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 The Storytelling Animal - How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall

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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: The Storytelling Animal - How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall   Sat Jul 21, 2012 11:36 am

THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL is a relatively new book and an issue I enjoy exploring, so I bought an e-version of the book. Just got an Ipad, so testing out how it is to read a book on such a device.

So I am just beginning to dive into this book. To me, most if not all "religion" on this planet is story-based, narratives, fiction, mythology, exaggerations, confabulations, tribal tales, woven together. There may be some kernels of great insight and ethics, the occasional awakened founder or prophet, but they are often buried in all that other stuff. Some religious tales are truly great timeless stories that strike a nerve and stay with us for thousands of years.

So the big Zen story is that in Zen, we are beyond stories. We have no stories. We just have the bare, pure essential enlightenment, beyond all myth, fantasy, imagination, etc. All other religions are based on myths and fantasy, but not Zen. We don't need any of that. But that's our big honking story - and its a doozie. Not sure how you spell the word "doozy." So the Zen story includes the no-story story, but also the stories of the full enlightened master, the fabricated and glorified myth of the unbroken transmission lineage, the teacher who teaches by eccentric skillful means and crazy wisdom and is therefore beyond all scrutiny, and much of the Japanese Zen arts and culture that was in fact semi-fabricated in the last century to sync up with western fantasies of Zen. Also, how so many glorify and worship "tradition" - the "pure tradition" or "original Zen" - none of which exists today or frankly probably ever existed. And doesn't need to exist. Dharma does not depend on such notions.

But still, even with all these stories, we still have authentic dharma teachings (the simpler the better) and awareness practice and genuine insights and life transformation. That's the wonder of it. These all still exist. The stories can muddy things up quite a bit, but never completely.

But it is good to know the difference between fantasy / wishful thinking and reality. It is good to keep that questioning / wondering mind that does not accept things as they are fed to you, questions and challenges, and maintains spiritual adulthood as a value.

http://youtu.be/nNQkApqdiSc
Older video from the same author: http://youtu.be/nkCO6Pit0kA

Some notes about THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL - from the author (as posted on amazon.com) and some short reviews:

What is the storytelling animal?

Only humans tell stories. Story sets us apart. For humans, story is like gravity: a field of force that surrounds us and influences all of our movements. But, like gravity, story is so omnipresent that we are hardly aware of how it shapes our lives. I wanted to know what science could tell us about humanity's strange, ardent love affair with story.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was speeding down the highway on a gorgeous autumn day, cheerfully spinning through the FM dial, and a country music song came on. My normal response to this sort of catastrophe is to turn the channel as quickly as possible. But that day, for some reason, I decided to listen. In "Stealing Cinderella," Chuck Wicks sings about a young man asking for his sweetheart's hand in marriage. The girl's father makes the young man wait in the living room, where he notices photos of his sweetheart as a child, "She was playing Cinderella/ She was riding her first bike/ Bouncing on the bed and looking for a pillow fight/ Running through the sprinkler/ With a big popsicle grin/ Dancing with her dad, looking up at him. . ." And the young man suddenly realizes that he is taking something precious from the father: he is stealing Cinderella. Before the song was over I was crying so hard that I had to pull off the road. I sat there for a long time feeling sad about my own daughters growing up to abandon me. But I was also marveling at how quickly Wicks's small, musical story had melted me into sheer helplessness. I wrote the book partly in an effort to understand what happened to me that day.

But don't you worry that science could explain away the magic of story?

I get this question a lot. The answer is "No! A thousand times, no!" Science adds to wonder; it doesn't dissolve it. Scientists almost always report that the more they discover about their subject, the more lovely and mysterious it becomes. That's certainly what I found in my own research. The whole experience left me in awe of our species--of this truly odd primate that places story (and other forms of art) at the very center of its existence.

Children come up a lot in this book, including your own children. . .

Yes, I spent a lot of time observing my two daughters (in this I took my cue from Darwin, who was a doting father, but not shy about collecting observational data on his large brood). I got lucky. My girls happened to be 4 and 7 during the main period that I was working on my book. This is the golden period of children's pretend play. And I was able to observe them spontaneously creating these fantastic wonder-worlds, with these elaborate and dangerous plots. I noticed that my girls spent almost all of their awake time in various kinds of make-believe. And I was invited to enter those worlds myself, to play the roles of princes and Ken dolls and monsters. I learned a lot about the nature of story from my girls. Story and other forms of art are often seen as products of culture. But this perspective is one-sided. Story blooms naturally in a child--it is as effortless and reflexive as breathing.

Are dreams a form of storytelling?

Yes, they are. Dreams are, like children's make-believe, a natural and reflexive form of storytelling. Researchers conventionally define dreams as "intense sensorimotor hallucinations with a narrative structure." Dreams are, in effect, night stories: they focus on a protagonist--usually the dreamer--who struggles to achieve desires. Researchers can't even talk about dreams without dragging in the basic vocabulary of English 101: plot, theme, character, scene, setting, point of view, perspective. The most conservative estimates suggest that we dream in a vivid, story-like way for more than six solid years out of a seventy-year lifespan. So dreams are definitely part of the evolutionary riddle of storytelling.

What is the future of story?

In the digital age, people are reading less fiction, but this is because they've found new ways to jam extra story into their lives--on average we watch five hours of TV per day, listen to hours of songs, and spend more and more time playing story-centric video games. I think we are seeing, in video games, the birth of what will become the 21st century's dominant form of storytelling. The fantasy lands of online games like World of Warcraft attract tens of millions of players, who spend an average of 20–30 hours per week adventuring in interactive story. Players describe the experience of these games as "being inside a novel as it is being written." In upcoming decades, as computing power increases exponentially, these virtual worlds are going to become so attractive that we will be increasingly reluctant to unplug. So the real danger isn't that story will disappear from our lives. It is that story will take them over completely.

Reviews

"[An] insightful yet breezily accessible exploration of the power of storytelling and its ability to shape our lives...[that is] packed with anecdotes and entertaining examples from pop culture." The Boston Globe


"The Storytelling Animal is informative, but also a lot of fun.... Anyone who has wondered why stories affect us the way they do will find a new appreciation of our collective desire to be spellbound in this fascinating book." BookPage

"Stories are the things that make us human, and this book's absorbing, accessible blend of science and story shows us exactly why." Minneapolis Star Tribune.

"This is a work of popular philosophy and social theory written by an obviously brilliant undergraduate teacher. The gift for the example is everywhere. A punchy line appears on almost every page." The San Francisco Chronicle

An "insightful consideration of all things story." —Library Journal

"A lively pop-science overview of the reasons why we tell stories and why storytelling will endure..[Gottschall's] snapshots of the worlds of psychology, sleep research and virtual reality are larded with sharp anecdotes and jargon-free summaries of current research... Gottschall brings a light tough to knotty psychological matters, and he’s a fine storyteller himself." —Kirkus Reviews

"They say we spend multiple hours immersed in stories every day. Very few of us pause to wonder why. Gottschall lays bare this quirk of our species with deft touches, and he finds that our love of stories is its own story, and one of the grandest tales out there—the story of what it means to be human." —Sam Kean, author of The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

"Story is not the icing, it’s the cake! Gottschall eloquently tells you ‘how come’ in his well researched new book."
—Peter Guber, CEO, Mandalay Entertainment and author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, Tell To Win

"This is a quite wonderful book. It grips the reader with both stories and stories about the telling of stories, then pulls it all together to explain why storytelling is a fundamental human instinct." — Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology, Harvard University

"Stories are everywhere. Stories make us buy; they make us cry; they help us pass the time, even when we're asleep. In this enthralling book, Jonathan Gottschall traces the enduring power of stories back to the evolved habits of mind. He reveals the ways in which we are trapped, for better or worse, in a world of narrative. If you are in the storytelling business — and aren't we all? — you must read this book." —Jonah Lehrer

"The Storytelling Animal is a delight to read. It's boundlessly interesting, filled with great observations and clever insights about television, books, movies, videogames, dreams, children, madness, evolution, morality, love, and more. And it's beautifully written—fittingly enough, Gottschall is himself a skilled storyteller." —Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale and author of How Pleasure Works

"Like the magnificent storytellers past and present who furnish him here with examples and inspiration, Jonathan Gottschall takes a timely and fascinating but possibly forbidding subject — the new brain science and what it can tell us about the human story-making impulse — and makes of it an extraordinary and absorbing intellectual narrative. The scrupulous synthesis of art and science here is masterful; the real-world stakes high; the rewards for the reader numerous, exhilarating, mind-expanding." —Terry Castle, Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, Stanford University
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PostSubject: Re: The Storytelling Animal - How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall   Sun Jul 22, 2012 9:24 am

:-) Thank you, Josh.

Your expression of the "big Zen story" is pretty much how I saw it when starting out in Zen decades ago. I don't know when bits started falling off for me, though I think that began many years ago, and OBCC (including your helpful postings of Stuart Lachs' writings and similar) has helped since to dislodge significant pieces, so that I can barely imagine it now!

I guess that some of that story reflects what we ourselves would like to know...perhaps for most of us "the bare, pure essential enlightenment, beyond all myth, fantasy, imagination, etc". So indeed thank goodness that "even with all these stories, we still have authentic dharma teachings (the simpler the better) and awareness practice and genuine insights and life transformation." (-:
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PostSubject: Re: The Storytelling Animal - How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall   Sun Jul 22, 2012 10:39 am

I just had lunch with Stuart Lachs a few days ago here in nyc. We went to a good local Indian restaurant. I live a few blocks from a kind of India town with dozens of truly excellent restaurants with many inexpensive lunch buffets.

Anyway, I think Stuart is insightful, experienced and is making a significant contribution to truth telling through his writings. He is contributing to a new book that I think is being published out of the UK which sounds promising. I urged him to pull together all his essays and create his own e-book that could be sold on amazon.com. It turns out that these books are now relatively simple and inexpensive to create - not sure of all the ins and outs of doing it, but there are now services that can do most of the work for very little money - the formatting, converting of the files, etc.
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PostSubject: Re: The Storytelling Animal - How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall   Sun Jul 22, 2012 11:52 am

:-) An excellent service to the Zen community! Thanks both! (-:
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PostSubject: Re: The Storytelling Animal - How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall   Fri Aug 03, 2012 2:33 pm


August 3, 2012 - The Moral of the Story - By DAVID EAGLEMAN

THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL
How Stories Make Us Human
By Jonathan Gottschall
Illustrated. 248 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $24.


We love a good story. Narrative is stitched intrinsically into the fabric of human psychology. But why? Is it all just fun and games, or does storytelling serve a biological function?

These questions animate “The Storytelling Animal,” a jaunty, insightful new book by Jonathan Gottschall, who draws from disparate corners of history and science to celebrate our compulsion to storify everything around us.

There are several surprises about stories. The first is that we spend a great deal of time in fictional worlds, whether in daydreams, novels, confabulations or life narratives. When all is tallied up, the decades we spend in the realm of fantasy outstrip the time we spend in the real world. As Gottschall puts it, “Neverland is our evolutionary niche, our special habitat.”

A second surprise: The dominant themes of story aren’t what we might assume them to be. Consider the plotlines found in children’s playtime, daydreams and novels. The narratives can’t be explained away as escapism to a more blissful reality. If that were their purpose, they would contain more pleasure. Instead, they’re horrorscapes. They bubble with conflict and struggle. The plots are missing all the real-life boring bits, and what remains is an unrealistically dense collection of trouble. Trouble, Gottschall argues, is the universal grammar of stories.

The same applies to our nighttime hallucinations. If you’ve ever wanted your dreams to come true, let’s hope you don’t mean your literal nocturnal dreams. These overflow with discord and violence. When researchers pick apart the hours of dream content, it turns out dreamland is all about fight or flight.

What do these observations reveal about the function of story? First, they give credence to the supposition that story’s job is to simulate potential situations. Neuroscience has long recognized that emulation of the future is one of the main businesses intelligent brains invest in. By learning the rules of the world and simulating outcomes in the service of decision making, brains can play out events without the risk and expense of attempting them physically. As the philosopher Karl Popper wrote, simulation of the future allows “our hypotheses to die in our stead.” Clever animals don’t want to engage in the expensive and potentially fatal game of physically testing every action to discover its consequences. That’s what story is good for. The production and scrutiny of counterfactuals (colloquially known as “what ifs”) is an optimal way to test and refine one’s behavior.

But storytelling may run even deeper than that. Remember, in “Star Wars,” when Luke Skywalker precisely aims his proton torpedoes into the vent shaft of the Death Star? Of course you do. It’s memorable because it’s the climax of a grand story about good triumphing over evil. (You’d be less likely to recall a moment in which a protagonist files her nails while discussing her day.) More important, Luke’s scene provides a good analogy: It’s not easy to infect the brain of another person with an idea; it can be accomplished only by hitting the small exposed hole in the system. For the brain, that hole is story-shaped. As anyone who teaches realizes, most information bounces off with little impression and no recollection. Good professors and statesmen know the indispensable po­tency of story.

This is not a new observation, but nowadays we have a better understanding of why it’s true. Changing the brain requires the correct neurotransmitters, and those are especially in attendance when a person is curious, is predicting what will happen next and is emotionally engaged. Hence successful religious texts are not written as nonfiction arguments or bulleted lists of claims. They are stories. Stories about burning bushes, whales, sons, lovers, betrayals and rivalries.

Story not only sticks, it mesmerizes. This is why WWE wrestling thrives on fake but exciting plotlines, why there are so many hours poured into prefight boxing hype, and why there are stirring back stories included in all the profiles of Olympic athletes. But not all stories are created equal. Gottschall points out that for a story to work, it has to possess a particular morality. To capture and influence, it can’t be plagued with moral repugnance — involving, say, a sexual love story between a mother and her son, or a good guy who becomes crippled and a bad guy who profits handsomely. If the narrative doesn’t contain the suitable kind of virtue, brains don’t absorb it. The story torpedo misses the exposed brain vent. (There are exceptions, Gottschall allows, but they only prove the rule.)

This leads to the suggestion that story’s role is “intensely moralistic.” Stories serve the biological function of encouraging pro-social behavior. Across cultures, stories instruct a version of the following: If we are honest and play by the social rules, we reap the rewards of the protagonist; if we break the rules, we earn the punishment accorded to the bad guy. The theory is that this urge to produce and consume moralistic stories is hard-wired into us, and this helps bind society together. It’s a group-level adaptation. As such, stories are as important as genes. They’re not time wasters; they’re evolutionary innovations.

Gottschall highlights this social-­binding property in the stories nations tell about themselves. Full of inaccuracies, these are “mostly fiction, not history,” he writes. They accomplish the same evolutionary function as religion: defining groups, coordinating behavior and suppressing selfishness in favor of cooperation. Our national myths “tell us that not only are we the good guys,” Gottschall writes, “but we are the smartest, boldest, best guys that ever were.”

Unlike W. H. Auden, who worried that “poetry makes nothing happen,” Gottschall, who teaches English at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, feels certain that fiction can change the world. Consider the influence of Wagner’s operas on Hitler’s self-vision, or the effect of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on American opinion and culture. “Research shows that story is constantly nibbling and kneading us,” Gottschall writes. “If the research is correct, fiction is one of the primary sculpting forces of individuals and societies.”

Recent fare like “The Shallows” and “The Dumbest Generation” lament our descent into the end of literature. But not so fast, Gottschall says: story­telling is neither dead nor dying. As for the ­attention-demanding novel? “Rumors of its demise are exaggerated to the point of absurdity,” he writes. “In the United States alone, a new novel is published every hour. Some . . . extend their cultural reach by being turned into films.” Beyond books, the strong skeleton of story can be discerned clearly in media including video games and scripted “reality” television. This is why libraries aren’t likely to go away, Gottschall suggests. They may change in character; they may even transform into habitats for massively multiplayer online role-playing games. But they won’t disappear.

The medium of story is changing, in other words, but not its essence. Our inborn thirst for narrative means that story — its power, purpose and relevance — will endure as long as the human animal does.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine, writes fiction and nonfiction. His latest books are “Sum” and “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.”
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PostSubject: Re: The Storytelling Animal - How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall   Sat Jun 15, 2013 12:11 am

Cutting Off A Finger: Zen, Pulp Fiction, and the Logic of Storytelling
from Jess Row's blog


1.

The case of Juzhi’s “One finger Zen”

Zen Master Juzhi was known for answering all questions by holding up his index finger. One day, Juzhi was gone from the temple, and someone asked his young attendant about the nature of his master’s teachings. The boy held up one finger. When Juzhi heard about this after returning to the temple, he promptly called the boy to his side and cut off his finger. The boy fled the room screaming, but Juzhi called out to him. When the boy turned out around, Juzhi held up one finger. The boy became enlightened.

2.

Anyone who has taken a course in fiction writing or the novel has likely encountered the teaching device known as Freytag’s Pyramid. This formula — a diagram which really looks more like an upside-down checkmark — is often used to explain certain basic assumptions about all narratives, from Grimm’s fairy tales to Ulysses. It describes a story as a period of time that begins with a conflict, imbalance, or unfulfilled desire, proceeds as a series of attempts to address that initiating conflict, results in a climactic incident in which there is some successful overturning or reversal, and then depicts a world which is both changed and restored.

According to Freytag’s formula, the Juzhi koan is a “good” story: it involves risk, obstacles, sacrifice, tension, and, finally, return and reassurance. This is undoubtedly one reason why koans with a narrative component (often included in traditional biographies which follow their own rather strict narrative formula) are so popular in the teaching and transmission of Zen. Story-koans present a schema, a plan, a process, in which the student can locate him or herself. They become part of the language of the practice, part of the conversation between student and teacher. They are, in a sense, the promise that the Zen tradition makes to its followers.

Of course, the use of such story structures in Zen presents a logical problem: how can the inconceivable be represented through a repeated formula? If Zen practice involves abandoning all mental constructions, how can it be represented by means of a story? Which part is “Zen”, and which is “the story of Zen”? The standard answer for this has to do with upaya, or “skillful means”: the idea, omnipresent in Mahayana Buddhism, that the dharma has to be transmitted through whatever means are available. The ideal here is one of a kind of linguistic transparency: through the words (or through the story) to the meaning.

The problem with this assumption — which contemporary scholars of Buddhism have taken great pains to point out — is that stories are not simply conscious artifacts we can analyze and control, or choose to use or not; they are structures we accept and assimilate automatically and unconsciously. The stories that have the most profound consequences in “real” life are often the ones we ourselves don’t always recognize. This applies not just to psychological consequences, but actual, physical harm. The story of Juzhi is one among many examples in Zen literature where a violent action, particularly an action with a sacrificial aspect, plays a key part in the completion of an enlightenment story.

It’s possible, of course, to say that the act of cutting off the finger is a metaphor, a symbol, a hypothetical. Given the nature of the historical record, there’s no way for us to say for certain whether Juzhi ever “really” cut off his attendant’s finger. And it has become routine for contemporary Zen students and teachers to “mime” violent acts (for example, saying “I give you thirty blows!”) instead of carrying them out. But metaphors and formulas — even dead metaphors — have a way of returning to life if we don’t consider them carefully. Our world abounds with cases of religious rhetoric distorted, or taken out of context, to justify acts of violence. The Zen tradition itself has been subject to this kind of manipulation, most notably, in recent memory, in Japan before and during the Second World War.[ii] The question of the relationship between religious narratives of violence — even ancient and seemingly benign ones — and human suffering is never an idle one, and certainly not in our historical moment.

In his translation of the Mumonkan anthology, the American Zen Master Robert Aitken offers the following commentary on the Juzhi koan:

The story of Juzhi cutting off the boy’s finger gives Zen a bad name in some quarters. Literalists turn to something milder. Yet look closely. Read religion as parable, as folklore, as poetic presentation of your own history and nature. Put yourself back on Grandmother’s ample lap, listening to her read “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and you’ll shiver again with those awesome words, “I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!”[iii]

If we are supposed to “read religion as parable, as folklore, as a poetic presentation of your own nature,” can we — that is to say practitioners of Zen — accept a narrative like the Juzhi koan, while still remaining conscious of its fictiveness, its constructed-ness, which is also to say its potential for harm? And if the answer to the first question is yes, how can we incorporate this doubt, this holding-at-arm’s-length, into our practice itself?

3.

The English literary critic Frank Kermode had very similar questions in mind in 1965 when he wrote The Sense of an Ending, a study of how Christian narratives of the Apocalypse have transformed Western culture. And his answer, broadly speaking, was that once we have accepted that a story is “fiction” — something man-made and fallible — and not “myth” — the unimpeachable truth — we have essentially rejected religion itself:

Myth operates within the diagrams of ritual, which presupposes total and adequate explanations of things as they are and were; it is a sequence of radically unchangeable gestures. Fictions are for finding things out, and they change as the needs of sense-making change. Myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change. Myths call for absolute, fictions for conditional assent. [iv]

Many aspects of the Zen tradition would support this argument: the emphasis on lineages of transmission stretching far into the past; the importance of fixed practice forms, likewise supposedly passed down from the “original” Zen masters of the Tang dynasty; indeed the very assumption that there exists “a special teaching outside the sutras, transmitted from mind to mind.” The essence of Zen practice, some would say— and have said — depends on absolute, unquestioning acceptance of, and submission to, these principles. Any attempt to regard the tradition as a series of fictions is merely conceptual thinking, a betrayal of the core teaching of more than a thousand years.

Kermode’s position — or some variant of it — has been dominant among scholars of religion for the last forty years. In the United States, for example, many in the current generation of professors of Buddhist studies openly reject the idea that one can study and practice Buddhism simultaneously.[v] In Japan, proponents of “critical Buddhism” have used new scholarship on early Buddhist texts to argue that virtually all forms of Buddhist practice are inauthentic and naïve. The result, at least in this country, has been that scholars and practitioners often regard one other with suspicion. (This is less true in Tibetan Buddhism, where the tradition of the practitioner/scholar is more ingrained, but even in that branch there has been notable friction between academics and religious teachers).

There is, however, a counter-argument, also arising out of Western scholarship of religion, from the French philosopher — and lifelong practicing Christian — Paul Ricoeur. At the conclusion of his book The Symbolism of Evil, Ricoeur argues that it is a grave mistake to assume that because we have lost “the immediacy of belief” we have lost the capacity to believe at all:

If we can no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can, we modern men [sic] aim at a second naïvete in and through criticism. In short, it is through interpreting that we can hear again. (351)[vi]

Indeed, Ricoeur argues, it’s impossible to say that we can understand “the great symbolisms of the sacred” if we don’t, in a sense, believe in them. Unless we have some access to belief, or some sense of what “sacredness” is, we will have no way of appreciating what sets mythological or sacred texts apart from other texts. “Never does the interpreter get near to what his text says,” he argues, “unless he lives in the aura of the meaning he is inquiring after.”

Ricoeur’s genius here lies in his ability to see the “modern predicament,” or its auto-immune response, the “postmodern condition,” not as an advantage or disadvantage in comparison to what we imagine of previous eras but as a gift and an opportunity not to be discarded. Rather than tearing his hair out about the loss of sacredness in an era of hermeneutic suspicion, he demands that we recognize a new kind of sacredness in suspicion if we want to truly understand religious texts. Otherwise we have no access to the “aura” these texts depend on. Ricoeur calls this state of sacredness-in-suspicion “postcritical.”

“Postcritical,” it needs to be said, is not the same as “uncritical.” The postcritical state is marked by an absence of longing or nostalgia for the imagined innocence of the past. It does not dwell on the poverty of the modern or postmodern. It does not idealize pure emotion or intuitive mental powers or Romantic notions of artistic or spiritual genius. Most of all, however, the postcritical state is distinguished by its alterity: its lack of wholeness or absoluteness. Once we reach the postcritical state, we have absorbed a certain capability for self-doubt into our experience of the sacred or the beautiful. We have also reached a state in which we accept that doubt is, in its own way, sacred.

4.

Let’s say that we look at the story of Juzhi and his attendant with a postcritical perspective — accepting that it is a fiction, rather than treating it as a myth. We might begin by acknowledging that many aspects of the story point to a legendary or apocryphal origin, including the distance between the supposed time of the event and its recording  (several centuries) and the way the story corresponds to the structure of a fairy tale, including the repetition of the gesture and the quick denouement of the boy’s enlightenment. Steven Heine, who has written several critical studies of the Zen koan tradition, suggests that the story can only be appreciated in light of the popular Buddhist practice (which continues to this day) of burning off the tip of a finger as a signal of one’s commitment to the Buddha Way. This practice, he implies, makes the cutting off of the finger less shocking to the story’s intended audience of monks who were used to extreme acts of self-mortification, and, occasionally, similar acts performed by a teacher or superior.[vii]

On the other hand, acknowledging our own cultural biases, we might still insist on rejecting at least some of the implications of the story. Whether or not we see Juzhi’s action as a form of abuse or an act of compassion, it is worth noting that the potential for abuse always exists. Keeping in mind the recent history of abusive relationships between Zen teachers and students, especially in lay contexts, we might even say that the Juzhi story should be a warning to teachers to question their own limits as to the application of “skillful means.”

It’s tempting to say that this tradition of self-criticism is indeed already present in the practice of Zen; that is, that the supposedly anti-authoritarian nature of Zen provides a self-correcting mechanism in which destructive, abusive, or egocentric behavior is recognized and atoned for. Unfortunately, there is ample evidence both from contemporary and historical sources that this self-correcting mechanism did not and does not always work.[viii] And, in any event, critiquing the story is only the first step in the process. Ultimately we have to find a way to live with it, to understand its hypothetical value, even as we hold it at arms’ length. As Aitken Roshi tells us, we have to accept it as a story, as a piece of fiction, a parable. We have to read it the way we would a piece of secular literature — a book, or even, I would argue, a movie.

5.

Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction is rarely, if ever, described as a film about a religious quest or as a narrative of enlightenment, and it’s not difficult to see why. A comedy containing so many images of gratuitous violence and gore — a teenager’s brains splattered across the back window of a car, a young woman’s lips turning blue in the middle of a heroin overdose, a mobster raped in a basement dungeon — repels description in redemptive terms. The broadest cultural interpretation of Tarantino’s two early films — Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs — is that they made film violence into a comic postmodern spectacle, a purely aesthetic act that had no room for the pain of the victims or the sensibilities of a literal-minded audience.

Pulp Fiction, however, whether we like it or not, is structured as a narrative of enlightenment, through the experiences of Jules, the hit man played by Samuel L. Jackson. Early in the movie, in the middle of one such execution, he and his partner Vincent (John Travolta) are nearly killed when a hidden assailant bursts from behind a door and fires several shots at them at point-blank range, all of which miss and strike the wall behind them. Vincent sees this as a lucky accident; Jules insists it is divine intervention. As they flee the scene of the killing, with the young survivor who was their informer in the back seat of the car, Jules announces his intention to go into retirement as soon as the job is done, and it is in the course of this conversation that Vincent, in his incredulity, accidentally shoots the informer. Later, at the very end of the movie, while holding a petty thief at gunpoint, Jules announces his realization:

Well there’s this passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17.

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.”

I been sayin’ that [banned term] for years. And if you ever heard it, it meant your [banned term]. I never gave much thought what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded [banned term] to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his [banned term]. I saw some [banned term] this mornin’ made me think twice. See now I’m thinkin’, maybe it means you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man.  And Mr. 9 Millimeter here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous [banned term] in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. Now I’d like that. But that [banned term] ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.

This expression of epiphany, if we want to call it that, is intimately intertwined with the senselessness of the killing that has preceded it. There is something pornographic about Jules’ use of the words righteous and shepherd not two hours after he has participated in a St. Valentine’s Day-style massacre of his boss’s enemies. At the same time, the senselessness of the killing is what makes Jules’ redemption possible. This final speech is one of the few moments in Pulp Fiction where one character speaks seriously and directly to another. That seriousness — that sense of purpose — is paid for, so to speak, with the deaths of all of Jules’ previous victims.

Quentin Tarantino is certainly not the first storyteller to propose that, in a secular universe, the only way for a person — almost always a man — to achieve real nobility and self-sufficiency is through acts of violence. What sets Pulp Fiction apart is its stubborn refusal to follow the linear logic that frames earlier films in the same mode, such as Miller’s Crossing or Unforgiven or The Searchers. Whatever one can say about the shootings and stabbings and acts of torture and mayhem in Pulp Fiction, no one can say that they are truly necessary or important — or if they are, their importance itself is purely accidental. In a different kind of movie Jules would have always meant what he said when he quoted Ezekiel before dispatching one of his victims.

6.

Pulp Fiction, as I’ve already noted, makes a mockery of the causal relationship between violence and transcendence. There is no way of asking the question “Was all that killing worth it?” with a straight face. This is a lesson that we can, and should, apply to the case of Juzhi. The implict assumption in this koan is that Juzhi’s servant boy has usurped his authority by presenting his master’s teaching without authorization; he holds up his finger automatically, without understanding what the gesture means. Juzhi’s two gestures — cutting off the boy’s finger, then raising his own — are both a punishment and a reward. Pain, in this case, equals attainment. Pain equals the truth.

But why should this necessarily be the case?

One way we can distinguish between the precritical and postcritical states is to contrast two different ideas of causality. This may not be so much an intellectual shift as an acknowledgment of what we already know in practice. Anyone who has embarked on a religious program knows that the “path” metaphor implies a kind of linear logic of a course of study that is only ever approximately true. One’s religious vocation wavers like any other kind of commitment; there are moments of great intensity and clarity interspersed with periods of doubt and slackness and simple disinterest. This is a human truth that virtually all religious rhetoric, formal and informal, Eastern and Western, nomian and antinomian, reactionary or reformist, tries to suppress. In fact, we might say that the more antinomian and anti-clerical a tradition is, the more likely it will become obsessed with linearity.

Contrast this with a different notion of causality: the logic of accumulation, the logic of patience. In this model of narrative one relinquishes (at least temporarily) the burden of interpreting events according to a predetermined causal pattern. As in Pulp Fiction, things just happen. Several chronological or causal sequences may be operating simultaneously. Time may move forwards as well as backwards. A profound realization may be accompanied by a loud fart. Time is allotted for boredom or for intrusions that fit no pattern at all.

This shouldn’t mean that one of these logic(s) supersedes the other. Chronological causal sequences, constructed though they may be, are extremely useful, and the same is obviously true of linear narratives. Stories, like lives, begin and end. We are conditioned to seek out radical and transforming and absolute changes and define ourselves, to some extent, by them. We need to pay attention to this desire for radical transformation and be wary of it, lest it become self-fulfilling.

7.

The haeindo, written by the great ninth-century monk Uisang, is a poem written in the form of a series of four looping squares that form one large diagram or mandala. Haein means “Ocean Seal.” The haeindo poem, sometimes translated as “The Song of Dharma Nature,” is essentially a brief summary of one of Mahayana Buddhism’s longest and most complex texts, the Flower Ornament Sutra, which describes the interpenetrated and interdependent nature of the universe. In a characteristically Korean way, Uisang boils the intricate philosophy of this sutra down to a relatively simple formula:

In one particle of dust

is contained the ten directions.

And so it is

with all particles of dust.

Incalculably long eons

are equivalent to a single moment of thought.

Uisang’s text is, of course, arranged in a linear pattern, and is meant to be read from beginning to end (though each line essentially functions as a complete syllogism, making use of the syntactic flexibility of literary Chinese). On the other hand, this same flexibility makes the poem remarkably tricky to read. One can easily veer off the track and see a possible unintended meaning in two adjoining characters. This, too, is part of Uisang’s point. Each line depends on the whole of the poem, and the whole poem depends on each line.

This may seem to take us a very long way from Pulp Fiction, but if we are to follow Aitken Roshi’s advice — “ Read religion as parable, as folklore, as poetic presentation of your own history and nature”— then perhaps we need to become comfortable with this kind of analogy and the meanings that flow from it in both directions. The point is not to exhaust ourselves in striking a balance between skepticism and “pure” belief, and not to insulate ourselves from violence and its consequences, but to reserve a space, so to speak, in which all questions, and all forms of doubt, are allowed, and to designate that intermediary realm as something sacred.

Jess Row was born in 1974 in Washington, DC. After graduating from Yale in 1997, he taught English for two years as a Yale-China fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He completed an MFA at the University of Michigan in 2001. His first book, The Train to Lo Wu, a collection of short stories set in Hong Kong, was published in 2005; in 2006 it was shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize. In 2007 he was named a “Best Young American Novelist” by Granta. His second collection of stories, Nobody Ever Gets Lost, was published by FiveChapters Books in February 2011.

His stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Tin House, Conjunctions, Boston Review, Ploughshares, Granta, American Short Fiction, Threepenny Review, Ontario Review, Harvard Review, and elsewhere, have been anthologized three times in The Best American Short Stories (“The Call of Blood” will appear in BASS 2011) and have won two Pushcart Prizes and a PEN/O.Henry Award. He has also received an NEA fellowship in fiction and a Whiting Writers Award. His nonfiction and criticism appear often in The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and Threepenny Review. His current projects include a novel, The Immigrant, a third collection of stories, Storyknife, and an anthology of critical writings on the short story, On Being Short.

In 2009, Jess and his wife, Sonya Posmentier, started Suture Press, which publishes limited edition chapbooks of short fiction and poetry. You can find Jess’s chapbook The True Catastrophe here.

Jess is an associate professor of English and Buddhist chaplain at The College of New Jersey, and lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with Sonya and their two children, Mina and Asa. A member of the core faculty in the low-residency MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he also teaches in the MFA program at the City University of Hong Kong. He is a longtime student and ordained dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen.

He can be reached at rowjess [at] gmail.com.

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