This afternoon I went to a talk by Noah Richler about his book What We Talk About When We Talk About War. He provided a taxonomy of different kinds of stories (myths, epic tales, and novels). He associated each of these types of story with the form a society might take at various times.
Myths, he said, describe the world as it is and provide lessons about how to conduct one’s self in the world. Myths explain how things came to be as they are, and they often provide cautionary tales to help us avoid mistakes that could threaten our survival. These kinds of stories are characteristic of subsistence societies who are struggling to survive from day to day. But this does not mean myths are primitive; for example, science is engaged in the project of describing the world and how things came to be as they are, and so would count as myth on this taxonomy.
Epic tales sing the virtues of one society, and often place that society above another. They chauvinistically uphold social difference and take an arrogant view of other societies. In epic tales, there is no leap of imagination. The author does not consider what it would be like to be someone else; for example someone from one of the denigrated societies, but instead praises the virtues of members of the society from which the author hails. These kind of stories are often told by societies that are struggling to survive against other societies who threaten to take them over either by military force or by cultural imperialism. Epic tales emerge in those moments when empires face collapse. They are a last-ditch attempt to shore up the values of a fading empire.
In contrast to the epic tale, which understands good and evil in black and white terms and assigns evil to “Others,” the novel has a more subtle understanding of good and evil as qualities that are within all of us. It makes an imaginative leap and tries to understand what it might be like to be someone else living under different circumstances in different times or places. I suppose I missed what kind of society Richler said this was connected to, or perhaps he did not specify a society type, though he did say he found it characteristic of Canadian thinking, though it has been in decline for the last ten years or so. Perhaps that means the novel form is characteristic of societies that are not facing struggle? I am not sure.
Richler suggested that these story forms, although they might arise out of a certain kind of social problem, are not wedded to those types of societies, and often coexist within a variety of societies. What I find interesting about Richler’s suggestion is that so often “epic tales” of heroism are thought of as very strong, proud, and kind of macho. These are stories of ‘heroic soldiers’ and ‘brave demi-gods.’ But if it is true that they characterize societies whose ways of life are threatened by other societies or social forms, then in fact, they are not characteristic of a strong society, but rather one that is weak. When societies are actually strong they are able to empathize more with others.
This makes me think about recent political rhetoric in the United States. The dominant public discourse since 9/11 has been one full of epic tales. Bush described the “evildoers” as the “Other,” or the terrorists who threaten America. No imaginative leap was made in an attempt to understand that perspective. When Obama was running for president in 2008 he, too, engaged in epic story-telling. The music video “Yes We Can,” produced from his speech at the DNC is an epic tale about American values and the progressive march toward justice. The Tea Party is almost wholly based on an epic view of America, and the very idea of American exceptionalism has ties to the epic tale.
So what does this mean for the position of America or the current strength of its values?