibilities will emerge is not yet fully seen. We need explore and seek to engage
interactive technologies, as well as print, to tell the story of our collective experiences
in such a way that they move us, change, and bring about social change.
Mythos: A belief by which we live
In a neighborhood where I use to live, every time the neighborhood gathers together, the tale of the
rat in the toilet comes up. The story has been told and retold so many times that it
has become a neighborhood legend of mythic proportions; sort of a localized urban
myth. When I heard the story once again the other day, I got to thinking about how
our neighborhood narratives – stories – not only flow from past events, but also
shape the present experience. My thinking continued to flow from these thoughts to
a more theoretical contemplation of the role of myth in the our experiences. You
will see as my thoughts unfolds in this essay, I am not defining myth as fiction or
make believe, but as a symbolic image of reality.
Now the theoretical ...
We all need stories because we are stories. Human life itself is structured as a story.
Each of us is a central character in the drama of life. Each of us knows, better
perhaps than we know anything else:, life has a beginning, middle, and end.
Consider this question: Is there a difference between myth and modern news? Is not
the news merely a contemporary retelling of ancient myths: the flood myth, the
sacrificial victim myth, the regeneration/resurrection myth, hero myth, and so on?
Myths are populated; they are about beings, human and otherwise, for myths are a
crucial part of being human. Myths do not live in the abstract. "We tell myths about
things that are most important to us. We tell myths to define good and evil, to pass
on memory of what we believe and what we cannot believe. We tell myths to give
meaning to the meaningless and to explain what cannot be explained (Daily News,
Eternal Stories: The Mythological Role of Journalism, Lule, Jack; NY: The Guilford
Press, 2001; p.59.)," but the frame of reference is always human. That is why gods
with human characteristics and heroes with supernatural characteristics populate
myth. Without them myths have no meaning.
Studied alive, myth as we shall see, is not symbolic, but a direct
expression of its subject matter. It is not an explanation in satisfaction
of a scientific interest, but a narrative resurrection of a primeval
reality, told in satisfaction of deep religious [ ed. note: read this as
"spiritual"] wants, moral cravings, social submissions [and ambitions,
ed.], even practical requirements. Myths fulfills in primitive culture
[and ours ed.] an indispensable function; it expresses, enhances, and
codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the
efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man.
Myth is this vital ingredient of human civilization; it is not an idle tale,
but a hardworked active force; it is not an intellectual explanation or
an artistic imagery, but a pragmatic charter of faith and moral wisdom.
("Myth in Primitive Psychology" in Magic, Science and Religion; Garden
City, NY: Doubleday, 1954; p.101.)
The philosopher Ernst Cassirer argues that the images of myths "are not known as
images. They are not regarded as symbols, but as realities (He notes that "the mythmaker
does not invent the facts; he interprets facts that are already a given in the
culture to which he belongs." Myth's "success as a practical argument" he argues,
"depends on its being accepted as true, and it is generally accepted as true if it
explains the experiences to whom it is addressed (The Myth of the State; New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1946; p.57.)."
Northop Frye, in his book,The Educated Imagination (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1964) compares poetry, and by extension, myth, to history by
The historian makes specific and particular statements such as, "The
Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066." Consequently he's judged by
the truth or falsehood of what he says—either there was such a battle
or there wasn't, and if there was, he's got the date either right or
wrong. But the poet, Aristotle says, never makes any real statement at
all, certainly no particular or specific ones. The poet's job is not to tell
you what happened, but what happens [italics added]; not what did
not take place, but the kinds of thing that always does take place
It is the difference between history and myth that turns our experience into
prose worth recording. If it is merely a rendering of historic fact – on such and such
a date, such and such happened here – or a tour of significant buildings,
architecture, or places, it is nothing more than a recording of data. It is when the
events become transformed into dynamic experiences that they become real and
The Role of our Stories (myth)
[Please remember that our working definition of "myth" as used in these essays is
that it is the (a) narrative by which we live. It makes no difference whether we are
speaking of a religious framework or of our neighborhood "story."]
Human history is not fact processed,but story-processed. Human memory is one part fact and one part story.
It is the sequence, not the facts, per-se, that allows our memory to establish
purpose. This is as much true whether we are telling stories of our distant past or
telling the stories of our neighborhoods.
If we examine myth, that is, our stories, as "human memory sequentially arranged,"
we will see that myth is neither objective nor embedded history. That myth is not
objective reality ought to be obvious. Myth contains too much imagination (like
embellished tale of the rat in the previous essay) to be objective fact. That myth is
not embedded history is less obvious. In fact, anthropologists have long held that we
can learn about primitive society via the truth in their myths. However, this has the
effect of making that which remains after the embedded truth – or facts – is
removed, un-true, thus, non-real. But, is that which is left truly non-real?
I suggest that it is not.
The problem with the anthropological approach is that it fails, for example, to do
justice to the reality of the myth in the lives of ancient peoples, who functioned
totally within the framework of their myth. To understand the people of antiquity and
their culture, to give reality to their history, we must do so within the full context of
their myth. I suggest that to give reality to our "experience" we must do so
within the full context of the experience as it is being lived out.
Let me give an example from my own work: In Cleveland, and her suburbs, much
is made of the so-called "divide" between the East Side and the West Side. Now,
there is a literal geographical reason for this divide, the Cuyahoga River. There are
also a number of factual east-west events and differences that add to the historical
fact. However, what has happened is that these events and differences have created
a mythos that has become a reality in practice and imagination of those who call
Greater Cleveland home. Today the historical facts have little to do with the
imagined reality that makes the divide real in our minds.
History, according to Levi-Strauss in Structural Anthropology, studies societies that
unfortunately, given human nature, as we have seen in the example from Cleveland,
are "other than we live in." This makes history by its very nature objective.
this is an impossible construct. There is no way that we can look objectively at the
past, no matter how hard we try. It is impossible for the historian to enter into the
context of another time. The historian always examines from a time removed.
Likewise, it is impossible for us who document the human experience to
be free from the criteria of our own day and context. And those myths – stories – by
which we live show that. History is but one facet of the same reality within which the
actual event took place, the chronicler recorded it, and within which we live as we
I would suggest then, that as we document the narratives of (our) human experience
we do not do so from the perspective of merely recording historical facts, but do so
in a way that make particular historical experiences "open-up" experientially into the
present context of the ever-evolving narrative.
If the narratives – myths – of our experiences are not embedded history, what
are they? How are we to view these narratives to make them meaningful to our lives,
our reality? Strauss states that we should view myth as history in its totality, but do
so subjectively. Myths – our stories – afford a knowledge of reality by giving rise to
the "phenomena of reality within us." Our stories are able to do this because they
subjectively encapsulate history and work it and rework in such a way as that places
our subjective perception in an episodic historical context that stimulates us with a
knowledge of reality.
Quite a mouthful of theory.
To put it another way, our stories ignore, twist, and add to the truth ("objectivity of
facts") by recognizing that there is far more to life than absolute objectivity. It is as
if our stories suggest that perhaps objective thinking is the least important of all of
our psychological functions; that there are questions that are beyond objective
answers. Our stories provide us with subjective answers that need not be absolute,
or more accurately, our stories provide us with subjective questions that defy
absolute answers, and therefore may not need to be answered at all.
A little segue by way of example: the ancient Celts believed that the question, and
the asking of it, was more important than the answer. I have always been intrigued
by the Grail Quest legend in that when the Quester finally asks the Grail King, "Why
do you suffer?" the land is immediately healed, but the answer is never given.
Our stories, or myths if you will, help us distinguish between "real" and "truth." The
"real" is what exists. "Truth" is our judgment about what exists, even to the point of
denying its existence.
While "truth" appears to be objective, it is always subject to our perceptions and
contexts. In Euclidean math, for example, 1+1=2, absolutely. Yet, there are other
mathematical constructs where, according to their logical perceptions, 1+1=2
absolutely does not necessarily equal two. Here we are faced with two conflicting
absolutes. Which one is correct? Which one is the truth? The answer is, only the one
which applies to the contextual perceptions we are working with. Thus, what is
absolute for one person is not necessarily so for another. Our perception of "truth"
always varies according to our circumstances and the criteria that form the basis of
our immediate culture.
The "real" on the other hand, while appearing subjective, is absolute, in that it exists
and is therefore, objective. Our stories, by presenting the objective absolute – reality
– subjectively opens up history for us by relating us to the other than of history.
Facts in themselves can never constitute reality. What constitutes reality is our
experience, our story.
Using myth, or our stories, in our pursuit of finding reality also forces us to
differentiate between "real" and "imaginary." There are two alternative ways to go
about this. The first is one of absolute opposition. The "real" is everything that is, the
absolute. The "imaginary" then becomes everything that is not, thus non-real, and
ultimately, un-real. This, of course, is the classic dictionary definition. The problem
with this approach is that it limits the "imaginary" to our imagination – our "un-real"
mind-thoughts – and nothing more. The alternative way to differentiate is to accept
that the "imaginary" is built upon perfectly real foundations – not the "un-real" of our
mind-thoughts – and from a relative subjectivity that turns it into a reality as it is
The word "imaginary" has its etymological roots in the Old French imago, which at its
core means, "to give birth to a reality." In other words, to give "reality" to our
thoughts. It is the forming of thoughts, even those of the imagination, into solid
images, and subsequently stories, that creates our sense of reality. Thus, the
"imaginary" is how we sequentially arrange episodic events in our mind to arrive at
our stories. Without the ability to give expression to our imagination in a way that
functionally corresponds with our experience, we would become insane.
When we allow our stories, our myths, to function in our lives as intended, the
stories are no longer about our past, or even about our future, they are about the
now, the "what is happening" as we experience life. Stories, functioning as our
mythos, open up a particular historical experience and incorporate s it into our
present experience, and thus, our here and now understanding.
History is always about the the "then," the past. Thus, it serves no real satisfactory
or lasting purpose to interpret our stories from the basis of our history. Stories, in a
real sense, become our quest, both individually and corporately (when they are
shared narratives) become our quest to realize who we are as individuals and a
people. It is better, then, to let our stories illuminate our quest for identity than to
force our quest upon our stories. We need to let our stories speak for themselves.
Stories are first and foremost histological, always part of a larger web. While there is
subjective personal reality to be found in our own individual stories, it is the
collective, often cross-culture, melding and interweaving of our stories that give
meaning to the collective reality, or specifically, for our purposes, the collective
It is this interweaving that makes our stories kinetic and fluid, ever-evolving and
ever-changing in both interpretation and application.
Which brings us to our final point: the embedded universal motifs in our stories.
Stories, as we noted in the very first essay are populated, otherwise there is no
story. Several scholars have advanced various universal motifs represented by those
characters who populate our stories. They can be condensed in seven motifs, or
themes. As you read each one, think about how this character populates your story.
The seven are:
The Hero (The Hero is often grotesque at first appearance, but not always)
The Mother— Terrible (and/or) Good
The Other World (or The Place Other Than Here)
The Deluge (calamities and disasters)
We will see as we explore and document our cultural experience will reappear over and over
again in our narrative.
Think about it
This essay is a revised version of an essay originally posted in "Flâneur" as a series (March 24 - April 16, 2008).©Frank A. Mills