Good morning. I am your guide for today. Or you could think of me as the narrator of this brief essay, attempting to shed some light on reality—what’s really happening as opposed to what seems to be happening.
Writer Steve Almond provides us with a “triggering anecdote.” He’s unconscious, a sleepwalker; but, then again, all seven billion people on the planet are sleepwalkers. I know, I know. What did I just say? Yes, I said that Steve and all the rest of you are coming on our little tour today and, yes, you are sleepwalkers, as in “You don’t know what’s really happening.”
Steve wrote an essay entitled “Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time.’”[i] Cute huh? His thesis was that—well, never mind, you take responsibility for figuring out what his point was, and I’ll focus on telling you what he should have been saying. When you see SA those are quotes by Steve Almond from his article, in a language that you will understand. The indented RCH in italics is my response.
Now, listen up everybody! The “tour” is beginning.
SA: “About 10 years ago, in creative-writing classes I was teaching, I began to encounter a particular species of student story. The hero was an unshaven man who woke in a strange room with no idea where he was or why. Invariably, something traumatic had happened to him, though he didn’t know exactly what.”
RCH: Heads up everybody! The key word there is “hero.” Everyone and I mean everyone is a hero having the experience of not knowing where they are or why. C. G. Jung called this, as some of you might know, the Hero’s Journey.
See how this works? Steve has an unconscious insight, and I as your “tour guide” will delve deeper to explain how he has stumbled onto something profound. Back to you bro.
SA: “My standard reaction to such pieces was to jot earnestly flummoxed queries in the margins like “Where are we?” and “Is it possible I’m missing a page?”
RCH: Yes, that is the First Great Question, Where Are We? Right on, Steve! Now we have the all-important context. Our worldview is that of a shattered, sliced and diced P-B. Which my dear friends is the genesis of our unconsciousness. Our worldview is the paradigm in which we heroes wander around with no idea where we are, why we are here with no idea what’s happening to us. In other words, this P-B worldview has determined our sleepwalker identity.
SA: “I have since come to believe that these manuscripts reflect a more fundamental cultural shift. In evolving from readers to viewers, we’ve lost our grip on the essential virtues embodied by a narrator: the capacity to make sense of the world, both around and inside us.”
RCH: What an optimist! I admire Steve’s ability to look on the bright side of P-B, but alas, it has no bright side. The human community so far has failed to make sense of the world, either around or inside us. The result is that we have failed to create a sustainable global village. Let’s continue with Steve the optimist as he explains the function of the narrator in the telling of stories.
SA: “They are able to portray, in other words, how individual fates collide with history, how the orphan survived amid the Industrial Revolution, or the aristocrat is brought low by war. These stories don’t just awaken readers’ sympathies; they enlarge our moral imagination. They offer a sweeping depiction of the world that helps clarify our role.”
RCH: Whose role? Which “who,” the True-self who or the false self who? The writers Almond is referring to are Zola, Dickens and Tolstoy none of whom were even slightly aware of the dual identities of each human being in their novels let alone the choice of worldviews afforded each person in life which determine the role we are destined to play on the stage of life. The ostrich is the most optimistic of animals because it doesn’t see what’s happening in the surrounding environment.
SA: “The advent of Modernism drastically reduced the narrator’s jurisdiction. Writers like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein turned their gaze inward, toward the intricacies of consciousness.”
RCH: True consciousness is not intricate but indeed very simple. People like Freud, Jung and Adler, enamored of their intellects, were more than a little given to reductionism and complexification since it pleased their false-self identities.
Turning our gaze inward is not about thinking at all but indeed—not thinking. Steve understands that art is moving away from the expression of truth and beauty and deeper into collaboration with the false self in deepening human unconsciousness.
SA: “The rise of visual media, in fact, changed our very conception of storytelling. Traditionally, stories represented an active collaboration. Listeners and readers were called upon to create the world described by the artist. Film advanced a new model of collaboration. An array of artists (screenwriters, actors, cinematographers, set designers, etc.) worked together to invent an ultra-vivid artificial world.”
RCH: Actually, what we are called to create is not the world described by the artist, but to use that information and that inspiration to create a new world. What we see on our screens today is an ultra-vivid artificial world within an artificial world (P-B). It’s not how we tell a story that’s important but that we tell the true story.
SA: “The audience’s role became increasingly passive—to absorb and react [emphasis added], not to imagine. Television shrunk the wonders of film and delivered them directly to our living rooms. [The] central aim of the medium was to generate profit by serving spectacle [emphasis added] to particular demographic groups. Narration, after all, isn’t just a literary function. It represents the human capacity to tell stories in such a manner that they yield meaning. Television replaced this concerted quest for meaning with a frantic pursuit of wonder [an escape into illusion].”
RCH: The behavior of the false self is always a “reaction” in any case and the role of the human imagination usually involves the pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power no matter what the artist’s narrative might be. The purpose of spectacle is to distract the viewer or listener from the suffering created by the reaction. The mouse (suffering) flees from the cat (reaction) in a never-ending circular catastrophe. Both the experience and meaning of life are lost in a dizzying blur.
SA: “Our latest innovation, the Internet, was hailed as an information highway that would help us manage the world’s complexity. In theory it grants all of us tremendous narrative power, by providing access to our assembled archive of human knowledge and endeavor. In practice, the Internet functions more frequently as a hive of distraction, a simulated world through which most of us flit from one context to the next, from Facebook post to Tumblr feed to YouTube clip, from ego moment to snarky rant to carnal wormhole. The pleasures of surfing the Web—a retreat from sustained attention and self-reflection—are the opposite of those offered by a novel.”
RCH: The pseudo-insights in this paragraph provide several portals by which we can enter into the present moment. The Internet like all technology is a product of the intellect that never has simplified our lives but only further complicated them, hence the need for “simplicity.” “Human knowledge and endeavor” are included in Nisargadatta’s warning against the illusion of trying to manage chaos by “having, doing and knowing” thereby only creating more chaos. As Steve correctly observes in his best insight yet, we pursue plenty, pleasure and power to avoid taking responsibility for our choices in life only to retreat further from the simplicity, silence and solitude that are our salvation.
SA: “Whether they arise from the precincts of advertising, politics, religion or the news media, these voices [of the false self] deal in the same commodity: a fraudulent folklore [P-B] whose central aim is to insulate us from the true nature of our predicament, to manipulate our anxieties, to goad us into empty consumption or snag us in cycles of grievance and panic.”
Most of us will end this brief tour of the evolution of storytelling in the global village where we began, immersed in the illusion that seems real according to what we have been told. Our behavioral conditioning will seem to offer security when it is actually the source of all of our anxieties. Our cherished beliefs will continue to poison our minds with fears of the non-existent Other. And finally, our worldview will continue to determine for us an identity that is as unconsciously intent on self-destruction as a crazed lemming making a beeline for the Cliffs of Dover unaware that the waters of the English Channel are inhospitable to land-based rodents.
[i] Almond, Steve. “Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time.’” The New York Times Magazine. January 13, 2013, page 44.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.